Should parents always speak their native language with their children?




I work in a school and we have concerns about a child whose English vocabulary is very limited. Her mother (who is native English speaker but who spent part of her childhood in France) speaks to her in French at home. Father is absent so French is the main language used at home.

Our concern is that the child’s lack of English vocabulary may be caused by the fact that the mothers vocabulary in French is not native-speaker level and therefore the child is not being exposed to a wide enough range of vocabulary in her home language.

Would it be better if the mother spoke her native tongue at home? Although this would mean the child would no longer be learning French. Would be interested to hear your views. I had always thought that parents should be speaking their mother tongue with their child?



Dear Louise

Thank you for your question about the concern you have about one of your pupil’s English vocabulary. It is always difficult to answer a question where all the relevant information is not available so I will answer on a general level.

Without knowing the age of your pupil, how long she has been attending school and whether she has made progress during this time it would not be right to comment on the expected level of her English vocabulary. Many children start school with a very limited English knowledge and soon catch up and go on to do as well as their monolingual peers. For this I also have an example in my own family.

It is true that a strong home language, whatever language it may be, is beneficial for developing the command of the language used at school. However, from that I would not draw a direct parallel between your pupil’s French and English vocabulary. I also do not know what your assessment of your pupil’s mother’s French skills is based upon, or whether you are aware of the full family language picture and the reasons for choosing French as their home language.

Parents should speak a language which they feel comfortable in and which allows them to express themselves freely with their children and thus create the important bond between a parent and a child. This is in most cases the parents’ native language. However, with mothers and fathers who speak more than one language it may also be a different language. I know many are of the opinion that parents should “only speak their native language” with their children, but I have seen no research evidence to support this view.

Generally, I would be very careful before making any recommendations or even question the language a parent speaks with his or her child. There are many factors that play a part in the choice of language and parents make the best possible decision based on what they know and think is right and best for their children.

If you find that your pupil is not making progress and you have concerns about her overall success at school, I would speak about this as you would normally do with parents. However, please, approach the topic of home language with great care. With regards to language, give the mother the same advice as you would do to English-speaking parents to support their kid’s language development: read a lot of books, talk about different topics, watch quality children’s programmes together. If you think your pupil needs additional support to do well at school, bring this up with the mother, but without making her feel guilty about her choice of language.

Wishing you all the best in the valuable work you do for the children in your school!

Kind regards

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. Facebooktwitterpinterestlinkedin