Is it too late to introduce your language to your child?

by | Mar 16, 2016 | Being the parent in a multilingual family, Bilingualism, Challenges, Practical advice | 4 comments

Is it too late to introduce your language to your child

“You must start speaking your language to your baby from day one!”
“She is already three and you haven’t started yet? She won’t sound like a native!”
“If you don’t introduce the language before he goes to school, you have missed your chance!”
“Older than seven and he will not get fluent!”
“Do you really think your teenager will be interested?!”

If you are considering passing on your language to your child and you ask for advice – depending on how old your kid is, those are some of the answers you may get. As it happens, they are all WRONG.

It is never too late to start. You have not missed the boat.

Your child can still become fluent and sound like a native and yes, your budding adult offspring can still learn the family language.

Children can become fluent at any age

Contrary to what you may have heard or read, there is no hard and fast age before which a child has to start learning a language to be able to speak it well. Children of any age can become fluent in a language. It is easier to start with a language when kids are younger, but there are many ways to make this transition easier.

Researchers are also not agreed on an “age limit” for learning to speak a language without an accent. Some claim that children who have learnt a language before the age of about seven usually end up speaking the language accent-free, others quote different ages. Anyone can learn to speak without an accent even as an adult, it just requires a more conscious effort and sometimes guidance from a professional.

Even if you start introducing your language when your children are in their teens and may only learn to understand the language, it is still beneficial. If they were to decide to study the language later in life, it would be so much easier for them to learn. As a matter of fact, teenagers are actually better than small children at learning a language as they can think about the process in a more structured way.

Children have the time to learn

Yes, young children do learn languages amazingly quickly, but consider this: If you or were given three or four years during which you do not have to concentrate on anything else than learning the language – do you think you would learn it? I would say, probably yes. Especially if you, like children, had the added luxury of people around you speak to you a lot, at your pace and at the appropriate level, with words that you can understand. Your conversation partners would also read books to you and explain new words. What we as adults miss, is the time and the opportunity to be immersed in a language.

How to introduce your language

It is never too late to start, but it is true that the earlier you begin, the easier you will find it. The longer you wait before you start talking to your child in your language, the more effort you have to put in to change language, but it can be done, the motivation to do it just has to be that bit stronger and of course, age-appropriate.

Your six-month-old little princess won’t question the language you speak to her. She just wants to hear your voice and be with you. By the time she says her first words, a language pattern has usually been established in the family, and she may no longer accept the change as easily – even more so when she is a bit older. Then you will need to come up with a way for her to want to speak your langue. Use whatever positive method that usually works to get her to do what you know is good for her.

I would also unashamedly resort to small white fibs to get the language to be accepted: “The new action figure can only speak my language”, or blatant bribery: “Tell me that in my language and we’ll play cricket an hour longer on Sunday” and whatever trickery you can come up with. If your child is a bit older, discuss the language choice and explain why the language is important to you and why you want to change. Whatever you do, avoid threats and criticism and remember to make it fun.

Ignore comments about it being too late, whatever age your child is – any knowledge of, or even just a positive attitude towards the language will be beneficial in the future. Also, if you set your mind to it and make the language a focus in your family life, the results will be great. And I promise, your child will be thankful to you for it – it may take a few years for the appreciation to appear, but it will!

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  1. Annalisa

    I come from a monolingual family. (To be fair, my mother had half a dozen words in German that she would use with me, but I don’t consider that to be bilingual.) I started studying Spanish in school when I was 12 and studied it off and on (along with smatterings of French, German, Latin, and ASL) for the next 13 years. When I was 25, I moved to Guatemala, a Spanish-speaking country with lots of Mayan languages. BUT growing up where I did, I didn’t have a lot of chances to actually use my Spanish; so while I had all of the head learning, it wasn’t a language that I could speak easily. So, despite 6 complete years of Spanish study (if you condense all that “off and on” together), I could not speak the language.

    But the immersion…the immersion is wonderful. I met my now-husband after having been here 8 months. He spoke only Spanish (and even now probably doesn’t speak more than 50 words of English), but we became friends. I continued living my life surrounded by Spanish with my only English being whatever is on Facebook. My Spanish language acquisition was made here in Guatemala at the age of 25 despite 6 years of studying it in the United States. These days one of my husband’s favorite jokes is passing me off as a Guatemalan despite my blue eyes and blonde hair. People on the phone don’t realize I’m not Guatemalan until I make some grammatical error. (Oops? I never said I was perfect!)
    And perhaps, for me, the funniest part of all is that the Kaqchikel Mayans with whom I work have grammar more similar to English than Spanish (no gendered nouns, adjective before nouns). So, when they speak Spanish, they take off all the gendered endings and don’t clearly pronounce the gendered article. “Uh gat es fe” meaning “El gato es feo” or “The cat is ugly.” …And I do it too (although to a lesser extent)…because while the cat may be male or female, the chair certainly has no logical reason for being female nor does the floor have any logical reason for being male. And that, ironically, makes my Guatemalan Spanish much more authentic sounding.

    Anyway, that’s a bit of my story. So, NO, it’s never too late for your kids to learn a language AND sound authentic.

  2. Kali

    I appreciate this post!! And Annalisa’s story above. 🙂 Thank you for giving me permission to use fibs and bribery (which I already do). 😉 We have certain stuffed animals that only speak Spanish, and sometimes if the kids want a drink or something I’ll say “Ask me in Spanish.” It is so helpful to have articles like these in the journey, because I do question and doubt myself from time to time.

  3. T

    I need help! How do you start if your child is 9 1/2. I am the only native speaker (Spanish) at home.


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