Question

Dear Family Language Coaches,

My first son will soon be born and my husband and I have to make the difficult decision which languages to speak with him. I am German and we are living in Germany. So one of his languages will definitely be German. My husband’s native language is Hebrew, but since the last 7 years he has lived in England and Germany and 98% of his daily communication happens in English. The two of us speak English with each other, too. I understand basic Hebrew, he understands German alright but speaks it only broken. The child’s grandparents, aunts cousins etc. from my husbands side all live in Israel. They would prefer to speak to the child in Hebrew, but are capable of English communication, too.

The question is if and how we should balance the English and Hebrew exposure to our son. The most ‘natural’ approach for me would be, that each of us speaks his/her native language with the child and we continue to speak English with each other, since we have no other shared language, and hope that the child will not be confused by the third language in the house and catch some English, too.

Alternatively my husband thinks about giving up Hebrew and raising our child English-German, as this might be easier for everyone involved. We have no Hebrew-speaking network around us and he fears, that it would feel awkward to speak a language as “weird” as Hebrew outside the home to his child. Aside from his family (always a travel away), he would be the only Hebrew influence on the child. He speaks English fluently and on a high level (but in the end he will never speak like a native speaker would…)

Do you have any advice for us? I want to give my son the chance to grow up bilingual or even trilingual. But I am afraid, that the German influence (mother and outside world), will be too dominant if in addition the father will not push his native language consequently.

Thank you for your help!
Best wishes,
Nele




Answer

Hello Nele,

Thank you for writing to our team of family language coaches and congratulations on your upcoming happy event!

Deciding on which your family languages will be is an important choice to consider carefully. It’s a choice that should take into consideration many different factors in your life as I see that you have carefully done. Whatever you decide, everyone involved (namely, you and your spouse for the time being as your child will be quite unable to reason and voice his opinion for at least a few years) should feel comfortable with the decision.

As German will clearly be your child’s majority language, you must now decide which will be his minority language(s). Just something to consider, will you always live in Germany?

Secondly, what are your multilingual motivations and goals? Do you want to raise a multilingual child more for the cognitive benefits or more to create a link with the child’s family and heritage? To clearly understand your motivations and be united as a couple on this point, will help you to make your choice. If you lean more towards the cognitive benefits he will gain, then English and Hebrew would offer similar opportunities (with the exception that your spouse is at a disadvantage in modelling English, as he is not a native speaker). If you lean more towards creating a link with the child’s family and heritage, then Hebrew would not only offer cognitive benefits by a native speaker, but would also allow your child to have a clear connection to his family in Israel, his ancestors and the rich culture that resides in that part of the world. This is a very important point considering a child’s background is essential for him to construct a positive self-identity. Something to think about, do you plan to travel often to Israel or keep in touch with family through telephone and video calls?

If your spouse is concerned about your child feeling awkward speaking Hebrew in Germany, remember that our children often adopt the attitude that we transmit to them. Your spouse can create a positive atmosphere speaking Hebrew in the home and if he doesn’t want Hebrew to set your child apart in his majority language environment, he can speak to him in German or English when in public.

If your spouse decides to teach your child Hebrew, the fact that you speak English to each other should not pose any problems cognitively. Your child will even most likely pick up this language passively.

Finally, I offer an option that I have adopted for my own children as I have two heritage languages that I could not choose between! I decided to teach them both heritage languages (English and Spanish) in addition to their majority language (French) by using a two-week rotation system. You can read more about it in this post.

I hope I have answered all your questions and set at ease some of your doubts. Please do write again to let us know what you decide.

Sincerely,
Maria Babin

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