Practical Help for Bilingual Families
These pages are and can only hope to be a brief overview, to give
those who are interested in bilingualism in the family a place to
start. If you want to know more, turn to the Books and Newsletters
page to find good sources. The Bilingual Families mailing list,
biling-fam, is a great place for parents and future parents of
bilingual families to ask for help and advice on the matter, or just
to share your troubles and joys with people in a similar situation.
If you'd like to know more, there's more information back on the main page. You
can also read about my family's story,
or the stories of other families on the members' pages.
Many parents find that having a fixed pattern for language use in the home
makes things easier, both for the children learning the languages and for
the adults in their day-to-day life with two (or more) languages. Here are
a few of the more common patterns.
- One Parent, One Language (OPOL):
The parents speak different native languages and each speak their own
native language to the child(ren).
- Minority Language at Home (mL@H, MLaH, ML@H, etc.):
Also known as the Foreign Home pattern. Everyone speaks the
minority (non-community) language at home, and the community language
outside. The minority language may be but does not have to be the
native language of both parents.
- Less Common Patterns:
Any pattern that works for your family is a good pattern, of course.
This is just a brief selection of all the possible patterns: the first
person to speak chooses the language; one language is spoken every
day, the other on extended vacations to another country; one language
is spoken every day, the other on special occasions; the children
attend school immersion programs.
Adapted from the Harding and Riley book listed on the Resources
page. None of these are unbreakable, but they are good guidelines
for making bilingualism work for most families.
Whatever pattern you choose, stick to it. Although children can learn
two languages in what seems like chaos, a reasonable amount of
consistency will make their job, and yours, simpler. Once children
learn the pattern they are often disturbed when a parent breaks it.
- Rich Environment:
This doesn't mean the children need expensive toys or special tools,
but they need songs, bedtime stories, and other linguistic stimulation
just as monolingual children do - except that bilingual children need
it in both their languages. This will mean an extra demand on your
time, both to give them this stimulation and to find the books,
recorded music and other objects you want - but it is by no means
- Children's Needs First:
Children should not be forced into bilingualism if it really does make
them unhappy; above all they should not be asked to "show off", which
embarrasses children and makes them all too aware of being
- Playing It Down:
The more you can make bilingualism seem like a natural and
unremarkable part of family life, the more likely it is that the
children will grow up to enjoy being bilingual, and the more likely it
is that you will succeed in keeping both languages active in your
Back to the main
Back to the Politics
On to Special
Problems of Bilingual Families