Question

Thanks for your blog, it definitely gives some motivation to maintain all languages spoken by the family. I need your advice regarding talking to a child in a language that was learned, not mother tongue or second language from the family.

Me and my husband, as well as our families, were born in Russia and now live in Israel and speak Hebrew. So we are bilingual in Russian and Hebrew. I learned German while studying in Germany and quite fluent in it, we also lived in the UK for a while, so our English is also not bad. Right now our baby girl is 10 months old and we speak mainly Russian to her and mix a bit of Hebrew while being in public or sometimes while talking to each other. We plan to expose her to Russian mainly until age of 2, then she will go to kindergarten there she will learn Hebrew and English (at school).

My question is – can I do something with my German and English? I speak 6 languages, Russian, Ukrainian, Hebrew, German, English and Spanish. We would prefer to add third and even fourth language at some point. Raising her bilingual seems to be not enough to us. How to do it wise and less damaging to her? Should I talk to her in English and German, if yes then when and in which circumstances? Should we try to find her an English speaking kindergarten or hire English/German speaking teacher? OR maybe it’s better to wait until she starts talking Russian and Hebrew fluently and then add German and English?

Thanks,
Natasha

Answer

Dear Natasha,

Thank you for your feedback and your question. Based on what you write, your daughter will become bilingual, by picking up Russian at home and Hebrew from the community. With regards to English – will she learn it as a foreign language or will she later go to a school where English is the teaching language?

You don’t have to be a native speaker to pass on a language to your child (see this response to a similar question from another mother), so you can opt to speak either German or English with her, if that is what you would prefer. It sounds that German may be the stronger language for you, so that would be the best option. However what you do need to consider is how comfortable you would feel about speaking German to your daughter all the time. If you want her to become fluent, you would also have to arrange some interaction with native German speakers – for example a childminder or some other regular exposure to the language. As she is so young, I wouldn’t go for the formal teaching option. You could also consider using a variation of the Time and place strategy (as described in the above mentioned response). What about your husband, does he speak (or understand) German? How does he feel about German becoming the language between you and your daughter?

With regards to English, if you were to find her an English-speaking kindergarten, she would of course learn English from there. Children can pick up several languages simultaneously, and they learn best if the exposure is consistent – for example if you were to consistently use the One parent, one language strategy at home with Russian and German (with some additional German support) and she were go to an English-speaking kindergarten, it is highly like she would learn all three languages, and then pick up Hebrew later on. It is difficult to give exact advice, as it all depends on how much and what type of exposure she will get to each language. You will not “damage” her with exposing her to several languages, but you should also not compare her language development to monolingual children. Bilingual children (meaning speaking more than one language) learn their languages differently. For example, their vocabulary in one specific language may be smaller than that of a monolingual child, but counting all the words in the different languages they probably know as many or more words.

All this said, language is about communication, don’t let the goal of passing on several languages become something that hinders the communication between you and your daughter or the family in general. Language skills are great, but a tight bond between all of you is the most important thing.

Would love to hear how you are getting on!
Kind regards
Rita

P.S. Here are a few posts you might find useful:
How to pass on a minority language in a bilingual family.
Bilingual children: (re)introducing a family language.

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