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Mar 022017
 

Q&A: Should minority language parents always be consistent about using their mother tongue?

 

Question

Dear All,

We are an Italian family living in France. We speak Italian at home (two hours at night and on the weekends/holidays) but sometimes in the afternoons after school, when my husband is not there yet, it happens that I speak French as well to my daughter (I’m very exposed to it and I’m also fluent). Both because we are with French-speaking persons or because I speak most of the time French so somehow it’s spontaneous for me to speak French to her when we are outside home in the community language context.

My daughter is now 2.5 years old and she understands both languages, but apart from some Italian words (mostly related to house routines) she mostly speaks French (95%) even when I talk to her in Italian. My question is: is this a normal stage as she’s small and of course the dominant language for her is French (she went to the daycare as of 6 months) or I’m doing something wrong with the switching from Italian to French? Should I only talk to her in Italian? I read that some switching is possible and I do that just because it’s natural to me, I’m not forcing myself.

Thank you very much in advance
Kind regards
Silvia

Answer

Dear Silvia

Thank you for your message about language choices in your family. You should be very proud of your little bilingual daughter. She is only 2.5 years and can understand two languages – more than many adults!

As your daughter has been in French-speaking daycare since she was six months old, she has had plenty of exposure to French, even though you speak only Italian when you are all together. The fact that she mostly responds in French indicates that this is the language she probably gets more overall interaction in.

When she comes home from school, she will be used to hearing and speaking French all day and it is only natural that she would continue using French at home, especially since it is her strongest language. It is also natural for you to respond in the same language, particularly as you are used to speaking French and it is second nature for you to switch between the languages depending on the situation.

Switching between languages is a natural way to communicate between bilinguals, and parents in many families do exactly this and children do grow up to learn both family languages, providing there is enough exposure to both languages. Since your family language in general is Italian (and you keep it that way), I would expect your daughter to also start speaking some Italian in a not so distant future.

What you might want to pay attention to is how much direct interaction she actually gets in Italian. You mention two hours in the evenings and the weekends. During these times, how much time do you reckon that either you or your husband or both of you together interact directly with your daughter? How much of the time is she mainly listening or just hearing Italian?

To support your daughter’s expressive Italian (talking), the more you interact with her in the language the better. Reading books in Italian is also very important – see these tips from Mary-Pat in a different Q&A on how to make reading even more efficient. Also, check out Maria’s recommendations in this Q&A for further ideas on how to help your daughter express herself in Italian.

Another thing you might also want to take into consideration is that as she gets older, French will become an even more dominant language for her, and it might be useful to establish a strong routine of speaking her minority language with each other at an early age. This does not mean that you have to be 100% strict of always speaking Italian with her, though – keep it natural, especially in situations outside the home where you feel more comfortable speaking French.

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

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