Family Language Planning

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As I have mentioned in previous posts, globalisation and mobility have influenced cultural and linguistic diversity in many communities. International organisations, such as UNESCO, OECD, the EU, and the IB, as well as national initiatives, promote the benefits of bi- and multilingualism for the individual and for society as a whole. The extent to which educational institutions should respond to linguistic diversity is often discussed. The IB stresses that intercultural awareness and international-mindedness are central to their educational mission, and that both these dispositions require the fostering of multilingualism. However, what is less discussed, but equally important, is how familial beliefs and practices affect children’s multilingual development; it is to this topic that I will focus my attention here.

Just as international school children are exposed to a wide range of languages, so too do they encounter several forms of language variation (grammar, vocabulary and accent) within languages. Moreover, international families are often given conflicting advice about what languages to use at home. With all this complexity, it is no surprise that many families are confused about what they need to do to support their children’s multilingual development (some are even unsure if they should support it at all). Research suggests that if families do not follow appropriate ‘language plans’, their children are at risk of losing fluency in one language, and could fail to reach mastery in others.

The importance of multilingualism can be a very emotional subject, and in many cases it is a cause of tension within the family. Having a clear understanding of the benefits of multilingualism (cognitive, social and economic) will help families make informed decisions about what needs to be prioritised in order to best nurture their children’s multilingual potentialities. In the last few years, linguists have started advising parents to become active agents in their children’s language development, a new approach that is being referred to as ‘family language planning’.

In my role as language advisor, I often base my recommendations on the answers to these three key questions:

  1. Is the language a cultural language that connects your child to his or her family, friends and/or heritage?
  2. Is the language an integration language that connects your child to the local community and culture?
  3. Is the language an academic language that is important to your child’s success in school, higher education or the workplace?

Once parents have identified whether a language is cultural, for the purpose of integration, or for academic success, the next stage is to discuss the options available in school and the strategies families can employ at home, such as:

  1. Plan different activities in different languages, such as watching TV, films or Youtube, listening to the radio, or reading books together.
  2. One parent decides to consistently speak his or her first language (mother tongue) to the child, often referred to as the ‘One Person One Language (OPOL)’ strategy. While many families experience success with this approach, for some families, it is difficult to maintain.
  3. Create language days, afternoons, evenings, weekends, when everyone agrees to speak the same language together. The language day strategy only really works if family members are fluent in the language.
  4. Arrange play dates and invite children who share the same languages. 
  5. Get involved in celebrations and traditions that involve using a language. Often this provides authentic opportunities for children to learn more about the connection between language and culture.

Talking openly about language learning with your child, seeking advice about language and participating in language planning can reduce family stress and benefit children in the long run.


  1. Crisfield, E. (2017, November 20). Reflecting on Family Language Planning. Retrieved January 23, 2019, from
  2. IBO (2014) Language and Learning in IB Programmes. Cardiff: IBO.
  3. Karavasili, K. (2014, June 03). Family language planning and active bilingualism. Retrieved January 23, 2019, from
  4. King, K. A., Fogle, L., & Logan-Terry, A. (2008). Family Language Policy. Language and Linguistics Compass, 2 (5), 907-922.

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