Q&A: How can one parent pass on two languages?

by | Mar 31, 2016 | Babies, Coaches, Rita R | 6 comments

Question

Hello!

I have a challenge approaching with the birth of my daughter. My partner is Polish and will be speaking to her in Polish. I am half Czech and although was not spoken to as a child managed to learn the language enough to speak and maintain relationships with my relatives there. My partner is keen that our daughter should learn both Slavic languages in addition to English.

The challenge is that my Czech grammar is usually not correct. There are the additional worries that as Czech and Polish are similar, it might be very easy for her to mix up words from each language. Plus, I will not be at home all day, presenting a challenge in terms of giving her time in each language (Czech and English). Windows of opportunity are that my mother would be able to speak correct Czech (although she has expressed a desire not to) and that I could read to my daughter in Czech from story books.

I’d be grateful for any advice for this particular set of circumstances.

Many thanks,
Frank

Answer

Hello Frank,

Thank you for your question and congratulations on the new family member! It is great that you are thinking of the language exposure in advance, so that you can plan how to best pass on your languages to your baby daughter.

Unfortunately, you do not mention where you live, or which language your daughter will do her schooling in, as this has an impact on what I would suggest. In short, if you live in an English-speaking country, then I would recommend that – if you feel comfortable with it – you stick to only using Czech with your little one.

If, as you say, you are not fully fluent in the language, you would need to arrange exposure for her also from native speakers, so she could pick up the right grammar and pronunciation (also read my article on passing on a language you are not fluent in). Your mother sounds like the ideal candidate for this, but of course she has to agree with it. Have you asked your mother why she is reluctant to speak Czech with her granddaughter? She might be persuaded to help if you explain why it is important to you and your wife that your daughter learns the family language.

However, if you were to live in a Czech-speaking community, then your daughter would easily pick up the language at nursery or school and you could concentrate on providing the English exposure. Somehow I have the feeling that this is not the case for you, though. If you live in Poland, then Polish will become your daughter’s majority language, and you will be faced with the challenge of passing on both Czech and English to her. You could try a variation of the time and place approach, where you for example choose to speak Czech during the weekends and English during the week, or you could switch weekly or fortnightly, like my fellow coach Maria. It all depends on how much time you can spend with your daughter in each language.

Reading books in Czech is definitely to be recommended, independent of the scenario – as is reading them in Polish and English as well.

Independent of where you live, I would also look for playgroups in the minority language. If these do not exist, try to find other families with the same languages and same-aged children – maybe you can starta playgroup or arrange playdates.

With regards to Polish and Czech being similar, I would not worry too much about this. Children are good at keeping languages apart, and although there will initially probably be some mixing, keep in mind that this is something most bilingual children do when growing up with more than one language. As long as there is enough exposure to the Czech language, your daughter will learn it.

Please comment below with any further questions and clarifications – I am happy to continue the discussion!

Kind regards
Rita

 

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.

6 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Hi Frank
    I kept 4 languages “alive” for my toddler in 2 1/2. I Adopted my son while I lived in Thailand, brought him to Sweden to finalize adoption even there. My mission was to keep his mother language Thai, same time teach him English and Mandarin and of course Swedish.
    I let him listen and watch Thai clips or songs, spoke English with him with Swedish days. Mandarin is a language I don’t know at all, so he had Mandarin rhymes as lullabies. When he was 2 1/2 yrs old we moved back to Thailand. His first language is English, second language Mandarin Third is Swedish and very close after Thai. He has also basic skills in Japanese and Spanish…
    You can do it
    Good Luck

    Reply
  2. Avatar

    My almost 4yo is fluent in Serbian (where we live) and Macedonian (where I am from and we visit and skype), both similar languages.
    He understands some basic Italian as I make efforts to talk to him in Italian I am fluent in, he picks up English from songs, very little TV and playgroup, and is starting to listen to done German songs and dialogs since we are moving. So no worries. Take it easy.

    Reply
  3. Avatar

    We’re going through some of the same conversations in our household right now, and my approach is similar to yours except that I–the person presenting two languages–will be the one with more child time. My husband wants our child to learn Spanish (his language and the majority language), English (my language), and German (a language I once studied and sometimes spoke bits of with my mother as a child but which I haven’t used in at least a decade). I’ve been trying to use Duolingo.com to revitalize my German, but most of my plans center around using German lullabies at bedtime and perhaps some books in German once the child is a little more interactive. I would also like our child to learn Kaqchikel (another majority language where we currently live), but I would probably hire a native-speaking nanny for that.

    Anyway, just know that you aren’t alone in this grand parenting adventure and these kinds of conversations.

    Reply
    • Avatar

      Thank you for sharing your story, Annalisa!

      Kind regards
      Rita

      Reply
  4. Avatar

    Hi everyone,

    I was really interested to read these posts. I’m in a similar situation and have still not found a good solution! My daughter is just over two and has a good language level in English (my first language) and French (her father’s language, and the community language where we currently live (in France)).

    However, I really would like my daughter to have Irish too. I speak it very well (near native) but lack some baby or kiddie words, because I learned it later in my childhood in a school setting, although I have also used Irish in my professional life too.

    I cannot figure out how one person (me) can pass on two languages when we are living in a place where NOBODY else we see regularly speaks either of them!

    While I do know a few English-speakers with (older) children, we live in a rural area and it’s hard to meet up. Because Irish is a minority language (even in Ireland) and because we live in a not-very-cosmpolitan place, there is no scope for meeting other parents or children with Irish here.

    This leaves me with CDs, books and certain rhymes and games I tend to use more in one language than the other. I’m hoping that, even if my child’s knowledge of Irish is more limited than that of her other languages, it might be enough to help her use it properly when she is a little older. At least she’s hearing the sounds of it.

    Would anyone have any extra tips or ideas to share?

    I work outside the home four days a week. I use Irish and English (not in equal measure) with my child when we are alone together, but tend to use English (which her father understands) when the three of us are there, so as not to exclude him. (He speaks to our daughter in French, which I also understand.)

    Looking forward to any responses!
    Bríd

    Reply
  5. Avatar

    Hi. You mentioned reading to the child in the languages a parent is trying to pass on (1 parent-2 languages, even 3 if possible). How would one go about this for a 1-2 year old? Do you recommend reading separate books for each language? How should they be interchanged? Won’t there be confusion if the same book is used for separate languages? Please help because I’ve put off reading too long because of this dilemma.

    Reply

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