Q&A: How to choose between four or more family languages?

by | Feb 18, 2016 | Coaches, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy | 0 comments



I just found this website while I was looking for an answer to my question on how to introduce a third language to our 18 month-old daughter, who has just started talking in the two languages that her father and I speak to her. Your website looks very interesting and I will also check the book but I still would like to ask you a couple of questions.

I grew up in Spain speaking Basque (mother tongue) and Spanish, and my husband grew up in Canada speaking Cantonese (mother tongue) and English. I can speak my two languages equally well. My husband’s dominant language is English but he also speaks Mandarin and French (on top of Cantonese). We live in British Columbia, Canada, and he speaks English to our daughter while I speak to her in Basque. My husband does not speak Basque or Spanish.

I would also like to teach her how to speak Spanish but I am not sure about when to start and how to do it. She doesn’t go to daycare (I am currently at home taking care of her), we do not have Spanish speaking friends around and she is not watching TV or videos yet. I read that children need to be exposed to a language 30% of their “awake” time in order to learn it properly. I think this would be difficult to achieve for me since it would reduce the time that I speak Basque to her considerably (plus we are following the one person-one language strategy).

My second question is as follows: under the same conditions, should my husband even try to teach her some Cantonese? They spend three hours together Monday to Friday, plus the whole weekend. His parents are not around but we Skype regularly.

Thank you very much in advance!


Hi Nahikari,

So glad you found us! Very good questions. I don’t have any one right answer for you on this, but will give some suggestions.

You’re right that 30% of their waking hours is the key. If, by splitting languages, you’d be doing two under 30%, it may not be worth it. This is just my opinion, but teaching one minority language is challenging enough to do well, so trying to teach two that might end up being acquired imperfectly may not be the best option.

Another way to do this would be to introduce them later in life. Get her Basque solid and then slowly introduce Spanish at an older age, say around 5 or 6 and then just start incorporating it more.

I’m a big fan of one parent, one language as a strategy. It’s very effective. So mixing that up may be tougher. The best way to do it would be to alternate days or times of the day with a clear cue as to when the switch occurs (like after lunch).

As you live in British Columbia, I presume you community language is English, I would have your husband switch to Cantonese now. Cantonese also may be a language you’d want to introduce later or maybe send your daughter there for a summer to give her a strong foundation in the language.

Overall, definitely some tough choices. I think you really want to have a language plan as a family. What are your goals for your daughter? Is it more important she speaks the family languages to communicate with relatives, or do you want her to learn languages with a larger speaker base? Once you come up with those goals, it’ll be much easier to decide on what languages to focus on. Keep the 30% rule in mind and then go from there. Always remember, languages don’t have to be learned simultaneously and you can spread them out as your daughter gets older.

Good luck!

Nick Jaworski

Nick Jaworski


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