Family Language Plans: Why and How?

This month we published Bilingual Families: A Practical Language Planning Guide by Eowyn Crisfield. In this post the author explains what Family Language Planning is and how to go about it. 

When I first set out to write this book, many years ago, I wanted to share knowledge with parents about the key ingredients for successful bilingualism. My idea was to communicate the research base in order to support families’ decisions to raise their children as bi/multilinguals. Over the years of procrastinating instead of writing, I came to realise that most families already understand the why, what they need support with is the how.

Over the 15 years I’ve been working with families, I’ve had to do very little to support their conviction that bi/multilingualism is the right choice, and a lot more to help them design how bilingualism will happen for their children. This process is called Family Language Planning. Many, many bilingual families do not need a plan. People living in multilingual parts of the world may find that bilingualism happens naturally for their children, as it did for them. This is the case in India, and in many African countries, for example, where multilingualism is a way of life, and monolingualism is rare.

When parents are faced with raising their child with two or more languages without the support of community for each of those languages, things become trickier. We know that input – hearing a language spoken directly to them – is the key to child language development. This is true if you have one language or if you have four. If you have one language, you can be fairly sure that your child will hear enough of it to develop properly. The more languages you have in your family language ecology, the more you need to think about and plan to ensure that your child will have adequate input in each of those languages.

The process of Family Language Planning starts with goal-setting. Parents need to agree on the languages that will be a part of your plan. This will include languages spoken by the parents, the language of school, community, and any other languages that a child will need to communicate in their environment. Once goal-setting is done, then you can move on to planning. For each language you need to consider who will be using it with the child, in what contexts, and for what purposes. Thinking forward to schooling, there are decisions to be made about school choice, developing literacy, and future prospects. The final plan is a dynamic document, and can be changed as needed, when you move house, have a new family member, or need to change schools, for example.

My new vision of my book, seven years on from the first, is that it needs to help parents understand the research base on bilingualism in development first, but then also needs to provide support in the many decisions that parents will need to make on their bilingual journey with their children. I hope that you find it useful whether you are on the beginning of your journey, or further along.

For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this blog post interesting, you might also like Raising Multilingual Children by Julia Festman, Gregory J. Poarch and Jean-Marc Dewaele.

The Bilingual Bookshop

This month sees the opening of The Bilingual Bookshop, www.thebilingualbookshop.com. Cheryl Sánchez, Founder, describes the idea behind the enterprise, and how The Bilingual Bookshop is helping families across the UK.

Bilingual bookshop-logoBeing a teacher in a multilingual school and mummy to my gorgeous 2 year old daughter, who we are raising bilingually with English and Spanish, I have always been so disappointed with the lack of good quality foreign-language materials here in the UK to use with my classes and my family.

Until now, our summer trips to Spain have followed the ritual familiar to many bilingual families: spending hours traipsing round various book- and toy shops in the pursuit of foreign-language products for our children, to take back with us for the coming year. For those of us that do not travel ‘home’ regularly, we try to predict the interests and abilities of our children for the whole year ahead and then stuff our already overweight suitcases with as many books/CDs etc. as we can carry. And worst of all, if we don’t make it to the shops because we value the time spent with family and friends (after all, spending time with native speakers is the best way to encourage our child’s language development), we may settle for any old rubbish we can find in the local supermarket as long as it presents the target language in some way!

Let’s be clear here: I am not looking for resources for teaching languages such as flashcards and textbooks, nor am I looking to buy ‘whatever I can get my hands on’ – I am looking for authentic, good-quality products from well-established, reputable publishers and manufacturers in the country in question, so that my child has the same access to these materials as if she were living there.

Now, of course it is possible to gain access to these materials in certain circumstances: internet shopping is possible, but often requires an address in the foreign country and maybe even a credit card registered in that country. Even if the products are available to UK customers, the delivery times are often long and frustrating, and they do not meet the needs of a bilingual family as they are presented with no guidance on how to use them with a bilingual child.

A Parents' and Teachers' Guide to BilingualismThen there is the question of the use of readily-available dual-language books – those where both languages appear on the same page. Colin Baker, author of the successful Multilingual Matters publication A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism, states that ‘Dual language books are not without controversy. First, children usually only read the story in one language in the book, and may ignore the other language. Having understood the story in one language, it may be tiresome to read the story in another language. The child ends up reading half the book rather than the whole book. Second, the presence of a majority language such as English tends to remove the desire to read in a minority language.’ As a professional in education, I echo this view, and am completely convinced that children need authentic materials from the foreign country: they represent that country’s literary culture, customs and traditions, and provide a complete immersion which is absolutely necessary if a child is to become truly bilingual. Translations often fail to capture the essence of a story or an idea and this is at the very heart of what we are encouraging when reading with our children.

I set up The Bilingual Bookshop to put an end to the crazy summer book-searching ritual. Working with excellent, well-known publishers and manufacturers across Europe, and using our years of experience in education, learning and language-development, we have selected a wide range of products to suit the specific needs and interests of bilingual children aged 0-12 years. We offer the staples of every native speaker’s bookshelf: atlases, picture dictionaries and information and activity books, which are particularly useful as they contain short, easily accessible snippets of language. We complement these products with a wide range of fiction titles for independent reading or, as is often the case with bilingual learners, for sharing with parents.

Bilingual bookshop-booksDespite the fact that we now offer these products in the UK, it remains a hard task for one to gauge which books will suit YOUR bilingual child. At The Bilingual Bookshop, we have responded to this by featuring guidance alongside our products to support parents in choosing appropriate materials, and our community pages feature a whole host of articles, tips and advice on raising bilingual children. Our inspirational family profiles provide an insight into the huge diversity in approaches to raising bilingual children, and our forums offer a means to ask questions and share experiences with others on the same journey.

To fill one’s home with language, and create a real bilingual home environment, is in my view one of the best ways to develop a bilingual family. Come over to The Bilingual Bookshop to see how we can support you in your family’s bilingual adventures – we’re sure you won’t be disappointed!

The Bilingual Bookshop (www.thebilingualbookshop.com) is open now!