(There’s only one question so this won’t take long!)
What is the one all-important and universal thing when it comes to successfully raising a bilingual child? (In fact, this is probably the only thing that’s actually universal for families worldwide and, without it, there’s no chance of success at all!)
Hint: Yes, a child is vital—it’s hard to raise a bilingual child without the child part—but let’s assume you already have one handy.
Hint: No, it’s not a pencil sharpener. Not even a fancy electric one made with genuine North American beaver teeth.
And the answer is…
(Cue drum roll in your head.)
Whether you have a bilingual or multilingual aim for your child, the fuel for the engine of development for the minority language (or languages) is exposure to that language.
The greater the quantity, and quality, of the fuel you provide on a regular basis, the more productively this engine will function. Consequently, the faster and farther you and your child can travel together on your journey over the childhood years.
Conversely, when the engine of language development isn’t given fuel frequently enough, and the fuel itself isn’t as potent as it could be, you naturally can’t travel as fast and as far.
In some cases, the engine of minority language development may even become starved for fuel and sputter to a stop.
And the vehicle for this language, for this whole bilingual journey, ends up abandoned alongside the road.
Driving two different cars
To extend our metaphor further…
If you have a majority language and a minority language, you’re not only fueling the performance of these engines, these vehicles, you’re simultaneously seeking to teach your child to drive two different cars.
In most cases, the engine for the majority language car is getting all the rich fuel (exposure) it needs from the environment itself, such as a partner, family members, the local community, and school.
This is precisely the process with a fully monolingual child whose only language is the majority language.
And thus the bilingual child, slowly but surely, develops the ability to drive this majority language car independently: they become quite capable of using the majority language actively, much like a monolingual child.
A passenger in the second car
Oftentimes, however, this isn’t the case with the minority language car. Because of the relative lack of quality fuel, the engine of this second car just isn’t as productive as the engine of the first car. As a result, the child doesn’t develop capability in the second language to the same robust degree.
In fact, while the child has become an independent driver of the majority language car, they aren’t yet capable of driving the minority language car on their own. They remain a passenger, not a driver: their ability in the minority language is largely passive, not active.
Once the child becomes an active driver of the first car, but can’t yet drive the second car, this creates a significant obstacle for the bilingual aim because now they only want to drive the majority language car. To be fair, though, this shouldn’t be considered “resistance” to the minority language. It’s simply a pragmatic stance from the child’s perspective: If I can now actively drive one car, why struggle to drive the second one, too? Why not just be a passenger in that second car?
What’s more, when they’re mainly driving the first car, and getting better and better at it, the farther and farther this majority language car will move ahead of the minority language vehicle, creating an ever-widening “performance gap” between the two languages.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Increasing quantity and quality
The starting point for effectively addressing this difficulty is the vital task of increasing the quantity and the quality of the fuel being given to the engine of the minority language car.
This is exactly what I do when I’m coaching parents directly and personally: We try to determine every possible way we might increase the quantity and the quality of the language exposure that they’re providing the child. The more input the child receives, and the richer that input is, the more progress can take place and the more potential there will eventually be for output.
What to do, in terms of addressing the challenge of passive ability in the minority language, is universal: we must increase the quantity and quality of language exposure.
Yet how to do it—how to increase the quantity and quality of exposure most effectively—that depends on the unique circumstances of every family and so those answers will always vary.
The second “core condition”
Language exposure is the first of the two “core conditions” for fostering active ability in the minority language, but the second condition is generally just as necessary: along with ample exposure, the child must feel a genuine need, or desire, to use that language actively. (In some cases, when the child is “conditioned” from early on to use the minority language with minority language speakers—even when it becomes obvious that they have ability in the majority language, too—stimulating this need or desire with additional efforts may not be required.)
Here’s the problem, though: Even when more proactive steps are taken to provide greater input in the minority language—which is the first vital measure and should be loudly applauded—this may not be enough to get the child using this language actively because there is still a lack of need or desire.
In other words, to get the child driving the second car, too—using that second language actively—both “core conditions” generally need to be addressed. We must ramp up exposure to the target language while creating opportunities where the child experiences an organic need or desire to actually use it.
“Minority Language Time” at home
The most obvious way to stimulate need or desire is to place the child in monolingual settings or situations, such as interacting with a monolingual caregiver (even if that person isn’t actually monolingual, you can have the child assume this is the case), attending a minority language school (or bilingual school), or spending time in a minority language location.
For many families, though, there are naturally limits to what is realistic when it comes to arranging immersion experiences through these sorts of monolingual opportunities.
This is why I advocate the idea of establishing a regular “Minority Language Time” where parents maintain blocks of time at home (like 30 minutes or an hour, at least several times a week) where they use only the minority language to strategically engage with their children in playful games and activities. By strategic, I mean that these games and activities are consciously designed to not only provide further input, but to expressly elicit output, too. Because the child feels motivated to take part in the fun (children are wired to play!), and the context of this fun is the minority language, it then becomes possible to stimulate the child’s active, even enthusiastic, language use.
Think of it this way: When the larger context of the child’s daily life is the majority language, expecting the child to start using the minority language more freely within that context is like tossing them a set of car keys when they’re really not ready to drive by themselves yet. But when you carve out defined blocks of time for the minority language, these can be like driving lessons with controlled practice. You give them the chance to get behind the wheel and do a little driving while you sit beside them, guiding and encouraging.
And as they gain more experience and confidence at driving, at actively using the minority language within the playful context of “Minority Language Time” (combined with your other efforts to increase overall language exposure and create monolingual opportunities, as you can), it then becomes possible for this active use to “spill over” more often into the larger context of daily life.
This is how the child becomes more capable, and more willing, to drive the second car, too.
Learn clear, simple, powerful techniques
And now you’re naturally wondering…
Okay, Adam, I’m with you. (Even though I didn’t especially enjoy your joke about the beaver teeth.) But what exactly should I *do* during my “Minority Language Time”? What sort of “games and activities” are you talking about? And how, for goodness sake, can I not only provide engaging input, but motivate “enthusiastic output,” too?
First of all, I understand your frustration and I thank you for using the phrase “for goodness sake” instead of something more salty. This is a blog for families, after all.
To continue this discussion, why don’t we now turn to video? This blog post is already awfully long, and there are limits to what words alone are able to convey, so I’ve made a free, on-demand webinar that provides concrete answers to these burning questions.
Watch this 20-minute video and you’ll quickly learn clear, simple, powerful techniques that you can start using right away to get your child speaking the minority language more actively—yes, even enthusiastically—during your “Minority Language Time” together.
Head to the page below and I’ll join you in just a moment…