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Family Language Policies: Do We Need Them?

What you need to know when making decisions about languages in the home.

Decisions about using more than one language in the family in one generation will affect generations to come, as research has shown. I also know this from personal experience.

As my family and I sailed into New York Harbor in the 1950s, arriving from across the Atlantic, little did I know as a four-year-old that this would start my journey to monolingualism in childhood. Until then I had been raised bilingually in a French-speaking community with a French mother and an American father, and I preferred my Gallic tongue. However, I managed to hold on to English. Nonetheless, I engaged my older brother as an interpreter once we reunited with the American clan, refusing to speak any English. Or so the story goes. Before long, I abandoned all things French and became totally anglophone. Whenever I asked my mother why she stopped speaking French to me back then, she would explain with dismay that she had to give up.


Times have changed. Or have they? There are countless stories of language shift across generations – shifts within a family, in a community, and across society. In today’s globalized world, families are ever more on the move transnationally with more contact between people with different languages and cultures, resulting in offspring with the potential to become bilingual.


If the goal of the family is to maintain the other language in the home and ensure its development, measures should be taken. Most transnational families do not explicitly state that they have a family language policy, a plan for how their languages are to be used and cultivated at home, but many make decisions about language use that reflect an implicit policy.


Recent research highlights the importance of social and affective factors in home language maintenance and development, such as identity, emotions, family well-being, family culture and traditions, and how they affect beliefs and values about language. According to ongoing research reported in The New York Times, a silver lining of pandemic lockdown measures for bilingual families has been increased use of home languages. This has contributed to family well-being during an otherwise stressful time.


Raising a child bilingually in the home, especially in the first years of life, requires the active use of both languages in the home. Of family language policies to promote establishing bilingualism, the One Person – One Language Policy is indeed the most well known. As children grow older and enter educational institutions, new policies may be adopted to guarantee the home language’s maintenance.


Today’s technological affordances provide opportunities for language maintenance and development that my mother could only dream of decades ago.

Whether planning to raise your child bilingually or anticipating a move across borders, thinking through a family language policy in the home can save a lot of worries.


Here are some tips:

  1. Think through and set your goals for your child(ren) concerning each of the languages involved before embarking on a new linguistic adventure. Do you want your child(ren) to actively use the languages in your family or with relatives and friends? Or is it sufficient for them only to understand one (or more) of the languages? What about literacy skills?

  2. Consider what it takes to meet your goals. What types of language use in the home, daycare, or schooling for your child will facilitate these goals? What kinds of activities can boost your child’s use of the language(s)?

  3. Read up on bilingualism and multilingualism so that you know when to get assistance. There are authoritative resources available for the general public, including books, websites, and podcasts. Talk to key individuals who have experience living with multiple languages. However, be wary of the myriad of myths about bilingualism.

  4. Most importantly, keep the child’s well-being in focus. Depending on the child’s age, talk to your child about your plans and aspirations. All families want to raise a happy child. Nurturing the child’s needs will ultimately contribute to successful language learning and use.

  5. Finally, remember to be flexible; situations change and policies will also need to change.


Every family is unique. The family language policy you choose will ultimately depend on your family, where you live, and the resources you have available. While family language policies are individual choices, they will nonetheless be constrained by external factors. Families do not live in a social vacuum; their language policies are affected by socio-cultural, historical, political, and economic realities.


We can see this in socio-politically marginalized communities in societies where members juggle with maintaining their cultural identity through their ethnic language while aspiring for success in society through the majority language, as demonstrated in a recent study of Iranian Azerbaijanis.


In Korea, globalization and emphasis on English as a form of social capital have created kirogi (‘wild goose’) families in which mothers move with their children to English-speaking countries for their offspring’s education, while fathers stay behind. Beyond the linguistic outcome of this family language policy, the policy has had serious repercussions as well as transformative effects, especially for the mothers.


Finally, in the US, a study on Mexican immigrant fathers and their elementary school-aged children, conducted within the context of heightened deportations, shows how immigration policy affects family language policy as the family tries to ensure the child’s bi-literacy.


Returning to my coming to America as a child, many external factors contributed to my loss of French as a child, with no family language policy to ensure language maintenance at home. There was no local support and our French family was far away. Social media were not available in those days and travel costs were insurmountable. Also, my mother felt the need to show that she had indeed become a naturalized American citizen, and this meant opting for English.


My experience inspired me to engage in a conscious family language policy when I moved to Norway, for passing on English, and some French, to my children, and now to my grandchildren.