I’m looking for some advice on how to raise a bilingual child when one of the parents is against it. We are a mixed family. I’m Polish and my partner is English. We have a two-year-old son and live in the UK.
It is very important for me to teach my son to understand and speak Polish as I would like for him to be able to communicate with my family in Poland and know the culture there etc. However, my partner is against it. He thinks that I’m confusing him and delaying his speech development and he wants me to teach our son English first and later on Polish. But I know once my son goes to school and have English all around him, he might not want to learn Polish at all and it will be harder to encourage him to do so especially when English will be his language at school and at home.
I prefer he gets used to both languages from early childhood and I would like for me to be able to speak to him in Polish at home, however, my partner is not allowing me to do so. He wants me to talk to our son only in English when we are all together which means the only opportunity for me to speak to my son in my language are two days in a week as I work part time (3 days).
His English grandma is looking after him when I’m at work. We have recently moved to a new area and I don’t have other Polish friends with kids nearby, therefore, quite often we are attending English toddler groups or other English activities. This means that our child doesn’t have much contact with Polish people, however I’m trying to talk to him in my language as much as I can when we are only both together at home. However, as a result I noticed that I mix both languages because I talk to him in Polish, when we are on our own in the room and 3-5 min later I talk to him in English, once my partner enters the room.
Am I doing the right thing? Or I’m confusing my son more by speaking to him in both languages? Please can you give me some advice what can I do in such a situation?
Thank you very much for contacting the Multilingual Parenting Family Language Coaching Team.
You are facing a pretty common dilemma for families where both parents do not speak the same languages. I am sorry to hear that you and your husband are not currently on the same page when it comes to what languages to speak to your son. However, I think with some communication you may be able to come to an agreement that works for all of you.
What I have found in working with multilingual families is that parents or loved ones usually resist the introduction of a new language because they may have some misconceptions about multilingualism. That seems to be the case in your situation since you mentioned that your husband is afraid that it may delay your son’s speech development. Luckily for you, there is quite a bit of research available that disproves this claim! In fact, you can check out this interview with Dr. Brenda Gorman, a bilingual speech-language pathology, where she describes in detail how introducing a second language does not cause any speech delays. She also dispels other language acquisition myths that may be of interest to you.
Going forward, my first recommendation for you would be to consider having an honest conversation with your husband and address what exactly is making him uneasy or anxious about your preference to speak exclusively in Polish to your son. Go into the conversation with an open mind and attentively listen to his concerns. Sometimes just letting the other person vent can make a difference.
I would also encourage you to voice why it is important for you that your son learn Polish. If you find that it simply becomes more natural for you to speak to your son in your mother tongue, then explain that to your partner. You may also find this episode helpful as I share some tips on how to communicate with others who may be skeptical about your multilingual decision.
My second recommendation for you would be to turn its problem on its head and approach it from a different angle. Once you have given your husband the chance to voice his concerns, share with him the benefits that your son will likely gain from speaking more than one language.
Start by sharing some of the better-known benefits, in other words, the ones he probably already knew. Even though he may be familiar with these, they are still worth keeping in mind as they may help paint the bigger picture when it comes to multilingualism. Some of the benefits your son may have from learning Polish include:
Greater understanding of culture
Learning a second language can provide one with an opportunity to appreciate the world from a new perspective. By speaking more than one language, your son will have an open the door to the Polish culture and connect with others that he may not even have a chance to know.
Increased ability to learn words in another language
The jury is still out on whether or not being multilingual can help an individual learn an additional language quicker. However, once you know one language, finding common words while learning another can help the learning experience.
More marketable in the workforce
We live in an increasing globalized society and the need to speak two or more languages for specific jobs or professions seems to be increasing. It is quite common for employers to see language skills as a benefit when looking for prospective employees. This is not just limited to jobs that already have a language requirement. Even employers that are looking to hire individuals for monolingual job openings tend to see proficiency and especially fluency in another language as a positive attribute that can help one stand out from the crowd.
Easier time when traveling
Nowadays it feels like almost every touristy attraction is full of English speakers that can help you meet your needs with just basic sentences. But this is not the case everywhere. Travel just a little bit deeper from the main attractions and the need for speaking the local language increases exponentially.
A sense of connection with your heritage
Some families are attracted to multilingualism as it provides them with a closer connection to their heritage, history, culture and family traditions and it sounds like that is also true in your case. For many, passing on a second or a third language also means giving your children an ability to communicate to their extended family. This connection not only facilitates interactions with others but it can also provide the individual with a sense of pride.
As if these benefits were not enough, here are some additional less known benefits that may also help you demonstrate to your husband that teaching your son Polish really is a worthy task!
Enhanced ability to problem solve
An unexpected benefit derived from multilingualism is that it can enhance our ability to problem solve. The overall mental alertness that is required to switch between languages develops others skills and other types of thinking.
Delay the onset of dementia
Probably one of the most exciting discoveries about multilingualism is that it can delay of onset of dementia. The initial studies conducted in this field have indicated that monolingual adults start showing the first signs of dementia at age 71.4 while on average multilingual individuals are showing these same signs at the age of 75.5. Therefore, concluding that the delay can be as much as four years.
Better ability to focus on relevant information
Since multilinguals are constantly switching between languages, we have to filter out the word in the language we are not using and select the word in the language we are using to communicate at that moment. This skill is not limited to language but also transfers to other aspects of our communication and everyday life.
These are just some of the bilingual advantages that you can share during your family conversations. I hope some of these can help build your case when communicating the value of incorporating Polish as a family language.
In your question, you also shared that you currently switch between English and Polish with your son and wondered if that would lead to confusion. Surprisingly, children are able to differentiate languages from quite a young age. However, I always encourage parents to set boundaries around languages either through the individual speaking each language or through set intervals of time. This will ensure that the child is provided with continuity and an appropriate amount of exposure to the language.
Patrycja, I hope you found the answer helpful and wish you the best of luck as your family decides which path to take going forward.
You can now also listen to Marianna’s answer on her podcast.