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Jun 222016
 

To support the minority language after a move, should you change the language you speak with your child?

Question

Hello,

I would like your advice on what language to speak to my son. I am bilingual (English and Greek) and my husband is Greek and we were brought up in Greece. We have decided from the beginning that I would only speak English to our son and my husband would only speak Greek.

When we are together as of family we speak Greek to each other. Up until my son was 14 months old we lived in Spain, so he heard three languages. We now live in London and I am struggling with my decision to only speak English to him since he will learn the language from his environment and have thought of switching to Greek but I am not sure.

I am at stay at home mum so the majority of the language he comes in contact with is English. I am just wondering whether the Greek he hears from his father and when we speak together is enough to make him fluent in the language.

Thank you,
Natassa

Answer

Dear Natassa,

Thank you for your question. Moving from one country to another and dealing with the changes in the languages your child get exposed is always a challenge.

Your son is now almost two years old and you have been speaking English with him since he was born, so this is your normal routine. However, since you have been speaking Greek with your husband, your son is also used to hearing you speak it.

Whether your son will become fluent in Greek with the exposure coming only from his father and from when you are all together, is difficult to say, as it depends on so many factors. How much time will your son be interacting with his dad each day? Will they have time to read books and play games in Greek? Will your son have the opportunity to spend time with any other native speakers of the language, preferably children? When you are all together, how much will he be participating in the discussions? Also, keep in mind that is not only about the quantity of language exposure, but also very much about the quality of it that determines how fluent in Greek he becomes.

If you are planning to enrol him in an English-speaking nursery and or school, he will be spending the majority of his time surrounded by English, so I understand your concerns about maintaining his Greek. Presuming you are intending to remain in the UK, then switching to speaking Greek with him would be beneficial for his language skills. This is however a decision only you can make.

The language you speak with someone is an important part of the relationship, so it is not a straight-forward thing to change it. I am very aware of this, as I changed from Finnish to our minority language Swedish with my eldest daughter when she was five. As mentioned, your son is only two, so I would not expect as much resistance from him, as I got from my daughter. The biggest challenge will be for yourself to get used to speaking Greek with him.

Since all of you know both Greek and English, you could also consider an approach where you keep some English in the family, for example dedicating one day a week as the day when you all speak English together. Alternatively, you could speak English when you are out and about, but still keep your home as a Greek-only zone. However, as you say, your son will learn English anyway, so this is not something you have to do.

I hope my answer has been of some help to you – please add any further questions or comments below.

Wishing you all the best on your multilingual family journey!

Kind regards
Rita

Rita Rosenback

  Rita Rosenback Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.

 

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  One Response to “Q&A: To support the minority language after a move, should you change the language you speak with your child?”

  1. hi, very interesting to read this. I speak Armenian to our kids and my husband English, Kids would happily speak to each other in Armenian (very much minority language also we lived outside England for a while). when we returned to England for a short while to have our third child, my oldest went to preschool for three months and that was the end of his Armenian speaking with his sibling. it made me very sad. he acquired ‘school language’ from school and so coming home to describe his day and play with his friends he was comfortable using English.
    Natassa, I think I would say, it is very unlikely to hope for a Greek environment for your child unless you were living amongst Greek families who have kids and parents are as committed to keep the bilingualism with their kids too. it is very difficult to keep that going successfully in England- I am sad to say. but I also know that speaking with your child in your own mother tongue is something very special, I wouldn’t want to speak to my kids in English.. now we live abroad again but everyone wants to speak and practice English and it is hard work for us to keep the Armenian going. there are very limited resources in Armenian and much less fun cartoons so I keep pushing and pushing. I Skype with my family pretty much everyday and let the kids to chat away with aunties and grandparents and hope for the best. my kids learned a lot from watching cartoons (even though it was only 10 min every day) so I would major of programs like that and as Rita mentioned story books and other materials need to be available and read to the kids. Anyway, my two penny worth comment. hope it is somehow helpful.

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