Nov 272014


We have an 18 months son whom we are trying to bring up as bilingual in French and English. I am American but grew up in a French country where I was exposed to both languages since I was a baby, so am a native speaker. My husband is English and we live in London. I have been speaking to my son exclusively in French since he was 3 months old but speak to my husband in English as he doesn’t speak French. My son goes to an English-speaking nursery two full days a week. He is saying several words and a few sentences in English (although his first few words were in French) and clearly understands what he is being told in both languages, but only seems to speak to us in English. I am concerned he is not using much French; should I be concerned and if yes, what can I do differently to ensure he learns both languages?



Dear Julia,

Thank you for your question. Knowing what should be done for your children to speak both languages is a concern for many parents. May I ask you in which French-speaking country you grew up? You are saying that you were exposed to the two languages since you were born. Does it mean your parents do not have the same mother tongue, or that you were speaking English at home and French outside the home? Your parents may be able to tell you when and how you started to speak French.

With the information you give us, I imagine that you are speaking in French to you son five days a week as he goes to a nursery two-days a week. So I feel that you give him enough exposure for him to learn French and acquire the language. At his age, it is very important to talk to him a lot. You have to spend time playing, reading, talking to him and asking him kindly to answer. In a nursery, they do spend time talking and playing with the children. There are a lot of interactions between the people in charge and the children. They spend their day playing and talking with the children; they are reading stories; they are trying to make them talk and interact with them. No, you should not be concerned as your son hears French and understands it. However, if you are wishing him to master it, you may need to find moreĀ time to play and talk with your son. Having him hear French could be enough – he will have what is called a passive learning of the language – but for him to speak it, you need to focus on activities with him where he will have to talk and answer to you. I would have a lot of ideas to share with you, feel free to come back to me and we can talk about it in detail.

I hope Julia that I answered your question. But do not worry, your son is still young and reflecting on what you do with him will help him develop his French.



  11 Responses to “Q&A: Our toddler only answers in English”

  1. Hi, I am Polish and my husband is English. Our son who is now 12 was born in Dublin where we have been living for the last 13 years. I always spoke to my son in Polish also in the presence of people who do not speak Polish (including my husband who had always respect for this and ended up trying to learn Polish, he still doesn’t really speak the language but understands a lot). My son went to an Irish full-time creche when he was one year old. His first language was English and until he was four years old he would answer to me – always speaking in Polish ONLY to him – in English. Before he started primary school (at the age of 4,5) I always tried to create opportunities for him to hear Polish not only from me but also from friends and family – mostly during holidays and on the phone, via movies etc. When he was four and still not speaking Polish I decided – following advice found in Elisabeth Deshaye’s book “L’enfant bilingue” – to take longer holidays and to spend six weeks in my native country, Poland, with my only Polish speaking family and friends. After two weeks, my son started speaking Polish! šŸ™‚ It was like a miracle :)). We left Ireland with an active monolingual child in June and came back to Dublin with an active bilingual child in August! I would advise other parents to try to bring their child for a bit longer into an environment which uses only one language and see what happens :). My son is now fully fluent in both languages… although he has never lived in Poland and has never attended a Polish school.

  2. The advice above sounds really good. My wife and I live in Wales and are trying to bring up our son using English and Welsh. He comes out with a lot more English as it’s the language my wife uses and she spends more time with him during the week. That said, he does seem to understand what I say in Welsh and can answer some basic questions (…mainly about animal sounds!). We’re really lucky that there at lots of kiddies’ activities in Welsh in our area as well as lots of books for kids and a Welsh language television channel. Even with all that, I’m not sure if we’re doing everything right or all we can, but I guess part of it is about doing what you can and hoping it works.

  3. Just don’t worry. I’ve had this worry with my kids too. But I don’t worry now.

    I’m South African and speak English as my native language. However, I live in Taiwan, my wife is Taiwanese, and my kids have grown up here. So their whole life involves Chinese. I speak to them in English all the time, but they know I can understand Chinese too so usually speak to me in Chinese. When my folks came to visit, my daughter managed to switch over to English to talk with them. Her level was perhaps 2-3 years below her age level, but usable. She had a good reason to try and speak in English. My son, who is only 5, got on with them, but couldn’t speak much.

    My mother grew up in South Africa as an English speaker in an English environment, but her parents spoke to her in Norwegian and she spoke to them in English. All her childhood it was like that, and she never spoke Norwegian to them. After school my mother went to Norway for some cooking course or something and she took all of two weeks to get on just fine in Norwegian.

    In conclusion, just keep talking to them, and when the time comes, they can fill in the gaps quite easily.

  4. We are in the same situation. I am French and my husband is Italian. We both speak fluently each other language and live in the UK. Our son, now 3.5 years old understands perfectly both home languages but answers in English. We are encouraging him as much as possible to reply in French and Italian but although he includes words he doesn’t put sentences together. He also keep speaking to his grand-parents in English which means they do not understand him well but get by. Last summer we were hoping for change but he kept answering to his little French friends in English… We do not want to put too much pressure on him and really hope he will eventually decide to reply in the home languages. We will keep doing what we do, read stories, speaking to him only in our mother tongue and go regularly to Italy and France. And hope he will finally switch!

  5. Thank you for the question, Julia and thank you for your answer, Isabelle. I have the same issue too. I have a 4.75 year old daughter and a 3.5 year old daughter in London. Ethnically I am Chinese and I speak Mandarin to them. My daughters both understand some Mandarin, but very seldom reply in Mandarin. My husband and I speak English to each other and my children went to English speaking nursery, and now English speaking school 5 days a week, so I can see their English progress at a much quicker rate than Mandarin.

    My parents and relatives are in Singapore (where a lot of English is spoken) or Hong Kong (where they speak Cantonese) so I don’t have a natural exclusively Mandarin speaking environment to go to during holidays.

    In fact I’m concerned that as time goes by, I would have to speak more English to them as they don’t understand the increasingly complex vocab that older children would use. Can you please share with me ideas you have with children who understand your language but reply in English?

    Thank you very much in advance.

  6. Good evening all readers,

    Thanks for your comment after I answered Julia.
    I think that it is important to be consistent. There are many ways to have you children speak your mother tongue when you live abroad. It has to be done in a playful manner.
    Gosianna had a great idea and it helped her child a lot – However, it is easier to do when children are small when they are not conscious of the language they have to use. When they are older, you may have to use other types of tools. It is important to make your child understand why it is important to be able to speak the other language than the local language. From a very young age, this has to be explained to them.

  7. It is nice to hear that a lot of people are in a similar situation–I always felt that I was the only one whose child answers in the majority language! I think it is hard to get the child to reply in the minority language when she knows the parent is perfectly fluent in the other language (and especially if she was in an majority language day-care situation early in life). That said, after several years of worry, I am starting to take a similar view as Peter Stewart: the seeds are planted, the child will bloom in the appropriate situation!

  8. I am British living in the Netherlands. My eldest son would only speak Dutch, I only spoke English with him. He was at a Dutch daycare 2 afternoons a week.
    Although his father and I spoke English to each other my son preferred Dutch. Once a week we went to a English speaking mothers and toddlers group where at least half of the children were bilingual so he could get away with speaking Dutch
    When he was 3 a lady came with her 3 year old son they had just moved over here. The new boy asked my son could he have his Thomas the tank Engine back and to my surprise my son answered in English.

    Now my son who is 22 swaps between the 2 languages depending on who he is talking to

  9. I’m a Korean and live in Hong Kong. I have 10 month old twin boys. I speak Korean and some Cantonese, my husband and his whole family speak Cantonese. Since my babies’ birth I’ve been speaking Korean to them as it’s my mother tongue. And my husband speaks Cantonese to them. My parents in law don’t like me to speak Korean to my babies and keep telling me to have Cantonese news or news channel on always so my babies listen to Cantonese language. I believe if I do as they want me to, my babies will lose Korean. What do you think? Your advice will greatly appreciated.

    • Dear Tina,

      If you are the only source of Korean language exposure to your children, then it is important that you speak and read as much as you can and I would also recommend to have background music and TV in Korean to increase the time the hear the language. I would politely explain this to your parents-in-law. They will learn Cantonese in any case.

      Hope this helps!

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