Q&A: Does a parent “mess up” a 2-year-old’s language development by speaking a non-native language?

by | Apr 16, 2017 | Challenges, Coaches, Language and bilingualism, Language development, Non-native language, Rita R | 0 comments

Does a parent “mess up” a 2-year-old’s language development by speaking a non-native language?




My daughter and son-in-law have four daughters ages 8, 6, 4 and almost 2. “Dad” knows some Italian having lived in Italy a couple of years. He thinks he should have been bilingual with the first three daughters.

He speaks only Italian to the fourth daughter and English to everyone else who all speak English only. The fourth daughter doesn’t speak except to say “down” when she wants out of her high chair. She communicates by making vocal sounds and displaying emotion. Will this mess up the fourth daughter?



Dear Jolynne

Thank you for your questions which I will answer as best as I can based on the limited amount of information. To start with, I would like to point out that bilingualism causes neither confusion, nor language delay.

I presume your daughter, the children’s mother, speaks only English with all her children, including the youngest one? You and others she comes in contact with also speak English. This means that the 2-year-old will get plenty of exposure to English and will in time become a fluent speaker of the language.

Please keep in mind that there can be big differences in the pace of children’s language development, even between siblings. Check out this previous Q&A for milestones for a 2-year-old’s language development.  Note that younger siblings also generally tend to reach the 50-word milestone later than their older sisters and brothers, although they do catch up later. The important thing to keep an eye on is reception (understanding) and progress. Can she follow simple commands and is she learning more words in either language?

If your daughter and son-in-law are at all worried about their daughter’s language development, they should contact an experienced speech and language therapist who is used to dealing with bilingual children. (Please note that should the advice be to drop Italian, then the therapist is not up to speed with the latest research and practice.) Whether they want to seek advice from a professional or not should be their decision.

Since your son-in-law has decided to speak Italian with his youngest daughter, I presume he must feel quite comfortable speaking the language. Being immersed in a language for two years can give you great language skills. I don’t know on what you base your “some Italian” knowledge assessment – do you know Italian yourself perhaps?

Your son-in-law does not “mess up” your granddaughter by speaking a non-native language with her. Should there be a long-term delay in her language development, she would have this independent of which language he speaks to her. Depending on how much time he can spend with her and expose her to Italian she may well learn the language – again, without further details I would not be able to comment on this. Alternatively, she may become a receptive bilingual in the language, i.e. she would learn to understand, but not speak Italian. Even this level of language knowledge would stand her in good stead should she want to continue improving her Italian skills later in life.

As a grandmother, you are in a great position to support your little granddaughter’s English by focusing on speaking to her directly – younger siblings do tend to get less one-on-one talking time. Sing with her, recite rhymes and read a lot of books to her. Remember that when reading with a small child, we should not get too hung up about the story – some pages will get read several times, others not at all and usually never in the right order. Enjoy your time with your grandchildren!

Wishing your family a successful bilingual 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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