Question

My wife and I are having a baby, we are truly excited but we are scared about the language in how to educate our child. We are of different nationalities, Portuguese and Russian, we live in Germany (since one year) and our common language is English (our German language is still developing).’

We have been reading about bi-language parenting, but in our case it’s a bit of a mess, at school our child should speak German, most of the day he will be surrounded with German. At home, we both want to pass on our language (Portuguese and Russian). However, between my wife and me we only speak English.

What should we do? How many languages can we honestly hope to raise our child in? Also, how to cope with the fact that I don’t speak Russian and will be never to have insight on their conversations.

Should we force ourselves to learn perfect German and have that as a common language, or should I learn Russian (and my wife Portuguese). Should we move to another country like UK where at least we can all have a common language?

Please help,
Alvaro



Answer

Dear Alvaro,

Thank you for your message and congratulations on the happy family-addition-to-be!

First of all, please don’t be scared about the language situation – instead be excited about the prospect that your child will grow up to speak many languages! Based on your family language setup this will most certainly be the case. As you are planning ahead and thinking about the options in advance, this gives me even more confidence that you will successfully raise your little boy or girl to become fluent in several languages.

Also, your case is not “a bit of a mess” – you would be surprised to discover how many migrant families are in a similar situation as you are! As you rightly state, your child will learn German (presuming you stay in the country) at nursery or by the latest at school, so you need not worry about the German part of the equation. You don’t have to quickly become fluent German for the sake of making it the common language of the family, I would actually discourage you (not from learning it, but) from making it your home language. The reason for this is that once your child gets more exposed to German, the possibility that he or she would avoid Russian and/or Portuguese in favour of German when speaking with both of you would be at lot higher if German were to be one of the languages you use at home. This would make it more difficult for you to maintain the level of Russian/Portuguese exposure.

Both of you want to speak your mother tongues with your child (which I fully agree with), so your strategy will be a variation of the minority language at home (mL@H) strategy, with the modification that you actually have two minority languages in the home. In this scenario, consistency in language use is more important than ever, so make sure your child gets exposed to both Russian and Portuguese as much as possible. If one of you will be a stay-at-home parent, I would recommend that the other parent reads the bedtime stories and also does some additional activities during the weekends to ensure a balanced exposure to both languages.

If you continue speaking English with your wife, your child will most likely become a receptive bilingual in English, i.e. understand but not speak it. This will not confuse your child, nor will it negatively affect the learning of any other language. English is probably the easiest language to arrange other exposure for, and your child will have a head start in learning it later on in life. While it is fine for you two to speak English to each other, when you address your child, I recommend that you stick to your own languages.

You ask how to cope with the situation when one of you does not understand what the other parent says to your child, and I can understand your concern. However, keep in mind that it will take quite a while before he or she learns either of the languages and that initially the language is very simple. Since you mention learning each other’s languages as an option, I take it that you are both open to learning at least some Russian/Portuguese. If you have the time and energy to learn them well, that would be great, but if this does not happen, don’t worry. Knowing some basics would be a good start, so that you can have an idea about the topic of the discussion. You will also both be learning each other’s languages alongside your little one.

The most important thing is to discuss this openly between yourselves and agree to translate whenever necessary and to ask when either of you would like to know what is being said. If anyone of you feels left out, speak to each other about the situation. Also, agree to never use your language to try to hide anything from the other parent.

I do not see the need to move to an English-speaking country to gain a common language. Translating back and forth, and family members using different languages in a discussion will most likely become the norm in your family. It did so in mine and I have heard the same comment from several other families with multiple languages. It might be difficult to see how this will work ahead of time, but trust me, it does! Just make sure that you and your wife agree on the principles I mentioned above.

Good luck with everything, and please do get back to us with an update and any further questions you might have.

Kind regards,
Rita

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