How can one parent pass on two languages?

Question

Hello,

My question is the following. I speak English, my husband speaks Russian, Hebrew and English. We would like to be able to give our daughter as many languages as possible. Is there a best way for one partner to teach two languages to the baby? (Also, my husband travels a lot, so at least from when she is one, he will be away for stretches of time during the year.) Russian is the most important to us because it is his family’s language. But we feel it would be such shame to lose the Hebrew.

Please let me know your thoughts.
Thanks so much,
Diana

Answer

Dear Diana,

Thank you for your question about raising your baby girl to speak all the family languages. May I also commend you for looking for a solution although you do not speak two of them!

As you do not mention anything about exposure to Russian and Hebrew from any other people or sources, I will presume that you are living in an English-speaking environment. Thus, it would be mainly up to your husband to pass on both Russian and Hebrew.

To be able to give you an in-depth answer I would need to know how much time your husband will spend with your daughter now and going forward. This would however fall under the Individual Family Language Coaching service. However, I can give you some suggestions to consider:

  1. Your husband speaks two languages: both Russian and Hebrew

Your husband could choose to speak both Russian and Hebrew with your daughter from the start. You would opt for simultaneous bilingualism in the two languages. (With English this becomes simultaneous trilingualism.) My recommendation is to do this by dividing the time he spends with her between the two languages. This could be for example, Russian during the week and Hebrew during the weekend (variation of the Time and Place, T&P, strategy). What worked for my coach colleague Maria was speaking one language for two weeks then switch to the other for a fortnight, then switch back again. This approach is simple, but needs full commitment from your husband. If the time he spends with your daughter is very little, this may also not be the best option. You would not want to be in a situation where there is not enough exposure to either of the languages.

  1. Your husband chooses to focus on either Russian or Hebrew to start with

It is also possible to go for sequential bilingualism with Russian and Hebrew, so that your daughter would learn one language first and then the other. There is a caveat to this approach: it is not easy to switch from one language to another with a child. I have experienced this myself – but I also know it can be done, especially if there is some additional support for the language you are switching to. This approach does not mean that your husband would not speak the other language at all. It is perfectly fine, and even recommended to also give some input in the other language, such as rhymes, songs and games. For your daughter to get a native-like command of the different sounds in Russian and Hebrew, it is good for her to get exposure to both languages during the three first years of her life. As Russian is the more important of the two languages, I would suggest that he chooses it to be the main language between him and your daughter if you go for this approach.

  1. Au pair or nanny in Russian or Hebrew

If you were to go for the second option, i.e. your husband focuses on one of the languages, probably Russian, you could consider finding and au pair or a nanny to offer the exposure to Hebrew. Maybe you could see if there are any young adult boys or girls within your family or friend relations that would be willing to stay with you? It is also possible to get “granny au pairs” nowadays! If you hire a nanny, it would not necessarily have to be full-time.

  1. Nursery or kindergarten in Russian or Hebrew

Have you investigated whether there are any nurseries or kindergartens in either Russian or Hebrew in your area? If yes, this could be an option to get the exposure to the other language. Being immersed in a language with other children is a very effective way to pick up a language for a small child.

  1. Education in Russian or Hebrew, husband speaks the other language at home

Along the same lines – are there any schools available in either of the languages? If there are, then this could be the additional source for the other language. Attending school in either Russian or Hebrew would guarantee that your daughter would become fluent in the school language. Weekend schools are useful additional exposure, but they will not be enough to make your daughter fluent in a language unless there is some other input in it as well.

  1. Longer stays in or maybe even a couple of years move to a place where the languages are spoken

I know this sounds quite a drastic thing to do, but it would be very beneficial for your daughter’s language learning. Not only would she pick up the language, but she would also be able to learn to understand the culture in a much more in-depth way.

  1. You could learn one of the two languages alongside your daughter

This may sound like an even bigger undertaking, but you could consider learning either Russian or Hebrew alongside your daughter. It is not an easy thing to do, I know, but can be done if you have enough time and are prepared to commit yourself to the task at hand. Remember that anyone can learn a language at any age!

As you see, there are several different ways of making sure your daughter grows up to be trilingual in English, Russian and Hebrew. I hope you can find the right combination of them so your can reach your family’s language goal of passing on two languages in addition to English.

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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