I've been through a lot of answers here on raising bilingual children, and the general consensus seems to be (1) each parent speaks their language to the child ('one parent - one language') and (2) There is consistency.

What are some strategies for raising a bilingual child?

My husband and I have a fully bilingual relationship. We live in a non-English community and speak 50/50 English and our local language at home. He's fluent in both, I'm fluent in English and advanced in our local language.

We code-switch a lot and speak both languages all the time. Different subjects of conversation are associated with each language (work is English, mundane home affairs are local language) and sometimes we'll simply use whichever language is easier or quicker to get the point across. We'll switch languages mid-sentence and borrow words that are shorter/easier to remember from the other language.

We would really like to continue doing this after our daughter is born. This system works really well for us. However, I am concerned that this goes against the general advice I've read. I'm particularly concerned that our daughter won't know which word belongs to which language, or that she won't be able to tell the languages apart and get them confused, especially since we mix them so often.

I really don't want to have to switch to the one-parent-one-language method because it takes a lot of work and conscious effort to implement and I'd be concerned we'd just default to English out of laziness.

Maintaining a 3-way conversation with her where I speak one language and my husband speaks another is particularly where the difficulty lies, since we'll automatically want to switch to the other person's language (so my husband will hear me speak English and he'll automatically want to switch to English too and it'll take a conscious effort to not do that). I've been in situations where one side is always speaking one language and I have to maintain the opposite language and it is really tough to do.

Is it going to be detrimental to her if she hears both of us speak both languages all the time, with (seemingly) arbitrary distinction between them?

  • I realize this is not what you asked, but still maybe worth a comment comming from a parent in a household with 3 languages: 1. One-parent-one-language is only "work" in the first half a year or so. After that you really get used to it; 2. It's ok if you and your husband continue to code switch between yourselves. Infants are less sensitive to language that is not directed to them. When she will have acquired her 2 languages (separately), she will also be able to confidently code switch. 3. What language will kindergarden/school be in? – iulia Jan 8 at 11:30
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    @iulia She'll be in the local childcare/school system so it'll be in the local language (not English). I'm not too concerned about her eventual bilingual-ness because she'll get English exposure at home and local in the community. I just don't want our system to do any damage, and my husband wants to have local spoken to some extent at home because it's his first language (and he wants her to keep his side of her cultural heritage alive) – Stacey Jan 8 at 11:40
  • One-parent-one-language method because it takes a lot of work and conscious effort? How? – paparazzo Jan 8 at 16:13
  • @Paparazzi It would be a concious effort for me to talk to our daughter only in English and for my husband to speak to her only in our local language since it's very difficult to maintain a conversation when one side is always using one language and the other side is always using another language. I've tried it before and it's really draining. What language does a 3-way conversation happen in between us and her? It's really awkward to force the language in this way, at least for us. – Stacey Jan 8 at 16:46
  • To clarify, the issue is only really in a 3-way conversation, when we are both talking to her in a different language and hearing eachother speak opposite languages. If my husband hears me speak English to her, he'll naturally switch to English too and it'll take a conscious effort on his part to maintain his language (and vice versa). It won't be so much of the issue outside of the home (for eg, 1 on 1 just me and her), but we're both home all day (we run our own business together) so 3-way conversations are going to happen a lot more. – Stacey Jan 8 at 16:53

There is a strategy for raising bilingual children called two-parents-two-languages. It means that parents speak both languages and switch between them when convenient. The strategy is described in this blog post.

Supposedly the two-parents-two-languages strategy is slightly more effective than the one-parent-one-language strategy. 79% of children being raised with two-parents-two-languages strategy became bilingual while 74% of children raised with one-parent-one-language strategy became bilingual.

It is noted that although consistency does not seem to be as important as thought of before, it is still important for the minority language. For example if only one parent speaks the minority language the percentage of success falls to 36%. This means that it is important that both languages get enough exposure. It is also recommended to not switch between languages mid sentence as long as the child does not distinguish between the languages yet.

  • I'm so relieved to hear this! Yay! I just couldn't envision our household doing OPOL and while it looks good on paper, practically it just feels very contrived when we're both bilingual. Avoiding switching mid-sentence is an easy compromise in comparison. – Stacey Jan 15 at 19:03
  • It's really interesting to hear that even though people claimed they use OPOL, actually they aren't really. My friend is a speech therapist and she told me "ideally, every word out of your mouth should be English, every word out of his mouth should be in your local language" and I was just like ??!?. Not very practical! She's also monolingual! This is what started me on figuring this out. There MUST be a better way. It's just not how bilingual families normally operate! – Stacey Jan 15 at 19:15

It won't be detrimental to her ability to understand the languages, but kids tend to mix as much as their parents.

Children start to learn about language even before they are born - even small babies are able to distinguish between languages, already as new-borns. And their ability shows even more clearly when they are older, for instance at seven months or two years. Quoting from the last linked article:

“The results indicate that even toddlers naturally activate the vocabulary of the language that is being used in any particular setting," explained Janet Werker, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

That said, there has to be a setting to start with. I'd say that's why consistency is indeed the omnipresent advice for raising multilingual children. It certainly doesn't mean that you can't mix the languages between the two of you, but if your concern is with her mixing the languages unwittingly or at least inappropriately, you'll be on the safer side if each of the parents minimize mixing in one-to-one interactions.

  • We had no order, my son by the age of 2 would just say 1 -10 and sing the alphabet. We're trilingual at age 3 my son spoke English fluently and understands the other 2 languages though he can't speak them. So i bet his school helped him learn English more. – Madonah Syombua Jan 8 at 22:16
  • @MadonahSyombua, 'his school helped him', yes, it sounds like that. So you'd say that lack of consistency is the reason he can't speak the other two languages? I think he's still very young, so it might be too early to tell. I wonder also whether it could also be some lack of exposure to the other two languages. – stafusa Jan 8 at 22:19
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    Yes, that's great. And your comment prompted me to clarify my answer: I'd assumed the Original Poster meant "inadequate mixing" by "detrimental", but they might be worried about only learning the languages at all, so I added a comment in this regard - that the understanding is unlikely to be hurt by mixing. – stafusa Jan 8 at 22:33
  • Just correcting some typos. We do speak all the three, I do believe for a 3yr old pronunciation might be difficult but with time he might get the hang of it. So far though he understands all the 3 languages but communicate in english. Funny thing is unless you stick to one if your bi or tri.. It's very difficult not to speak all the three. We tried for 2yrs couldn't work. We ended up using all the 3. – Madonah Syombua Jan 8 at 22:45

How about using places, locations, in your home as settings for language? For example - in the dolly play house, we speak only local language (perhaps just during that activity, or for a set time per day). Whereas 'at story time, sitting by this chair, we only use English' - again, for just a set time per day.

That way, your child will hear 'pure English' and 'pure local language', associated with particular settings, which I think will help her to distinguish the two - without draining you! Hopefully, this too - can be fun! And if you want to read local language stories - you could move to another chair or setting!

Or maybe - daddy reads a local story, mum reads an english one. Would that be more manageable?

The reason for suggesting that you associate learning with a place, is that many people learn kinaesthetically - ie their whole body 'feeling' is an important part of learning - and can make it easier to 'get into the groove' of 'what mode am I in here?!' English or local? It's a cue that can reduce confusion. That's one reason why for example, sitting in meditation pose is helpful to meditation - you get into the posture and the body remembers naturally - oh yes! I remember how to meditate!

To reassure you - I am the mother of a beautiful 17 year old. She is half Balinese and half English from me. She spoke English and Indonesian til 3 and a half (with me saying everything... twice! Once in each language)

She ended up living with her father and learning and speaking only Balinese, the local tongue. I was very concerned that she would lose her English. I only used Indonesian where I could see she was lost and didnt understand me - feeling our connection is the important thing - not just language learning...

I spoke English to her all the time, as much as possible, when I saw her, and we watched English DVDs cartoons Disney etc (which also helped a lot I feel, in retrospect). But I could only do this 1 day every week, when I could see her. She was in a Balinese school as well, speaking Balinese and Indonesian!

I was really in despair, at the time! About her language speaking.

Now though, that she is an adult and I can see her whenever I want, I have found she willingly speaks English to me all the time, never using Indonesian with me! And she surprises me often with her level of understanding and the words she comes out with in English! So even though I thought everything had gone awry, it appears to have worked out Ok! And her English isn't a high level yet but her just being with me and hearing the 'how to say things' is causing rapid improvement.

So your child probably needs to hear some pure speaking of each language - this can also be absorbed from watching TV or DVDs - it doesn't all have to be you! And the local immersion part can as you say, be from playgroup, school or visiting relatives and playing with other kids - for a day or so - makes it very clear 'we are in local language mode here'.

I don't think you need worry too much - just look out for any signs of actual confusion in your child - and if that should happen, take steps to address them - like explaining differences, or talking only one language sometimes in certain places like I've said, or adding 'immersion opportunities' that help her differentiate.

Good luck with the fascinating journey of bridging cultures - it is so rewarding, and rich, isn't it? 😊

Oh! And there was a time, when my daughter was 5 and I had just won back contact with her - when we didn't really have a shared language! That was really tough. She is speaking Balinese to her friends - and I can't understand what they're saying - I can only speak the more formal, Indonesia - wide language of Indonesian! So, I spoke the language of play-doh, communicating through shared activity. And over time, I osmotised some Balinese and she learned more Indonesian in school, and we could meet more, linguistically. So it's very helpful if you know the local language too - it sounds like you do. So you can be a part of her friendships.

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