We Didn’t Start With a Family Language Plan

When people hear that our children speak four languages, they ask us how we taught them. We've been teaching them since birth, we say. This sounds like careful planning, but in reality, it all happened on its own.

We had language learning goals for A when she was born, but we didn't have a plan. While we had discussed extensively about our hopes for her to be fluent and literate in our heritage languages, we had no idea how we would get there. We wondered how our own parents had taught us, only to realize that our target languages now were the community languages in our childhood.

The first time I held A, my words to her were in Cantonese. My mother, my grandmother, and every maternal figure I had known in my life spoke to me in Cantonese and that is how I imagined myself as a mother too. It came naturally to me as the most tender words in my childhood were always in my mother tongue so my vocabulary was rich. I sang to her in Cantonese while in the womb, and her Chinese name was the first name I called her.

We barely survived as new parents especially as A was born a month earlier than her due date and my recovery was difficult. Still, unintentionally we exposed newborn A to four languages from birth–as both our families came to visit her, our heritage languages also filled our home. 

It wasn't until A was 2 months old and my husband's paternity leave came to an end, that we decided to start looking for childcare. We were introduced to a neighboring family with an infant only a few months older than A, and they proposed a nanny share to us with the main requirement being hiring a Chinese speaking nanny. Language immersion was not a childcare requirement for us, but why not?

At the same time, we learned our local public library within walking distance hosted baby story time weekly in baby sign language and three other languages: Spanish, Mandarin, and Russian. Two of those were our target languages, so naturally we showed up every week with baby A!

With those resources in place, our language plan was organically decided for us: myself, my husband, and A's nanny would each speak a heritage language to her, while English took a backseat as the community language. We were going to approach it with the common strategy One Person One Language (OPOL)...or so we thought. It didn't work out that way, but more on that later.

How did your language learning journey begin? Did you have a family language plan?

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