Q&A: Changing the language parents speak with a 1-year-old – is it too late and how to do it?

by | May 21, 2017 | Babies, Coaches, Language development, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy, Rita R | 0 comments

Changing the language parents speak with a 1-year-old – is it too late and how to do it?



Hi there,

I would like to ask for your advice. My husband is Portuguese and I am Hungarian and we live in England. Our daughter is almost one year old, and we mostly speak to her in English. She does hear conversations in both other languages, when we speak to families or friends but we have been speaking exclusively English to her in hope that she will not her problems with language when starts school.

Now that I come across your website and some others, I read that with this we are actually doing a disservice for her when it comes to language development and thinking, as instead of her acquiring my natural mother tongue she learns my English as a second language.

Would you recommend us to suddenly switch from English to our mother tongue and speak to baby in Hungarian (and Portuguese from my husband)? Or would this create confusions? Also, even if we switch to our native languages now, since we spoke to her in our learnt English for almost her entire first year, isn’t this already too late to do without having any lasting effect on her linguistic skills?



Dear Adrienn

Thank you for your question about switching the language you speak with your little daughter. Please do not think you have done your daughter a disservice, you haven’t. She can still learn your languages and you have not hampered her cognitive development!

Your daughter is currently learning English from you and your husband and if she spends most of her time with you, then her English will resemble yours, including the accent, vocabulary etc. However, once she gets more exposed to native English-speakers at nursery or school and via media, her English will change to sound more native-like. Her English skills will soon overtake both yours and your husband’s.

If you want your daughter to learn your mother tongues (Hungarian and Portuguese) while growing up, then you would both need to start speaking your languages with her at some point. The longer you wait the more difficult the switch is. For example, if you wait until she starts school and gets even more exposed to English, and then changing the language you speak with her, you will be met by more opposition than if you were to switch now. (I know, I have done it!)

It is not too late to switch to speaking your languages with her. Your relationship and love for her is what is the most important thing, and that will not change. She will not become confused. Yes, there will naturally be a transition period before she is picks up the equivalent in Hungarian and Portuguese to whatever she has learnt in English so far. This will however not have a long-term effect on her language development. In addition to exposing her to your languages from now on, maybe you can also find a way for her to spend some time in an English-speaking environment. Perhaps find a playgroup you could attend?

The biggest challenge will be for you and your husband to switch and stick to your languages with her and to offer enough exposure to both languages at home. You would need to ensure that she can interact both in Hungarian and Portuguese every day. You should also arrange a rich linguistic environment for both languages through books, music, games etc. At a later stage, you can introduce children’s programmes and other media.

You do not mention whether your daughter is saying any words in English yet or whether she understands simple commands. In any case, I wouldn’t do a sudden complete switch, but make sure that she can still understand what you are communicating. Make the communication clearer by using a lot of gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice. By switching to your respective mother tongues, you may also feel that you can connect with her even more closely – once you and your husband get over the change.

Without knowing all the circumstances in your family and the plans for your daughter going forward, it is difficult to give more detailed advice in a short article, but I would be happy to work with you directly should you wish to pick up my offer of individual family language coaching. (Please contact me again, with your correct email address, as my message to you bounced back.)

Wishing you a successful trilingual family journey!

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.


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