What are the implications of switching the language you speak with your baby?

 

Question

Dear Language Coaches,

Can you please give any advice on my family’s language situation? My wife is fluent in both English and Afrikaans, with HL (home language) Afrikaans. My HL is English and my Afrikaans is good enough for us to successfully communicate but I still make quite a lot of mistakes, so I wouldn’t say I’m completely fluent. Afrikaans is the minority language since we live in the UK and only see Afrikaans family 2/3 weeks of the year.

We have a 6-month-old son who we want to raise as fully bilingual. For the first six months of his life we adopted the OPOL strategy, as my wife was on maternity leave and spent all day with him while I was at work, so he got a very good amount of exposure to Afrikaans.

However, now that my wife is back to full time work, he goes to a nursery school during the weekdays which is English. So, his Afrikaans exposure has decreased to an hour in the morning and about two hours at night from his mother during the week. My wife is concerned that this is not enough exposure for him to pick up Afrikaans, and has asked me to switch to Afrikaans only in front of our son and with him.

I should be able to manage, but it is difficult since I feel a strong connection with my HL. I do feel strongly about him being bilingual though, so I will change if it helps. Specific questions:

  1. Do you think changing our home language to Afrikaans will increase the odds that my son is bilingual?
  2. Will it not confuse him if I change to Afrikaans after speaking only English for 6 months?
  3. Will there come an age in my son’s life where he is “bilingual” enough and I can then switch back to having a relationship with him in English?

Thanks in advance for any insights you may have.

Kind regards,
Allan

Answer

Dear Allan,

Thank you for your question about switching the language you speak with your son and what impact it may have. Thank you also for painting a clear picture of your family’s language situation, it makes answering so much easier.

I understand your wife’s concerns about your son’s Afrikaans skills, as the amount of English exposure does increases significantly with him going to nursery. She has now asked you to switch to speaking Afrikaans instead of English with your son to make sure he gets enough interaction in the language. As a family, you would be following the minority language at home (mL@H) strategy instead of the one parent, one language (OPOL) which you are using now.

Children grow up to become bilingual in families which use the OPOL strategy with the same amount of minority language exposure as you have now. Thus, it is not an absolute requirement for you to switch the language you speak with your son. It is however true that there would be less pressure on your wife if you were to speak Afrikaans with him, as she would not be the only source of exposure to the language.

You write that you “should be able to manage” to switch the language you speak with your son and that you think your Afrikaans is “good enough” to manage to this. How do you really feel about this? I can sense a certain, understandable reluctance to do this and I want you to be 100% sure that you want to do it. You should feel comfortable when communicating with your son.

You can still support your wife even if you were not to switch – since you know the language, you can read to him, watch children’s programmes and play games in Afrikaans. This is what bilingual people do – switch between the languages based on the situation.

With regards to your specific questions:

  1. Yes, statistically the chances of a child becoming a fluent bilingual are higher in a family that uses the mL@H approach, compared to OPOL.
  2. No, your son will not be confused – both his parents would be speaking the same language instead of two different ones.
  3. Yes, it is possible for you to switch back to using English later. To maintain his Afrikaans, it is important that his mother sticks to speaking the language with him at all times – otherwise there is a risk that he stops using it. Another question althogether is whether you will want to change back to English once you are used to speaking Afrikaans with him – keep in mind that your own Afrikaans skills will also improve the more you speak it.

While the increased exposure to Afrikaans would certainly support your son’s fluency in the language, you should still make the choice based on how the switch would feel for you. The language we speak with our children should not become a hindrance to close communication with them. On the other hand, if you feel comfortable about the switch, there is nothing to say you should not do it – and remember, if you do switch and subsequently find it too difficult, you can always switch back.

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