How not to exclude others when you speak a minority language with your child?

Question

Hello,

I am from Hungary and live in the UK with my British husband. At home we speak English, as my husband doesn’t speak much Hungarian. We have a 3-month-old baby, with whom I have been talking in Hungarian when it is just the two of us, or if we are in the company of other Hungarian speakers.

When my husband is with us I have been finding it hard to speak to our daughter in Hungarian since my husband wouldn’t understand us. It feels strange, as if we are ‘excluding him’, and also not very practical when I need him to also understand what I am saying to our baby.

We have read some of the previous Q&As on your site and found them extremely helpful! My husband is very keen to improve his Hungarian and he is kind of learning with our daughter now. He was worried that he shouldn’t practice with her, but having seen that you didn’t think it was a problem for someone to speak to their baby in a language they are not proficient in, he now reads to our daughter from Hungarian books, and sometimes we speak in Hungarian when it is the three of us.

At the moment, when my husband arrives home (I am the one on maternity leave) I switch to English and we continue playing using English when it is the three of us. But at times Hungarian comes much more naturally when I want to say something to our daughter, to comfort her or to encourage her for instance. Sometimes I repeat things in both languages, so my husband can also follow. Overall, it’s quite random and without a proper strategy, I worry this is going to get increasingly confusing to our daughter (and to us also).  Can this randomness confuse our baby? If so, what would you recommend so I could be a bit more deliberate in which language I choose to use when?

With others, I feel more of a social pressure to use English. I feel rude to speak in Hungarian when we are with those who cannot understand. Especially so in front of my parents-in-law who already believe that our daughter should not hear any other language apart from English in the first six months of her life, and suggested I only ‘gently’ introduce my mother tongue after that time, through songs, etc – well obviously I ignored this in practice. But I do feel awkward switching to English when others are around. How would you manage these situations?

I suppose my biggest challenge is knowing what language to use with my baby when we are with my husband or friends or family who are non-Hungarian speakers – and having some kind of a consistent system for this – is it necessary to have consistency do you think?

Any tips, advice, resources would be really helpful!

Thank you so much for your support in advance!
All the best,
Nora

Answer

Dear Nora

Congratulations on becoming a family of three! Thank you for your question and the update you sent – I have incorporated it in the question above.

Which language to speak when is a dilemma most bilingual parents deal with at some point, certainly most minority language parents. The main concern is how to combine the need (and want) to speak your language with your child without making others feel that they are being left out.

I am pleased to hear that your husband is so supportive of you speaking Hungarian with your child – and excited to know that he wants to improve his own Hungarian-skills. I cannot emphasise enough how important it is that the majority language parent fully backs the idea of raising a bilingual child.

You are right, it is fine that your English-speaking husband reads to your daughter in Hungarian. You are your daughter’s Hungarian role model and she will not pick up any accent or mistakes from your husband. He is helping you increase the exposure to Hungarian by participating as best as he can. In addition, the more Hungarian he learns, the more comfortable you will feel to stick to Hungarian with your daughter when the three of you are together.

The biggest “threat” to a minority language in a family, is if everyone readily switches to the majority language. Sooner than you know it, your daughter will be fluent in English and the challenge will be to maintain her Hungarian. To prepare for this phase my recommendation would be to stick to Hungarian as much as possible to establish a firm routine between the two of you to always speak your mother tongue.

I know you are very aware of making sure your husband does not feel excluded, which is important, but do discuss this with him. In my experience, in many families it is in fact the minority language parent who feels more uncomfortable about the situation, while the other parent, who may not understand everything that is being said, is more relaxed about it. Agree that he should ask every time he wants to know the specifics and you will repeat in English when you feel it is needed or when he asks. Also, keep in mind that the more Hungarian he hears, the quicker he will learn.

Then we come to the trickiest part of the equation – your parents-in-law. I am happy to hear that you ignored the advice not to speak Hungarian to your baby during the first six months and then only gradually introduce it, because it is not correct and the opposite is the right way to go. Children all over the world are learning two languages simultaneously and are not getting confused! I presume that as grandparents your parents-in-law might have been worried that they will not be able to communicate with their grandchild and wanted to make sure that she learnt English first. While I understand their worry, and acknowledge that it comes from a place of love for your child, their advice is not based on any researched facts and should not be followed.

If possible, the best thing to do is to openly discuss the situation with your parents-in-law and others that you come in regular contact with – ask you husband for help with this. Explain to them why it is important that you speak as much Hungarian as possible with your daughter and why you are trying to stick to Hungarian only. Had the situation been the reverse, i.e. you would be living in Hungary, the same would have applied to English and your husband. (It might be easier for others to understand the situation if they think of it that way.) I know that it is not possible to have this kind of discussions with everyone, but you will know your family and friends best.

There may still be situations where you find it too uncomfortable to speak Hungarian, but please be assured that this will not confuse your daughter. She learns that as a bilingual person you switch between languages depending on who is in your company. While the need for consistency is indeed higher the less exposure there is to a language, this should not become a rigid rule that affects our relationships to our family and friends. We should never forget that language is about communication and understanding each other, not about sticking to the rules at any cost.

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