The beginnings of bilingualism: the important questions to ask before birth


During the course of my 2 year Masters in TEFL, L1 and L2 language acquisition featured consistently. How does the way in which we learn our L1 differ from the ways we learn L2, what similarities can be shared and what factors influence levels of acquisition? While for many the acquisition of L1 and L2 occur at different stages of life, for others they occur at the same time due to simultaneous bilingualism.  While I found this area of study fascinating at the time, this interest was magnified ten-fold upon the arrival of my little boy back in January 2016. As an English Mum-to-be married to a Spanish Dad-to-be, we perhaps had more important decisions to make before the birth than simply what brand of nappies to buy!

For those of you who are perhaps just embarking on this journey, there are generally two main approaches to encouraging bilingualism. The first, often referred to OPOL, stands for One Person One Language. As the title suggests, each parent speaks their own language to the child. In our household this would have seen myself speaking English and my other half speaking Spanish. The second strategy is referred to as Minority Language At Home. Given our base is here in Spain, this option would require both Mum and Dad to speak English at home.

There is no one set recipe for bilingualism and my husband and I read various articles regarding which strategy may work best for us. Given that maternity leave is a shockingly short 16 weeks here in Spain, we knew our son would have to attend nursery from the ripe old age of 5 months old.  My experience in the teacher training and education sector here in Spain has also lead to an acute awareness of the generally low levels of English spoken by teachers in the school system. With, perhaps, a rather cocky attitude of “no one will teach my son better English than me,” we had little interest in finding a “bilingual” nursery for him, opting for solely Spanish instead. Therefore, I was concerned that following the strategy of OPOL would see my son being exposed to far more Spanish than English on a daily basis. Would so much Spanish see him able to understand English but unwilling to speak it? Would he develop a preference for Spanish over English?

Another factor that played into our decision was our own language capabilities. Regardless of my level of competence in Spanish, me speaking anything other than English simply made no sense whilst living here in Spain. Instead, focus was placed on my husband. Thanks to a five year stint in England from the tender age of six, my other half had, without doubt, acquired a proficient level of English with a Midlands accent to boot! While little errors are occasionally made (we have spent years throwing things TO the bin in my house!) his level of English is an absolute credit to him and such mistakes would never impede his ability to be understood. On such reflection, the choice became clear to us. If our son was to attend Spanish nursery, be exposed to Spanish whenever he left the house, it seemed logical to balance this by creating an English bubble around everything we did at home. This included communication between all members, books, films and TV.

While it is far too early to see what consequences our decisions will have, we truly believe we have made the most logical decision for our family and our settings. As an adult learner of Spanish, I am only too aware of the challenges and difficulties that learning an L2 can bring. I truly hope that by making simultaneous language acquisition as natural as possible for my son he may be spared the difficulties I have faced.

In summary, for those of you embarking on this journey, the following may be points of consideration:

  • Where do you live and what language is spoken in the community?
  • What language capabilities do the parents possess?
  • Where will the child spend the majority of their time and what language will therefore be exposed to them most?