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The Three Main Strategies for Raising Bilingual, Trilingual and Multilingual Kids

Updated: Feb 5



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Hello everyone!


Whether you are totally new to the world of raising bilingual/ trilingual/ multilingual children, or are further along the way on your linguistic journey, it’s worth taking a look at the “Big Three Strategies” that are most commonly adopted by parents all over the world who are trying to raise their children to speak more than one language.


This is a COMPLETE guide to these three strategies, offering examples to illustrate how each strategy can be applied in real life in different scenarios.


Needless to say, in real life, you may well find that you’ll be using a mix of strategies or even something completely of your own invention!


That’s absolutely fine – there are truly as many language strategies as there are families. Your family is unique.


Your child is unique.


Your personal philosophy is unique.


Your family’s circumstances are unique.


So why shouldn’t your family’s language strategy be?


Every family is unique; every child is unique. Choose a language strategy that suits your family's unique circumstances and don't be afraid to adapt it! Choosing a language strategy for raising a bilingual, trilingual or multilingual child
Every family is unique; every child is unique. Choose a language strategy that suits your family's unique circumstances and don't be afraid to adapt it!


Having said that though, a knowledge of these three most important strategies will help you make your own decisions in a more informed way.


I’ll also address some of the most common problems associated with each of the strategies and offer some suggestions on how to overcome them.


Keep reading to find out more!


One Parent One Language (OPOL)


This strategy is truly what it says on the tin!


In a two-parent household, one parent would always speak one language with the child, while the other parent would always speak the other language.


If you are hoping to raise your child to be BILINGUAL (i.e. The majority language of your place of residence + a minority language which is also the target language for your child), your set-up might look something like this:


Using One-Parent-One-Language as a BILINGUAL family: An Example




Emily and Diego live in the UK.


Emily was born and raised in England and has only limited knowledge of Spanish.


Diego is from Mexico, and while his mother tongue is Spanish, he is also fluent in English.


They communicate with each other in English.


They want to raise their daughter Mariana to be bilingual in English and Spanish. I


In this scenario, Emily would speak to Mariana only in English, and Diego would use Spanish exclusively.


Potential problems when using OPOL as a BILINGUAL family


One difficulty that immediately jumps out is this: what should Emily, Diego and Mariana do when all three of them are together?


Or when the parents are talking among themselves, in the child’s presence?


Strict proponents of OPOL would advise that, when all three of them are conversing together, each parent should stick to their respective languages when directly addressing the child, but can switch to English – their only mutual language – when they are addressing each other.


Adam Beck, the author of Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability, who raised his children to be bilingual in Japanese and English, takes a really strict approach – he and his wife avoid having lengthy conversations in Japanese (their mutual language and the majority language of their country of residence) in the children’s presence, and he actively avoided social gatherings which would require him to speak Japanese extensively in the children’s presence.


The purpose of this rather “extreme” approach, he explains, is to reinforce the message that “Daddy only speaks English” and, therefore, the need to use that language exclusively with Daddy. But even the author himself admits that his own approach is unusual in its strictness.


Deciding on a "family language"


A similarly strict approach could work for you, of course, but in reality, you might decide to do what feels the most natural for your family.


You might find it more natural for all three of you to converse in English together, for example.


It shouldn't be a problem as long as this does not impact your child’s ability to speak the target language.


With my own kids, I speak to them in Chinese 95% of the time when I’m directly addressing them, even when there are non-Chinese speakers present, but we do live in an area where bilingualism is very common and doing this would not cause awkwardness.


However, if a conversation directly involves other non-Chinese speakers, I do switch to English to be polite.


For example, a mum at the playground offers my son a biscuit, with me next to him. In this situation, I would ask him in English if he wants a biscuit.


Using One-Parent-One-Language as a TRILINGUAL family: An Example


If you’re hoping to raise your child to be TRILINGUAL (i.e. The majority language of your place of residence + one target language from one parent + another target language from the other parent), OPOL might be an obvious candidate!


In fact, you might find yourself and your partner doing OPOL without even being aware of it!


Since this is essentially what my husband and I do with our kids, I’ll use our family as a real-life example.


A real-life example



I speak Mandarin with the kids and my husband speaks Russian with them.


We live in the UK, where English is the majority language.


Both children were born in the UK and live in an environment where English is the majority language in all settings.


I use Mandarin exclusively with the children, and my husband only uses Russian with them.


Potential problems when using OPOL as a TRILINGUAL family


In a trilingual OPOL set-up, it is often difficult to ensure that the child gets adequate exposure to each of the target languages, especially if one or both parents work full-time.


In this case, the parents should aim to:


Make the most of the evening with the child


For two parents in full-time work, this probably equates to two to three hours per day, split between two target languages, which is not a lot.


If possible, switch off the TV and make sure you spend lots of quality time together, talking a lot!


Talk about your day at the dinner table together.



Family meal times are crucial in helping children develop their language skills. Focus on quality time together and avoid screens at dinner time! Raising bilingual trilingual multilingual child
Family meal times are crucial in helping children develop their language skills. Focus on quality time together and avoid screens at dinner time!


Get the kids involved in any necessary household chores – this is a great way for them to acquire the target language in a fun, natural way and, well, since you would spend that chunk of time on those chores anyway, why not factor in just a little extra time (because getting little kiddies to “help” will inevitably mean taking more time to finish a task, not less) and turn it into a language-learning activity? Win-win!


Bathtime and bedtime are also the perfect opportunities for some parent-child bonding, as well as fun language learning!


Reading together at bed time should be a key component in your family's routine when raising a child to speak more than one language; raising a bilingual trilingual multilingual child
Reading together at bed time should be a key component in your family's routine when raising a child to speak more than one language


Aim for 15 minutes of reading before bed in your target languages – this should be one routine to stick to, no matter what.


Consider paid help


If you and your partner struggle to find the time to interact intensively with your child due to work or other commitments, consider hiring an after-school nanny, au pair or babysitter who speaks the target language(s).



Using hired help or an au pair can be a great way to boost your child's exposure to a particular target language; raising a bilingual trilingual multilingual child
Using hired help or an au pair can be a great way to boost your child's exposure to a particular target language


Ideally you should have one hired person for each of your target languages, of course, to ensure even exposure to both target languages.


But in reality, this might be quite difficult to arrange! In that case, you may need to decide which target language should take priority for your family’s needs at this moment in time, and really focus on making up for the “neglected” language on the weekend.


Other families – where one parent spends a lot more time with the child than the other – might face different challenges.


In our household, my husband works full-time while I, as a freelancer, spend a lot more time with the children. As a result, their Chinese has always been much stronger than their Russian.


To compensate for this, my husband and I agree that I should try to speak Russian as much as possible when we are with the kids.


The bottom line is, if you decide that OPOL is broadly speaking the best strategy for your family, don’t be afraid to modify it to suit your family’s needs.


Minority Language at Home (ML@H)

 

This approach mostly applies to BILINGUAL families.


Typically, both parents speak the same minority language, and the family live in a country/region where a different language – the majority language – is spoken.


So essentially, the child gets the minority language from their parents, and the majority language from the outside world.


As the child “only” has to juggle two languages, and both parents speak the same minority language at home, it should be easier to achieve the 30% exposure needed for language acquisition.


Statistically speaking, ML@H is a very effective strategy for raising bilingual children.


According to a number of studies, up to 70% of families who practise ML@H succeed in passing on the minority language to their children.


Minority Language at Home (ML@H) is a highly effective language strategy with a 70% success rate; raising a bilingual trilingual multilingual child and choosing the right strategy
Minority Language at Home (ML@H) is a highly effective language strategy with a 70% success rate

From my own observations, in cases where both parents speak the same language at home, and they use it more or less exclusively with their children, the children typically attain fluency in the target language with little difficulty.


One caveat: this only applies to listening and speaking, of course. Reading and writing is a whole different ball game!


If neither of you is a native speaker of the minority/ target language, or maybe only one of you is a native speaker, ML@H can still work.


It would be an excellent opportunity for non-native speakers to improve their language skills! Do not be afraid to make mistakes. Your partner (if you’re a non-native speaker) can correct you, and in time, your child will help you improve, too!


Potential problems when using Minority-Language-at-Home


What if you find yourself among the 30% of families who fail to pass on the minority language to their children?


This can be down to a number of factors:


Firstly, the parents (or at least one parent) are not using the minority language consistently enough. 



Remember, always aim to use the target language with your child at least 95% of the time.


That’s a somewhat arbitrary figure (estimated by… yes, me!), but basically, you should aim to use the target language almost exclusively and that 5% is only there to make allowance for inevitable things like talking to other families in the playground or completing homework that requires using the majority language etc.


Be really mindful about how often you use the majority language – I know how easy it is to slip into the majority language when it’s literally all around you, but if you want to maximise your child’s chance of success, you simply have to minimise your use of the majority language.


It’s as simple as that.


However, if your child is already fluent, you can be far more relaxed about using the majority language.


Action point: Start monitoring your use of the majority language today. Aim for 95% exclusivity in terms of using the target language/ home language.


A second problem is this: The child is able to speak the home language at first, but gradually loses it once they start full-time nursery/ school. 



Many children gradually lose their home language as they start school - but this problem CAN be avoided! How to raise a bilingual, trilingual or multilingual child
Many children gradually lose their home language as they start school - but this problem CAN be avoided!

To avoid this problem, some experts suggest delaying your child’s introduction to the majority language for as long as possible; in reality, this means not sending them to a full-time majority-language nursery/ school until the home language is fully established.


Or even better, send them to a bilingual nursery/ school.


For many parents though, this is simply not an option.


Where we used to live in London, most families rely on two incomes and have no choice but to send their children to nursery full-time when they turn one or even earlier. In some cases, the majority language just “takes over” as the child spends more and more time away from home.


If this is happening to your child, first of all, be assured that it’s totally normal.


You should be celebrating the fact that they are learning a new language and are interacting with their peers!


However, it’s really important to reinforce the home language as soon as you see signs of what I call “majority-language invasion”.


If your child starts using English words at home, you need to gently but firmly reassert the home language.


Every time they say an English word or phrase, ask them to say it again in the home language, or at the very least repeat it in the home language yourself so they can hear the “correct” language input.


However, if the “invasion” is at a more advanced stage, meaning that your child is no longer able or willing to speak the home language, you may want to consider implementing what I call the “The Bootcamp Method” (see my book for a step-by-step guide on how to do this) as soon as possible before the majority language takes over completely!


Action point: Delay your child’s introduction to the majority language for as long as possible. If that’s not an option, make sure you’re very strict about using the minority language when they’re with you, and implement “The Bootcamp Method” if needed.


Time and Place (T&P)


Using the Time and Place strategy, the parents would separate the languages used with the child either by time or by place (or both), which means that, in theory, there’s no upper limit to the number of languages used.


In reality, however, most parents would probably limit it to a maximum of four or five languages.


T&P is particularly useful if the parents:


1) Want their child to be fluent in four or more languages; or


2) Want to gradually introduce a second/ third/ fourth language. It can also be adopted in combination with OPOL and ML@H.


So, how does this strategy work in more concrete terms?


For the first scenario (i.e. Parents who want their child to be fluent in four or more languages), let’s take a look at the family in the following example:


An example of using the Time and Place Strategy for raising a child to speak four languages



Marion is from France; her mother tongue is French, but she’s also fluent in Spanish and English as a result of her family background and professional life.


Her partner Andrea is from Germany; his mother tongue is German, but because of his work and education, he’s also fluent in English and Spanish, in addition to some basic knowledge of French.


The couple lives in New York City with their son Luc (aged four), who attends a bilingual German and English pre-school.


At home, Andrea speaks German to Luc, and Marion speaks French to him.


When all three are together, they speak in French as much as possible, even though Andrea is not fluent.


This decision is motivated by the need to bolster French, as Luc already gets plenty of exposure to German at pre-school.


The family also has a Mexican nanny who looks after Luc for approximately 15 hours a week.


She speaks to Luc exclusively in Spanish.


As both Andrea and Marion are fluent in Spanish, they decided to use Spanish with Luc every Saturday in order to reinforce his Spanish.


By separating the languages by time and place, Marion and Andrea enable Luc to gain a good amount of exposure to all four languages: English (the majority language of the United States), French (Mum’s language and the family’s “home language”), German (Dad’s language and one of the languages used at pre-school) as well as Spanish (Nanny’s language and the family’s “Saturday” language).


An example of using the Time and Place Strategy to introduce a new language gradually



For the second scenario (i.e. Parents who want to gradually introduce a third/ fourth language), let’s look at another hypothetical example:

 

Oksana and Viktor are from Ukraine; they’re both fluent in Ukrainian, Russian and English.

The family lives in London, UK.


They have been using ML@H with their daughter Anna from birth, speaking to her exclusively in Ukrainian.


By the age of two, Anna can understand and speak Ukrainian and English at an age-appropriate level.


At this point, the parents decide to introduce a third languageRussian.


Their goal is for Anna to become trilingual in Ukrainian, Russian and English.


Oksana starts speaking to Anna in Russian at lunchtime only, in order to introduce a new language gradually.


Once Anna is more comfortable with this, Oksana encourages her to speak Russian at lunchtime.


After a month, Oksana starts speaking to Anna in Russian when they are out and about.


There are many Russian-speaking families in their area, and it’s easy to find other Russian-speaking children to play with at their local parks and playgrounds.


Ultimately, Oksana and Viktor want to make Ukrainian the home language and Russian the “outside-world” language.


In this case, the family’s language strategy may evolve into some form of OPOL – maybe Viktor will primarily use Ukrainian with Anna, and Oksana Russian.


T&P is flexible enough to accommodate for customisation and change of circumstances.


Having said that, for T&P to work well, consistency is important.


Once you’ve decided which language to use in which time and place, try your best to stick to it, at least until a change of circumstances demands an adjustment in your strategy.


I hope the above summary of the "Big Three Strategies" and my suggestions for overcoming some potential pitfalls associated with each strategy are of some use to you!


Share in the comments below what your family's language strategy is!

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