One language at a time or both at once?

by | Mar 6, 2013 | Babies, Choosing the right family language strategy, Practical advice | 2 comments

One language at a time or both at once?

Parents in multilingual families face the choice of teaching their child both of their languages from the start or wait with the next language until the first is established and the child is fluent in it.

The decision whether to go for one language at a time (also known as subsequential bilingualism) or chose to speak both since the birth of your son (also known as simultaneous bilingualism) depends on a few factors. The things to take into consideration are how much exposure your son is going to get in each of the languages and whether one of them is a majority language.

If there is a chance that he will not get enough exposure to the minority language outside the home, then you should consider only speaking the minority language to give him a solid foundation in it. If there will be a good amount of support for the minority language, then you can well start teaching both languages at once.

The decision of course depends on what languages each parent knows and what language pattern is viable in the family. Each family is unique and will have to adapt any suggested approach according to their circumstances.

There is however one option that is not recommended if you want your son to become bilingual: teaching him the majority language first and bringing in the minority language later. The reason why this is not as good an option is that experience has shown that it requires a lot more conscious effort from the minority language parent. The likelihood that the majority language later on becomes the sole active language for your son is significantly greater.

Does this mean that if you didn’t start teaching him your language since he was born, there is no point trying later? Of course not. You can start at any time, you just need to be prepared to do a bit more planning and work a little harder. Also, remember that even a passive language knowledge will benefit him.

May the peace and power be with you.


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  1. joh

    Hi, I am first generation American, my parents both spoke Spanish at home when I was growing up and I am a Spanish speaker, but am most comfortable in English, even though Spanish was my first language. I married an American and my family hardly speaks Spanish, to my brothers and sister it in English, except for my mother. I want my kids to speak Spanish. I first started signing with my son when he was a baby but it was always in English, we are not surrounded by a lot of Spanish speakers so it was difficult for me to expose him and my mother does not live near us. After having my daughter, I started to speak more Spanish to her and moved my son to a bi-lingual school that speak the majority of the time in Spanish. He was turning three when I moved him there and has grown to appreciate Spanish more (before he would ask me to stop speaking Spanish, now he repeats) My husband does not speak Spanish so it is up to me to teach them but have such a hard time since its not the language I think or speak in, I really have to think about it and remind myself. Help, I don’t want to regret not teaching them another language. Is it too late? My daughter is turning one soon and I have exposed her to more Spanish then my son at that age, but I just don’t know how to handle the dynamics of English as the majority language and Spanish, should it be like a time of day??? AH its a lot harder then people make it seem when there is only one person speaking it to them. Thanks for your help!!

    • Rita Rosenback

      Thank you for your comment. It is not easy being the only speaker of a language, I know. First of all, it is not too late. Also, give yourself a big pat on the back for deciding to do this. Also your son is already showing signs of wanting to speak the language, which is great! You will be so proud you did it and your children will thank you – maybe not within the near future, but for sure when they are older. You will get the best result if you consistently stick to Spanish with your children. If you switch between English and Spanish when you talk to them directly, they get used to this and might want to try to stick to English instead of Spanish. I understand that this is not an easy task for you, as you feel more comfortable in English than in Spanish. What you could do to get more into Spanish is for example to listen to Spanish radio programs while you are driving, doing daily chores or at night before you go to sleep. Choose programs that you are interested in, don’t select them based on vocabulary or some other “academic” reason. You should enjoy the language. The more you listen and speak, the easier Spanish will come to you. Good luck!



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