Should a parent stick to the minority language when others are around?

Question

Hi Rita,

I recently was recommended your site to get advice how to raise my son bilingual. Our family background. We have a 1-year-old boy, who’s just starting to form some sounds. My husband is British and I’m Hungarian, we live in the UK. So far I was speaking to my son in both languages as hubby doesn’t speak Hungarian. When it is only our son and me it’s Hungarian and when it’s the three of us it’s English.

My family doesn’t live here, but his parents live just around the corner who we see every day and then it’s English too. I’m really unsure whether this is the right way forward to raise him bilingual. It is very important to me for our son to at least be able to speak in my language as my parents don’t speak English. We Skype every day, naturally in Hungarian.

Could you please give me some advice whether I should just speak to him in Hungarian at all times, including when the English grandparents are around and when we see friends with other children. I’m greatly concerned and worried I might already be too late!

Thank you very much for your help in advance,

Kind regards,
Gabriella

Answer

Dear Gabriella

Thank you for your message about your little son who is growing up to speak Hungarian and English.

First I want to address your concern about being late – to this the answer is a definite “No, you are not late!” Your son is just starting to form different sounds and in due course he will say his first words. This is the right time to decide how to use Hungarian with your son.

You are absolutely right that you should always speak Hungarian with your little one when it’s just the two of you. Since you are the only Hungarian-speaker your son is in direct daily contact with, he will learn his Hungarian from you. The Skype-calls with his grandparents in Hungary will be a great support for his language skills (as soon as he will have the patience to attend them, of course!)

The more Hungarian your son hears and the more used to speaking Hungarian with you he is, the better he will learn the language. My recommendation for minority language parents is to generally stick to their language as much as possible with their children to create and maintain the use of the language as the default way to communicate.

This does however not mean that language consistency as a rule should never be broken. I don’t believe in rigorous restrictions in how families communicate with each other, but it is vital – especially for minority language parents – to be aware of when there is a greater need of being consistent with the languages they use. Please read my post 5 thoughts about consistency when using OPOL for further information on this.

You are currently switching to English with your son as soon as your husband, in-laws or English-speaking friends are present, and from what I understand from your message, this means that much of the time you are speaking English instead of Hungarian with your son, for the benefit of others.

You are not alone in doing this – many minority language parents find themselves in this very situation.  I fully appreciate why this is the case – it feels like the polite thing to do, not to exclude anyone from a discussion. When your child is just a small baby you may not even reflect on the language choice – you just speak the language everyone else speaks around you.

What I would recommend you to do is to discuss the situation with your family. First bring it up with your husband – explain to him the worries you have about your son’s Hungarian and how important it is for you (and your son) that he learns your native language. For him to become a fluent Hungarian-speaker, he needs to get as much exposure to and interaction in the language as possible.

Suggest to your husband that you will start talking more Hungarian with your son also in situations where you are all together. Promise to translate whenever necessary and ask your husband to always speak up if he feels left out or wants to understand something.

Next, once you both agree about how to move forward, you should have a similar conversation with your in-laws. It would be good if your husband could be the one to start the discussion and clearly show his support for you. Don’t forget to explain to them that their grandson will learn English no matter what, but for him to get the best start to becoming bilingual (and reaping all the benefits), it is important that you speak as much Hungarian as possible with him.

Finally, you will need to get used to this new routine yourself! Stick to Hungarian when you speak to your son directly, even when others are around, and translate for others whenever there is a need for it. You will soon learn to balance this!

Wishing you a successful bilingual 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. Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedin