Q&A: How to convince a reluctant parent to speak a minority language with a child?

by | Oct 15, 2017 | Babies, Coaches, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Q&A The trilingual+ child, Rita R | 0 comments

How to convince a reluctant parent to speak a minority language with a child?




As every parent would like to provide best future for their children I have started to wonder about language routine for our baby girl that is due in a month. I would like to get any advice how to introduce the language that is very important to a family and I feel it would be a shame to give up on it, unfortunately the sources are limited.

Me and my partner live in UK. I’m Polish and I think I prepared myself quite well for the role of OPOL parent (brought plenty of books, lullabies and other media from Poland and I am mentally prepared to use only that language while talking to my baby). My parents live in Poland, speak to them once a week on skype, my work environment is mainly within Polish community and already decided when time comes – to send her every week to Saturday’s Polish school for couple of hours. My part will not be a problem, I hope.

My partner was brought up in bilingual family. Scottish father and Portuguese mother but he was born in the UK. I really hope he would speak and teach our daughter Portuguese, however I see that it is not coming easy to him to switch from English. Every time we visit Portugal he has no problem to communicate, but his vocabulary is not at the highest efficiency level. While talking with his mum, he switches back to English after three sentences. Even though he realises how important it is for our daughter to learn Portuguese he doesn’t feel natural to force himself to switch.

I have asked grandma to use only Portuguese and to bring some books from Portugal, but visiting her twice a year will not be enough, I suppose. As an OPOL parent I wouldn’t want to cover another language (she already will hear us communicating in English). The only Portuguese course I have found around is intense six weeks and for adults. We do not have any Portuguese friends especially with children yet. At this point we won’t need a nanny either.

Can you suggest anything or have you got any experience in similar problem how to get one of the parents to get used to becoming OPOL with his second language? I’m not worried about English as it will come naturally with TV, school and friends.

I would be grateful for any opinions.


Dear Paulina

Thank you for your message, and I presume congratulations are in order, as I received your message more than a month a go! Hope all is well with you, your husband and your little baby.

Based on your description, I fully agree with you, that Polish and English are on a solid ground for your little one. You will be able to offer enough exposure to both languages for your girl to become fluent in them.

Your concern is about your partner’s second language, Portuguese, which you would also want your daughter to learn. It sounds like your partner has a conversational level of Portuguese, but may be out of practice, as he tends to switch back to English after a few sentences. Language use is a very personal thing, and the wish to speak Portuguese with your little girl must come from him. ‘You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink’, as the saying goes. Even if he was to agree to speak Portuguese after much persuasion, the chances are that he would give it up after a while, unless he can find a strong motivation to do it.

Where to go from here? Have you discussed this more in-depth with your partner? Passing on Portuguese is not only about giving your daughter one more language to communicate in (although that IS big in itself). With the knowledge of Portuguese comes the ability to stay in touch with that side of the family, as well as the chance to gain a deeper understanding of the Portuguese culture. If she knew how to speak Portuguese, she would also most likely enjoy any visits to Portugal in a different, more meaningful way. Maybe thinking about the bigger picture could make your husband rethink?

It is fantastic that your daughter’s grandmother will help you as much as she can with Portuguese. You are right, that occasional visits and online calls will not offer enough exposure for your little girl to acquire the language while growing up. It is however better than nothing!

I understand that you do not want to be the one to offer the Portuguese exposure to your daughter, but maybe it would make it easier for your partner to use his Portuguese, if you were to try to learn the language alongside your daughter. You can always ask your partner for help with pronunciation, words and phrase construction. A good place for you to start is for example the free Duolingo online Portuguese course. Once the language gets a “natural” place in your family, your partner may well feel more at ease towards speaking it with your daughter.

You mentioned that your partner’s Portuguese vocabulary may be somewhat restricted. This should not put him off talking the language with your daughter. It will take many years before there is a need for more complex discussions with her, and I am sure her Portuguese-speaking grandmother would be more than willing to help with any missing words and phrases. By speaking the language with her at an early age, she would acquire a native-like accent in it.

What I would also recommend is to create a “Portuguese space” in your home, where you have Portuguese books, toys and anything related to Portugal. Even if you normally speak and sing to her in Polish, you could occasionally spend some time in this area and listen to Portuguese music together and maybe learn a song or two. I would also think that your partner would feel comfortable in reading Portuguese books to her. Take a look at Maria Babin’s suggestion for a ‘language corner’ for further ideas.

Your partner may not want to start to speak Portuguese with your baby straight away. If you lead the way and bring more Portuguese into the family, he may however well become more accustomed to the thought of talking his second language with your little girl.

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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