My son is 10 months old and started babbling a lot recently. It is exciting to hear him making all kinds of sounds but when it comes to language we are a bit confused now. Our situation is as follows:
- Papa: Dutch speaking, proficient in English and German - Mama: Chinese speaking, proficient in English, advanced in German
We live in England and Papa and Mama communicate in English. Mama is currently a full-time mum. Our son also goes to nursery two days a week. We have to make up our mind now with baby's language education. On one hand we would like him to communicate freely at the nursery and later at school in English, on the other hand we feel a bit sad for him to miss out on the opportunity to speak Dutch or Chinese.
I wonder whether there are similar complicated situations like this.
It’s a very common situation for families whose native language is not ML (English in your case). I hear it all the time in the Russian immigrant community. I also see it all the time that kids start school with minimal knowledge and within a year catch up and/or become dominant in the community language.
The community language is like air, it fills every space that is available. At the park, on television, at the library, at the stores, from relatives and play dates, from other minority language children who constantly slip into ML.
In fact, the situation I see most often is that a child enters school with their heritage language as the dominant language, and within a year or two starts to forget it. This is especially true for families I’ve observed where parents used ML sometimes to their kids in preschool.
So I would advise OPOL. Mama Chinese, papa Dutch. You can in theory do German when everyone is together, but 4 languages is very difficult. Not impossible, but it becomes difficult to make sure that a child has enough exposure to all those languages, and can express their thoughts in at least some sort of understandable manner.
And remember the most important thing - what you decide, you can change later if it doesn’t work for you and your family. Every family is different and it’s only trial and error that will help you find the mix that works for you.
We're a trilingual family and I would say you'll regret it if you don't begin the bilingual education early. When languages are part of your lifestyle, the child can pick them up effortlessly. If you do it at a later stage, it will probably not be so effortless and your child might not be interested in making that effort.
As per Tatyana suggestion, go for OPOL. I agree that 4 languages can be tough. We handle 3 and that is already complicated enough as it is, especially as we want to educate our daughter to be triliterate too.
Society will take care of the Majority Language. In fact, once your child is in school, the ML will become a bit of a nightmare as your child we probably try to be like his peers and only use the ML. So give him a head start and start your bilingual education now.
As to Tatyana's very wise comment on trial and error and adapting your strategy along the way, here is the interview I was recently requested to give on our experience precisely on that very topic: Adapting your family language strategy
Leyun, welcome! As other "keepers" have advised, I strongly suggest emphasizing Chinese and Dutch during these early formative years. The more proactive you can be about providing ample exposure to these two minority languages, the more you'll raise the odds of success in terms of your son actively communicating with you in these languages when he begins to speak.
This also means that you should be mindful about "de-emphasizing" English, the majority language. Naturally, you want your son to acquire English, too, so he can interact with others, but the more English input he receives now, the more this may undercut your efforts to give his Chinese and Dutch a helpful head start.
Since you live in England, and he will be schooled in English, his acquisition of English--even if this takes a little longer than expected--won't ultimately be a problem. The real challenge is establishing and sustaining active ability in Chinese and Dutch.
Specifically, you might consider...
*You use only Chinese with your son; your husband uses only Dutch.
*As a couple, using more German and less English. (Your use of English could eventually undermine your son's "need" to use Chinese and Dutch. At the same time, you will be "tuning" his ears to acquire German in the future.)
*Not sending your son to an English nursery until you really have to.
Leyun, I hope these initial thoughts are helpful. I also suggest looking closely at the Take a Challenge board for concrete ideas that can strengthen your efforts to promote the acquisition of your minority languages.
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