The other parent does not understand your language – should you speak it with your baby?

Question

Hello,

I’m so happy to stumble upon this website. It is lovely to see that we are not the only one with many MANY questions about raising a multilingual individual and that there is help out there 🙂  

Here is our situation: Our son is 4 months old and we live in Germany. I am Turkish Cypriot so my mother tongue is Turkish, but I have a strong connection to English because I was raised from the age 1 to 4 in England and later attended an American high school in Istanbul. I read English books, listen to English songs and watch English movies.

I met my husband who is German 9 years ago and moved to Germany to be with him 5 years ago but didn’t really get fluent in German. I understand almost everything but am still uncomfortable speaking it. Although I speak it mostly in my daily life simply because I have to. We speak in English when we are together.

Everyone is telling me to speak Turkish to my baby, and I really want him to learn Turkish, but when I wake up, I start my day automatically in English. I say “goodmorniiing” to my husband and ask my baby “hi love, did you sleep good?“ so, I naturally speak to him all day in English only, switching – or repeating mostly – when I suddenly feel guilty that he doesn’t hear enough Turkish.

I sing to him 1,2 “grown-up” songs every day in Turkish (don’t know any baby songs or rhymes in Turkish), but he hears 4,5 songs/rhymes in English. My husband speaks to him in German when I’m in the other room or when they are alone, but switches to English when I’m around. He knows maybe 20 Turkish words in total, so he doesn’t understand what I’m saying to our baby if I speak in Turkish.

Part of the reason we speak to our baby English when we are together is to involve him in our loving and humorous relationship. We feel like if my husband speaks in German and I in Turkish when we are all together, we will separate our communication, and our son will miss out on our unique fun and warm way of communicating with each other. Does that make sense?

My question is what is the best way to introduce Turkish to my son’s life? I know it’s so early , but I want to do this right and not confuse our baby by trying out stuff. Is this a good plan: I speak to him in English but switch to Turkish at certain situations? Like video-chatting with my parents (almost every day) and reading a Turkish book after bath. Singing his goodnight song in Turkish. Also attending Turkish-German playgroups 2 times a week. My husband talks to him in German when they are alone , but we speak in English when we are all three together.

I worry if Turkish will be a lost language this way. I really have no reason to talk Turkish except for that 10 min call I have with my parents every day. What do you suggest? Also, a second worry. Do I speak outside in German but then answer or talk to my son in English?

Thank you for reading my long message and helping me and all of us confused multilinguals . My daily life now has changed naturally 🙂 My baby hears me talk German outside. But we go to an English baby play group every Thursday. Another important thing is that we have friends who speak to my husband in German but change the conversation to English when I’m around. So, the baby is exposed to both languages from other people .

Fatosh

Answer

Dear Fatosh,

Thank you for your question and congratulations on your baby boy! You are by no means too early in thinking about his future languages – on the contrary, this is the perfect time to consider the options as a parent.

First, I want to assure you that no matter what strategy you decide to follow or which languages you, your husband or your family and friends speak around your baby son will not confuse him. Depending on the amount of exposure to each language, he will learn them at different paces and to different levels of fluency. He will most likely also mix his languages to start with, but this is completely normal and does not amount to language confusion.

You have a language setup which could be ideal for your son to become a fluent trilingual. I say could and not will, because it all depends on how much he hears and interacts in each language. He will no doubt learn German as this is the language of his other parent and the environment, probably also of his education. English will also always be a central language in his life, as this – I presume – will continue to be your family language.

Your biggest concern is whether your son will grow up to speak Turkish with the current amount of exposure. I understand that you occasionally speak Turkish with him, sing a couple of songs and read a few books in the evening. In addition, he is with you when you video chat with your parents, about 10 minutes a day. With this amount of exposure, he would gain an understanding of Turkish, but it is less likely that he would start to speak it. However, to be able to assess in more detail how much Turkish exposure your son gets each day, I would need to do an in-depth interview with you (this would fall under the Family Language Coaching service),

Reading your message, what I think would be beneficial for you is to sit down and think about how important it is that your son learns Turkish. Is it okay that he gains a receptive knowledge of it, i.e. understands it, but can not express himself very well? Or do you want him to be able to comfortably communicate with his Turkish-speaking relatives and friends? Think five-six years into the future and picture both scenarios. Which one do you want to achieve? If it is the former, being able to understand, then you can continue what you are doing now. However, if you want him to become a fluent Turkish-speaker, then you would need to arrange more regular Turkish exposure for him.

The best way to do this is for you to speak predominantly Turkish with your son. And the best time to start is now. The longer you wait, the more difficult it is to switch. I do understand it when you say that it is hard to remember to speak Turkish as you are so used to English being your home language. Change takes time – read this post on how to remember to speak the minority language. You mention that you “really have no reason to talk Turkish except for that 10 min call [you] have with [your] parents every day” ­– may I politely disagree? Your son is your very important reason to speak Turkish – if you want him to have the same Turkish skill as your parents gave you, he needs you to consistently interact with him in Turkish, so he can learn.

One of the reasons for choosing English is that you feel that your son would be missing out on the fun communication between you and your husband. Believe you me, he will pick up a good level of understanding of English much quicker than you think (and then you and your husband no longer have a “secret” language between the two of you!)

Then we have the aspect of your husband not understanding Turkish and potentially feeling left out. This is something you two should discuss. Presuming he is supportive of your son learning Turkish, I wouldn’t think he will mind if there is more Turkish in the home. He would also improve his Turkish along the way, as he would start to understand a lot of what is said from the actions that are taken during the discussions. Of course, you would agree to translate whenever necessary.

The same applies for you – you would be okay with your husband speaking German with your son, wouldn’t you? This does not mean that you must drop English altogether, just that you would be generally consistent in your language choices when it comes to speaking directly with your son. Keep in mind that the less exposure to a language, the greater the importance of being consistent.

With regards to you speaking German outside the home, that is okay. I would however still stick to Turkish when speaking directly with him. At the English playgroup it is fine to speak English, if this feels more comfortable to you.

Wishing you a successful trilingual 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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