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Language boundaries - What kinds of limits to set in a bilingual household

By Janet Castrejon


When you begin raising children in another language you need to decide what the boundaries will be between English, which is the language of the community, and the minority language. Some families create boundaries based on the people who speak the language while others use location or time.


The most common division is by people. This seems to be the most effective with young children. Young children associate languages with people. From the beginning decide what language you and your partner will use with the children. Some families choose to have one parent speak English with the children and the other speak the minority language. The advantage of this is that the children will be bilingual from the beginning and will speak English well before beginning Kindergarten. The disadvantage is that their minority language skills may never reach the level that they could if both parents were speaking the minority language with them.

My husband and I chose to both speak Spanish with our children when they were young. I remember having my doubts when I had monolingual Spanish toddlers. People would try to speak with them, and I had to explain that they didn't speak English. I'm sure it seemed odd since I'm a native English speaker. They will pick up some English from playing with English-speaking playmates and, as soon as they start school, they'll quickly become fluent in English.


Another possible language boundary is by location. This may be more effective when the children are a little older and are bilingual. You could speak the minority language at home and English outside the home. Another location boundary is to decide to only speak the minority language when you are not in the presence of people who don't speak the language. This is also a nice courtesy because the non-minority language speakers would not understand you.


Another way of separating the languages is by time or day. Again, this would be more effective with older children than with young children who can't tell time or understand a calendar. Some families speak different languages on alternate days.

Making adjustments

You may find that language boundaries that worked well when the children were young may not work as well when the children get older. They might be embarrassed to speak the minority language out in the community or in front of monolingual English peers. You may want to re-evaluate your language boundaries periodically.

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