Question

Hello,

I am from Poland and the father of a 20 months old daughter. For me and my wife out mother tongue is Polish. I caught up an idea to introduce another language to my child from TV cartoons … let me explain. Here in Poland in national television, there is a national program of common bilingualism, which encourages parents for teaching their children another language in home, nursery and the kindergarten from early months.

I have dug deep into the topic, read some information about difference between: having a foreign language and having the second language, etc. I have also read some information about advantages for children learning another language. As far as I am concerned, English is my foreign language. I have been learning for years, never have been in the UK and I am on FCE level (passed an exam a couple of years ago). Neither have we any roots with the British culture, nor is anyone in our family speaking the language.

I am aware of the fact that my family is monolingual, however I know that it is still possible to raise our child as bilingual. My sister who married Austrian and moved to Italy is raising two daughters who are able to speak in three languages (In Italian, German and Polish). They are all very intelligent girls and I know that for them it was easy to absorb those languages when they have lived with them from birth.

Because I know that one-parent one-language is the best approach I have talked to my daughter for a week only in English just to check how I would feel with that and what would be the reaction of my daughter. It is worth mentioning she hasn’t started to speak in Polish yet. All I can say, my daughter is like a sponge. I noticed she can really fast adopt to her father’s language and after one week of speaking with her I know she understands such phrases like: Come to me, Give me your hands, Hands up (when changing clothing), Wash your hands, Get under the covers (she picks her duvet when going to sleep), she knows what potty means, she can find her bottle with the compote when asked to bring, she can show me the cat and the dog when asked. We have watched English movies on TV, listened to songs, etc. That is what I have done with her, so far so good.

However, here are my doubts about all these things… My English is not perfect. I know I would have to make a huge effort to give her enough language input, variety of the vocabulary and should do this every day for the next 5 – 6 years. My first language is Polish and I feel that my true emotions, I can express only in that language. It is a little hard for me. I am curious how other monolingual parents deal with that? Furthermore, bilingualism is not ubiquitous and I know that for most people it would be a surprise, I would probably have to expect raised eyebrows. She will finally start speaking in English someday and for most people it could be a bizarre, artificial situation (maybe even for me…)

My primary motivation for all this is that I could give her the second language, she could learn it easily, she could develop her cognitive skills, she would be better in school etc. She would have secret communication language with her dad 🙂 My wife however understands English as well.

I am also a little worried if it is not too late… She is 20 months old. She hasn’t started speaking and I know that introducing another language could delay the moment when she finally start talking in Polish. Is it not too late? Will it not confuse her world? The other thing I am worried about is Polish. Her dad will be developing her skills in English. I think that my wife would probably do this at the same time in Polish with at least not smaller commitment.

If I decide to carry on with the English my plan would look like this:
1. For the next 1 year, I would be the only person talking to her in English. Later I would think about popular Helen Doron’s lessons or maybe I would find a native speaker … English classes are only once a week for 30 minutes.
2. OPOL solution is ok, but would have to probably modify it a little, don’t know with what results. I would like to talk to her in English but when being with others (parents, grandparents or with anyone else) I would return to Polish, just to avoid … questions, at least at the beginning of that process…
3. I would like to use the language whenever it is possible. Introduce flashcards, songs, music and the books.

Could you please throw light on my situation? Give me some answers on the questions appeared in my letter? Any help will be very much appreciated.

Thank you,
Piotr




Answer

Dear Piotr,

Thank you for your interesting and detailed question. I admire your passion and commitment to giving your daughter the chance of becoming bilingual in Polish and English! I will do my best to address all the points you raise, which are (please comment with any follow-up questions if you feel I have missed anything):

1. Teaching your daughter a language that you are not native in.
2. You can express your emotions best in Polish.
3. Others’ reactions to your decision to speak English with your daughter.
4. Is it too late to start (your daughter is 20 months)?
5. Will her Polish develop later because of the English?
6. Will your daughter be confused by you speaking English to her?

1. You can give your daughter a good head start in becoming an English-speaker by doing all the activities that you describe in your letter. As she will not be interacting with any native English speakers, she will most likely pick up at least some of your accent and her English will not sound nativelike. If you want her to become fluent and have less of an accent, it would be good to introduce some kind of activity involving a native English speaker as soon as this can be arranged.

2. If you have read any of my previous answers, you might already have seen that even though I think a language is a wonderful, life-long gift you can give a child, it is not more important than a close relationship between the two of you. OPOL is a good strategy, but would in my opinion not be the best choice for you in its “pure” form. My recommendation is that you use a variation of the time and place strategy where you select a specific time or location, which you dedicate to speaking only English with your daughter. This way you will still be able to use Polish for those more intimate and in-depth discussions. One suggestion is to dedicate a room (or a part of a room) in the house for English – you would then do all the fun activities and exercises in here. Even your wife could join in, if she felt like it – and your daughter would take great joy in teaching her mother! You, on the other hand, can use Polish when you feel it is the more appropriate language for a specific discussion and also when others are around.

3. The choice of language you speak with your daughter is yours and your wife’s to make. Yes, there will probably be raised eyebrows, but that is not something you should take into account when deciding what to do. People will always have (and unfortunately also express) their opinions on the parenting choices we make – best just to ignore them.

4. It is definitely not too late to start with English at 20 months. As you state yourself, she has already picked up many words and phrases, which is a great indicator of how well she is learning!

5. Children’s language development vary hugely. If you decide to continue with the English, you will never be able to know how she would have developed had she only learnt Polish. Should a brother or sister come along, you can also not compare their language development, as there can be great differences even between siblings. What people sometimes perceive as a language delay in bilingual children, is more often than not a difference in the order a child learns. A bilingual child should also never be compared with a monolingual child – if a monolingual knows for example seven words, it is still less than a bilingual who knows four words in two languages (= eight words)! On all accounts, research has found that by the age of five, on average, bilingual children have caught up with their monolingual peers in both of their languages. Providing she will be exposed to a varied Polish input (which I presume will be the case with her mother, the rest of the family and friends speaking it), your daughter’s Polish will be fine.

6. Bilingualism does not cause confusion. If you separate the languages as described above, there will probably also not be too much mixing. Do keep in mind though that all bilingual children usually mix their languages to start with, and that you should not be concerned if/when this happens. Bilingual children soon figure out which word belongs to which language.

I hope I have been able to allay some of your concerns, and I wish you the best of luck with your quest to bring up your daughter to speak both Polish and English. She is very lucky to have such a dedicated father! Please follow-up with any additional questions you may have.

Kind regards,
Rita

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