Q&A: Deciding whether to speak a native dialect or an almost native language with a child

by | Dec 15, 2016 | Coaches, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Rita R | 0 comments

Deciding whether to speak a native dialect or an almost native language with a child




I have been struggling with the decision of which language to speak to my daughter. She is now nine months old. So far I have spoken to her mainly in French.  I am half British and half Moroccan. I grew up speaking English with my mother, Moroccan Arabic mixed with French with my father and French as the main family language. Spoke French/Moroccan Arabic to friends, Moroccan Arabic on the street and to my father’s family. My father speaks French but the rest of my family doesn’t. My education was bilingual French/Arabic until age 12 and then purely French until I left school at 18. My husband is English and speaks no other language so English is our family language.

We live in Norway and our daughter will be going to a Norwegian school I cannot decide whether to speak French or Moroccan Arabic to my daughter or both? Pure French sounds slightly fake as I have not really grown up in a French monolingual setting (makes it feel like school and I think I sound a bit teacher like). I also need to reactivate my French as I have been in a monolingual English environment for the last 14 years.

Moroccan dialect, on the other hand, is only an oral language and cannot really be used to express complex thought (in which case Moroccans would turn to either French or Classical Arabic). The most natural thing would be for me to mix them as I would in Morocco but read books in French. I am worried she would end up with insufficient exposure to either language as I work full time.

What do you think of this? Alternatively, I should work on reactivating my French. I have not forgotten it but just that it makes me pause and think (unlike English). I would struggle to speak purely in Moroccan dialect although I do it when I visit Morocco but as it’s not written it changes fast. Also, I cannot use books/cartoons to pass on vocabulary to my child since they don’t exist. Whereas in French I have access to many books/ nursery rhymes/ playgroups etc. Do you have any suggestions on how to reactivate a language?

Many thanks for your help,


Dear Sophia,

Thank you for your question about choosing the language you should speak with your little girl. I will give you some pointers on what to think about when making your language choice, but in the end, the decision is one you need to make yourself.

Based on your last question and the fact that you have so far spoken mostly French with your daughter, you seem to lean towards choosing French as the main language between you and your daughter. This would give you the chance to use supportive resources which do not exist in the Moroccan dialect.

With regards to the Moroccan dialect – how important do you feel it to be when it comes to the extended family on your father’s side. Would your daughter be able to communicate in French for example with her cousins in a few years’ time?

When it comes to books, many parents translate “on the fly” from books in other language when they are unable to find suitable reading material in their language – so this is something you could try should you decide to speak your Moroccan dialect with your daughter. It is not a straightforward thing to do and does take some time to get used to, so try it out and see how it feels.

You hesitate when it comes to French mainly because you have not grown up in the language and feel that it reminds you of school. This is a completely normal reaction and one which I identify with – I grew up with a Swedish dialect which is very different from the standard Swedish, but I chose not to pass on the dialect but spoke the standard Swedish with my daughters. I remember that it did at first feel exactly as you describe. However, it did not take long for me to get used to it. Had we lived in the area were the dialect was spoken, my decision might have been different though.

It is possible to pass on two minority languages (ref: Time and Place approach) but it is hard work, made even more difficult by the fact that you will be on your own with the Moroccan exposure, with few other resources to help you. I appreciate that you have also thought about how you working full time will affect the situation. Passing on two languages could become an additional stress factor for you, so what you could do is to focus on the French for the time being. However, this should not stop you from using phrases in Moroccan altogether – just don’t set the expectation that she will start speaking it, unless you for example can stay in Morocco for at least some time each year. She will after all also have two other languages, English and Norwegian, in her life.

With regards to reactivating your French, please read my article on boosting your own language skills. One really good idea is to listen to French-speaking radio during your commute (if viable) or in the evening before you go to sleep. I just came across this website where you can tune in to different radio stations across the world.

Wishing you a successful multilingual 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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