Q&A: Choice of language with a bilingual child when others are around

by | Sep 25, 2014 | Coaches, Maria Babin, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy | 7 comments


We live in Israel, and I am from Mexico, my husband speaks only Hebrew with our 3-year-old boy, and I speak only Spanish, from my side he does not hear a Hebrew word. We were just in Mexico and his Spanish is now till the moon – I am so glad that he developed so well. Now when he talks to me, he does it in Spanish and when he talks to his father it is in Hebrew 🙂 which is great for me. Now the question is: what do you think should I do when other people or children, Hebrew speakers, are around? Should I speak Hebrew to him? Only in order to create a connection with him and the others? Because what I have been doing is speaking Spanish to him, and if the others need to know, I translate it, but to him it is always and only Spanish. I am afraid this situation will affect somehow the interaction with the others.
Thank you for your time, I appreciate your answer

Regards, Adriana


Hello Adriana,

Thank you very much for writing to us here at Multilngual Parenting. First of all, I would like to congratulate you for your efforts in raising your little boy with his two heritage languages. It sounds like you are already reaping the benefits of your hard work and it feels wonderful, doesn’t it?
With respect to your question, I am glad you asked because it’s an important one! Raising our children bilingually should not create a barrier to their social interactions with others in the community language. Bilingualism should enhance our children’s lives, right? That said, I think that you are thinking along the right lines. You have evidently established a clear pattern of OPOL (one parent one language) in your home and your child is responding positively to your family language plan. So now, if you feel it is necessary to deviate from the OPOL at times when other Hebrew children or adults are in his presence, and where you feel it would be important for him to create a linguistic and social connection with these persons, then yes, by all means, speak to him in Hebrew at this time. If at other times you judge that the situation does not require for the other Hebrew persons present to understand what you are saying to your son, then you can continue to speak Spanish with him. Speaking the minority language (Spanish in your case as you live in Israel) in a variety of contexts is one of the keys to raising multilingual children. So don’t give up the Spanish entirely in public. Now it will be up to you to strike a careful balance between when to speak Spanish or Hebrew in public, especially as your son grows and has increasing social interactions, but I get the feeling that you will do just fine!
Buena suerte en este desafio! And don’t hesitate to ask more questions. We’d love to continue this exchange with you.


Maria Babin

Maria Babin

Maria, born and raised in the United States to a Peruvian father and a Mexican mother, is today the proud mama of four trilingual kiddos. She loves their multilingual, multicultural lifestyle, living in a suburb of Paris, France, taking family vacations to the United States and eating Mexican tacos. She graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 2000 with a Bachelor’s degree in French, completed undergraduate coursework in early childhood second language acquisition as well as graduate coursework in French literature. She taught beginning French at BYU before beginning her own in-home multilingual experiment. She blogs at Trilingual Mama in a quest to explore and exploit the secrets that lead to a family’s multilingual successes, including research, practical tips, resources and real life.


  1. Adriana

    Dejar María
    Thank you very much for your reply, it is very important for me , I have been made a lot of efforts for not to speak Hebrew to him, at any moment, and now that I heard that it is ok if I do it my concern is that he will stop speaking Spanish to me, because he won’t know when we speak Hebrew or Spanish, I might have to find the balance.

    Thank you very much ones again, I really appreciate your response

  2. Maria Babin

    Hello again Adriana,
    I can relate to you 100%! I have four trilingual children and in the beginning I was very strict about only speaking English or Spanish with them. I wanted to make sure that they didn’t deviate from that pattern or think it would be okay to speak to me in French just because I did every once in a while. So you really have to trust your intuition on this one!
    When I only had 2 children, I was much stricter, but as they grew and I had 2 more children, I became much more relaxed in this respect. I did wait until I saw that a clear pattern had been established, but to be totally honest, my children don’t really like it when I speak to them in French! Even for homework and we live in France! But they accept it as a necessary “evil” when we are in the presence of other French speakers. And then as soon as we are back amongst ourselves we automatically switch back to our minority language.
    Explaning to your child why you make that change tends to help. Even though he is very young, he will be able to understand if you explain to him in simple terms. Let us know how things evolve!

  3. Evrim

    Hi Maria,

    I am so glad to see this post as I am confused about the same situation in a different context. I live in the UK and I am Turkish. Since my husband is also Turkish, we speak only Turkish at home. My son is 1 year old. As a family, we spent 3 months in Turkey until 1.5 weeks ago. Those 3 months were so important in terms of his communication skills as he started to say words and understand when we say something to him. He tries to talk now, using only individual words of course. When we go out or when we have friends at home, he looks puzzled because we speak in English. He sometimes thinks it is a game as he laughs and makes funny moves as if he is dancing when I speak in English with a friend. I still talk to him in Turkish even though we are with other toddlers who speak English however I feel confused especially about which language to use at places such as play groups where he needs to interact with other toddlers and I would like to interact with other mums. The other question mark in my mind is how I will help him to get familiarized with English. He will have a nanny in few months when I go back to work however that nanny may be a person who is from another European country and who has been living in the UK for more than 10 years, therefore speaks English very well. Should I worry about the accent that he is going to pick up?

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Best Wishes

  4. Maria (Trilingual Mama)

    Hello Evrim!
    I just stumbled upon your question and I realize it’s a few months old. I apologize for the delay in responding to you.
    I think it’s very cute that your son giggles and dances when he hears English. We have had similar reactions from all four of our children when either myself or my spouse spoke to them in the ‘wrong’ language. I believe it’s quite normal.
    It takes children some time to establish a distinction between languages. And since you are living in the UK and want him to maintain his minority language (Turkish), but also want him to integrate well in English, it is important for you to set up some clear boundaries.
    Since you have opted to speak the minority language at home (mL@H), it is quite all right to speak English outside of the home when you are with other English speakers. Your son will come to understand the rules with time, even if in the beginning it seems quite odd to him.
    To maintain your minority language, make sure you continue to be consistent speaking Turkish to him in the home, but also outside of the home (when you are not necessarily interacting with other English speakers). This will ensure that he is exposed to a wide range of vocabulary and contexts in the minority language.
    Best of luck to you and please don’t hesitate to write us if you have additional questions.

  5. Francoise

    I have 2 grown children who were born in France but have lived the majority of their lives in the US. I grew up in the UK with a French mother, and am completely bilingual, as are my children. Their father is French and we spoke only French at home; as a result they grew up speaking French to each other and us and English to everyone else. Now that they are young adults, we see each other very infrequently. My partner ony speaks English and finds it very rude that we speak French together. My children feel that they really want the 3 of us (the 2 of them and myself) to connect as a family during the times we share, and that speaking English is a barrier to that. Do you have advice for explaining to each the other’s point of view? Thank you!

    • Rita

      Dear Francoise
      – thank you for your question and sorry for the dealy in responding to your comment! We will pick up your question in a separate Q&A which will be featured on the 26th of November – I will post a link here once it is published.
      Kind regards



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