It’s mid-summer. The end of the school year seems like so long ago, and the start of the new one is hovering nearby in the form of school supply shopping yet to come (a list of excess: 48 pencils, 15 large markers, 4 good quality white erasers, etc.). This is a summer of transition for my youngest daughter, who is about to start kindergarten, after 4 years of daycare. Daycares in Quebec, I should clarify, fall under the radar of Bill 101, meaning that they are not bound by any particular language policy. That said, there is considerable pressure from Montreal parents for daycares to provide some measure of an English-French bilingual environment, and it is common for children to attend daycare in one or more languages other than those they speak at home. As such, I suspect there are just as many creative approaches to language socialization in daycares in Montreal, as there are within families.
Research and scholarship on family language policy (FLP) has emerged as language policy researchers have shifted their gaze from macro-level analyses of policy documents to policy as lived experiences. You may be familiar with OPOL (one parent-one language), a common approach to family language policy in multilingual families. There are as many variations on this theme as there are families, but the basic idea is that in mixed-language families, each parent speaks one language to the children. This is usually, but not always, the language each parent feels most comfortable speaking.
I’d like to share some early musings and extend the concept of OPOL to describe the approach to language socialization that I observed in my daughters’ daycare – OTOL (one teacher-one language). This approach is very different from that taken in public schools, which does fall squarely within the purview of Bill 101.
My youngest daughter was in her last daycare for 3 years. This is what the front door looks like.
She always had 2 educators, one who spoke only English with the children and the other who spoke only French. The children came to the daycare with various linguistic repertoires (English, French, Spanish, Urdu, Japanese, etc.). I have seen over the years how expertly these young children move between English and French (and some Spanish) with their friends and with their teachers. If they are with the French educator when I arrive, I hear a chorus of “Ta maman est là!” If they are doing an activity with the English educator, they say the same, but in English: “Your Mom is here!” The educators have never been strict about the children’s language use, but they do stick firmly to their own linguistic practices. Between the educators, they speak both English and French. The children are not punished for speaking one language or the other. Nor are they rewarded. There are no sticker charts for language use. Just social expectations of practice and use – this creates the context for a language environment that fosters fluid bilingualism in an additive and positive way.
A year or so ago the director of the daycare told me that she was going to split my daughter’s group into 2 groups and each would stay with just one of the educators. This would have meant some children would be socialized only in English and others only in French. This would have meant losing the richness of the bilingual OTOL environment. I wrote a letter to the director about how the current OTOL model was benefiting our children and why putting children into separate language groups would not. I also suggested that I would look for another daycare should the change come into effect. Yes, parents take the language socialization of their children seriously. The director, thankfully, changed her mind.
Now, my children have outgrown daycare and the wonderful language environment that it provided for them. My older daughter came out of the same daycare a few years ago, ready to face the world in either English or French. She is now in an early French immersion program in an English school where the language on signs is regulated by Bill 101 – not the multilingual welcome she got at daycare. In the French immersion program, she still speaks French, but she talks about French as a school language now. She has most classes in French and some in English, but nowhere at school are there spaces for a fluid bilingual (or multilingual) experience. Instead, it is a separate bilingual model with clearly defined boundaries between languages. She now identifies very strongly as an English speaker. When my younger daughter gets re-socialized to the linguistic environment of her French immersion elementary school, she will likely also experience this narrowing of her linguistic identity.
There are so many children in Montreal who are growing up multilingually and have linguistic repertoires that include more than French and English and I think there is something we can learn from OPOL and OTOL approaches that could inform what happens in schools in multilingual environments.