My husband and I live in Sweden with our two sons who are 2.5 years and 4 months old respectively. I am Swedish and my husband is from New Zealand. I speak fluent English, but my husband only understands some Swedish and doesn't speak it at all. We speak English between us, but I speak Swedish with the kids.
Our problem is that our 2.5 year old hardly speaks any English. He seems to understand everything his Dad says, and sometimes repeats English words, but will only speak spontaneously in Swedish. This is becoming increasingly frustrating for my husband, as our son's Swedish now exceeds what he understands, which creates a bothersome lag in communication between them. In fact, our son's Swedish is coming along in leaps and bounds, in part because he recently started Swedish daycare, and has lots of other exposure to Swedish through family and friends.
My husband is working hard to keep up exposure to English but it's not having a great effect yet. My concrete question now is whether I should support his efforts by speaking English with the kids during family time, e.g. meals, play together etc, while still speaking Swedish with them when I am alone with them. I would be very happy to try this (especially as English is the natural language of communication between me and my husband anyway), but my concern is that this may confuse our boys, and end up being counterproductive.
Does anyone have experience trying this strategy? Can it help reinforce ml, or does OPOL generally work better?
We are a trilingual family who switched from classic OPOL (Daddy is a native ml1 speaker, I am a non-native ml2 speaker) with ML as family language, to OPOL with exclusive ml@h 18 months ago because my 4 year old was a passive trilingual (she understood everything but did not want to use her 2 ml).
The reason we made this switch was to completely ban the ML from home to force our 4-year-old to make the effort to speak her 2 ml. She intuitively understood the change from day 1 and made unprompted efforts to use ml words. It took her many months to shift from half ML-half ml sentences to fully ml sentences but we got there eventually.
What I would strongly recommend is also to immerse your children in your ml at home not just by speaking the language but also to immerse the house with ml radio/music/telly as it de-emphasizes the importance of the ML in the child's mind.
(If you are interested in reading about more about the influence of the ML, de-emphasizing it and what we did in our particular situation you can have a look at my guest post at Bilingual Monkeys.
Regarding the success rate of OPOL and ml@h, you should refer to Adam Beck's book Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability Though OPOL is a well known and widely-used method, its success rate according to research is only around 75% (if my memory doesn't fail me). I'm afraid I don't remember the success rate of ml@h but I think it was slightly higher (please correct me if I'm wrong Adam Beck ).
As to the "confusion" you might create in your son's mind, don't think kids get "confused" about the use of a language, they just pick the language or words they find easiest to use. I would say it might help if you avoided using ML with your children for the time being* (especially during the switching of method) because children have a nasty habit of always going for the easy way out of things (using hands instead of cutlery, being carried instead of walking...and using the ML instead of racking their little brains for a ml word when it comes to languages). As long as your child is reminded that you speak the ML, he will not feel the need to use the ml. Need is one of the 2 core conditions (the other one is Exposure) for getting a child to be bilingual, and personally I found it the trickiest of the two because we are so surrounded by ML (see Battling the Majority Language Giant (While Feeling Like a Minority Language Gnome)). I
*I say for the time being because I can imagine that as a ML mum you wish/feel the need to communicate in your mother tongue to your children. Once the ml is well anchored in your home, family life and above all your 2 children's minds (not just the eldest but the youngest too, as he'll follow the lead of the eldest brother) then you will be able to revert to your mother tongue with a smaller probability of your children reverting to a full ML communication mode with their dad.
Hope this helped a little.
***"Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars" - Oscar Wilde***
Amanda, welcome! I've worked with a number of families in very similar circumstances and the most effective remedy is for the majority language parent to also make use of the target language with the children in order to strengthen both exposure and need for this language.
While I don't know the full details of your situation, and how much exposure to English your husband is actually able to provide in comparison to Swedish, it sounds like there's a heavy imbalance in this input and thus the early communication from your older son is primarily in the majority language.
So I would strongly second Amy's suggestion: Since he's already attending daycare in the majority language and is exposed to Swedish from others as well, I would encourage you to gently switch to using as much English with the children as possible, both with and without your husband. This will rebalance the imbalance of language exposure and gradually resolve the lack of active English in your children. Without your proactive involvement, I'm afraid this frustration will continue to be felt and unfortunately grow over time, because the gap between the two languages will only widen.
Though the OPOL (One Person, One Language) approach can work for some families, when the main minority language parent isn't the main caregiver, this will significantly lower the odds of success. So, in such cases, it's vital that the majority language parent provide some minority language exposure, too, in order to shore up this input. (When the majority language parent isn't able or willing to help with that exposure, the minority language parent--as I can attest from personal experience--must be incredibly proactive and resourceful so that the majority language doesn't quickly grow dominant.)
The "success rates" that Amy refers to, that are discussed in my book, come from a study by Annick De Houwer in Belgium. She found that the rate of success was 74.24% when one parent used the minority language and the other parent used the majority language (which is OPOL), and 93.42% when one parent used the minority language and the other parent used both languages (which, let's say, is a "boosted form" of OPOL, and closer to ml@home, where both parents are using only the majority language).
These percentages, I think, are useful as points of reference, but since every family is unique (and most of us don't live in Belgium ), I would caution parents considering OPOL to think carefully about their decision because the odds of success for your particular circumstances may actually be far lower than this rather optimistic figure of nearly 75%.
Adam Beck is the founder of Bilingual Monkeys and The Bilingual Zoo, and the author of the popular non-fiction book Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability amzn.to/22XKuCt and the humorous novel How I Lost My Ear amzn.to/2EsjVRS, both available worldwide.
I can only agree with Amy and Adam on this; if it were me, I would switch to English full-time, for the time being (I say "for the time being" for the same reasons Amy did, if you can and want do it for good, then go for it!)
If you're concerned about your being a non-native, there are several members in this forum (myself included), who are speaking a second language to their children in hopes they'll grow up bilingual. My husband and I are both Spanish and live in Spain, but we both speak English to our children (our ml). My 4yo daughter is an active bilingual (she understands and speaks both), but my 1yo son, who is still too little to speak, understands both but he's beginning to say mostly ML words, in spite of both his parents speaking the ml!! Even if both of us speak English to them (and TV, radio and books are in English at home), English is still the language we need to worry about, as Spanish is everywhere else. The way I see it, the older they get, the more time they'll spend with friends speaking in the ML, so we know we need to make sure the ml is strong enough now that they're little, before we can't spend as much time with them.
My point being: 1) your being a non-native isn't a problem, and 2) even if you both speak in the ml (English) all the time, their ML (Swedish) will eventually become their first language as long as they're surrounded by it (like they are, attending ML schools).
Thanks so much for your very helpful advice - my husband and I really appreciate it. I will start the transition to speaking more English, and see what results we get. Happy to keep you posted as we go along!
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