One of the most common questions we get to our panel of Family Language Coaches is from parents thinking about teaching their child a language of which the mother and/or father is not a native speaker, and whether this is a good idea.
My short answer to this question is, “Yes, I think it can be a good idea,” closely followed by “but you need to carefully consider certain aspects before embarking on this task, which may turn out to be much more demanding than you initially think.”
What is your motivation for using a non-native language with your child?
Being bilingual has many advantages, but these need to be weighed up against possible drawbacks of not using a native language – one which you feel comfortable in using in any situation – with your child. Being able to speak more than one language is a great gift, but it cannot be compared to the importance of a close connection between a parent and a child.
If you feel that your relationship with your child is negatively affected by your language choice, would it be better to find another way for your child to learn an additional language? Also, will your child have a chance to speak the language other than with yourself when growing up, and how likely is it to be useful and maintained?
How fluent are you in the language?
If you will be the main source of exposure for this language, your child may end up picking up your accent and possible mistakes. Making sure that your child also interacts as much as possible with native speakers will counterbalance this.
Have you used the language in all areas of life, or for example only professionally or with friends?
Your vocabulary will depend on in which situations you usually speak the language. If you have used it only with friends – do you know the vocabulary if you need to use it in a more formal scenario, and vice versa?
Are you used to speaking the language with a child?
Speaking a language to your child is very different from speaking it with your colleague or another adult. Try it out. How does it feel to use the language with someone who will not answer you for a year or so? Do you know lullabies and nursery rhymes in the language? Would you know the sounds animals make in it? (I always find it funny how different these can be!)
Will you have to work on your own language skills as your child grows older?
You may find it easy to speak the language with your baby – maybe you have spoken it with other people’s children. What about when your child grows up – will you be fine with speaking about school, hobbies and friends later on?
Language is more than a means of communication; it is an important part of our identity as well as of our relationships with others. Will you feel comfortable to use the language when the time comes to speak about deeper or more difficult issues, for example bullying, anxieties or girl/boyfriend issues? There are ways around this by selecting the apropriate family language strategy, which I will write about in the next part of the series.
Note that once you have started speaking a certain language with a person it is not easy to switch to another. This is especially true with your own child.
Passing on a non-native language to your child will most likely require more time from you than if you were to speak your mother tongue. Will you be able to find the time needed for ensuring enough language exposure for your child, to find resources in the language, to possibly improve your own vocabulary, to visit places where your child can be immersed in the language?
Also, will keeping up with the language require that your child spends more time on it, for example after starting school? Will it impact on other learning?
Expected fluency for your child
The more fluent you want your child to become, the more time you have to be prepared to invest in supporting him or her. Any language skill is a plus, so consider whether it is enough that your child can communicate in the language, or do you want that he or she could attend university in the language?
If you want your child to be able to read and write in the language, will you be able to teach these skills? Note that you do not have to do it all yourself and some things are better left to others who have the necessary skills.
Possible negative effects
Others’ reactions to your decision
Parents are the ones to decide about a child’s languages, and others’ opinions should not really matter. It is however good to be prepared to answer doubts and questions from both relatives and friends and even strangers who may comment on your language choice when they hear you speak with your child.
Will the child be confused by your choice of language?
No, a baby will naturally accept whatever language its parents speak. Children will also not be confused by the use of different languages in the family. Bilingualism does not cause confusion.
Will the child’s development in the other language be delayed?
Depending on how much exposure your child gets to each language, one or the other may be more advanced to start with. If there is enough exposure to both (or all) the languages, by the age of about five bilingual children have normally caught up with their monolingual peers.