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Dec 042016
 

Bilingual parents – how to choose the home language and what to speak with your child?

Question 1

Hello,

I am a bilingual parent (majority English but fluent in Chinese) my wife is majority Chinese but also fluent in English.

We currently speak Chinese at home to our 2-year-old son. Our assumption is that he will learn English naturally thru his environment once he goes to school so we wanted to develop his Chinese at home first. Is this a good idea?

I was suggested to have me speak English to him and my wife Chinese to him. My concern is that English becomes so dominant (especially due to his environment) that he will just only want to speak English even at home. I greatly value his ability to speak Chinese.

Any feedback would be much appreciated!
Thank you,
Quan

Question 2

Hi,

we are expecting our first child in a couple months, we live in Norway, where I am from and my husband is English. He speaks Norwegian really well considering he has only lived here for four years and he is still learning.

Between us we speak English, and to the pets we swap between the languages, depending on what the situation is. I am pretty much as fluent in English as you could get without it being your native tongue. I dream in English, write my own personal notes and diary in English sometimes in Norwegian. My shopping lists are completely mixed, I use whichever word is shorter.

My family has always pressured us to speak Norwegian to each other for my husband to learn better, but it is just too unnatural for us and we prefer to speak English. We live close to my family so I think our children will have a lot of Norwegian exposure, and we are planning on having English as our family language, so I picture speaking English with my child even if we are outside the house and my husband is not there. My family thinks this is really weird.

I also want to read Norwegian stories and sing Norwegian songs, will it be bad if I mainly speak English but also change it up a bit? And what about my husband, can he practise Norwegian around our children or will that be bad? My vocabulary is better than his in both languages, and even though I have some flaws in English, so does he, we kind of correct each other.

Thank you,
Margrethe

Answer

Dear Quan and Margrethe

Thank you for your questions about choosing the languages you speak in your home and with your child – many other bilingual parents grapple with similar questions. I will address the language choice topic in general first and then answer your individual questions.

From both of your messages I can read that you have been given advice by (no doubt well-meaning) relatives and friends who advise you to speak the majority language with your child. Both of you also have misgivings about this advice, and rightfully so. I am happy that you both are standing your ground – the final decision on what languages to use within the family should always be made by the parents themselves.

The best way to ensure that a child’s minority language (i.e. the language which is less spoken in the environment the child grows up) is to establish as solid a foundation in it prior to the child starting daycare or school in the majority language. This is also why the minority language at home (mL@H) approach has been found to be the strategy with the highest success rate. (I however want to point out that this does not mean that every family should follow mL@H, as it does not suit every family’s language combination).

Dear Quan

As you can see from my above comment, I agree with your choice of speaking Chinese with your son. Since you are fluent in the language and, what it sounds like, fully comfortable with speaking Chinese with him, I see no reason to switch to English. It is correct that the more used to speaking a majority language at home a child becomes, the bigger the chance that the child starts to choose it instead of the minority language at home.

You live in an English-speaking environment, so there will probably not be too many chances to arrange additional exposure to Chinese for your son. This makes the need for a solid start in it even more important, so your decision to speak Chinese at home is vital to support him becoming and active speaker of the language from the very start.

Dear Margrethe

By now you and your husband might already be the parents of a little baby boy or daughter – congratulations (or good luck, if you are still expecting)!

I am sorry you have had to deal with pressure from your family with regards to the choice of language with your child. As I said above, this your and your husband’s decision to make, and from what I read you have already made up your minds – and I support it. You should do what feels right. (I would also like to congratulate your husband on getting up to speed with Norwegian so quickly!)

Your question is whether it is okay to “mix it up” a bit and bring in some Norwegian into the home as well. Yes, it is perfectly fine to also use Norwegian – this is what millions of bilingual families have done and continue to do every day. You can read stories and sing songs in Norwegian without confusing your child. You are being their perfect bilingual role model.

Children are very good at distinguishing languages from an early age, and it is fine for your husband to also practice his Norwegian. Your child will know who is the native speaker and will not pick up any mistakes he might make – as a matter of fact it will not take long until he might find himself corrected by his son or daughter!

 

Wishing both of you and your families a successful bilingual 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

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