Expat Lang – Multilingual Education Café

Date Created: 11.07.2014

Planning a bilingual education

I am often asked whether planning is important. Some would tell me that yes of course, you should, others would think it is not necessary, you should let things happen. Before planning, I think that the first thing to do it to take the decision of raising your own children with one or more languages. It is an important decision, as it will not happen easily with no work. Educating children with more than one language at home demands work, patience and tenacity. There is no need to spend a lot of money for children to learn to speak languages, especially when they are the languages you speak at home. You only have to invest in being free for you children. The main ingredient that you will need is patience, a lot of time and a lot of patience. You will need time to listen, speak, explain and repeat again and again.

There are several cases:

1 - both parents speak a different mother tongue and they can speak each other's languages; they do not need a third language to talk to one another. They live in the country of one of the parents. It is the easiest case. Is planning necessary then? I think it depends on the individuals. You have to talk about it and let things happen naturally. The younger the children are when you start talking to them in your mother tongue, the easier it will be for them to master them. You have to be consistent and logical. A routine is necessary. It is possible to decide to speak:

a - one language at home and the other one outside home, that is what is being called Minority Language at Home mL@H - as it is usually the language of the country where we live which is the majority language and is spoken outside home;

b - one language with the father, another language with the mother, this is what is called OPOL (one parent, one language);

c - one language during school time, another language during holidays; there is no fixed method and everything depends on your family. You have to feel at ease with your choice and also happy about it. It has to be a routine in all the interactions within the family, so that it has a meaning in the everyday life. A child needs routine to grow up. It is the same with languages. Choosing a routine will help him/her to acquire and master better the languages of the home.

2 - the parents speak two different languages; they can speak each other's languages and do not need a third language to speak to one another, however they have decided to live in a country where they speak a language which is different from their own. The children will have the chance to become trilingual: the two languages of home, plus the language of the country where they will be educated. In this case, it is only complicated in the sense that there are three languages. The children will then have two minority languages which will be the home languages. I think that here some planning is necessary, without being compulsory. In fact, I believe that the two methods: mL@H and the OPOL have to be mixed up; this will allow the children to really acquire the three languages. A proper framework and a routine, which the family will have to follow, will be of great help.

3 - the two parents speak a different language and they need a third language to communicate between themselves. It is a slightly more difficult case. The following questions must be asked if we wish the children to be able to master all the languages, i.e. the languages of the parents and the language they use to communicate.

a - Are the parents going to learn each other's languages? Are they able to understand the language of the other?

b - Do you wish your children to be able to speak a language that you do not understand, which is nonetheless a language of the family? Do you wish your children to learn the language you are using to communicate? Or do you feel they do not need it?

c - Are you living in the country of one of the parents? If so, your children will be educated in the language of one of the parents. One of the methods mentioned above can then be used.

d - Do you live in the country where your communication language is spoken? It is then a foreign country for both parents. Your children will then be educated in that language.

It is then important to plan and discuss about all those points in order to avoid problems, which could arise later. It is also important to think about all those points and to take the country of residence in consideration.

4 - Both parents speak the same language and decide to live in a country where another language is spoken. It is a quite simple case. If your children are going to the local school, they will be educated in a foreign language. They will become bilingual in a simple manner. They you will have to use the mL@H as a method; it will impose itself from the circumstances. In fact, it will be more natural for the family to speak a language that everybody understand and master.

Planning what you are going to do in language matters is important if you do not feel at ease and also to create an important routine for the children. In fact, as they will grow up, your children will have different needs, their demands will also change; you will have to adapt. It is important to know which way to follow without enclosing oneself into a strict framework which will not allow any change. Bilingual education is a wonderful adventure if it is done harmoniously.

Languages when you are an expatriate. We give personalised advice on plurilingualism, multilingual education and language acquisition. Our mission is to help the development of plurilingualism, and help parents who wish to raise their children in a bi- or multi-lingual manner. I also work with speech-therapists, teachers, au-pair, etc.. My personal experience and my training will allow me to give you the best advice possible according your personal situation.  I am supporting mixed families, as well as families who decide to raise their children abroad and live the expatriation. Please feel free to contact me on:

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I give advice in various languages (English, French, Dutch…)

Dr Isabelle Barth-O’Neill