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What is the key to your children’s active bilingualism?

(38 Posts)
Maia290 Tue 19-Feb-13 00:48:42

I am wondering what is the key to achieve successful active bilingualism from our child. Is it by using strict OPOL? But this is difficult to do when you join groups, when you need to speak the majority language to the group and your children are around.
Or is it to only accept from your children the minority language, otherwise you pretend you don't understand?
How do you manage to use OPOL when you are with family/friends who don't speak the minority language?
How do you react if your child speaks to you with the 'wrong' language, or mixes languages?
My child is still very young, and he just says a few words in both languages, but I would like to have the right approach from the beginning and it would be useful to hear from parents whose children speak the minority language to find out what approach you have taken to achieve your child's bilingualism.

cory Tue 19-Feb-13 10:21:56

Not OPOL in our case (I'm not good at keeping to strict rules of any kind).

I think a combination of:

making it fun (good books, songs, games, films)

a positive attitude from the majority language parent (so it never causes tension at home)

situations where they actually need the minority language- in our case, that has been visits to my country, meeting up with relatives, but it could be playgroups in this country if there are any

Mine are now 12 and 16 and quite happily bilingual. I don't think there's any one key; it's whatever works for your family and in your situation.

natation Tue 19-Feb-13 10:44:44

the key is not to examine in such detail and use the 2 languages every single day in both language environments - for us French and school and French/English at home.

If we are somewhere where people only speak English, then we speak English, if we are somewhere where people only speak French, then we speak French. It gets tricky when 2kms away in Dutch speaking area, then we try to speak Dutch, well I get my 14 year old to either speak or ask him how to say something and I try, until someone twigs we're French and English speakers and if they speak one of these languages better than we can speak Dutch, then we switch to French or English!

noramum Tue 19-Feb-13 13:30:42

I see it a major point in not forcing it, making it a chore and accepting, that the majority language is exactly that, the majority.

DD is 5.5 and can speak German but will only do if required, speaking to the grandparents, being in Germany on holiday and the odd moment in between. But she starts reading German, is willing to write a card, letter and loves watching movies and listening to songs and stories,

cory Tue 19-Feb-13 14:08:16

agree with noramum said about not making it a chore

NulliusInBlurba Tue 19-Feb-13 14:31:00

There has so be some sort of environment where the DC genuinely need to use both languages to communicate. Kids are the ultimate pragmatists - if they realise they can communicate more efficiently with one language, they will do so. So you need to create situations for using that minority language - watching a video in the minority language, visiting relatives who don't speak the majority language, going to a language group (in the UK there are German 'Saturday schools', for example, where kids can actually speak normally with other kids in the minority language).

We use one language as a family language, and another as the 'outside' language, which I think is easier than OPOL. But if the DC ever came out with the 'outside' language at home I would just say, 'we don't speak German at home', and wait for them to say the same thing in English. They know perfectly well both DH and myself can speak good German, and they tended to do so if they had experienced something in that language (rather than bothering to mentally translate what had happened). So for instance suppose something happened in a German class at school, they would tr to tell me in German, because that is most natural. But I would still insist they tell the story in English, and they should just use German if a particular word absolutely had to be in German. This also increases their vocabulary, because they may not have known that word in English, so I teach it to them.

The most depressing thing is when kids just refuse to speak the minority language - I've heard that happening with friends. The DC can understand everything, but refuse to speak it. The key there is to make sure you keep on speaking the minority language yourself, and don't give in and start speaking to them in the majority language - before you know it you'd have a monolingual child.

rrreow Tue 19-Feb-13 14:40:44

We do OPOL. We live in England and DH is English. I speak the minority language (Dutch). DH doesn't speak Dutch and doesn't understand much either, so we speak English to each other. DS is 21mo and doesn't speak much yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if he knows a LOT more Dutch words than DH by now!

I always speak Dutch to DS, even if we're amongst people who don't speak it (I don't actually know any Dutch people here!). So at a playgroup, nursery, at a friend's house, in any company etc I would always speak Dutch to DS. Then if I'm talking to someone else in that situation I would just switch to English.

I have no worries about DS picking up/speaking English, so as an example if we're at a friend's house and she gives him some toast, I'd encourage DS to say thank you in Dutch. I will then thank her myself in English. When we leave I encourage him to say bye in Dutch etc etc. As I said, DS doesn't speak much yet so it's hard to see how this is working, but I'm not particularly worried. As DS starts speaking more I am sure he will pick up when it is appropriate to speak English (i.e. when someone is addressing him in English!). The only thing I find difficult is when I'm around other kids that are DS's age, as I automatically start speaking Dutch to them grin

The few words DS does say tend to be English, but I always reply in Dutch. I don't correct him or anything (as he's not saying anything wrong! Just a different language), but I will reinforce the Dutch. So if he points to the juice and says 'juice', I will say in Dutch: "Yes that's right, that's juice".

I was in line at the supermarket recently and there was a father with his son behind me. The son was speaking English, and the father was just consistently responding in French. It sounded very natural.

My opinion is that as we live in the UK, we don't know any Dutch people here and DH and I speak English to each other, I don't need to make any effort to make sure DS will speak English. I do however need to make the effort to ensure he can understand/speak Dutch, so any opportunity for it I will take.

UptoapointLordCopper Tue 19-Feb-13 19:02:26

I think the key, if there is one, is fun. Songs, films, stories, rude(ish) words even...

I'm now teaching DC to write some Chinese, but only words related to Lego Ninjago. hmm grin

badguider Tue 19-Feb-13 19:10:38

My neices (english father, german mother) all skype with their german aunt and grandparents regularly in german.

They also visit germany and all speak german (even their father, badly) every summer.

Their mother speaks german to them when it's just them and plays games, sings songs, reads books, but they live in england so all clubs and toddler groups etc. are all in english.

noramum Wed 20-Feb-13 10:53:06

rrreow: I agree with your observation. A lot of times DD speaks English and I will just reply in German, regardless where we are, unless a third person needs to understand my reply (school, GP, friend's house).

NulliusInBlurba: the point is not to get depressed. I wasn't sure that DD would ever start speaking German and DH wanted to go the "I don't speak back if you don't talk to me in German"-way but suddenly, on a holiday in Germany, DD just started. I accepted that English will be her main language but as long as I know she can do it and also starts to read and write I am happy.

I also feel, I can't speak English to her naturally. It always feels forced to me. I work for a German company and we have 1/3 German staff and all of us speak quite a German mixed with English words because it is easier and the words slip into your talk and I also will do it at home. But when it comes to long talks and bedtime cuddles there is no way I will talk English.

cory Wed 20-Feb-13 14:05:43

good point by noramum about not letting yourself get depressed

we actually went through a phase where ds refused to speak the majority language instead, much to the confusion of his friends at playschool

it was after a holiday in Sweden, where he had evidently had a good time

when we got back he first said: "I have forgotten my English" (this was clearly not the case)

then he said: "if you speak English, trolls come and eat you up"

and finally, revealingly: "it is not my language"

he got over it eventually and now speaks English more confidently than he speaks Swedish (though is perfectly competent in both)

but if we had stressed about it, we might have created more problems than we solved

another thing I've found helpful is to think about what comes naturally to you, rather than what other people tell you should come naturally

to us, mixing languages is natural and I have never felt any difficulty about using either English or Swedish for intimate situations or babytalk

for us, this relaxed attitude creates the most natural environment for bilingualism

UptoapointLordCopper Wed 20-Feb-13 14:09:13

"if you speak English, trolls come and eat you up" grin

ZZZenAgain Wed 20-Feb-13 14:16:27

I have always been very relaxed about which language is spoken, where and with whom. What I do keep an eye on is balance. If one language is slipping behind, I put some effort into that one and so on. I just provide exposure which involves hunting down dvds and books in every language and bringing my dc into situations where each language is spoken and where dd has to speak each language. I find it works for us, I haven't really needed to do more than that.

Rosa Wed 20-Feb-13 14:23:47

I am with Cory .... Just chill and go with it. they pick up and absorb more than you think.
I encourage my dds to speak the correct languages in each situation. - we live in Italy so the main language is spoken , dd6 is bilingual and will go back to reading and writing in English as soon as she is ready ( she has started elementary and they are teaching them to read and write). Dd2 will readily and happily speak to me in English if I address her in that language and she will revert to Italian if needed or with her friends.In her first years at nursery I asked her in Italian what she did as often she diddn'tknow the words in English. She does now and often on the phone to relations she might ask me what a word is. I tend to read in English they have books, cartoons in English .
We had an interesting situation on holiday. The miniclub team spoke to both dds in English the first time they met them. Then the next day they realised both dds spoke fluent Italian ( which was the main language of the mini club team). DD2 had a few hours of confusion as she had associated these people with being English so She found it hard to switch to Italian with them. She said ' mummy the words diddn't come out or when they did it was a muddle'. Having said that by the end of the holiday she was speaking both with them no problem - rather like with me !!!!!

EvenIfYouSeeAPoppy Wed 20-Feb-13 14:35:28

We use OPOL and are very consistent with it. English is the minority language and I only ever speak that to the children, even when out and about (which draws us some stares and whispering in our small town in the German middle-of-nowhere) and even when only German speakers are around - translating whenever necessary. Dh (who is German) and I always spoke German to each other before kids, and my German is near-native while his English is OK but not so fluent, so we have retained that rather than adopting English as the family language. Most of the dc's books, DVDs etc are in English and I make it a major priority to read to them every day.

My two have always stuck to speaking English to me and German to dh without much, any really, cajoling on our part. Very occasionally dc1 (7yo) will speak German to me; I just reply in English and repeat a translation of what he said.

Their German is stronger than their English, but they are perfectly fluent and able to communicate in English (with occasional use of German words) and actually have quite a wide vocabulary in English. Dc1 can read fluently in both languages; I taught him English phonics before he started school, which I think helps.

EvenIfYouSeeAPoppy Wed 20-Feb-13 14:37:23

The interference works the other way too - the dc speak a mix of languages together and when speaking German will often drop English in - 'wir share-n' when they can't agree over who will have a toy, for example grin

EvenIfYouSeeAPoppy Wed 20-Feb-13 14:40:03

Oh, and language mixing is entirely normal. My older dc rarely did it, while my younger still does it - they are just different ways of learning. Mixing languages in one sentence is considered a 'productive error', so to speak, in language acquisition - it's learning by trial and error. I do repeat back all-English versions of such sentences, though, just so they hear it.

Branleuse Wed 20-Feb-13 14:40:14

the only person i know who has managed to acheive completely active bilingualism is where the mother (as the primary carer) did extreme OPOL and refused to answer the children unless they spoke to her in spanish. She told me they could be drowning but if they didnt say help mama in spanish, tough luck ;)

We do a lesser version of OPOL and dp is a bit lax about the french for my liking, and they understand french fine, but their active use of the language is very much lacking

SoldeInvierno Wed 20-Feb-13 16:11:56

in my case, I always spoke the minority language, but DH spoke mostly English and sometimes my language. As DS spent his days at nursery from very early age, English was, and still is, his stronger language. However, he's perfectly fluent in the minority language, although you can hear that he's not native and occasionally gets stuck for words.

From age 7 he started having formal lessons in the minority language to learn to read and write, plus he tends to spend 3 to 4 weeks per year in my country of origin in a fully immersed environment. No-one around him speaks English there.

So, with a combination of all these things, he's now basically bilingual.

I do agree with the previous poster that you must not let yourself be stressed by it. Just keep on trying and give your child the opportunity to practise in a native environment. Some months you will feel that he/she is not progressing and then suddenly it all comes at once.

SW1XMother Thu 21-Feb-13 10:05:06

Very strict OPOL here. My husband only speaks French to the children while I speak only German to them. It does not matter if somebody else is there who doesn't understand the language.

whenhenshaveteeth Thu 21-Feb-13 20:24:08

OPOL here but I'm not sure this is THE method - we just muddle through and see how it goes to be honest!

We live in the UK, I'm French and dad is English. I've always ever spoke to DS1 in French (DS2 doesn't count yet as he's tiny-weeny) regardless of the situation. It doesn't matter if we're with people who don't understand French, this is the language we use between us. I may translate stuff in English if needed for the benefit of the other people though. For example if DS1 say pushes someone in the park, I will tell him off in French and then I will talk to the little boy and explain to him that DS1 was naughty and that I told him off - although kids aren't stupid: from my body language and tone of voice he would have worked out I had just told DS1 off.

Otherwise we go to a French playgroup and I try to have regular playdates with French kids. I try to follow a lot of the French traditions to bring a bit of culture into the mix (being bilingual to me is also about understanding both cultures) and some fun (pancake day, epiphany, mardi gras etc). I also only exclusively read to him in French and he knows at home we have "mummy books" and "daddy books". I found cartoons brilliant for his vocab is it's a fun medium, so I regularly buy French DVDs or look through YouTube for stuff. We try to go to France at least once a year but unfortunately I don't have much family he can speak French to.

When he was tiny most of his vocab was French but now that he goes to nursery his English has taken off (he's 3.5y). If we're just the 2 of us or if we're at the French playgroup he tends to speak French to me. At home it depends, it might be some sentences in French and others in English. I never pretend I can't understand if he speaks English to me, I just repeat what he said in French and answer back in French. Sometimes if he mixes languages it's because he doesn't know the word in French so I say: daddy says frog but how does mummy say? Then I tell him if he doesn't know and 10 minutes later I'll ask him again: how does mummy say frog? and again.

It's not foolproof and quite frankly and it's a lot more work than I anticipated. Some days I feel my head is about to explode because for some reason he only spoke English to me that day while I stuck to the OPOL and only spoke French - so in effect it feels like we had 2 parallel conversations. And it's exhausting to always repeat stuff in French! But it's worth it I feel. He, or they I should say, will be better at English I suspect but they are English. My role is to pass French on to them not force them to become perfect little french men because that would about me not about them.

Gosh, sorry for the rambling!!

dikkertjedap Fri 22-Feb-13 18:22:29

Our dc are trilingual so we cannot use OPOL. However, as both my DH and I speak many languages, our kids have a good understanding WHY knowing different languages is so important.

We moved from the UK to the Netherlands and dc blended in the Dutch education system without any problems whatsoever from day one (always having been at English schools before). My DH speaks English and his language, I speak English and Dutch. DH and I mainly speak English to each other. We have made sure we have all BBC programs and rarely watch Dutch TV (is really poor anyway), same for radio, dc have lots of English dvds/audio CDs/computer games etc.

Keeping up three languages is hard work though, we have one week bedtime stories in English, one week in Dutch, one week in third language. Same for dinner conversation. Weekends are pure English, unless we have Dutch guests. We regularly visit DH home country and then exclusively speak/write/read third language.

I also agree with other posters, that it is key to keep it fun and that there is no need to be overly strict.

cory Sat 23-Feb-13 16:19:43

struck by dikkertjedap's point about showing the usefulness of multiple languages

I didn't grow up in a bilingual family as such, but I did grow up in a family where everybody spoke several languages as non-native speakers, where there were books in many languages, where holidays involved using different languages, where you spoke different languages to different family friends

it never occurred to anyone that learning another language would somehow put previous languages at risk; my mother was still studying Czech and Old Church Slavonic in her seventies, with a seemingly reckless disregard for any damage done to her French, German, English etc

so rather than seeing minority language as something to be protected against the evil influences of other languages, my attitude is naturally more along "the more the merrier" lines

obviously, only certain languages will be part of your identity, though even that can change over the years

UptoapointLordCopper Sat 23-Feb-13 16:28:30

"Usefulness" is a double-edged sword. When I was growing up you'd be a fool to learn Chinese. It was simply a dead-end language for the dye-in-the-wool communist sympathiser. Now it's oh-so-useful. My position is that economies come and go but great works of literature are more likely to stay. That is the sort of usefulness I understand.

AllSWornOut Sat 23-Feb-13 16:49:45

Yy to dikkert and the utility of many languages. DS is trilingual too. Hi majority language is no the first language of either DH or me but we are both fluent in it. At home we are OPOL except that DH speaks English to me(although i understand his language). DS is still quite young but he speaks all three languages and seems to know when one language is more appropriate than another, although he still mixes quite a lot. We generally do what most of you seem to do and repeat/correct in the appropriate language. We don't make any particular deal out of being multilingual and just do what seems right in any situation.

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