Which language(s) should a multilingual mother speak with her child?

 

Question

Dear Multilingual Parenting team,

I am still in my early pregnancy, but like all ambitious mother to be, I’m already considering all kinds of scenarios regarding the baby’s future education. As a multilingual person, which language shall I speak to my baby is one of the most important question.

I’m native Chinese who has immigrated to the US in my mid-twenties. I speak quite fluent English with very little accent, although I do not always speak with the correct grammar and am not completely up to date with the expressions. In 2013 I moved to France to live with my French husband, who speaks only French fluently. The communication between us is in French.

Obviously, I want my baby to be able to speak Chinese fluently, but I also want him to get prepared for fluent English speaking. I have seen how difficult it is for a native French speaker to pronounce English correctly if they do not learn it in very young age. I wanted to be able to speak both Chinese and English for the baby, but I have two hesitations:

  1. I heard that it’s better for one parent to speak only one language to the baby so that he won’t get confused.
  2. As English is not really my native tongue, so I’m not sure it’s good for the baby to learn it from me no matter how well I think I speak.

Another concern is that I speak all three languages quite naturally. For some expressions, I feel more comfortable with one of the three languages and for others another one. It all depends on the context or different knowledges I have acquired in different languages. I am afraid that my own confusion with languages might affect the baby.

I would really appreciate that you can shed some light on these issues.

Best regards,
Lilan

Answer

Dear Lilan,

Thank you for your question and congratulations on your upcoming family addition!

You are multilingual and would like to know how to best pass on both Chinese and English to your baby. You live in France with your French-speaking husband, so your child will no doubt also become a fluent in French.

Your dilemma is whether to speak Chinese or English, or both languages with your baby. There are some concerns you have with regards to the decision, and I will address those first:

  1. Confusion – children do not get confused being spoken to in several languages, even by the same person. If you choose to speak both Chinese and English with your baby, I would however recommend that you put in place a structure for when you speak which language and try to avoid mixing within sentences. I presume that when you speak, for example, with someone who only speaks Chinese, you would not mix in English or French phrases that the other person does not understand. You would like your child to be able to do the same, i.e. stick to one language when necessary, so she/he needs to learn to separate the languages.
  2. Non-native language – if you will be the only source of English exposure for your child, she or he will grow up speaking like you, including accent, possible grammar mistakes and mixed phrases. However, if your child also gets the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time with native English-speakers and hears English from other native sources, her/his English will most likely become more native-like. Many parents have chosen to also speak a non-native language with their child, so don’t let these concerns put you off if you feel strongly for speaking English with your baby.

Passing on one minority language to a child as the only parent speaking it is a big challenge, so passing on two is even more challenging. The French language will play a significant role in your child’s life, as this is the language spoken by the father, in the community, in media and in the home as the common language between you and your husband. The crucial thing is to find enough exposure time to the minority languages. Chinese and English.

You have not mentioned whether you plan to stay at home with your baby, or if she or he will attend nursery, and at what age. If you were to select a French nursery for your child, then the dominance of the French language will be even stronger. There would also be much less exposure time for Chinese and English, and it may be beneficial to choose to speak only one of the languages with your child.

These are the options you have and what you need to take into consideration for each one of them:

  1. Chinese only – by deciding to only speak Chinese, you could be fairly confident that your child would become fluent in your mother tongue. You would also not have to stick to any structure of alternating between Chinese and English. To introduce English to your child, you could for example look for an English-speaking kindergarten. Following that up with education in English and your daughter/son would become a fluent English-speaker.
  2. Both Chinese and English – if you were to speak both languages with your child, e.g. by alternating every two weeks or any other variation of the time and place (T&P) strategy, there will be less exposure to each language. With consistent use of each language and enough exposure time, this can still be done. What you can also consider is to have Chinese as your main language, but introduce English through songs, rhymes, games and toys and gradually increase the amount of English you use. You could also look for English-speaking playgroups for your child to attend. This way your child would get a foundation in English which could later be complemented by classes or tutoring.
  3. English only – I take from what you have written, Chinese is important for you, so this is not really an option.

I hope I have given you some food for thought in your decision making and wish you all the best! If you would like to have a more in-depth answer, this would fall within my Family Language Coaching services, as I would need to conduct an interview and get more details about your family language situation and the different language exposure options available to your child.

Wishing you a successful multilingual 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.

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