Q&A: Bilingual parent – which language to speak to the child?

by | Dec 18, 2014 | Coaches, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Rita R | 2 comments


I would like to tell you a little bit about my story because I would love to get some advice from you. I am a Spanish native speaker married to a South African whose mother tongue is Afrikaans, although he is bilingual, he can also speak English. We currently live in Spain, we speak English to each other (recently it is more spanglish) and I also use English to communicate with his family. We are having our first child in January, I am very excited but also very concerned on how to teach the two main languages that we use. First I was very sure I was going to use English as that is the language I use to communicate with my husband, and she would learn Spanish from my family (my mother will spend a lot of time with her because she will look after her while I work) and in school. Then I read some of the comments in your website about the relationship you build with your child through the language and I started to doubt my choice. I am an English teacher, and although I am fluent, I still have an accent, so I don’t know what to do anymore. I wanted to speak English to her because I am afraid she won’t be exposed to this language enough to become bilingual. I also read in your website about the Time and Place system, and how to speak a language during the week and another language over the weekend, do you think this would work for us? or what do you think it would be the best in our situation?

Thank you very much!

Kind regards
Maria Luisa


Dear Luisa,

Thank you for your question – congratulations on the upcoming happy family occasion. Not long to go now! I also congratulate you on thinking ahead and planning who should speak what language to the little one. Your question is whether you should speak English or Spanish with your baby. Will your husband speak Afrikaans with your child? In a scenario where your husband speaks Afrikaans and you Spanish with him or her, and English is only used in discussions between you and your husband, it is unlikely that your child would become an active English speaker. If your husband is going to speak English with your child, how well he or she will speak English will depend on how much time your husband will be interacting with your son or daughter. You are right, since you live in Spain and your mother will be looking after your baby and he or she will be educated in Spanish, I have no doubt that in a few years Spanish will become the strongest language for your child.

I know you have already bought my book – thank you very much! – so I would recommend you go through the process of creating a Family Language Plan for different scenarios. This will give you an idea about how much exposure your child would have to each language.

Spanish is your native language so this would be the natural choice for you. However, there are several reasons why you could indeed choose English. First of all you are fluent in English and this is the common language between your husband and you, so your child will hear the language anyway. Depending on how much your child will come in contact with native English speakers, he or she may pick up an accent from you. I don’t however see that as something that should be the deciding factor. Also, English is probably the easiest language to find other exposure for which would help with a native-like pronunciation.

You mention that you currently speak “Spanglish” with your husband. Presuming you would like your child to learn an English which can be understood also by non-Spanish speakers, my recommendation would be to try keep the two languages separate. Do you feel this is doable?

You have an excellent opportunity to give your daughter or son the gift of an additional language, but only you can decide what is best for your family. Since you are speaking English with your husband, I presume you have become used to expressing yourself in different situations and emotions in English. You have to ask yourself whether you will feel comfortable in speaking English with your child 100% of the time. Think about reading stories, making animal noises and singing in English. What about discussing something emotional or difficult – would English be fine or would you rather speak Spanish? You know I am all for passing on languages to our children, but it should never be at the cost of a close relationship to your child.

Yes, I think, Time and Place could work with you. Alternating between languages during weekdays and weekends or switching every one or two weeks would bring in both languages. You would also have the choice of languages when it comes to deeper discussions. Keep in mind though that a Time and Place strategy initially takes quite a lot of commitment and determination. It gets easier once you have the routine in place. Also, as mentioned above, you should try to stick to English and Spanish and avoid mixing the two too much.

Let me know what you think and if you have any further questions.
Wishing you and your family every success.

Kind regards,

Rita Rosenback

Rita Rosenback

Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.


  1. María Luisa

    Dear Rita,

    Thank you so much for your reply, we will definitely follow your advice, in fact, we are already working hard on not mixing the languages and quitting the “Spanglish”.
    I will find out more about the Time and Place strategy in your book, and I will let you know how it goes.

    Thank you so much for your time, we really appreciate.

    Kind regards,

    María Luisa

  2. Ansie

    I think you must decide on which language you will use at home and stay with that.
    I am Afrikaans-speaking and my husband is South African but from an English background. When we married we decided that Afrikaans should be our home language as that was my choice. We speak always Afrikaans at home and are children learn in Afrikaans at school.
    Have you tried to learn Afrikaans?


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