Passing on a non-native language to your child, part 1: Considerations

by | Aug 12, 2015 | Babies, Being the parent in a multilingual family, Challenges, Family life, Non-native language | 6 comments

Passing on a non-native language to your child, part 1: ConsiderationsOne 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?

Own fluency

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?

Emotional connection

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.

There will be two more posts in this series: Family language strategy and Activities.

Never miss a post! Sign up to the Multilingual Parenting newsletter and I will send you a recap of the week’s posts every Sunday. Every second week you will receive a more extensive issue with links to research articles and interesting posts from other writers, as well as handy tips and ideas! Want to read more like this? My book Bringing up a Bilingual Child is available on Amazon and in well-stocked bookshops. Do you have a specific question? You can send it to our team of Family Language Coaches and we will reply in a Q&A (questions are answered in order of arrival). If you are interested in tailor-made family language coaching, please, contact me and I will send you a proposal.


  1. Valerio

    This is a very interesting article even though I believe parents should talk to their children their native language. I don’t think it is a good idea to speak to them a different language especially if that is not even the language spoken in their outside world. I find that process being very unnatural and pretentious.The effort would be overwhelming in the long run.

    I would like to hear about trilingualism. I’m Italian, my partner Japanese and we live in NYC where we have a 2 months old daughter. I speak Italian to her and she speaks Japanese. Our common language is English cause she knows no Italian and I speak no Japanese. We want to speak our native languages to our daughter cause her English is not so good and I am very fluent but I have an accent but most of all we would like to give our daughter the gift of speaking 3 languages.

    What kind of problems may we encounter in the process? Please give us a few pieces of advice or refer us to some interesting article on this subject.

    Best regards

    Valerio and Eriko

    • Rita

      Dear Valerio and Eriko,

      Thank you for your comment and question. Parents have different motivations for choosing the languages they want their children to learn, and I at least would be very careful in critizising anyone’s decisions. I do believe it is important to be aware of any possible challenges that may arise, but in the end, parents make their own judgement on what is the best way forward.

      With regards to your question, as we now have a Q&A section on the site, all questions are handled through there and your query will be featured in the Q&A section on Thursday the 1st of October. You will find a link to the Q&A on the home page on that day, and I will also send you the link directly.

      Kind regards

  2. Jonathan

    I think that this is a great article, and I could really identify with what you discussed here as I’m bringing up our son using Welsh (which is my third language). I’m doing this as we live in an area where there are a lot of Welsh speakers and where our son is likely to receive a significant part of his education in Welsh. My wife doesn’t speak much Welsh, so it was really important for us as a family to try to ensure we did as much as possible to expose our son to Welsh so as he could get used to hearing it and using it.

    Even though I’m used to using Welsh socially with adults and at work, it did feel odd using it with a baby (and now toddler). It certainly tested my vocabulary as I didn’t remember learning a lot of vocab about babies on the courses I went to. That said, I’ve manage to get quite a few different resources that go into detail about vocab to use when changing a nappy or burping a baby!

    Reading your blog, and other blogs / books, has really opened my eyes to all the different ways that parents can raise kids bilingually or multilingually, and its great to have discovered all this fantastic work that helps with the journey we’re on with our son. As you can guess from what I’ve said here, I certainly don’t agree with the comment above that all parents should speak their native language with their kids. I’m not going to criticize what other parents chose to do as it’s their own choice and what works for one person or family isn’t necessarily going to work for the next person or family. However, there are lots of different strategies that bring different pros and cons depending on parents’ language backgrounds and the language(s) spoken in the area where a family lives.

    • Rita

      Thank you so much for your kind comment, Jonathan. I really appreciate it as it comes from someone who is “in the thick of it”. I do admire your determination and commitment for making sure your son grows up to speak Welsh.

      As you know, I fully agree with not critisizing any parents for the choices they make with regards to language, Critisizing generally does not help anyone. No two families and their situations are alike and there are a multitude of best solutions.

      I am glad that you find my (and other’s blog posts on the topic useful for your own multilingual family journey – that’s the best feedback a writer can get!

  3. Loren O'Sullivan

    My husband is Peruvian and I am a New Zealander. We live in New Zealand. I am pregnant with our first child. I speak near native Spanish and would like to provide our child with as much Spanish as possible in his first years. A good friend has criticized this decision because I’m not a native speaker. He thinks it’s unnatural and will cause my child to resent me. He thinks that my son will not be able to talk to me about ‘deeper issues’ as a teenager, as he will find speaking Spanish with me unnatural. I would like to know if there is evidence of this? All I want is to provide my son with the gift of two languages, as he’ll be bound to pick up English from his environment.

    • Rita

      Dear Loren,
      what others think rarely really matters, does it? If you feel comfortable in speaking Spanish with your child, then do so. I have not come across any evidence that speaking a non-native language with your child would cause issues later in life. In any case, it is not like you are bound to Spanish – should you at any point feel the need to switch to English, you can. As you mention, you are living in New Zealand so he will of course become a fluent English-speaker, and you can use that language with each other when necessary.
      Do what you feel is right, never mind the nay-sayers!
      Kind regards



  1. Passing on a non-native language to your child, part 2: Family language strategy - […] taking into consideration all the points raised in the first part of this series, you have decided that you…
  2. Passing on a non-native language to your child - Activities - […] that you can do with your kid. So far in the series I have written about the things you…
  3. Dear parents of bilingual children – time to cut some slack! - […] do not have to be a native speaker to teach a child a language. It might not be what…
  4. Is it a good idea to introduce two additional languages to a preschooler? - […] Spanish, with her the switch would be a big change for both of you. I wrote a series of…
  5. Multilingual Parenting: Top 10 posts of 2015 for parents of bilingual children – multilingual parenting – bilingual children - […] Passing on a non-native language to your child, part 1: Considerations Part 2 of this series is on choosing…

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.