Since this is one of the most frequently asked questions I get, I thought it might be helpful to explain how switching languages every two weeks works in our home.
Our basic linguistic set-up is Papa speaks only French with the children and Mama speaks two weeks in English and two weeks in Spanish with the children. Since we live in France, the children also hear and use French everywhere they go. When we lived in the United States, we used OPOL (one parent one language). I spoke exclusively Spanish with the children, my husband spoke exclusively French with the children and they hear English everywhere else they went. When we moved to France, we realized we would need to come up with a new plan if we didn’t want them to lose either their English or Spanish. And since both of these languages are an intimate part of who I am, I knew I wasn’t prepared to let either go.
And so I started speaking English or Spanish with the children every other day. But I quickly realized the mental gymnastics this represented for all of us and somewhere I had heard that one family would spend an entire month in a language. This seemed like too long to me, but I liked the idea and thought that maybe somewhere between one day and one month might be a good compromise. We settled on two weeks. We tried it, we loved it and we’ve never looked back.
Today we have four children ages 16 months to 13 years old and they are all trilingual (yes, even the baby in his own cute way!). Here are seven things we do that might help you use the same multilingual learning system in your home.
- Choose a time period that works for you and your children. Just because two weeks works for our family, doesn’t necessarily mean it has to work for you. I’ve heard of other families being successful with every other day. Try out a few different time periods and choose a rhythm that is comfortable for everyone.
- Commit to speaking the language everywhere you go. Whether we are out grocery shopping or taking a walk in the forest or just at home eating dinner together, we stay in the target language for the two week period. Sometimes it earns us some curious stares, but it’s also helped us to find friends that share our same passion for multilingualism.
- Use a calendar if necessary to help keep you on track. Dedicating equal amounts of time to both minority languages will be important to achieving the desired fluency. We don’t use a calendar because we seem to have developed a sort of bio-rhythm that just lets us know when it’s time to switch!
- Choose a set day during the week for switching. For us, that day has always been Saturday. We are usually all together and have more free time that allows us to focus all our energies on switching languages.
- Allow yourself time to make the switch. The first days of switching languages involve a good dealing of mixing the two languages because our minds are so set in the previous language that it’s difficult to start thinking and speaking in the new language. But that’s okay. Give yourself some time. It usually takes our family Saturday and Sunday and part of Monday before we have all made the mental switch.
- Give everyone a heads-up about the upcoming change. Friday night I will usually tell the children (and even my baby) that we’re switching to Spanish or English the following day. That way no one is surprised and we all start to mentally prepare for the big switch.
- Use visual aids or media to help you make the language switch. Signs that you post around the house or watching a movie in the new language can help everyone to make that mental transition. In our family, sometimes we’ll make a special effort to read books or listen to music in the specified target language for the two week period.
Are you raising your family multilingually? Do you use OPOL or some other method? Have you ever tried switching languages?