Language practices

I have to say that I have been very strict… as soon as English was spoken in my house… I’d say: ‘Hé, hé, Dutch! Children, Dutch!’ And that’s how I did it from the start. Yes. Yes, it was just a rule. At home we speak Dutch.”

Dutch mother living in Christchurch

There are many ways for children to hear a minority language even in a very monolingual country like New Zealand. A good place to start is inside your own home. All families are unique, and have different language needs, constraints, special skills and opportunities. For example, in some families both parents share the same first minority language whereas in other families the parents are mixed language (this means each parent has a different first language). Some families immigrate permanently to New Zealand whereas others move here just for a short visit. You can think of how your family decides to use the language(s) you speak inside your own home as being your family’s ‘language practices’.

There are some common language practices that can help you work out what to do with your own family. The One Person – One Language (OPOL) method is when each parent speaks their own language to their children. This is a popular method that feels natural and easy for many parents, and means children can learn two minority languages if parents speak one each. It can be difficult for children to hear much of a minority language spoken by a parent who works long hours outside the home, however, and a parent who does not understand the minority language at all may sometimes feel left out of conversations. If both parents can speak the same minority language then the One Language – One Location (or Minority Language at Home) method is another alternative. This is an especially good method to use in New Zealand since English is so dominant in the community that children will usually pick it up very quickly once they start school or preschool, even if they have never heard it spoken at home.

In families where neither parent speaks a minority language the whole family could embark on a language-learning journey together, or perhaps the children could be looked after by a foreign au pair. There is no right or wrong way for children to grow up with a minority language and no one language that is better than an other. Any exposure – even from a parent who is not completely fluent in the language – is better than none, and any language can enhance your child’s life!

Links to help you create your own language practices:

Other resources for further reading:

Baker, C. (2007). A parents’ and teachers’ guide to bilingualism. (3rd ed.). Clevedon, Buffalo, and Toronto: Multilingual Matters.
– Section A: Family questions (pp. 1-27)

Barron-Hauwaert, S. (2004). Language strategies for bilingual families: The one-parent – one-language approach. Clevedon, Buffalo, and Toronto: Multilingual Matters.

Cunningham, U. (2011).Growing up with two languages. (3rd ed.). London and New York: Routledge.
– Chapter 3: The family language system (pp. 31-50)

Steiner, N., & Hayes, S. (2009).7 steps to raising a bilingual child. New York: AMACOM.
– Chapter 3: Becoming a bilingual coach (pp. 51-64)
– Chapter 4: Creating your bilingual action plan (pp. 65-98)

Zurer Pearson, B. (2008). A step-by-step guide for parents: Raising a bilingual child. United States: Living Language.
– Chapter 5: How-to testimonials (pp. 163-220)