If you and your partner are of the same nationality and you’re living in a country with a different majority language to yours, most probably you are using a strategy called Minority Language at Home (ML@H) to communicate with your child. This means that at all times you speak to your child only in your mother tongue, and teaching the community language you leave to the community itself. The reason you’re doing it is simple. As a foreign speaker you feel (or have been told) that you are not proficient enough to teach your child the language that is not your native one. It’s also easier to speak your mother tongue instead of constantly checking on your grammar and pronunciation in the foreign language.
This is why among immigrants the most often used method is to immerse their child in the majority language outside while continuing to speak the native language at home. It’s uncomplicated. It’s clear. Everybody knows what to do.
The magic 30%
However, as always when things look nearly too good to be true, there is one tiny problem. In order to become a fluent speaker a baby needs to be exposed to a language for at least 30% of their awake time. This means that if your little one wakes up at 8.00 am and goes to bed at 7.00 pm with a three-hour long nap in the middle of the day, just like my son used to do, ideally he or she should be exposed to the other language for a minimum of 2,5 hours every day. Day by day.
In reality, it equals with organising every day play dates, day care, playgroups etc. for at least 2,5 hours. Yes, every day. If a child is exposed to the other language for less time than that, multiple studies prove that he or she will fully develop their additional language abilities only when they start preschool or school and are exposed to the other language for the required amount of time. Meanwhile, what they achieve in the result is called – for the English speaking communities – English as Additional Language (EAL) or English as Second Language, English as a Foreign Language, or English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL).
If you use an approach called Minority Language at Home you must be prepared to bear all the consequences – the good ones, and first and the foremost, the worse ones. On how you take up this challenge will depend your child’s wellbeing for the next few years.
Both my husband and I are Polish, therefore in our case ML@H was meant to be the most natural communication strategy with our little son. For a number of reasons, some of which I’ve already explained here, I wasn’t keen to use it.
Disadvantages of the Minority Language at Home strategy
We knew it that we wouldn’t be able to immerse Ka in the English language for as much as 2,5 hours every day. Well, at least 2,5 hours, as language specialists suggest. After all, there’s normal life and everyday duties beside thinking of your child’s bilingualism and as a parent we had to confront it.
Furthermore, what does “exposing” mean? What is it really to “immerse in the other language”? Just go to a playgroup and let the kids play together? Mind you, when you have a baby or a toddler, you cannot expect that his peers will be incredible conversationalists right from the start. You may have an opportunity to speak with other mums or dads but your baby won’t necessarily benefit from your meaningful conversations while crawling around and chewing on toys. You can also meet friends at other places but you must be either very lucky, or very rich (or both) if you can afford spending a few hours every day just on chatting with friends.
If you speak to linguistic experts though, what option do they offer to parents who live their lives in a country that is foreign to them? Minority Language at Home, of course! And even more obviously, the community language as the second language when the child starts school at the age of five, or preschool at three. This option seems like the lesser of two evils when you must choose between chaotic teaching without any rules (with passing onto him or her all your grammar and stylistics sins), and leaving the introduction of the other language to teachers when the child is five.
The majority language as an Additional Language
English as an Additional Language was not what my husband and I wanted for our son Ka… “Additional”, this word bothered us the most, I must confess. Tom and I wanted our son to feel native in his country of birth right from the start of his life and it felt our duty as parents to ensure that he feels safe and understands, and identifies with the community he lives in. Perhaps our imagination wasn’t big enough because we couldn’t think of our little son feeling confident and happy in our neighbourhood if right from the start he didn’t speak the same language as other children.
It all started quite early. Ka was still residing in my tummy when we met this Russian couple. We had the same midwife, a charming English lady who introduced us to one another because she’d thought that being from the same part of Europe would make us instant friends. Marina and Ivan were expecting their second child, with an older daughter being five and ready for school.
“Ready” was a big word, though. In the first week Katya wet her pants because she didn’t know how to tell her teacher that she needed to go to the toilet and over the next few days her parents had to make her go to school, so ashamed she was. With time, the situation was slowly improving but still each time you asked her about the school, this bubbly, happy kid would go quiet. She wanted to make friends but she didn’t know how to do it. Quite understandable if you think that her only way of communication was in a language that the rest of the class couldn’t possibly know and comprehend. Two different worlds that in order to meet needed something that you cannot buy or get instantly: Time.
You will often hear opinion on the Minority Language at Home strategy that children are adaptable and quickly get used to the situation when they cannot speak a word in the community language, or can understand only little parts from what is being said. You’ll hear that children do not need to communicate in the same language to be able to play together. That there is no need to be worried because “they will be fine…” Yes, they will be. The question is, when?
When things refer to a baby or a toddler, time should be measured differently, I believe. The changes an infant goes through their development are incomparable to our, adult lives. What to us is “just” a few months or a year, or even two, for the little ones might be calculated multiple times because until they are five they grow up as little super humans, as you might have read here.
Why teach the majority language?
I’m often asked why it was so important to me to make my son bilingual from the start. After all, there are so many parents who use the Minority Language at Home and allow their children to immerse in the majority language when the time comes (three or five years old), and the children are… yes, fine.
There was only one reason, really. I wanted him to get the same chance as any other child around. I wanted my son to start from the same level, with the same abilities and the same chances. Instead of waiting and “adapting” I wanted him to begin from day one with exactly the same confidence and communication skills as other kids.
Life brings surprises anyway, and we have to make our lives suitable to new circumstances, whether we want it or not. If we move to another country with older children, all the family needs to bear the costs of our decision. But, if we have an infant or a toddler, why not help the little ones? Why not teach them – at their own pace and in the friendliest environment they could ever get: around the family and by loving, understanding and patient parents?
Why not apply the same rules and emotions both to an older and a younger child? Or, an adult? No one wants to be confused when a teacher asks them a question, no one wants to feel alone or isolated, or worried, or upset because they cannot express their feelings or thoughts. That’s what Tom and I imagined. Quite a disaster we imagined, let’s face it. How far from reality it was, only a child concerned could tell us – it they were mature enough to express it.
There are many parents who take this special effort and teach their children various words in the majority language. It is a great help to start with and might be a beginning of an amazing language journey. Learning single words helps a child to accommodate himself to the environment outside the home but still is not enough to communicate freely and on the same level as his monolingual peers who have been speaking the community language from birth.
Now, why not take this one more step and implement some routine into the teaching? Making a child naturally bilingual does not have to be a parent’s aim but it will come as a premium.
Minority Language at Home and what’s next
I still remember little Katya and her daily emotional challenges. It seemed like a problem first and foremost for the child itself but also a problem for everybody else involved. For other children who needed to be challenged about how to make friends with someone who didn’t speak their language, and for teachers who had to find the ways to come closer to a child whom they couldn’t even address properly.
In the United Kingdom alone there are nearly 700 000 children who start school with a first language ‘known or believed to be other than English’. This is an average, in some areas it’s a few times higher, e.g. in eastern London English is a second language to over 75% of children, same in Newham and Westminster, not to mention the famous school in Sparkhill, Birmingham, where every child speaks English as a second language.
Most of those kids have foreign parents, just like my husband and I are. They are still a great unsolved problem for the British education system. The majority begins school with little or no English. From the first day of education they jump into an environment that is completely strange to them. Many struggle to integrate and feel socially isolated due to poor language skills and lack of cultural knowledge. You will know this if you are a teacher but no one will tell you this publicly, unless it’s one of those tabloids that chase immigrants.
When a child is immersed in a second language, initially they often go through a so called “silent phase”. It’s quite common that a child who doesn’t speak the dominant language refuses to communicate until they become more familiar with the new sounds. Over the years, there have been specialists suggesting that this could be compared to babies who spend the first year focused on listening and comprehension. Babies do communicate, though! Certainly they are not quiet and their inability to speak our, “grown-up’ language is developmental and not related to the amount of language they need to grasp before they start speaking.
It appears that the younger the child is, the longer the silent period tends to last – from a few weeks or a few months up to a year, or more. How much of that time results from the need to gather new words for a proper communication, and how much is associated with insecurity, feeling unsafe or confused, nobody knows.
To us as parents it was enough to sow the seeds of doubt and scare us away from leaving the language issue untouched until our son goes to school. The question was, what else we could do.
Family can do more
In my next post I will explain in more detail my own method, which I have been using to raise my son as a natural bilingual until he was three. It proved to be just the right amount of time to prepare him for the encounter with preschool and later, with school. As mentioned before, his bilingualism came as a great premium! As to any parent, my priority was to make our little boy happy and comfortable from the earliest moments of his life. This is what every mum or dad want but most of us are frightened to try new solutions because we don’t know where we will get in the result. Our family situation was the same but as a linguist I felt a bit more confident to do the things I was planning to do. And you know what? I succeeded.
I succeeded because children are incredibly adaptable indeed! And it’s just a question whether it will be a parent who goes with them side by side and helps them out while they are learning, or they will be left alone to deal with the outside world at the age of three. Or five, if that makes any difference.