If you come to my house for dinner, there is a good chance that you will hear my almost four year old son speaking and switching effortlessly between three languages. He speaks Spanish with me and Danish with his father; his father and I speak English with each other, and our son now joins in on our conversations in English. We used to be able to speak privately in English in front of our son, but now we have to spell things out to try to avoid the ever-attentive ears of our son! Do you want to E-A-T P-I-Z-Z-A tonight?
Because my son switches between languages naturally, you might mistakenly think that he became multilingual naturally. This could not be further from the truth. Cultivating a multilingual home has been an intentional, consistent, ever-evolving effort.
If you want to raise multilingual children, it is important to have a plan. A friend who raised two passively bilingual children once told me, “Learning a language doesn’t just happen through osmosis. You have to have a plan. You have to put in effort.”
Having a plan starts with learning about the different ways you can cultivate multilingualism in your child. This blog post walks you through the different multilingual methods you can use to teach your child more than one language.
You don’t have to pick just one method. Our immediate family uses the One Person One Language (OPOL) method, time and place method, and situational multilingualism. When our little ones are with their extended families, they use the heritage language at home and fluid multilingualism methods. Like with anything for young children, it is important to stay consistent with language learning methods so children can know what to expect and feel a sense of predictability and security.
One Person One Language (OPOL)
This method is often referred to as “one parent, one language.” However, this method works well outside of the traditional two parent construct. Some of us live in intergenerational households with many languages. Through the OPOL method, you would ensure that each person in your household (or classroom) sticks to a single language. I think this is great for young children, in particular, as they can create clear associations between languages and people.
For more in-depth info on the pros and cons of the OPOL method, check out this article.
Heritage Language at Home
This method is also referred to as “minority language at home.” Using this method, you would use your heritage language in the home setting, even though you may not use that language all the time outside of the home. For example, your family may have migrated from Vietnam to the United States, where the dominant language is English. In the home setting, everyone speaks Vietnamese; outside of the home, English is used to communicate with friends, teachers, and colleagues.
For more information on the Heritage Language at Home method, check out this video.
Time and place
Time and place multilingualism is a method where the family decides when and where a language will be spoken. For example, our family always speaks English at the dinner table. This is the only time we speak English as a family; all other times, we use the One Person One Language method with Danish and Spanish.
You can pick any time or place to cultivate multilingualism, and it can shift over time. For example, your family language can be English, but you do storytime in Amharic for six months, then you do bath time in Amharic for three months, then you do afternoon snack in Amharic for one month…the possibilities are endless! Just make sure to preview changes in routine with your little one and help them prepare for the transitions.
This method simply means that children learn different languages based on their situation. Different situations include: Korean during Sunday school church, Haitian Creole during summer visits to Haiti, and Spanish during mariachi band practice. Situations are often not just home-based, like many other methods.
Like all other approaches, situational bilingualism can be used as a stand-alone method or in tandem with other methods.
You might not find this method in any other books, blogs, or resources. This is my take on a more fluid approach to multilingualism. This approach would include language mixing (i.e. Spanglish) and method mixing (i.e. OPOL + time and place).
This approach to multilingualism goes against the rigidity of structured language learning and embraces the ever shifting nature of languages.
When choosing your method(s), ask yourself the following questions:
- What are my goals for my children? Do I want them to be able to read, write, and speak in the target language?
- For older children: What are my children’s language goals?
- What makes most sense for my family and situation?
- How can I make language learning joyful, fun, and meaningful for my children?
- When will I stay consistent and when will I adjust?
- Play games, sing songs, tell stories, use your imagination!
- Listen to podcasts and music in your target language
- Watch movies, TV, and videos in your target language
- Do activities, like swim & art classes, in your target language
- Integrate language learning into everyday life
- Build a community of friends and support for your little one, in your target language
- Build a community of friends and support for you, in your target language!