Fostering Multilingualism



Multilingual parenting is challenging and there is no bulletproof strategy guaranteeing success for everyone. Here are some aspects that can be considered:

Realistic Aims

Monolingual or multilingual approaches

The situation in each family is unique, and so are the family members’ language needs. In some families, a minority language is used with all family members, in others, it is used only occasionally. In some families, several languages are used regularly, in others just one. Keeping the linguistic situation in the family in mind and planning for future language use, each family will have different aims.

For a long time, parents were recommended to use parallel monolingual approaches like the “One Person-One Language” approach. It requires discipline to stick to one language, intensive language support for both languages from the community or extended family and languages that are equally relevant to the child. Nowadays, more flexible and natural multilingual approaches are more common, where the minority language(s) are valued and fostered but all other languages are included, too.

Meaningful interaction

Literacy Activities

Language use as social practice always happens in social interaction. High-quality, meaningful interaction is key to language development in all of a child’s languages. Parents should not become language teachers and ask their child to repeat sentences or correct them too often but should create situations where meaningful interaction can happen and parent and child can co-construct their language use.

Research shows that literacy activities such as looking at picture books together and reading or telling stories are valuable in language acquisition. Asking questions about the story or the child’s perspective on it fosters the child’s language development and literacy skills.

Reading with mum (in Polish):
The video features Vick reading a book in Polish with his mum. The interaction goes smoothly; the boy responds in Polish, but when he is asked to count characters in the picture, he does it in Dutch. 

Playing chess with dad (Dutch):
The video features Vick “playing chess” with his dad – they interact in Dutch, and the boy’s dad teaches him the names of chess pieces in Dutch and asks him to count the pawns. Simultaneously, the boy addresses his aunt in Polish, switching the codes effortlessly. He even corrects his aunt when she takes the name of the chess piece ‘Koning’ [Eng. king] for similarly pronounced ‘konik’ in Polish [Eng. little horse].

Reading with dad (in Dutch):
Vick interacts with his dad in Dutch – they are paging a book while his dad asks him questions concerning some pictures in the book. When he is asked to provide the name of an animal, a dog presented in the picture, Vick first provides a Polish equivalent [Pl. pies]. Only later, encouraged by his day, the boy responds in Dutch. The boy is a little distracted; he is more interested in having some nuts rather than commenting on the books. He is negotiating whether to have some more nuts with his dad.

Maya is now 13. She was born and has always lived in the UK. Until she was three she spoke Japanese with her mother and Polish with her father. When the girl started attending kindergarten, she acquired English quickly and started using it almost exclusively. Since her parents could not understand each other’s first languages, they decided to use only English at home in order not to exclude anyone. Now, Maya can still communicate with her mother and her family in Japan, but her Polish is almost completely gone. Maya feels OK about it, but her parents sometimes have some regrets.

Developing literacy skills (writing a Xmas card to a Japanese cousin):
Maya, assisted by her mum, is writing an Xmas card in Japanese to her cousin Yuri from Japan. The girl exchanges the news and writes about her dog wearing a special Xmas costume. She consults her mum on the card’s content and language to make sure she has written everything correctly. She seems pretty involved in the activity and communicates with her mum in Japanese.

Developing literacy skills (writing a Xmas card to a Polish grandmother):
Maya, assisted by her dad, is writing a Xmas card in Polish to her grandmother in Poland. Her dad dictates the Xmas wishes in Polish: “Wesołych Świąt Bożego Narodzenia” [Eng. Merry Christmas]. They are interacting in English – the only Polish word they use in Polish is ‘babcia’ [Eng. grandma]. Having finished writing, her dad asks Maya if she understands what she has written. The girl is unsure and her dad provides explanations in English. They both do not seem very enthusiastic about participating in this activity.

Ideas and Examples:
Here are some strategies parents can use during conversations with their children, to make them speak in the minority or dominant language, whichever is desired. To foster language acquisition, parents can provide input and support the child in expressing what they want to say.

  • Expressed Guess: Parents reformulate their children’s sentences in a yes/no question or ask in the desired language.
  • Adult Repetition: Parents repeat or translate their children’s sentences in the desired language.

Integrating “multilingual” activities in everyday life motivates children to use their minority and dominant languages. A good way is establishing rituals and using the desired language, e.g. when reading before bedtime or when going through the grocery list and cooking together.

Another fun way to do this is by playing games with your child where minority languages or several languages are used. Parents can create their own games or known games can be adjusted to focus on the use of different languages. Also, it is practical to make use of available multilingual resources, e.g. bilingual/multilingual picture books, audios or films.