Bilingualism is on the rise, largely due to people immigrating to new countries and schools mandating at least two languages in the public school system.
Some schools in Europe are even mandating three languages in their curriculum. This begs the question of how is a child supposed to cope, and if so, what role a parent can play in this language development process. In previous posts on this site, we discussed practical strategies for language development in children. Here, however, we will combine a practical and holistic approach to language learning. This approach doesn’t necessarily teach them new words or build vocabulary but creates the need to learn a language.
Family language policy
Family language policy, or FLP, plays a key role in a child’s language learning, maintenance, and language shift. What is FLP? The language policy in a family unit consists of planned language input strategies like books, reading, and writing; at the same time, it includes less obvious language practices in the family. This can be language usage within the family outside of learning time, the emotional aspect of a language, and the greater acceptance of it.
Each family has there own family language policy, and it is primarily made up of beliefs (beliefs about a language and language use), language practices (languages used within daily interactions and practices), and lastly, language management which is the efforts put in by the family to promote language learning and development. The activities that you as a parent perform with your child (reading, watching media, etc.) fall into the third domain of language policy.
Think of FLP as a more holistic development of a bilingual child rather than just including the books they read or the vocabulary they pick up. Defining and implementing this family language policy correctly is what leads to a more well-rounded development in a bilingual child. As we said, each family has their own family language policy, and being aware of it, can give you greater control over your child’s language-learning journey.
What are the possible outcomes of FLP?
Let's see family language policy in action. Observing some of the individual outcomes of family language policy can help us understand what controllable attributes can be targeted to have a good FLP in your family. This can ensure better and stronger language development for your bilingual children.
When we think of a language policy within the family, the first major outcome is linguistics. Linguistic outcomes include the effects of FLP on proficiency, language use, and language maintenance. All of these have been covered in detail below:
The FLP highly impacts a child’s ability to be proficient in a language in the family unit. Parts of FLP that can impact the degree of proficiency include quality of input, sibling’s language use, beliefs, and parental management.
To be proficient in a language, a child must have high-quality input directly pointing to greater proficiency in the target language. If your child has a sibling, they can see greater language proficiency, but it will be biased toward the majority language. So if heritage language learning is the goal, you will be the one responsible for the language input. Positive beliefs about a certain language also lead to greater proficiency in the target language. Parents can also see a greater degree of proficiency if they manage language learning by enrolling their children in two-way immersion and other professional programs at school.
Language use and proficiency are interrelated outcomes, but they are not the same. Proficiency knows the language and language use is using language interactions. Your child may learn a language, given the controllable in the previous section, but whether they will use it depends on a different aspect of the FLP.
Language use is affected by the parental usage of a certain language in both language input and general usage. This means that the language you use primarily in your house, outside of the language input you provide, will impact the final language use. If you are trying to teach your child Spanish but constantly use English in the household, they will not use Spanish either.
Parental discourse strategies and the relevant language use can also promote or deter a child from using a certain language as well. Parental discourse means that if your child asks a question in one language, how you respond to them will affect their language use. So if they ask a question in the native language, but you respond in the majority language, over time, this will diminish the value of the native language, making it obsolete in their minds. This can also lead to more code-mixing (using multiple languages in one sentence).
Language maintenance or shift and degree of bilingualism
Language maintenance isn’t a direct outcome of FLP but rather a combined outcome of language proficiency and language usage. The two outcomes we discussed above.
Since language learning requires intergenerational transfer from parents to their children, a family’s reluctance to do so can greatly impact their language maintenance. If the family teaches the child a specific language but doesn’t promote its usage, the child will not maintain that language in the long term. This will lead to a shift toward the majority language and lower proficiency in the native language. Your child may still be bilingual, but the low usage will lead to lower proficiency and, consequently, bilingualism.
Several studies connect socio-emotional outcomes to FLP. While linguistic well-being refers to the positive and negative emotions related to language acquisition, proficiency, usage, etc. Socio-emotional well-being involves family relations, identity, and general feelings of well-being.
Primarily, if a child has a second language different from a parent’s, there will be negative socio-emotional outcomes concerning language use. If the heritage language is looked down upon or considered a “lesser” language, then the child can be averse to using it. This isn’t simply the societal acceptance of the language. If the child learns to associate the language with a negative use case or emotion, they can still become averse.
Closer family relationships with strong cultural roots can lead to positive socio-emotional outcomes. A tightly knit, large family unit can propagate the importance of language in the family unit. This can lead to a sense of pride when they speak in a certain language, consequently becoming proficient and using the heritage language wherever suitable.
Numerous studies attribute multilingualism to higher cognitive control due to selective attention. Within this, when the child uses one language, they actively suppress the other one, which leads to greater cognitive control. This leads to better concentration and focuses on other activities as well.
While there is no direct relationship between FLP and cognitive control, we can say that greater cognitive control results from proficiency and usage of a second language. Beliefs may also play a role in language use and management but have no direct link to cognitive control. While there isn’t a direct link, at this moment, we can only hypothesize that FLP affects cognitive control and, by extension, affects cognitive outcomes.
Discussion and conclusion
The majority of studies around FLP focus on linguistic outcomes because they measure the language proficiency, usage, and maintenance in a bilingual child. The occurrence of other outcomes illustrates the effects of FLP on the overall development of the child.
That being said, many of these strategies and outcomes can’t be isolated or directly connected to FLP. However, the study has shown that a more conducive FLP directly correlates with language proficiency, usage, and maintenance. Even though few studies account for beliefs and socio-emotional state being influencing factors, their importance can’t be discarded. While FLP focuses on the parents’ beliefs, the child’s beliefs must also be considered as they can differ from the parents.
What does this mean for your child’s language development?
When thinking of Family Language Policy or FLP, it can often be difficult to pinpoint the controllable and can lead to constant doubt as well. For language development, however, a conducive FLP is crucial and must be maintained.
As a parent, you can think of a good FLP as one that provides high quality and quantity of input to your child, which will primarily dictate their proficiency, usage, and language maintenance. This includes using books, media, and professional education programs in school to allow for thorough and continuous exposure.
You should foster a safe learning environment for your child that promotes the use of the target language in the home. This can be done by using the target language as the primary household language since this will create importance for the target language. You should also actively remove any stigma or biases attached to a language and only respond to your child in the language that they speak to you in.
In summation, FLP is a combination of active education plus beliefs around language use which define the level of proficiency, usage, and maintenance of language by your bilingual child. The higher the degree of input and the more positive the belief system, the greater will be the level of language development.