Tuesday, 13 May 2008

RESOURCES: Should I speak a non-native language with my child?

The million-dollar question! Obviously, I have made my choice and, so far, thankfully, it's been a wonderful success, but I have agonised over it, and it wasn't always easy in the beginning. Having discussed this issue with other parents, I've found it is not a choice made lightly.

It may be there are no other options to create bilingualism (ie local immersion school, native-speaking spouse, finances to pay for native-speaking nanny, etc), or that you wish to create total immersion of the language in the home, or simply that you wish to have more opportunity to speak this language. Speaking a non-native language with your child is often the only way for your child to reap all of the advantages of bilingualism.

A major factor is likely to be your own level of language ability - if it's basic or intermediate, you're going to have to work overtime to keep up with your child.

The 'pro' arguments are fairly clear and compelling, and pretty much the same arguments as for speaking a native minority language to your child:
  • Access to another culture and, therefore, a heightened tolerance of difference.
  • Increased self-confidence (I still remember the first time someone being impressed that I spoke Welsh!).
  • Vocationally advantageous.
  • Easier to learn another second language.
  • A special bond with your child via your special language.

However, parents have also spoken of the particular 'cons' of speaking a non-native language with their child:

  • Concerns about poor grammer/vocabulary/accent.

This is not neccessarily a great problem - after all, surely it is better to speak another language poorly, with an unusual accent, than not at all.

  • Unable to express linguistic subtleties, including strong emotion, humour and precision of phrase, particulary for safety messages.

This is one of the cases where I think it's okay to cheat! If you need to repeat what you are saying in the majority language from time to time to be sure the message is understood, it shouldn't inhibit the minority language acquisition.

  • A missing emotional link - do the words 'I love you' carry the same emotional weight in a second language?

Again, okay to cheat here! I often say 'I love you' in both languages, which is doubly meaningful :-)

  • It is an enormous and ongoing effort - even more so than for native speakers of the language - not only do you have all the usual challenges of raising a bilingual child, but also the ongoing learning of the language yourself.

You certainly reap what you sow in this case - it's wonderful to see all that energy turned into such a positive gift for your child.
  • When your child makes linguistic errors, you are never sure whether this is typical for a bilingual child of the same age range, or peculiar to your non-native situation.

This is one reason it's so great to hook up with other parents raising multilingual children :-)

  • Initial strangeness of speaking a non-native language with your child.

This seems to be a temporary phenomenon, so perseverence is key.

  • Negative reactions from family/friends/strangers.

Just explain how important this is for your child - that's a hard argument to counter!

My own feelings are that it does take something away, but it gives something incredible back - and there is nothing quite like hearing your child chatting away like a native in a language that you struggled for years to learn!

Pin It now!


  1. Hi,
    I just read your blog post and really appreciate your thoughts. I really like what you said about "cheating" in regards to expressing love and safety messages. I have always felt a little strange telling my daughter that I love her in German, seeing as I have never had a love relationship in that language. I thought about telling her in English too, but have also read of the importance of consistency.

    I am an American who spent a few years in Germany, and teach German here in the states. I love the language, and don't have any doubts about the benefits. But I am still struggling at times, thinking about how comfortable I will feel down the road when she's older. I think what I need to do is focus on the now, which is going great...I am working on increasing my vocabulary, helping my husband learn the language, and enjoying the moments where it feels completely natural. She's only 4 months, and I've been speaking German with her since day 1...like I said, it's mostly great, though my mind often gets the best of me, and I find myself questioning whether I'll be able to keep it up forever, when she's older. But there's no way to tell, and by then it will feel totally normal, so we'll just have to play it by ear.

    Thanks again!
    Tamara in Portland, OR

  2. Hello, I read your article and it gives me courage! I would like to "introduce" English to my 19 m/o boy. We are bilingual family too, I am Indonesian and my husband is French, and we live in France. So, I talk to my boy in Indonesian and the father in French only.

    I just started "english class" for my boy at Gymboree, during the class I talk to him only in English. I was not sure if it is good, not sure when and how I can talk to him in English. If you have any ideas, that would be great :)


  3. I read your post and find it very interesting. I would like to ask you if your husband is a native speaker of the language you speak to your child as non-native or he isn't.

    Thanks for the nice blog you have here

  4. Sorry to respond so late - I've only just spotted these comments!

    Tamara - It sounds like you've got off to a great start! It doesn't have to be forever, just until it's quite ingrained (and then a bit of maintenance). A lot of parents just put their kids into immersion school until they're 11, for eg, as by then they're fluent and can focus on the majority language again. English in the US will be so dominant that you won't have to worry about her picking that up! Which leaves you free to focus on the German - for now :-)

    prkemby - Great to hear from you - it's lovely that you have 3 languages, although the English will probably take a back seat, perhaps just a passive knowledge with so little exposure. It's amazing how much exposure is needed for a child to get fluent, especially if they are going to speak it rather than have a passive understanding. However, given the usefulness of English, it's a good language to get a head start on and your son should find English lessons a lot easier later on! If you want him to be trilingual, you will need to up the English exposure without jeapordising the Indonesian (no need to worry about the French in France!), so perhaps you could hire a tutor to play with your son in English, as if you only talk Indonesian half the time you'll risk him not becoming fluent in either of the minority languages.

    John - My husband is not a native speaker of French either - and speaks barely any French at all - though he is picking it up fast these days!

  5. Hi, I have just stumbled upon your blog and have to say I am really enjoying reading it! I am also trying to introduce French to my children and am also a non native speaker. I love your idea of reviewing French children's books on your blog - might have to add a page like that to my blog ;o)
    I have started a toddler group in my local area for other parents who also wish to introduce some French to their children as I struggled to find any opportunites for Little Imp to socialise and speak French. We sing songs and do some crafts in French each week, which is great fun. I am sure that I will become an avid reader of your blog - and am very jealous of the fact that you have a French library so near, I have to order French books in to my library and it takes months to get hold of them :o(
    Anyway, just wanted to say hello and well done on your fabulous blog!

  6. Thank you for sharing your experience and your reasons. Your dedication is remarkable. My wife and I are learning Chinese along with Elena (7) and Pablo (4). Although our mandarin progresses (very) slowly, it is true that it creates a special bond between us. Especially when we sing a song together at our local chinese restaurant!


    1. Thanks for this, Franck. I'm glad you are managing to bring Chinese to your children, which is apparently going to be the most spoken language in the world in the not-too-distant future!


Please comment, as I love to hear your thoughts!

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...