Note: Be sure to read the many comments below this post, too.
Recently, I was posed the same tricky question by several readers…
Of course, like many of the issues that arise on the bilingual journey, there’s no “right” answer to this question. A suitable response to a challenge like this is one that fits the family’s particular circumstances and goals most effectively.
That being said, it might be helpful if I share how I’ve handled this dilemma with my own kids. Even if my strategy doesn’t suit you, perhaps these thoughts will be useful to hear as you consider your own response.
My highest priority
In my case, my highest priority during my children’s first years was establishing a firm foundation for communication in English, our minority language. Essentially, I sought to “condition” them so that they would only communicate with me in English when they began to speak. (Don’t worry, I decided against using electric shocks. )
To achieve this, I knew it was vital that I hit the ground running, right from birth, and be both very consistent, and very persistent, about speaking to them in English. The more they heard me speaking Japanese, our majority language, the greater the risk that they would realize they didn’t really need to use English with me at all.
To my mind, the most crucial years were the first three: these were the years to vigorously nurture our communication in the minority language, and this meant that I needed to be especially vigilant about my own use of language during this time. I needed to emphasize English, while minimizing—to whatever degree I could—my use of Japanese. Once our communication in English was firmly established, I could then gradually relax this stance. At that point, speaking the majority language would become less of an issue.
In other words, I did what I could to avoid speaking the majority language in their presence while they were babies and toddlers. I spoke only English to them, at all times and in all situations, and when I needed to switch to Japanese to speak with others in the community, I would try to do this in a quieter tone, so it was harder for my kids to hear me. By contrast, my English was always voiced strongly, clearly.
And to be honest, I actively avoided social settings where I might have to use a lot of Japanese. This tactic may sound extreme, but remember, my highest priority was establishing a firm foundation for communication in English. To me, this was a far greater priority, with a far greater payoff, than any passing activity or event we may have missed in those early years.
“Conditioning” the child
Now that my children are older (they’re 9 and 6, as of this post), and have become “conditioned” to use only the minority language with me, I believe that this strategy helped accomplish my aim. And as I expected, because English is entrenched as our language of communication, I don’t feel the need to be as vigilant about using Japanese in their presence. I still consciously avoid it, when I can, but I no longer have the same concern about its influence on their language development. As a result, I feel easier about speaking Japanese when the occasion calls for it.
In my view, then, the key question is: What’s your real priority? Connecting with your community is important, I understand that, but be careful that your use of the majority language doesn’t undermine your greater goal for your child’s language development. The first few years, which will lay the foundation for your communication, are absolutely critical when it comes to “conditioning” the child to use the minority language with you.
This isn’t to say that communication in the minority language can’t be realized later—of course it can—but if you hope to communicate in this language throughout the life of your relationship, starting with the child’s first words, I would encourage you to be very mindful of your use of the majority language in the child’s presence, particularly in those earliest years.
Want more helpful food for thought? See…
Embarrassment over speaking a “foreign language” in public (great thread at The Bilingual Zoo)
Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child
What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language
I never understood that kind of question. I always speak the minority language, and so does my husband (who has another minority language), no matter where we are. And if I want to connect with my community I use the majority language with them, but still talk the minority language with my children because I know they understand both of the languages spoken. But then of, course it also depends on the language strategy—we use OPOL [one person-one language] while many bilingual families use ML@H [minority language at home], which means always speaking the majority language while out of the home.
Olga, thanks for your comment. First, it’s important to emphasize that bilingual families (like mine) and multilingual families (like yours) will naturally experience this issue rather differently.
For families like mine, I think the concern involves the potential impact on a child’s language development, and her subsequent willingness and ability to use the minority language, when the sole minority language parent is also regularly using the majority language during the earliest, formative years. In some cases, this won’t be detrimental in the least. But in other cases, it can undermine the process of establishing a firm foundation for communication between parent and child in the minority language.
The thing is, since it’s hard to predict exactly what impact the use of the majority language will have on a child’s language development, and the process of “conditioning” the child to use the minority language, for some families it may be wise to err on the side of vigilance during the youngest years and, to whatever degree possible, proactively limit the use of the majority language by the minority language parent.
And then of course, there is the fact that often the majority language of my community is English, not Dutch—a language that my children don’t speak—yet. It is not easy, but so far it is working well for us—and the children know what language to speak with whom.
Olga, I have my hands full with just two languages, so I applaud your efforts! I’m glad to hear things are going well with your kids!
This topic is soooo important to me right now. You might have missed it, but good old “Dear Abby” has undertaken this precise “problem” in one of her recent responses to a reader’s letter. The letter was from a concerned American grandmother who said it was plain rude and inappropriate to use the minority language in her presence with her grandchildren. Guess what? “Dear Abby” sided with her! This made me mad for three reasons. The offended grandmother did explain that her daughter-in-law, who supposedly is committing this crime, does make a huge effort to explain what is going on when she talks to her sons in the minority language. Secondly, she never has any elaborate conversations with the boys while grandma is present, just the regular everyday short questions and answers. And thirdly, grandmother did admit she never made any effort to learn at least the basics of her grandsons’ second language herself.
In our family (girls are now 15 and 10) I did exactly what you did, Adam, when it came to speaking Polish in public. Establishing firm foundations and “conditioning” them to speak only Polish with me and among themselves was a goal above everything else. No matter what. I always explained to others what was happening and more important — why. The girls’ monolingual American grandparents were/are in the same boat as those from the letter, yet they had class and also the girls’ interest at heart and they actually helped me by supporting our language efforts. This was/is invaluable. Now things have changed a bit because the girls do want to participate in and be included in more grown-up conversations so every now and then we find ourselves speaking English in each others’ presence. But it doesn’t change how we communicate with each other, which remains solidly Polish. If I want to refer to something they said while having a conversation in English in a larger company I sort of do it to everybody, so in a way I still avoid speaking English to them, which — they admit — feels weird and … wrong!
So, to sum up what I am saying here. Only minority language with the kids when they are small, I would say until about 10 years old. I noticed in both of mine that this seems to be a “cutting” age when the minority language really “sinks in”, becomes stable and words and phrases once learnt don’t seem to be slipping away too much, even if not used for a while.
Cheers and best wishes to everyone!
Eliza, thank you for your helpful perspective. I agree completely. Showing consideration for other people’s feelings is important, of course, but to my mind, this should never become our priority. If strong and active bilingual ability is the goal, we will be undermining our own aim for the future if we allow others to dictate our use of the minority language in the present. (Even “Dear Abby.”)
This goes hand in hand with the idea of giving heavy emphasis to the minority language during early childhood. Once a firm foundation in the target language has been established, and the child has been “conditioned” to communicate in this language with the minority language parent, then it may be fine, as you suggest, for the majority language to become a more active part of their interactions. But until that point, as a general rule, I think the more the minority language parent uses the majority language in the presence of the child, the more this may undercut the child’s need to actively use the second language. There are certainly exceptions, but I recommend that parents err on the side of caution and seek to consciously limit, to the degree they can, their use of the majority language during the first formative years.
That’s a disquieting issue for me! I speak English to my son in all situations but I still have to speak the majority language a lot. I can’t just cut off relatives and friends. Besides, all the social occasions (like doing shopping or visits to the doctor) call for the majority language. I guess I need to do something about it.
Elena, I think all any of us can do in addressing this challenge (or any other) is to proactively shape our circumstances to the extent we’re realistically able. If you simply continue to be mindful about your use of the majority language, I suspect this will be enough and your son’s language development will progress as you hope. And remember, this phase won’t last forever—it’s those first few years that are particularly important for establishing your mode of communication. Once English takes hold as your shared tongue, use of the majority language will be less of a concern. (You can then enjoy some new concerns! )
I was really interested in this post as I speak Welsh to our five month old son and my wife mainly speaks English to him. I’m not sure how he’ll respond to the fact that my wife and I always speak English to each other – maybe we’ll have to try to speak in Welsh to each other in his presence!
Although 75%+ of the people who live in our village are Welsh speakers, my wife and I socialise with quite a few people who aren’t Welsh speakers. Consequently, I do worry a bit about what’ll happen when our son hears us (and especially me) blethering away in English.
Jonathan, in my case, I not only speak English to my kids, I speak English to my wife, and my wife not only speaks Japanese to my kids, she speaks Japanese to me. In other words, at least in front of the kids, we continue to use our native languages even when we’re speaking to each other.
I realize this sort of arrangement isn’t for everyone, and I actually wish my wife and I could use the same language, but our circumstances are such that this has been the most effective way to support our children’s bilingual development.
In your case, you might consider a similar approach, if it makes sense for your situation: you speak Welsh to your wife and she speaks English to you. In this way, you could help limit your son’s exposure to your English, which would probably increase the odds of Welsh becoming your main language for communication when he begins to speak. (And after that, there might be the option of shifting back to English with your wife, depending on that new set of circumstances.)
There are no perfect solutions to this problem, of course—just different choices that may increase (or decrease) the odds of firmly establishing a foundation for communication in the target language. Best of luck, Jonathan!
It is really interesting to see how different families cope with their various situations. My family live in Japan (my wife is Japanese), and use our minority language (English) at home and when we are out, unless someone Japanese is around, when we switch over to Japanese.
One thing I’ve noticed in general about people is that they tend to be “bothered” (for want of a better word) when people are speaking a foreign language around them. Many people feel that they are being spoken about, or missing out on something. I remember this from my own feelings about groups of exchange students at Uni in NZ, and often feel it when I speak English with my kids here, and people nearby kind of stare, like they are waiting for a translation or something. These feelings are of course (usually) not correct, but a lot of people have them.
I feel more comfortable using Japanese with my kids when Japanese people are around, and my kids will often suggest speaking Japanese when we are near Japanese kids who are likely to overhear our conversation. I understand the point about conditioning the kids to speak the minority language with the ML parent, but my own kids seem to have naturally grasped our family rule of speaking English when it’s “just us.” The switchover is usually automatic, but sometimes the momentum of the conversation will carry on for a while until someone points out we’re using the “wrong” language. Anyone other families work like this?
Peter, thanks for your comment. I agree, it’s very interesting—and inspiring—to hear how other parents are handling these challenges in their own unique settings.
Your point about others potentially feeling “bothered” by interactions in the minority language is certainly something to be sensitive to, particularly in a group discussion or activity. When simply out and about in the community, though, the only reaction I really sense is curiosity. English, of course, is widely admired but not widely used in Japan, and when the language is heard, ears tend to perk up—and this is especially the case when a small child is speaking in fluent English!
In any event, my kids and I have never used Japanese to communicate (at this point, it would feel strange for us) so, for better or worse, we continue to communicate in English wherever we are. And now that they’re a bit older, they can translate for others, when necessary—also a useful workout for their bilingual ability. At the same time, I can also see advantages to the situation you describe with your own children, where you have the flexibility to shift back and forth between the two languages, depending on your needs.
It’s probably important for me to add, though, that I would caution parents about this sort of language use until there’s a firm foundation for communication in the minority language. If switching between the two languages begins too early, it could raise the risk of the child not developing a solid base in the minority language and instead coming to rely mainly on the majority language to communicate.
Peter, I have the same concerns that you do. We are part of a very active playgroup and when my son was very small I was very good at only speaking to him in Spanish, but I am very aware that Americans think that people are speaking about them if another language is being spoken, so for that reason I would usually speak to him in Spanish and then translate for the other moms listening in. Of course, at the age of 2 a lot of our conversation at playdates had to do with his behavior with his playmates, so it was important for them to know how I was handling the situation, and also for the other kids to learn too (saying whose turn it was, for example). I now mostly speak English to my children when we are interacting with English speakers, although on occasion it does come in handy to slip into Spanish if I need to address the behavior of another child when speaking to mine (for example, ‘that boy made a bad decision, and it’s not okay, but you can’t retaliate with XYZ behavior.’)
Speaking to my daughter only in Spanish is a daily struggle. We live with her grandparents who like her father speak English. I stay at home with her and only speak Spanish to her but when everyone gets home…the English invasion begins! I speak to my in-laws and partner in English so she sees and hears that interaction. On top of this I live in a suburban area filled with English speaking people. When I take her out into the community I try to speak to her in Spanish but 99% of the moms we know are English speaking. Sometimes I drive to my sister’s home (an hour away) to get our Spanish fix. I really hope that she picks up Spanish! I’m happy to know that I’m not the only one in this struggle!
Kelly, you’re definitely not the only one! Hang in there! It sounds like you’re making solid efforts with your daughter that will continue to have a positive impact on her language development, long into the future.
At the same time, it’s true, your situation is especially challenging. To increase the odds that your daughter will actively use Spanish with you as she grows, do everything you realistically can to make her daily environment as rich in Spanish resources and activities as you can. For ideas and inspiration, you might start with 96 Things You Can Do Today to Boost Your Child’s Bilingual Ability.
And I imagine you’re already familiar with SpanglishBaby, but if not, many of the parents within that community are experiencing the very same struggle and can surely offer insightful advice.
Kelly, keep at it, day by day! I’m cheering for you! And I hope to hear good news as time goes by!
Kelly, your situation sounds somewhat similar to mine, although Spanish is not my native language, so it is especially difficult for me to speak it 24/7. Hopefully the fact that they are listening to us and interacting with us in Spanish will be enough.
My situation is a little different as my husband does not speak minority language so I have to speak English with him in front of my son. He’s 2 years old but realizes that I also speak English and answers back in English to me most of the time. He does a lot of code switching at the moment and uses shorter, easier words from either language in one sentence. I am worried he’ll be a passive bilingual as Polish words and grammar are far more difficult as he picks the easier option at least for now.
Dominika, this is a significant challenge faced by many minority language parents, I think. When the majority language parent doesn’t have ability in the minority language, the default language for communication between the couple is typically the majority language. As I’ve stressed, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the child won’t develop active ability in the minority language—so much depends on a family’s particular circumstances, of course—but I think it’s fair to say that, broadly speaking, when the minority language parent is regularly using the majority language in front of the child during the early, formative years, this will raise the risk of the minority language turning more passive.
So, what to do?
Again, some might think this remedy extreme, but I would advise that the couple work out a short-term strategy so that the minority language parent can proactively minimize his/her use of the majority language within earshot of the child during those first few crucial years. This shouldn’t become a source of stress in the relationship, though, so the tactic must be taken on as a team, in a playful spirit. (It needn’t last forever, remember.) All things being equal, if efforts are made in this direction, the odds will surely increase in your favor.
At the same time, the minority language parent needs to be as active as possible during those early years, bathing the child in the language for hours each day through conversation, storytelling, reading aloud, music, games, and a range of other input. When the child experiences sufficient need and exposure (see What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language), chances are he will develop an active ability in the minority language. And even when that ability is more passive, the vigorous efforts already invested certainly have an impact and can make it easier to activate the language later.
All the best to you and your family, Dominika! Keep us posted on your progress!
This approach sounds very reasonable, but in our case I speak two languages, but my partner speaks only majority language. If I spoke nothing but Polish to my daughter and in her presence, then we could not hold any conversation. I just cannot limit my speech to the minority language only when in my child earshot, any advice?
Jolanta, let me expand on my response to Dominika, who seems to be in a similar situation. Perhaps it would be helpful if I share what I would try if I were facing this challenge.
First of all, I think it’s again important to stress that every family not only must choose a strategy that will effectively meet their particular set of circumstances, they must carry out that strategy in a way they find realistic and comfortable. For instance, I tend to be rather “extreme” in my approaches, and this is how I would first try the following approach, but I would also adjust the level of “austerity,” as needed, to suit our actual experience.
Let’s call this approach “strategic emphasis”—essentially, an expanded version of how I handled use of the majority language in public during my own children’s earliest years…
1. I would remind myself and my partner that the first few years are crucial, when it comes to “conditioning” the child to use the minority language with the minority language parent, and that we should do everything within our power to nurture that outcome. Once use of the minority tongue takes hold, at around age 3 or 4, it might then be possible, depending on our circumstances at that point, to gradually ease the restrictions of this initial approach.
2. I would be consciously proactive about limiting my use of the majority language in front of the child, to whatever reasonable extent I could. At mealtimes, for instance, my wife and I would each speak to our baby or toddler in our native languages, but make an effort to avoid lengthy exchanges between the two of us in the majority language. Lengthy exchanges in the majority language would take place at other times, when the child is out of earshot. (I realize this isn’t “natural,” but if the higher priority is the child’s language development, then such temporary restrictions could well increase the odds of success.)
3. I would also use two very different tones in speaking the two languages. When communicating with the child in the minority language, my use of infant-directed speech (the kind of speech that babies and small children absorb best) would be strong and clear; when speaking the majority language with my wife, or in front of the child, I would speak in a softer, adult voice, completely avoiding the use of infant-directed speech.
This sort of “strategic emphasis” is a continuum, of course—it’s not an all-or-nothing choice. In my case, I would start at the extreme—because I believe that could have the most beneficial impact—and then I would scale it back to the highest degree of restriction that’s realistic for our lifestyle.
Ultimately, then, wherever your family falls on this continuum, effectively addressing this significant challenge will involve being as continually conscious and proactive as you can manage amid your busy days.
Best “bilingual wishes” to you and your family, Jolanta!
I always use Esperanto with the youngest whatever happens, even in the hospital and even when she reads French lessons.
But I very often speak to my wife in French in front of the daughters.
With the oldest, we have reached a stage that when we are surrounded by Esperanto speakers, we all use Esperanto and it does not disturb anyone anymore. Previously, the youngest used to complain when her mother talked to her in Esperanto.
Cyrille, it sounds like your efforts over the years are paying off well because your daughters have developed good ability in Esperanto, haven’t they?
Although our kids may not appreciate our efforts now (in fact, they even put up a fight sometimes!), I bet they will one day!
Indeed, Amy, the oldest, has already made speeches about her second language during German courses (her third language) although it is complicated for her to talk about the language in a foreign language!
Adam, it is hard to add something to your advice here. I completely agree—first couple years are crucial to establish active bilingual habits.
Our family situation is just like what Dominika, Jolanta and Kelly described:
—I am the only person, who speaks minority language (Russian) to my 3 children
—my husband does not speak it
—we are surrounded by majority language
—and we also live in the town of 1141 people (not too much minority language support)
Despite all of this my children are active bilinguals and are on the way to develop writing and reading skills. I attribute it to my very strict rule: I speak only Russian to them with no mixing or borrowing languages (in public as well) and I’m very clear that I expect the same thing from them. Also even though they heard me speaking English to other people, till at least age of 4 they thought that I don’t speak English. It came as a surprise even to me!?
Olena, thank you for adding your personal perspective. These are challenging circumstances, and yet your children are making strong progress in their minority language so your approach is clearly working. I agree that firm expectations are an essential part of the equation, too.
Again, thanks for contributing to this lively discussion—I’m sure others will benefit from hearing your experience.
Adam, thank you for tackling this question—it is a question I struggle with daily. I am also the only minority language (French) speaker in my home and would like to echo some of the comments I’ve read here and maybe add some food for thought. I, like Peter, feel a pressure to speak English when we are out in public and that some people are “bothered” by my French speaking. To be fair, the vast majority of people who comment make positive comments, such as “oh, I love hearing French”, etc., but I can’t help feeling that others who are bothered by it just don’t say anything.
I do have one friend who was very frank and told me point blank that he thought it was rude that I spoke French with my daughter (who is 2 1/2) in front of him when he couldn’t understand. My response was that she doesn’t get much exposure to French in an all English environment and if I don’t make an effort to speak to my daughter in French whenever possible, especially at her young age, then she’ll never learn her second language very well (this is very uncharacteristic of me—I’d rather be a wallflower than make a scene, but I guess that’s how strongly I feel about teaching my daughter French).
So I guess I would suggest surrounding yourself with friends, family, neighbors, teachers, etc. that see the value of learning a second language and don’t mind not always understanding. I know from growing up myself in a French/English household and an anglophone country, children are very sensitive to fitting in and the more you can surround them with accepting children and adults, the easier it will be to teach them and engage them in a minority language (they won’t feel that they’re being ostracized for being ‘different’).
Celine, you make a very valuable point about surrounding yourself with others willing to support your bilingual efforts, and I wholeheartedly agree. I applaud you, as well, for standing up for your daughter and her language development when your friend criticized you. I realize the importance of maintaining friendly ties with others, but my bilingual goal is also hugely important to me and any “friend” that couldn’t understand, and support, this goal…well, I’m not sure I would be so eager to sustain the relationship.
In the end, my kids and their language development are my higher priority (the payoff will last far longer, even generations!) and I will fight like a tiger to fulfill this aim to the best of my ability.
Thanks so much for this comment, Celine.
Thank you for this thoughtful post—and your newsletter, more generally. I confess that I’ve taken a completely different approach, but I see the logic and merits of your decisions. In my case, although it may sound terrible to some, I’ve made my daughter’s native fluency in Japanese job 1 while using some English on a daily basis, with an increase in that English input over time to coincide with an increase in my daughter’s ability to understand various points about language use and importance—as well as her interest in English (and Hebrew, believe it or not).
The fact is, given the fact that my wife and I use Japanese exclusively, I always felt that there was something too artificial or unnatural, too contrived, about a plan that involved me using mostly or exclusively English with my daughter, who is now 4 (soon to be 5). Also, the fact is that my little girl (whose Japanese name itself suggests her multiple “colors”) is Japan-born and raised and, whatever else happens, will need to be as natural with Japanese (language as well as culture) as possible to “make it” socially and otherwise.
Having said that, I should say that I sometimes feel twinges of guilt that I didn’t take a different path, as greater concentration on English in the first formative years would surely have a meaningful “pay-off”.
Nevertheless, every time I hear my daughter so chatty and engaged with her friends, her neighbors, and even strangers, I feel that the path I’ve chosen was not a disaster, by any means. Her Japanese language skills are—by any standard: pardon the “oya-baka” moment—quite outstanding. I think that much of this is a function of her character: outgoing and engaging, and quite playful where language is concerned (something that I make a conscious effort to instill in her, as I believe that playfulness is a HUGE and often undervalued factor in language development). She has, more recently, become more interested in English (as well as Hebrew): Barney and the Sesame Street characters have become her friends, and she loves to make bilingual puns (“Look! The moon da mon!”). I do believe that we are moving in the right direction, albeit by a different path. For her 5th birthday, I am preparing to make a storybook that tells the tale of her roots and the “miracle” of her birth (and our father-daughter relationship). Yes, it will be in English, with blanks for her to fill in as she becomes able to do so, and with room to explain some concepts in English that seem useful. Hopefully, it will provide a “leaping-off” point, along with her 5th birthday, to rationalize, as it were, a new start on the road to English competence, and, hopefully, fluency.
Not all roads lead to Rome, but not all roads to Rome lead through the same territory or topography! Wish me luck on the journey…
Brian, I hear you well. Your comment is deeply heartfelt and I have no doubt that you and your daughter will reach Rome by your own thoughtful path.
Over the years I’ve come to recognize clearly that each family’s bilingual journey is uniquely different, and I have nothing but respect and support for whatever destination and path a family chooses to take. But that’s the thing: in my view, the destination and path should be chosen consciously so effective action of some kind can be pursued. After all, as David Sarnoff, an early pioneer of radio and TV, once said: “A life that hasn’t a definite plan is likely to become driftwood.”
To be honest, much of my life has been “driftwood,” in a way—and, to some extent, I’m fine with that—but I didn’t want this to be the case when it came to the language development of my kids. There are several reasons why I chose to nurture our minority language vigorously from the start, but the most fundamental is simply that English is at the heart of who I am and it wouldn’t have been possible to convey my true self to my kids in any language but English. (For a fuller explanation, see Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me.)
Brian, I wish you and your daughter all the best as your journey continues. Your “birthday storybook” is a lovely idea that will surely become a keepsake. (I completely agree with your perspective on “playfulness.” See my ridiculous riddles for proof!) And if I can be a source of support at any time, don’t hesitate to reach out.
This issue really hits home and I realize that, like you, I conditioned my kids early on. And now that they are older, I still find it hard to speak French in front of them and still avoid addressing them directly in French. If I need to communicate to them in French—because of people around us—I first say it in English then talk to the other people about my kids in third person to explain what I said. But it’s a really tough issue because it can ostracize me and the kids.
Rebecca, I certainly empathize—there are no easy solutions to this issue.
Of course, I try to navigate these situations with some sensitivity to my kids and to others, but at the end of the day, our larger bilingual journey will always be my higher priority and I accept whatever costs this choice incurs.
Fortunately, what we’re describing is a “good” problem, in a way, because the first essential aim—that of “conditioning” our kids to communicate with us in the minority language—has already been achieved.
Very interesting post. I will say that it has been a concern, but I speak exclusively to my son in Spanish while the world around us in in English. In fact, he seems to not mind if I’m speaking to his dad in English as he doesn’t speak Spanish, but he does mind if a word in English slips out of my mouth for him. I was reading that kids not only identify different languages but who speaks what and what language to expect from a certain person. So he has come to expect Spanish from me, but has somehow figured out that sometimes to other people I speak English. This development is quite interesting, but it has made me realize that I do need to be extra careful and speak Spanish exclusively as speaking something else to him flat out confuses him.
Denhi, thanks for sharing your experience. In my case, too, my children look at me oddly when I speak Japanese, like I’m suddenly a different person in their eyes. I think this is a reflection of the point you make about children identifying certain people with certain languages. Once the child has been “conditioned” to communicate in the minority language with the parent, he may find it strange and unnatural to use a different language in their interactions. This is why a later change in the language used between parent and child should be handled with care and sensitivity. My kids would probably freak out if I started speaking to them regularly in Japanese!
This post is very timely for us… We have just begun our bilingual journey. My boy is 14 months and I have decided to go down the path of only speaking to him in our minority language which is Bosnian. So far so good, BUT, as others have already pointed out, I am acutely aware how awkward it is to speak the minority language in front of people who don’t understand it, especially strangers. For me, it takes the nerves of steel to not waver and continue addressing my boy in Bosnian with other people listening on. I am sure that it is mostly in my head, and certainly people just tend to be curious, but I really feel judged.
Playdates and interactions with other kids in general are especially tricky. What do I do when I have to speak to my son and another majority-language speaking child at the same time? Things like: “You two, play gently please, here why don’t you take this toy, and T can have this one, no that is not your water, that is his water” etc. You know, that sort of guidance/instructions/discipline that you tend to address to all the kids involved. So far, I say it in English for the benefit of the other kid (and his/her mum) and then repeat to my boy in Bosnian while trying to make eye contact or touching him so he knows that I am addressing him in particular. It sort of works, but it feels very clumsy and awkward and a lot of the times I just don’t say anything when actually I would like to. 😐
Anabela, it sounds like you’re handling this difficulty as well as anyone could: staying determined to speak to your son exclusively in the minority language—despite feeling self-conscious about this—while doing your best to include others by switching to the majority language when the situation calls for it. I think this is a thoughtful, positive approach and will gradually pay off for you and your son.
As for feeling self-conscious, hopefully this will get easier over time as your use of the minority language becomes firmly established as a way of life. At this point, I’m hardly even aware I’m using a “minority language” out in public with my kids—it’s simply the language of our communication, wherever we are. I realize our circumstances are different, but if you can keep those “nerves of steel” for a while longer—and continue to remind yourself that your long-term goal for your son is far more important than any passing awkwardness of the moment—I expect something similar will happen in your case as well.
Thank you for adding your thoughts to this lively thread, Anabela! Keep up the good efforts, day by day!
Anabela, keep it up! I use your exact technique during our playdates, and it has worked well. As you get to know the other moms in your group better, they will come to accept this as part of you and will be supportive. At least that has been my experience. And as for people listening in on you – don’t let it deter you! My future sister in law is Bosnian, and it is so weird to be on the other side of the language fence. I am used to the only languages being spoken around me being English and Spanish, and when I hear my future SIL and her sister chatting away in Bosnian, it is so strange for my brain, but I’m so glad that they can speak so fluently together. Also, it’s not a very common language to hear in the US (at least not where I am) so people may just be listening in to guess which language you are speaking. Good luck!
I am speaking German as minority language with my daughter in Finland and having quite few foreigners here it seems sometimes really weird to speak “our” language in public, especially when she is usually answering in Finnish… However, a friend of mine gave me a really useful hint: People (and especially kids) will stare at you anyway because your Finnish is not native…so relax and just use your mother tongue. 🙂 That has helped a lot!
I think our biggest challenge was that because of our work situation I could not stay longer at home than about one year…and my boyfriend does not bother to learn German, so Finnish was basically her first language. However, at 5 she started suddenly speaking German with her grandparents, and now at 6 when she has mother tongue lessons once a week at school, also sometimes with me. Luckily we have some German friends here, and I even founded a German toddler playgroup, which is still alive. So, don’t give up! Also holidays in the minority language country help A LOT, especially when there are other children around.
Susann, thank you for adding these helpful thoughts. I’m happy to hear that your daughter is doing well in her minority language, despite the challenges of your situation. Clearly, your attitude and efforts have made all the difference.
It’s a funny thing about people staring: at least in my case, it’s a feeling that has faded to the background as time has passed. I mean, just being “white” in Japan means that I automatically get noticed—even if I never open my mouth to speak—and I was quite self-conscious of this in the days after I first arrived here. But now I’m hardly even aware of it—unless a small, curious child comes up to me and really stares.
For most people, if they can just persevere through this first uncomfortable stage of speaking the minority language with their children in public, that feeling of self-consciousness will likely ease over time.
I can empathize with those who find it difficult to speak a minority language in public. What I find challenging is similar to Anabela’s situation: sometimes my comments are directed to my son, but they’re also meant to be overheard and understood by those around us. So, a comment like, “No, you may not have any candy” is meant to warn adults around us not to offer any to him as much as it’s a response to my son. Or a comment like, “Keep your hands to yourself, please,” is meant to let other parents know that I’m aware that my son is misbehaving and that we’re working on it together. In these cases, I have found it hard to use the minority language (in my case, Scottish Gaelic).
Scottish Gaelic is also my third language, so while I tried hard to speak Gaelic exclusively to my son in his infancy, it has become increasingly difficult as he has developed the cognitive capacity for more abstract and complex ideas. I don’t always have the language abilities myself to express what I need to express. And since my son hears Gaelic mostly from me, he has likewise not developed higher-order Gaelic language skills. I suppose this is where more books or minority-language TV programs could help…
Heather, your points are well taken. With regard to comments in public intended as both messages for the child and others, it would be hard to avoid using the majority language in such instances. The choice, then, lies in either sidestepping these moments, when possible, or seeing them as a small part of a child’s overall experience and thus not a large concern.
And I agree completely: to promote higher levels of language ability, books and reading (reading aloud, reading together, and independent reading) are absolutely vital.
Best wishes to you and your son, Heather!
We definitely get this question all the time and we feel the same way you do about it. The reality is that oftentimes when people are concerned about this, they are concerned with offending others that feel left out or awkward about not being able to follow a conversation we are having with our child. We might feel that it’s a lack of respect towards others that don’t understand. I’m going to sound harsh here, but I just don’t think others should care how or in what language we address our kids in.
We need to focus on our kid’s needs and not that of others. Of course, it doesn’t mean that we’re ever rude to others, not at all!
What I used to do in the early years (my girl is now 6 and our relationship with Spanish is well established) is address her in Spanish all the time, no matter where or who was around. If what I was telling her involved those around us, I’d then repeat it again in English.
It was very important that we established that Spanish was all I would speak to her and that was part of it.
Thanks for breaking it down so beautifully and explaining why for many of us it’s important to be consistent with the language exposure.
Ana, thank you for your comment, which I don’t consider harsh at all. In fact, I wholeheartedly agree: it’s important to be sensitive to others, but that doesn’t mean we should make other people a higher priority than our own children. After all, the longer-term benefit is our children’s bilingual ability, right? We might feel better in the moment, less awkward, if we bow to the pressure of not using the minority language in public, but how is that advancing our greater goal for our children? We would actually be putting our own comfort level ahead of our children’s needs.
Raising a bilingual child requires a thick skin at times, and the presence of mind to remember, in such moments, just what our highest priority really is.
Thanks again, Ana! Cheers to you and your daughter!
Thanks for your excellent website. Our situation is probably common but I have struggled to find advice online. Our nearly two year old daughter is picking up the “minority” language beautifully but can’t speak the “majority” language at all. My wife is Taiwanese and we made bilingual education an extremely high priority. So committed was I to this that I was determined to ensure success by learning Mandarin myself so I spent 18 months living in Taiwan before our children were born so I could hit the ground running and provide a minority language home environment for our kids. My wife and I both speak only Mandarin to our daughter and as she looks Caucasian it is very strange when us white folk (my daughter and I) are out with friends speaking Chinese! But my concern is her being disadvantaged in English because she has very little exposure to it. All of her books and DVDs are Chinese and we have close Chinese speaking friends and family.
Matthew, first, I really admire the proactive efforts you and your wife have made to nurture the minority language. These efforts are already paying off well, and will continue to benefit your daughter far into the future.
You don’t mention where you live, but I assume it’s the United States or another nation where English is the majority language. If that’s the case, and if your daughter will eventually attend school in the community, I don’t think the current lag in her English ability will be a longer-term issue. I hear your concern, but I suspect this head start to her minority language will ultimately prove to be a significant advantage as time goes by and the influence of school and community grows stronger.
That’s the broader perspective. For the short term, while maintaining your good efforts at home, you might consider increasing her English exposure somewhat by placing her in a preschool setting a couple of days a week. Again, I don’t think you need to react too strongly here—like switching from the “minority language at home” to “one person-one language”—but gradually adding to her English exposure now seems appropriate.
And when your daughter does get a bit older, it could be helpful to her performance in school if you then use more English with her, particularly by reading aloud to her, both fiction and nonfiction material. By that time, her Mandarin should be well grounded and bringing English into your relationship can be a plus, not a problem.
Cheers to you and your family, Matthew!
Thanks Adam for your helpful reply.
We live in a rural part of Australia and she will be going to an English speaking school. Some English speaking friends and family have been putting pressure on us to focus on her English. But as you say, a head start in the minority language is very important as the “English Invasion” will occur once she starts school.
Like yourself, we are very determined to ensure that our daughter has the gift of Mandarin so as this is a priority we will go back to Taiwan for at least one or two years when she starts elementary school.
Our commitment is that we want to ensure she is able to be part of her Chinese speaking family with whom we are very close, (and which includes many cousins who we spend holidays with who are her age). Not to mention the enormous gift and tremendous advantage in life of speaking English and Mandarin, two such important languages, fluently, both as a native speaker.
Thanks again for your comments and your excellent website.
With our first son, we spoke almost only English with him at home (we live in France, my husband is French & I’m American). I also kept him out of preschool in what would have been the first year (3 years old). As a result, when he did go to school (and then, half days only) at almost 4, he spoke very little French compared to his classmates. We apprised the teacher of the situation, and told him not to be surprised if our son didn’t respond at first. Within three months of school (4 half days a week) – he was speaking the majority language just as well as any of his little friends. So I think you’ll find that once your daughter goes to school, the situation will resolve itself easily and then that foundation you’ve created with Mandarin at home will be that much more important. Best wishes!
Alisa, thank you for this helpful perspective!
I don’t understand why minority language development has to be SUCH a high priority – to the point of hampering comfortable communication between parents. Isn’t a normal communication *also* in the child’s needs? Personally I put the child’s integration to the environment it’s born in (majority language environment) higher than learning a minority language however useful this language may be. I often find that parents who insist enormously in speaking their language to their children regard their cultural background as superior to that of the country they live in.
Lito, I think everyone would agree that communication between the two parents—as well as our connection with the wider community—is important. But is it more important than the longer-term goal of good bilingual ability?
It’s true, of course, that sacrifices must be made in pursuing any sizable goal—and raising a bilingual child is a large goal indeed—but the challenge, in my view, is to be as conscious and proactive as we can so that our communication with others, and the child’s development in the minority language, can both be addressed as effectively as possible.
At the end of the day, though, action is a reflection of priority and the importance we place on a given aim will determine our attitude and our effort. In your case, since you don’t seem to place as much importance on promoting the minority language—and even view other parents’ motives with suspicion—it’s only natural that you would feel the bilingual goal to be a lesser priority “however useful this language may be.”
In my case, though—and this is clearly the case for many other parents as well—nurturing the minority language is a very high priority for a number of fundamental reasons. Setting aside the substantial amount of research which demonstrates the positive impact of bilingualism on the human brain, from infancy to old age, parents who view handing down the mother tongue as essential do so because we wish to communicate with our children in our native language for the life of our relationship, from the child’s very first words (see Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me) and because, without ability in the minority language, our children will have significant difficulty when it comes to forming bonds with grandparents and other loved ones who don’t speak the majority language (see 3 Good Ways to Boost a Bilingual Child’s Language Ability and Loving Bond with Grandparents) and Extraordinary Grandparents—Extraordinary Moments).
I imagine your circumstances are somehow different, and thus these reasons don’t hold the same weight for you, but I can tell you, from my personal perspective, that these motives are the very engine of my efforts to nurture my children’s minority language, and offer other families, around the world, whatever support I’m able to assist their own bilingual journeys.
I’m new to your website and I think it’s great! I’m English, living in Italy and married to an Italian who I speak Italian to. We have two daughters aged 7 and 4 who are actively bilingual. Like you I made a conscious decision to only speak to them in English right from birth and this has paid off. I have always openly spoken Italian in front of them – I speak Italian to my husband, his family, and my friends. However if you ask my children they will tell you that “Mummy is English, she doesn’t speak Italian!” It seems they just don’t hear me speaking Italian! And they never speak to me in Italian and moreover they speak English to each other which amazes people – they were born and have grown up in Italy.
@ Lito if a parent insists on speaking the minority language to their child it doesn’t mean they think their culture is superior, because they probably wouldn’t have gone to live in another country if they did! It’s a case of wanting to pass on one’s culture to one’s children, which is a natural thing for any monolingual parent to do, so why shouldn’t a bilingual parent?
Melanie, welcome! Thank you for the kind feedback. It’s great that your situation has worked out so well, even given the fact that you’ve used the majority language so openly in front of your daughters. This sort of successful outcome isn’t always the case, though, so minority language parents with babies and toddlers should be mindful that many other families have fared less well under such circumstances. Because it’s hard to predict what sort of impact the use of the majority language will have on the budding bilingual child, it may be wise to err on the side of caution.
With my kids, too, their minority language was used more often to communicate with one another—until recently, when my son joined my daughter at our local elementary school. Now the majority language is used just as regularly when they interact. So schooling is a significant factor in not only how the two languages initially develop, but how they evolve over time.
You’re right, an important factor with us was when the eldest went to primary school, so they no longer saw each other and interacted with each other in Italian at school. When I pick them up they speak English to me and therefore to each other. And I also know bilingual families where the children understand that the parent speaks the majority language and so refuse to speak the minority one… I didn’t mean in anyway to contradict your advice! I suppose I am lucky that it worked out this way for me, even more so because I didn’t really think about the possible risks of them hearing me gabbling in Italian all the time!
Melanie, no worries at all! In fact, I was trying to phrase my first response in a way that didn’t sound like criticism, but I should have done better—sorry about that. I simply wanted to stress that your situation may be something of an exception, and that liberal use of the majority language, in the earliest years, can undermine the goal of “conditioning” the child to communicate in the minority language.
Again, I’m really glad that things have worked out well for your family. Your hard work to instill English as the language of communication with your kids has clearly paid off and I commend your efforts!
I am following your website regularly trying to pick out tips for my own bilingual situation at home. Thanks for all your efforts at this point.
The topic in this post is a very concerning one for myself. We are a patchwork family, meaning I am living with a man that has 3 kids from an earlier relationship. They are half the time living with us, on top of that we have a little girl of 1 1/2 years together, another one coming next year. I am German speaking, my boyfriend and his 3 daughters from the earlier relationship are all Dutch speaking, we are living in the Netherlands. I only speak German to my own daughter, and when it is only my boyfriend, my little daughter and myself the family language we agreed on is German as well (to make her hear more German). Nevertheless the Dutch “invasion” is great. Every time we sit with the 6 of us at the table Dutch is being spoken, the other kids try brave to understand some German, but of course that doesn’t work. I try to only speak German but then I cannot communicate with the other kids anymore. I am already trying to limit it, but there is eventually no escape. I understand limiting social events where you have to speak the majority language is doable, but how to cope with this at home in a situation like I am in? I find it challenging every day, and with every day that passes and my daughter learns a new word I am getting more anxious I will not succeed in having her talk back to me in the minority language. On top of that she goes 3 days a week to a daycare center, so the rest of the time I am trying to spend as much time as possible with her reading books and playing.
Doris, I hear your concern. It’s true, these are challenging circumstances, but it sounds to me like you’re making many good efforts to increase the odds that your children will develop a firm foundation in the minority language and become “conditioned” to communicate with you in German.
My sense is that, if German is heavily emphasized during the time your partner’s children are not at home, then this will likely be sufficient to maintain strong progress in the minority language. At the same time, I would continue to speak German to your daughter under all conditions, even when you must switch to Dutch to interact with the other children. (And, yes, please read to her every day in German!)
It’s still early, of course, so it’s hard to say exactly what’s happening in your daughter’s little brain at the moment, but my guess is that both languages are developing well and that she will probably use German with you when she begins to speak. But even if Dutch becomes somewhat dominant, I think the efforts you’re making now will still lead to success: whatever imbalance there might be could then be effectively addressed by boosting her German as needed, particularly through visits to Germany.
Keep going, Doris, day by day! Success will come, and I look forward to hearing your good news as time passes!
Very interesting post. And by reading/skimming through all above comments, one that seems to hit home with a lot of bilingual parents. It certainly struck a chord with me. My 23mth. old son has developed an adorable mix of German (my minority language) and English.
At first I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to pull it off and speak just German to my son (at home and in public), but my husband is an absolute champion for trying to speak German—he understands a lot after all those years, but speaking is still not his strong suit.
And when my son and I are out in public, I used to feel a bit strange, talking to him in German, while I was pushing him in the pram pointing out things we saw, or when we catch up with friends. But, because my friends never knew me and my son any different I think they just accepted the fact that I speak German to him and if it’s important, I will translate it for them later. When he plays with his friends, I tell him in German that he should share a toy, say sorry, because he snatched a toy etc. but I don’t get madly upset, if he chooses the English word “sorry” over the German one. I do however get sad when he “loses” a German word and replaces it with the English one. I keep reminding him of the German word and it sometimes takes over 2 weeks for him to finally re-introduce the word and even then he’ll only use it when I really coax him. I know it’s still very early in his language development, so I am not too distraught by the fact that he mixes and switches his languages. I am sure we will be just fine in a few years and him and I will be speaking away in German and him and his Dad will share the same story in English.
Something I am finding very helpful (besides my sister living close by, funny coincidence), is regular Skype-sessions with my parents in Germany. My son loves seeing “Oma” and “Opa” and I love that I am having additional support in the minority language.
I wish I could take my son on annual visits to Germany, but flights from Australia are just exhausting and expensive, so Skype is the next best thing when it comes to talking to friends and family in Germany.
We were lucky and found a bilingual daycare, which adds 3 days of additional German speakers to the mix.
Also, I found that when you open your eyes and ears, you will find so many “hidden” speakers of the same minority language. We for example made a really good friend while visiting a petting zoo. And another friend was introduced to us through a mutual friend, our children get along great and she is happy that her daughter gets to hear/speak German to more than just her Papa. Meeting these “random” mothers and their children did help me a lot to lose my “fear” of speaking German in public. And that’s what I want for my son, too. I want for him to know that it is a great thing to speak more than one language. Too many people in Australia have already told me how great of a thing it is that I speak two languages and they wished they would have had that opportunity. That alone is enough reason for me to never ever give up my efforts in teaching my son to understand, speak, read and write German as he gets older. I don’t want him to be one of these people 30 years down the track saying “oh I wish my mother had taught me German, speaking 2 languages would be great”.
Sandra, thanks so much for adding your experience to this important thread. It sounds like things are progressing well for you and your son, and your positive attitude, and proactive efforts, will surely offer other parents inspiration.
I agree that Skype can be a very useful tool for connecting with other minority language speakers. Let me add links here to the two posts I’ve made concerning Skype…
3 Good Ways to Boost a Bilingual Child’s Language Ability and Loving Bond with Grandparents
A Powerful Twist on the Use of Skype to Promote the Minority Language
Sandra, thanks again for taking the time to share your experience! Best wishes from Japan to Australia!
I am French living in the UK and nearly always speak French to my kids, aged 3 and 5. The exception is conversations involving non French speakers.
I am aware that a lot of parents feel self conscious about using the minority language in public in fear of coming across as rude. I did feel self conscious myself in the first few months but decided to ignore these feelings as my priority was for my daughters to become bilingual. I decided that if I speak to them, it is in fact nobody else’s business what I tell them, it’s a private conversation. The feedback I get is usually positive but if some people felt it was rude and didn’t appreciate the way I bring up my children, all I could do is do my best to avoid them to ensure they don’t spoil my efforts. I don’t particularly seek to surround myself with closed minded people, so that’s fine.
I don’t avoid speaking English to English people in front of my daughters but they know it’s not addressed to them, so I don’t see it as a major issue. I do speak French in front of my daughters’ friends too, but if I sense that the friends are feeling left out, I translate and switch to a conversation in English, involving the said friends. Saying that, the need for these type of conversations has only started as my daughters got older, therefore already comfortable in the minority language.
This is working so far for us. But it certainly does help that most people, including the children, show a positive interest to our bilingualism. Also, my eldest daughter has spent time with French children, so understands that some children don’t speak English but are just as fun to play with!
Armelle, thank you for sharing your experience. It’s clear that your outlook and your consistency are paying off well. Good for you and your kids!
As your perspective suggests, I think it’s best to assume that most people will respond favorably when they hear a parent and child speaking a different language. When the opposite assumption is made, and the parent is concerned that others will somehow be troubled, this can lead to hesitant feelings about using the minority language in public…which could then undermine the necessary need and exposure for that language.
This is always going to be a tricky territory for bilingual families. I speak our minority language to our children while out and about at all times when it’s just them and me.
However, it all goes out of the window in an example like this one: I take my children and one of their friends to school. In the car the children are talking to each other and suddenly my daughter’s friend asks me a question. I obviously have to speak English – majority language – as she doesn’t speak Spanish.
My daughter is therefore listening to me speaking English. The rest of the conversation during the car journey is most likely going to be carried out in English, otherwise I’d be speaking to my children in Spanish and then repeating the same thing in English so that my daughter’s friend can understand.
It’s situations like the one above – and I can think of plenty others we face on a daily basis – where there’s little escape… Sometimes you have to speak the majority language in front of your children.
Natalia, I agree completely, this is a tricky issue for families everywhere, and it’s often difficult not to use the majority language, as you describe.
At the same time, I do think it’s wise to be cautious about how much the majority language is being used, particularly during the first few formative years. Once a firm foundation in the minority language has been established, and the child has been “conditioned” to communicate in the minority language, it may become less problematic for the minority language parent to use the majority language more freely, but when liberal use of the minority language is the case early on, this can end up undermining the child’s need to use that language actively. After all, from the child’s point of view, there isn’t a real need to use the second language if it’s clear that the parent also has fluency in the first language and is often willing to use it.
So there’s a key distinction, I think, between the early years, and the later years, when it comes to the “risk” involved in using the majority language. In your case, it sounds like you’ve successfully fostered that firm foundation in Spanish, and active ability in your kids, so your use of English isn’t as “risky” as it might otherwise be if you were a parent with a baby or toddler who hasn’t yet “conditioned” the child to communicate in the second language.
Although this challenge is widespread, each family must address it as effectively as they can given their own circumstances and goals. How strict a parent will want to be about using the majority language in front of the child depends entirely on these factors. I would only encourage parents to be conscious about their choices, and careful about the impact of their actions.
Yes, I agree with you, Adam.
It can be tricky in some cases for us, as daughter is already 4.5 but son is only 2.5. 😀 But we can only try!
Wholeheartedly agree with you when you say children can start to feel there’s really no need to speak the minority language when they see that everyone who surrounds them speaks the majority one.
Yes, this article hits the mark, it’s what I have done naturally before finding Bilingual Monkeys and it works. Only communicate in the minority to the kids and also only responding to them when they speak the minority is important. If you respond to their questions in the majority, they know you understand so they keep doing it and that habit is hard to break.
I also practice this attitude in my school. If kids talk to me in the majority, I ignore them until they at least try asking in the minority, or I tell them how to ask and get them to repeat it. It’s hard love but the kids respond very quickly and use what they’ve learnt sooner.
Keep up the good articles.
Cameron, I agree, persistence in using the minority language is vital, starting right from birth. At the same time, I do realize that this is “easier said than done” in the circumstances some parents must face.
In my case everyone around me speaks Italian. I am the only human channel from where my children can learn English!!! My children know that I also speak well their majority language. So sometimes it’s difficult to deal with them, specially when they demand that I have to read to them or speak to them in Italian!!! In that moments I sing a song that I learned with them from “Thomas and Friends”: “Don’t give up, determination, there will be a big sensation…” I hope it!!!
Reena, yes, when children don’t feel a genuine need to speak the minority language with the minority language parent—because that parent also has ability in the majority language—it can be a challenge getting them to use it. The best way to address this problem involves creating “monolingual opportunities” with other speakers of the minority language (relatives, tutors, babysitters, etc.) where they feel this real need to communicate.
At the same time, it’s also possible to get children using the target language more through playful strategies like A Sneaky Way to Get Bilingual Kids to Use the Minority Language. It’s fun and effective!
Adam, I do think your position is extreme and not often feasible but I admire that you kept doing it and that it paid off.
I wish I could stick to French all the time…but my head is in German most of the time, because I’ve lived in Germany for more than 6 years, because my husband and I have always communicated in German since we met (over 10 years), because all my friends are German (or English…I just realised now that a close friend moved back home to France, I actually have one French acquaintance here!), because I would feel weird to avoid seeing my friends or going to playgroups because of the increased exposure to German, because I would feel even weirder seeking French-speaking playgroups (and here in Munich there are some) or French-speaking playdates just for the sake of it, because I probably feel a bit German inside me.
So when we are in public, I tend to speak French with my son and try most of the time to repeat something in French, when I say something in German.
Elodie, your points are very valid. Depending on a parent’s particular circumstances and preferences, avoiding use of the majority language—especially to my extreme—may not be realistic. Still, I think it’s important to stress that liberal use of the majority language is likely to have an impact on the child’s own use of the two languages and raise the odds that the child will come to rely more on the majority language to communicate. Parents, of course, should be very aware of this possibility from the very start, otherwise they may face some disappointment and frustration when the child doesn’t use the minority language as actively as the parents had been hoping.
Very interesting posts. First I wanted to thank you for the post and replies and ask you for a bit of advice. I’m British educated Argentine living in Japan. My wife and I met in England at our UNI, moved to Japan almost a decade ago, we mainly speak English to each other, mixing it with Japanese whenever we’re out and about, almost never use Spanish.
I’m guessing because we live in Japan, and my wife is Japanese, the majority language in our household is and will be Japanese. However I’m still struggling to decide whether I should I speak English or Spanish to my unborn child, due this coming January 2015.
Most of my friends and colleagues are native English speakers, and almost all international schools here in Japan are English based schools. I feel English will be a more useful language, at least from this part of the planet.
However, I’m not a native speaker, I feel is simply wrong to speak anything else than Spanish to my own son. Regardless how proficient of English speaker I am, what are your thoughts on this?
A bit more data on us, both my wife and I are UK passport holders and Warwick graduates. Thanks again.
Hernan, first, a big CONGRATULATIONS to you and your wife as you await the arrival of your first child! If you haven’t already come across it, this page of links, Posts for New Parents, could be especially useful to you.
About your situation, you have the potential to hand down all three languages to your child and I would encourage you to take advantage of this fact. How?
1. If international school is a possibility for your family, then Japanese can be acquired from your wife and the community; English can be acquired from school (and, to some extent, from the influence of your shared communication in English with your wife and other English speakers), and Spanish can be acquired from you.
2. If international school isn’t part of the picture, it becomes a bit more tricky, but one arrangement might be: you use Spanish with the child, your wife uses English (while English continues to be your shared language), and Japanese is acquired from school and the community.
I don’t know how strongly your wife feels about using Japanese with the child, but clearly, as you expressed, you feel moved to communicate with your own children in Spanish, your mother tongue, so you should build your “family language plan” with this as one pillar of your arrangement. (I completely understand your feelings, as I explain in Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me.)
Hernan, I wish you all the best with your trilingual journey! And I look forward to hearing good news from you as time goes by! For now, cheers from Hiroshima!
Just came into work and saw your reply, cannot describe to you how happy it made me. Gracias.
International school isn’t really an option at the beginning. We were thinking the local Japanese primary school around our neighborhood, and hopefully an international secondary school. To be honest and purely financially speaking, we can only afford them when my wife gets back to work, with two kids in mind and fees starting at 2 million yen a year for almost all international schools in our area. These schools are out of my reach for the next 8 to 10 years.
Considering my wife and I attended local schools and university overseas, we wonder, are international private schools in Japan really worth it? Isn’t it better to save the cash and pay for Harvard.
Last question, are you paying?
PS: My wife is loving the bilingual shirts. If it helps supports the site, I’ll be buying some online.
Hernan, I was a teacher at Hiroshima International School for a number of years, but I don’t send my own kids there; they go to our local elementary school. I explain my thinking behind this decision in Should I Send My Child to an International School? (And, yes, the cost is a key consideration.)
If international school isn’t an option, and your wife is open to using English with your kids, then I suggest a “family language plan” like this could foster good trilingual ability in your children (assuming you and your wife are both proactive about providing exposure in the minority languages): you use only (mostly) Spanish with your children; your wife uses only (mostly) English; you use English with each other; and the child acquires Japanese from school and the community.
As for my “bilingual products” at Bilingual Style, I’d be really grateful for your kind support. The money from all purchases made at the store goes toward maintaining and expanding Bilingual Monkeys and The Bilingual Zoo.
Adam, what do you think about Hernan teaching his baby both Spanish and English and his wife Japanese? I speak Russian (my mother tongue) and Spanish to my children, the majority language of the community being English, and my kids are good in both minority languages. But because of the “bubble” I created for them trying to limit their exposure to English, their English is the weakest language and is quite poor. My kids are 20 month and 3 y.o.
Yulia, I’m glad to hear you’ve had a successful start in nurturing two minority languages on your own. Many parents, though—and especially if they’re not full-time caregivers—would find it difficult, without additional sources of support, to provide sufficient exposure in both languages to foster active ability in each. It’s possible, even, that instead of active ability, the child could develop passive ability in both minority languages because he doesn’t receive sufficient exposure in either one—they “steal” exposure from each other—as the majority language grows dominant and becomes the main language used. This is a real risk and so, depending on the family’s situation, it may be more effective to first focus most of the parent’s attention on one minority language, then once that language is well grounded, make efforts to add the other. The deciding factor, really, should be the amount of time and energy this parent can devote to the process (if few other sources of support are available) because, of course, nurturing even one minority language effectively can be a very big job!
Hello Adam and thank you for your reply. Luckily I am not alone in my trilingual journey. We have a Spanish au pair, at least twice a month we go to a Spanish playgroup and in our town there are good few Spanish speakers who my kids meet and practice their Spanish. In terms of Russian, we started Russian school once a week and I organise Russian play dates with kids of my Russian friends once or twice a week. Also we sometimes speak on Skype with their grandmother in Russia. I alternate days of speaking Russian/Spanish to my kids. As long as I manage to maintain such exposure to the 2 minority languages, do you still think that such exposure will not be sufficient to maintain active ability in the 2 minority languages and they will steal exposure from each other?
Yulia, it’s difficult for me to say, of course, especially not knowing your situation in detail. However, it sounds like you’re very proactive, with strong sources of support in your environment as well, so my sense is that you’ll continue to experience good success in fostering active ability in both minority languages. Keep at it, day by day!
Thank you Adam!
Just a quick question: do you speak to your wife in Japanese only? So at the dinner table, she understands English, but will converse with all of you in Japanese?
Holly, no, I’ve never used much Japanese in front of my children. This was a conscious choice to avoid the potential problem of undermining their need to communicate with me in English. So during meals, I speak only English, my wife speaks only Japanese, and my kids’ bounce back and forth between the two languages. This arrangement may be a bit odd, but it works for the most part and no doubt has aided my children’s bilingual development over the years.
So basically you and your wife can never have an actual conversation in a shared language unless the kids are in bed? That just sounds a bit too extreme to me personally. Of course we are lucky, my partner speaks English (minority language in our case) well so we use only English at home. I do want a bilingual kid but at what price? Just out of interest why couldn’t your wife speak English to you around them, since they are exposed to Japanese all day long at school etc?
Michelle, essentially, our daily actions must match our individual circumstances in order to achieve our personal aims. If my wife spoke English well, I would have welcomed her contribution to our children’s language exposure…but that just isn’t the case (as I explain more fully in What’s the Best Language Strategy for Raising Bilingual Children?). So, although I realize our choice of language use may be too “extreme” for some families, it’s the necessary trade-off we must make, in these particular circumstances, to achieve our aims for their bilingual development. Because the odds of success in your situation sound inherently higher than mine, you may not need to make the same sort of “sacrifices” for your goal (also see The 5 Biggest Sacrifices I’ve Made to Raise Bilingual Children.) How “extreme” we need to be in our actions all depends on our circumstances and our aims, and this will naturally be different for every family.
Thanks for your reply, Adam. So you and your wife communicate with each other in Japanese only when alone (not with kids)? For example, if you need to ask her a question, or vice versa which language do you use?
That’s right, Holly. In front of the kids, I only use English (unless we’re at the store or something). When it’s just my wife and me, I’ll use Japanese or English, depending on the subject matter or my mood. She mostly uses Japanese. (She doesn’t speak English well, but can understand quite a lot.)
I speak Dutch with my son and we are living in Israel. It helps that people react positively to us speaking our own language since Israel is a country of immigrants. The majority of the people speak two or more languages. Is is also important that the Dutch and the Dutch language have a certain status, due to the history of the Jews, Holland being a European country, and last but not least, because of football (soccer). People find it very interesting to learn we speak Dutch and always react very positively.
My son is 12 and his Hebrew is getting stronger. We talk about school stuff in Hebrew. That is logical. But we both find it important to keep using Dutch and not to lose it. My son is a proud Dutchman and, again, football helped a lot.
Gretha, thank you for sharing your positive experience. I wish you and your son continuing success through his teenage years!
I have read through this thread and am surprised to see only a very small number of posts alluding to the difficulties faced by the parent who only speaks one language. I speak only English; my other half is fluent in both English and Greek, and she speaks only Greek to our 2yo daughter. Consequently, when the 3 of us are together, there cannot be a dialogue between me and my other half. That alone surely undermines the idea of a family. Secondly, I am completely left out and feel excluded and despairing within my own family. (I anticipate someone will say ‘well, learn Greek’ – on account of my very demanding job I simply do not have the time, despite buying Rosetta Stone one day in a fit of enthusiasm). On our trips to my other half’s country of birth, I am surrounded by people – including my mother-in-law – who only speak Greek to our daughter and in front of me. This is all exacerbated by the fact that I have very little time at home with our daughter and she therefore hears little English. My other half will speak Greek in front of other English-only family members of mine as well. I personally think it’s rude. After many, many arguments, she will not be dissuaded. And accordingly I am excluded within my own family.
I personally think it’s a very divisive thing. And I find it difficult to believe there aren’t other ‘one language only’ parents out there who feel it similarly excluding. Would be interested to hear how others deal with this / what they think.
Ben, I hear your frustration and hope that this response can be helpful. I don’t think your feelings are uncommon among majority language parents, but since it’s mainly minority language parents who visit this site, the comments on this post largely come from that perspective.
Without knowing the full details of your situation, I hesitate to offer specific advice, but I would stress that compromise in such circumstances is vital and both you and your wife should hear out the other’s point of view and find ways to be supportive so that the situation is both happier for everyone and yet still conducive for your daughter’s bilingual development. This can be a tricky balancing act, and I wouldn’t presume to say what a healthy compromise should look like in your case, but I do think you’ll both need to move more toward the middle as well as accept the fact that the bilingual aim, which I expect is very important to your wife, since Greek is her mother tongue, necessarily includes certain sacrifices. (Your daughter’s English side won’t finally be an issue once she starts schooling.)
If you’d like further feedback, please feel free to also share your concerns at my forum, The Bilingual Zoo. It’s a warm, supportive community and you would be welcome to join us.
This is such an interesting one for me right now. Living in the U.K. with a French husband, I’m all too aware of how important it is to embed the minority language and this is why I speak French to my kids (age 2 and 6 months). I’m the primary caregiver so I knew my hubby’s interaction with them wouldn’t be enough in these early years.
I have recently been worrying about whether I am actually helping my daughter by not speaking English to her, and was considering starting to do it when outside the home. My instinct tells me English will take over quickly as she’ll soon be surrounded by it at nursery and school. But another part of me feels bad that she can’t communicate with anyone other than her parents right now. Reading this post makes me think I should stick to our original strategy – the formative years are so important to ensure she’ll always speak French to us. I’d really appreciate your thoughts on this as I guess she’s not truly bilingual at this stage, and only will be through her own engagement in the community later.
Thanks so much,
Ruth, this sort of situation can be tricky, and it very much depends on the amount of input your husband is able to offer in French on an ongoing basis. If you feel, in combination with the French exposure you, too, are providing at home, that this input would be sufficient for sustaining the good progress you’re making in French, then shifting toward the use of English outside the home would be one way of nurturing her early acquisition of this language.
Of course, it would be important to stay as consistent as possible about your “domains of use”: French at home and English outside the home. But it also occurs to me that, when the three of you are together, this consistency could be challenged because how would the family communicate efficiently out in the world? Would more specific “domains of use”—where the family, together, speaks French both inside and outside the home, but when alone with your daughter, you speak French at home and English outside the home—would this arrangement be practical and sustainable?
Because I tend to advocate, when it’s possible, a strong “head start” for the minority language if the child will eventually be attending school in the majority language, I actually think your bilingual strategy will pay off well over the long run. At the same time, I understand your feelings about fostering her English side, too. Ideally, perhaps, could that exposure and support come from largely outside the family, at least at this stage? Could you find a playful “friend”—like a college student, say—to spend time with your daughter, in English, on a regular basis? In fact, I did something similar when my kids were small, hiring a college student (for a modest amount) to play with my kids in the target language. (I was always home at the time, so it wasn’t really babysitting—it was expressly for language input from another source.)
It’s certainly true that her English will grow quite strong when she’s immersed in a school environment, but offering her some degree of exposure to this language now—but without undercutting your progress in French—could be helpful for a more comfortable transition (for the whole family) into a full-on English-speaking setting. And, naturally, I bet your side of the family would be happy to hear her start speaking a little more English, too!
So maybe consider a combination of limited English exposure from you (instead of the inside-outside approach, how about simply a set “English time” each day at home, just the two of you, for reading books, singing songs, playing games, etc.?), along with some exposure from other sources.
Ruth, I hope these thoughts are helpful! I look forward to hearing more good news from you as time passes!
I have just discovered your websites because I finally admitted to myself that what we’ve been doing isn’t going in the right direction. I’ve got a 3.3 year old and a 6 month old baby, I’m a German speaker living in New Zealand with an English husband. I would have said I always speak German, but looking at everyone’s comments I realised I’m not actually, I talk English to my husband and as my child’s social skills have been a big focus, we have frequent play dates and go to playgroups where I speak English. Maybe the past 2 months I’ve started addressing him in
English if it was for the benefit of others. I realise my errors here.
My boy has been quite late with his language acquisition and he still doesn’t always speak full sentences. He will always mix languages in a sentence and the past month it’s become mostly English. I always repeat what he said in German and he used to repeat that, but now he just repeats it in English again. What’s your advice on how to respond to this? Correct again? If I didn’t respond to his English, I couldn’t respond to anything he says (with every sentence having done English in it) and I feel like “playing dumb” would be bad for our relationship. I will be actively working on more German input through radio and music and force myself to have less play dates for a while to have less English exposure, but I’m unsure how to manage the English language output he already has. Any suggestions are welcome!!
Katharina, given your circumstances, I strongly encourage you to emphasize your German and “de-emphasize” your English, to the most extreme degree that you realistically can. Practically speaking, this means *only* speaking to your children in German, even when you’re simultaneously using English with others. I understand that switching back and forth consistently between these two languages can be a challenge, but if you permit yourself to use English with them, then you’re essentially giving them “permission” to use English with you. Your aim, particularly during these first few formative years, is to “condition” them to communicate with you in German. And, as always, this comes down to the two “core conditions” for fostering active language ability: providing your kids with ample exposure to German (as much as humanly possible from you and other sources!) and nurturing their need to use this language with you.
If you strengthen your efforts in these ways, your son will likely start using more German with you over the weeks and months ahead. Just stay patiently persistent about these efforts. In the meantime, when he speaks to you in English, you can reformulate what he says in German, to model the “correct” language for him, then go on with your interaction. You could also gently impress upon him that German is “Mommy’s language” and English is “Daddy’s language” to help him begin to make this distinction more clearly.
In terms of language exposure, my best advice is to talk a lot to your kids and read a lot to them, too. (So you need a sizable library of German picture books as well as “wordless picture books” that you can narrate to them in German.) The more talkative you are, and the more you read aloud to them, the more progress in German they will surely make.
For ongoing support and camaraderie, I warmly invite you to join me and hundreds of other parents raising bilingual kids (some with German as the minority language, like Mayken in France) at my forum, The Bilingual Zoo.
I hope this initial response is helpful to you, Katharina. I’m cheering for you and your kids!