Family language planning and active bilingualism



Children growing up in families in which parents speak different languages are more and more common in cosmopolitan, multicultural societies. However the simultaneous acquisition of two languages from birth may not result in active bilingualism when children become adults. On the contrary; in many cases they become passive users or even lose one of the languages altogether.

Bilingual first language acquisition (BFLA) is the development of language in young children who hear two languages spoken to them from birth. This means that BFLA children are learning two first languages, with no chronological difference between them. Volterra and Taeschner (1978) propose an elaborate three-stage model of bilingual language development: at the first stage, the child has one lexical system including words from both languages; at the second stage, two distinct lexical systems develop, although the child still applies the same syntactic rules to both languages while at the third stage, different grammatical systems develop and the two linguistic systems become distinct.

The child’s bilingual first language acquisition takes place within a specific ‘language socialisation framework’. This framework is determined by the country in which the child is raised, its language policies, its educational system and its attitude towards other cultural groups. In addition, the status of and attitudes toward a language within an immigrant group, which may have a specific size and cohesiveness, contribute equally to children’s language socialisation. Last but not least, family is a sociolinguistic environment which plays a major role in the development of active bilingualism.

Depending on the unique characteristics of each family, children grow up in different kinds of settings and are socialised into a unique language framework, which has a major impact on whether they will become active bilinguals in the future. These characteristics are:

  • Family type (nuclear or extended)
  • The educational level and the social and economic status of parents, as well as their proficiency in the languages spoken.
  • The parents’ own language experiences. For instance, parents who were raised bilingually or who are simply more conscious about the benefits of bilingualism (or multilingualism) are more likely to desire the same bilingual upbringing for their children.
  • Language beliefs and attitudes. Positive attitudes towards the languages involved, as well as towards bilingualism itself, lead to an overall positive attitude to bilingual upbringing. Negative attitudes, on the other hand, such as the belief that bilingualism leads to learning disabilities or even language delay and confusion, may result in the refusal of a bilingual situation. It is also possible that parents feel insecure about becoming a bilingual family, especially when they have no experience of being part of a bilingual family. In both cases, negative or positive attitudes may come from other people, such as family members, societal beliefs or may even coincide with advice given in the media or popular parenting websites, magazines and books. It is also possible that ‘positive parental attitudes are turned around in the face of negative attitudes from outside the family’.
  • Language planning. De Houwer (2009) maintains that language planning itself is not enough and puts an emphasis on ‘impact belief‘ as an integral part of family language planning. She builds on the assumption that parents have to realise the importance of the input that their children receive from them as well as their role as active agents in their offspring’s language learning. If they reject this role, bilingual language learning is automatically put at risk. In other cases, parents may have opted for bilingual first language acquisition but they adopt ineffective strategies to achieve this.

Strategies to achieve effective language planning

Family language planning alone is not effective unless it is organised carefully. Parents need to take a plethora of factors into consideration to successfully raise a child bilingually. First of all, the parents should be able to distinguish between the minority and majority language role and status. The lower the status of the minority language, the greater the effort that should be made to teach it to the child.

Secondly, children need to be regularly and naturally exposed to the languages in a variety of circumstances and with a range of speakers. Doepke (1992) suggests that the more child-centered the parents are, and the more the child is encouraged to contribute to conversations and activities, the greater the chance that the child becomes an active bilingual. Parents need to pursue their regular interactional routines and engage in playful activities and talk-oriented interactions in order to foster a naturalistic language socialisation.

Children must have a motivation and a reason to communicate in two languages. These incentives may involve, for instance, not only communication with each of their parents but also the possibility to communicate with their second language speaking relatives and friends. Providing them with audio-visual media could also contribute to the acquisition of the language; watching movies, reading books or listening to songs in that specific language is certainly an entertaining way to practice it. However, as Kendall King and Lyn Fogle (2006) suggest, many parents rely heavily on television to teach the second language when this should be only seen as a secondary support. Respective surveys reveal that human interaction is the best method of language learning. Other studies indicate that, for older children, being read aloud to in the second language increases second language vocabulary much more than watching television.

Children become proficient users of a language only when they have the opportunity to hear and speak it; they don’t learn languages “just like that” if they don’t have the motivation to do so. Sometimes it happens that children socialise their parents into speaking the majority language rather than the parents teaching them the minority language. It is the child that decides in the end whether it will become an active or a passive user of a language. This is why parents need to offer incentives and true motivation to their children to convince them to learn a language, especially if it is a minority one. Effective and carefully planned strategies, and above all, personal dedication and effort are therefore the key elements to achieving active bilingualism.

Article written by Katerina Karavasili, TermCoord communication trainee


De Houwer, A. 2007. Parental language input patterns and children’s bilingual use. Applied Psycholinguistics 28: 411_24

De Houwer, A. 2009. Bilingual first language acquisition. Bristol.

 Kendall King and Lyn Fogle (2006). Raising Bilingual Children: Common Parental Concerns and Current Research, Centre for applied linguistics.

 Kirsch, Claudine (2012). Ideologies, struggles and contradictions: an account of mothers raising their children bilingually in Luxembourgish and English in Great Britain, International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 15 (11): 95-112.

 Lanza, E. 2004. Language mixing in infant bilingualism. A sociolinguistic perspective. Oxford studies in language contact. Oxford: Oxford University Press.