Great Expectations: Setting the Environment for Multilingualism


How old will my son be before he speaks? Will his multilingual upbringing delay his speech production?

These are the worries of a multilingual household.

As my son approaches the 1-year-mark, I am increasingly more aware of the multilingual setting we are providing him at home. Our first child, we watch with bated breath when it seems he’s muttered a word.

Did he say ‘Baba’ (Dad)? Did he say ‘Mama’? Did he just say ‘hi’? Did he just say ‘gel’ (Come)?

No. He did not. Not yet.

Through first and second hand anecdotes, witnessing my friends’ bilingual children, and my own research, I know that I can’t plan what will come. While some children may start muttering their first words as early as six months, others can take two years. Often, multilingual children with delayed speech are misdiagnosed with language disorders and parents are encouraged to revert to only one language. Unfortunately, these concerned parents will suddenly strip away the gift of language during a critical point in their children’s development. Although typically applied to second language acquisition and not necessarily to the induction of two native languages, children may be in what some have called, the “silent period.” (Developed for second language learners, some may think it too bold to extend the application of this hypothesis to native language acquisition, but I think it can carry because it applies to the same overall process of language development.)

The Silent Period

Now as a mother, this is perhaps one of the most valuable concepts I’ve encountered during my pre-baby days as a mere language enthusiast. The silent period was introduced by Stephen Krashen in his input hypothesis, also referred to as the “monitor model.”  It is associated with the “affective filter,”  which is triggered by a language learner’s emotional response to a new language. Language acquisition is inhibited when the child is pressured to speak before s/he  is ready, still gathering information in “input” mode.

This becomes particularly relevant when the child is older. Often times, a bilingual child will choose to speak in only one language – usually the language to which s/he is most often exposed, or the majority language. The child may understand what is spoken to him/her, but will only respond in the language s/he feels most comfortable. There are several appropriate approaches to this situation, including more exposure to the minority language; however, a parent should not force the child to speak in either language as this will often have the opposite of the desired effect.

So how do you make sure your child has enough exposure to both languages? Perhaps one of the most popular methods of bilingual development is the one person one language (OPOL) approach. But sometimes, depending on your situation at home, you need a little bit more. Having read about this, we practice OPOL, with that little bit extra. We’ll call it, “OPOL+”.

One Person, One Language

The one person one language method is much like it sounds – each parent exclusively speaks to the child in one language. It was developed by French linguist Maurice Grammont in 1902 and has had many adaptions in the years since; however, it remains more or less the same at its core principle. This theory is based on the notion that the consistency will provide regular exposure and reduce confusion for code switching in the child as s/he learns to associate one parent with language X, and the other language Y. In my home, that means I speak only English and my husband speaks Turkish to my son.

So how strict is the practice? Depends on who you ask. There are many modifications to this approach. Some parents may speak both languages to their spouses but only their designated language to the child. Some parents may pretend to not understand the child when s/he speaks in the other language, while others acknowledge comprehension, but only respond in their designated language.

While OPOL is supposed to support the minority language, some find it is not always enough. So some parents who are fluent in both languages will both only speak the minority language at home and to the child, knowing s/he will get the proper exposure to the majority language elsewhere. For those others who have one parent who is not fluent in both languages (me!), supplementation is required. Hence, OPOL+.

Having read about and spoken to children in the awkward phase of language comprehension with no speech, I found the situations were almost entirely the same. The children were exposed to both languages, but the majority language was clearly more dominant because of their surroundings – friends, books, movies, etc.

Growing up in the United States, my son will obviously be more exposed to English than Turkish. (I’ve reserved Korean for side study at this point – he simply is not exposed to it enough for serious consideration of native fluency). Because of this, we’ve arranged for child care from a Turkish babysitter who will talk, sing, read, and watch Turkish multimedia throughout the day. At this point, he is being exposed to more Turkish than English, which will hopefully make that transition phase of speech production less difficult for him.

But even if it is, I will think back to the silent period hypothesis, and I know that my home has to be a low-stress environment where he can learn at his own pace.

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