Q&A: How to teach a non-native language (English) to a toddler

by | May 14, 2015 | Babies, Coaches, Non-native language, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Rita R, Toddlers | 16 comments



I am from Poland and the father of a 20 months old daughter. For me and my wife out mother tongue is Polish. I caught up an idea to introduce another language to my child from TV cartoons … let me explain. Here in Poland in national television, there is a national program of common bilingualism, which encourages parents for teaching their children another language in home, nursery and the kindergarten from early months.

I have dug deep into the topic, read some information about difference between: having a foreign language and having the second language, etc. I have also read some information about advantages for children learning another language. As far as I am concerned, English is my foreign language. I have been learning for years, never have been in the UK and I am on FCE level (passed an exam a couple of years ago). Neither have we any roots with the British culture, nor is anyone in our family speaking the language.

I am aware of the fact that my family is monolingual, however I know that it is still possible to raise our child as bilingual. My sister who married Austrian and moved to Italy is raising two daughters who are able to speak in three languages (In Italian, German and Polish). They are all very intelligent girls and I know that for them it was easy to absorb those languages when they have lived with them from birth.

Because I know that one-parent one-language is the best approach I have talked to my daughter for a week only in English just to check how I would feel with that and what would be the reaction of my daughter. It is worth mentioning she hasn’t started to speak in Polish yet. All I can say, my daughter is like a sponge. I noticed she can really fast adopt to her father’s language and after one week of speaking with her I know she understands such phrases like: Come to me, Give me your hands, Hands up (when changing clothing), Wash your hands, Get under the covers (she picks her duvet when going to sleep), she knows what potty means, she can find her bottle with the compote when asked to bring, she can show me the cat and the dog when asked. We have watched English movies on TV, listened to songs, etc. That is what I have done with her, so far so good.

However, here are my doubts about all these things… My English is not perfect. I know I would have to make a huge effort to give her enough language input, variety of the vocabulary and should do this every day for the next 5 – 6 years. My first language is Polish and I feel that my true emotions, I can express only in that language. It is a little hard for me. I am curious how other monolingual parents deal with that? Furthermore, bilingualism is not ubiquitous and I know that for most people it would be a surprise, I would probably have to expect raised eyebrows. She will finally start speaking in English someday and for most people it could be a bizarre, artificial situation (maybe even for me…)

My primary motivation for all this is that I could give her the second language, she could learn it easily, she could develop her cognitive skills, she would be better in school etc. She would have secret communication language with her dad 🙂 My wife however understands English as well.

I am also a little worried if it is not too late… She is 20 months old. She hasn’t started speaking and I know that introducing another language could delay the moment when she finally start talking in Polish. Is it not too late? Will it not confuse her world? The other thing I am worried about is Polish. Her dad will be developing her skills in English. I think that my wife would probably do this at the same time in Polish with at least not smaller commitment.

If I decide to carry on with the English my plan would look like this:
1. For the next 1 year, I would be the only person talking to her in English. Later I would think about popular Helen Doron’s lessons or maybe I would find a native speaker … English classes are only once a week for 30 minutes.
2. OPOL solution is ok, but would have to probably modify it a little, don’t know with what results. I would like to talk to her in English but when being with others (parents, grandparents or with anyone else) I would return to Polish, just to avoid … questions, at least at the beginning of that process…
3. I would like to use the language whenever it is possible. Introduce flashcards, songs, music and the books.

Could you please throw light on my situation? Give me some answers on the questions appeared in my letter? Any help will be very much appreciated.

Thank you,


Dear Piotr,

Thank you for your interesting and detailed question. I admire your passion and commitment to giving your daughter the chance of becoming bilingual in Polish and English! I will do my best to address all the points you raise, which are (please comment with any follow-up questions if you feel I have missed anything):

1. Teaching your daughter a language that you are not native in.
2. You can express your emotions best in Polish.
3. Others’ reactions to your decision to speak English with your daughter.
4. Is it too late to start (your daughter is 20 months)?
5. Will her Polish develop later because of the English?
6. Will your daughter be confused by you speaking English to her?

1. You can give your daughter a good head start in becoming an English-speaker by doing all the activities that you describe in your letter. As she will not be interacting with any native English speakers, she will most likely pick up at least some of your accent and her English will not sound nativelike. If you want her to become fluent and have less of an accent, it would be good to introduce some kind of activity involving a native English speaker as soon as this can be arranged.

2. If you have read any of my previous answers, you might already have seen that even though I think a language is a wonderful, life-long gift you can give a child, it is not more important than a close relationship between the two of you. OPOL is a good strategy, but would in my opinion not be the best choice for you in its “pure” form. My recommendation is that you use a variation of the time and place strategy where you select a specific time or location, which you dedicate to speaking only English with your daughter. This way you will still be able to use Polish for those more intimate and in-depth discussions. One suggestion is to dedicate a room (or a part of a room) in the house for English – you would then do all the fun activities and exercises in here. Even your wife could join in, if she felt like it – and your daughter would take great joy in teaching her mother! You, on the other hand, can use Polish when you feel it is the more appropriate language for a specific discussion and also when others are around.

3. The choice of language you speak with your daughter is yours and your wife’s to make. Yes, there will probably be raised eyebrows, but that is not something you should take into account when deciding what to do. People will always have (and unfortunately also express) their opinions on the parenting choices we make – best just to ignore them.

4. It is definitely not too late to start with English at 20 months. As you state yourself, she has already picked up many words and phrases, which is a great indicator of how well she is learning!

5. Children’s language development vary hugely. If you decide to continue with the English, you will never be able to know how she would have developed had she only learnt Polish. Should a brother or sister come along, you can also not compare their language development, as there can be great differences even between siblings. What people sometimes perceive as a language delay in bilingual children, is more often than not a difference in the order a child learns. A bilingual child should also never be compared with a monolingual child – if a monolingual knows for example seven words, it is still less than a bilingual who knows four words in two languages (= eight words)! On all accounts, research has found that by the age of five, on average, bilingual children have caught up with their monolingual peers in both of their languages. Providing she will be exposed to a varied Polish input (which I presume will be the case with her mother, the rest of the family and friends speaking it), your daughter’s Polish will be fine.

6. Bilingualism does not cause confusion. If you separate the languages as described above, there will probably also not be too much mixing. Do keep in mind though that all bilingual children usually mix their languages to start with, and that you should not be concerned if/when this happens. Bilingual children soon figure out which word belongs to which language.

I hope I have been able to allay some of your concerns, and I wish you the best of luck with your quest to bring up your daughter to speak both Polish and English. She is very lucky to have such a dedicated father! Please follow-up with any additional questions you may have.

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.


  1. Chris

    Dear Piotr,

    I’m a native English speaker from Britain, raising two bilingual daughters in France. Before anything else, please let me tell you how much I admire greatly what you are doing. If more parents were as open, and as dedicated,as you, the world would be a much better place.

    And please let me reassure of one thing – your English is not only good enough, it is better than most non-native speakers who claim to be ‘bilingual’. Don’t ever let anyone tell you anything different. And please, carry on with what you are doing, and for any future children you have.

    And, as Rita quite rightly says, never worry about what other people say. You are doing everything right. Most people will be jealous. Let them be. That is not your problem. It is their problem.

    I’m not sure if I’m allowed to put hyperlinks here (and I wouldn’t be upset Rita if you cut this section), but if I am, could I recommend for you Piotr the following sites:


    which are absolutely brilliant, and will also provide you with access to a ‘native speaker’ to help with the accent and pronunciation issues. Song and play, as you say, are excellent ways to bring a language to life. Another great way (if you have the resources) are to buy books with CDs. Some examples I have at home are

    http://winnie-the-witch.com/book/winnie-flies-again/ (in fact, any of the Winnie the witch collection)
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Cat-Hat-Other-Stories-Seuss/dp/0007161549/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&qid=1431601709&sr=8-5&keywords=the+cat+in+the+hat (along with the book if possible – again any Dr Seuss is worth having)
    or look out for almost any books with CDs in English.

    Lots of things are available second hand over the internet. Most of what I have bought has been second hand. Books, magazines, and the BBC podcasts are all excellent ways of providing resources for very little money. I have always believed that you can replace money with time, but time cannot be replaced by money.

    You are doing everything right! Keep at it. And please let us know how things develop.

    with very best wishes


  2. Kim

    I love this question and response. I have family in Poland who I will be visiting this summer! I am a speech language pathologist too and write children’s ebooks…So have a passion and connection to ‘native’ language and ‘immigrant’ language learning. Keep both language going PLEASE! You will benefit your child immensely and at many different levels of language learning and development!
    Twitter @kmflewelling


  3. Piotr


    Thank You Rita, Chris and Kim for all your answers!

    Rita, your information is so valuable. I know that I will have to give my daughter the time to interact in some form of activity with the native speaker. I thought initially, I could give my daughter some time (3 – 4 months) with me so that we could “polish” English, but deeply I knew that English tutor would be necessary as soon as it is possible. In my city there is one! He set up English kindergartner in which every stuff is talking with children in English. She is very young, so probably I will try to arrange face-to-face meetings once a week.

    We have already adopted some kind of the strategy you mentioned. We live in a detached house, in which we have the second floor. Downstairs there live my mother-in-low with her mum (and my “sewed” granny 🙂 ). So currently when I am with my daughter upstairs there is only English. The disadvantage of that strategy is that I wouldn’t be able to introduce to her some interesting vocabulary connected with the kitchen for example. That is the reason why sometimes I change the language and describe the things to her in English.

    Now I don’t have the problems with the people. We will see what interesting is going to happen when others will finally hear her language “snapbacks”.

    Writing about the moment when our toddlers have the first contact with a foreign language, I had a podcast in my mind (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04v382j). The people in the studio talks about the complexity of the language learning process. How the children pick up the language. They say about the melody of the language, syllables and they confirm that after first year the child is accustomed to the language and from that moment the child starts building his/her vocabulary and starts to speak, but will definitely draw a lot from that first year.
    In my question wanted to ask if the child can truly became bilingual, in situation that her native language will be developing rapidly and with her English she will have to have enough time to accustom to…

    Tomorrow (Sunday) we will have been talking in English for one month, every day, every moment I could. We have a few different activities:

    We love: mother goose club on youtube with the songs: 5 little monkeys, 10 in bed, ba ba black sheep have you any wool, driving in my car, mary quite contrary, ring around the rosy (I found that it is a scary song …), rainbow, a rig a jig jig and others 🙂

    I have bought with my wife a book with CD: I can sing in English by Terence Clark-Wars. These songs are very simple and introduce some words, but can be connected with the activity. We have e.g. Blue sky (we raise our hands), Hot sun (we wave our hands), rain (mimic rain with the fingers), snow, Up and down, Open and close (we pick the book and open/close it), blue, red, yellow balls (we have a bucket and I try to tell her to choose the ball with the sung colour), Sit on the floor, and so on :), She learn very very quickly that way.

    We have also the book: First hundred words in English. It is also a great one, there are many scenes and the objects the child should learn by heart. I have also the bought book with fairy tales, but generally, with regards the books…. , she is too agile to sit with me more then 2, 3, minutes …(it seems to be rather boring … activity)

    She knows a lot, the most important parts of her body (she can show me her head, nose, eyes, ears, belly, legs, knees, feet, toes, she can wink her eye, open/close eyes, she understands me more or less. Last week she started to answer to my simple questions by saying in polish: “no” or “yes”.

    I think I will also have to do the homework by extending my vocabulary. I have used the word: “belly” with her as I thought that it is the most appropriate word for my child but … in the meantime it turned out that the British children use the word: “tummy” … I was wondering how I should explain that to my daughter that the belly is the “wrong” word and from that time I will be using tummy or ….the belly can be substituted with the tummy word … 🙂 These are daddy’s dilemmas …

    The only thing I wonder is how to choose the appropriate content for her, at her age, at her skills. How “complex” should be the: songs, movies, radio podcasts and books … what should I give her, tell her to listen to. The activities we are doing in my opinion are well-suited at that moment but what later … Chris wrote interesting BBC links but … should I play it for her?


    • Chris

      Hello again Piotr,

      thank you for your reply. My view – and this is only my view – is that it would be good for you to play the BBC links. I know what the content is, and the level at which it is set, and it makes a great thing to have once or twice a week. It then becomes a habit, and habits are set very young. The big thing I found is to do ‘fun’ things, and also things that allow you to bring in new vocabulary. When my girls were young, I used to cut out images from magazines, and get them to do collages, which we then put on the walls. The images were varied, and often of things they would not have seen before – so you have fun showing them, and teaching them, what these things are.

      We also did the same thing making birthday and Christmas cards, keep cards from one year to the next, cutting up images and making new things – all for next to no cost!

      I’ve said elsewhere that cultural references in the target language are also very important, so anything you could do there would be helpful. It could be a simple as finding pictures of the British royal family (and there are plenty available!) and discussing who everybody is.

      Keep at it. Be imaginative, play, and – most importantly – give time. That is the key to success. The more you give, the more you will get back!



  4. Piotr

    Hello Chris,

    I’ve wanted to thank You for the BBC playtime links. They are indeed awesome! That is what I have been looking for!


    • Chris


      Glad they work, and glad you find them so helpful.

      Bringing up bilingual children can feel very lonely at times, and we need to stick together and help each other.

      best wishes/Najlepsze życzenia


  5. Piotr

    Hello Rita,

    I tried to organize meetings with the native speakers and .. unfortunately with no luck ..
    In my city there are busy people, furthermore the American guy stated that one, 30 minutes meeting every week will not help her to catch the accent …. Well I don’t really know what to think about it …

    How do you think, how often should my girl be in touch with the English speaking fellow?

    I could still try to find someone, but … maybe he was right, that 30 minutes or maybe even twice a week lessons will just not work out … ?

    Do you think I should still try to organize something for her?

    • Rita

      Hi Piotr, anything is better than nothing! Don’t worry too much about the accent, it is more important that she gets used to communicating with native speakers and learn how they use the language in general. You could also try a language exchange site to find someone to talk with.

  6. Sibylle

    Hello everyone!
    I know this is an old post, but hope it is still read by others like me seeking advice on raising a bilingual child by speaking a non native language. So far bilingual has been easy, since both my husband and I are German and we lived in Texas. So my 21 month old was exposed to German from us her parents and English and some Spanish in day care and on the playground/ @ the neighborhood pool. Currently her favorite English book is Sandra Boytons Barnyard Dance:
    The advantage of this book for lively children is you can act it out (stomp your feet, clap your hands, everybody ready for the barnyard dance! Now to the horse, bow to the cow, twirl with the pig if you know how. Bounce like a bunny…

    For us the big challenge ahead is moving back to Germany in two weeks. We want to keep her English alive, thus decide to do a variation of minority language at home and or time and place. To me English is part of my daughter’s heritage being a born Texan…
    BTW belly is the correct American word for tummy, so not incorrect…

  7. Sibylle

    One more comment on accents: my daughters teachers are mainly non native speakers (originally from Mexico, Srilanka, Pakistan, India…). But there has always been one native speaker in every class room. She does have an American accent. 😉

  8. Dzulaikha

    Hi Rita..
    my name is dzulaikha from Malaysia. As you know English is the second language in Malaysia. Therefore we have had exposed to the language since we were seven years old. however, i’m having a problem with my brother. he is 10 years old. normal kids at his age is supposedly to have the basic of english. But, my brother is different. he was categorized as a slow learner by his teacher. He can’t even differentiate the different between ‘he’ and ‘she’. he also tend to forget easily about the lesson that he had learn. therefore, i would be really happy if you can give me some guides or ideas on how to help my brother. your help is very appreciated. thank you.

    • Rita

      Dear Dzulaikha

      Thank you for your message – unfortunately it is very difficult to give any advice without understanding the underlying problem, so what I recommend that you do is to get him assessed in relation to his learning challenges and once you have a clearer picture of what the issue is, speak to a professional speech and language therapist about further actions.

      Hope it all turns out well for your brother!

      Kind regards

  9. Plinio

    Hello Piotr,

    I’ve just found this websibe and this post about teaching a non-native language to your kid. I’m facing pretty much the same situation. I can speak English as a second language (even though I feel like I still have to learn a lot of stuff!) and my wife and I are planning on having a baby next year. I’m considering to speak English with her/him while my wife would speak Portuguese (our mother tongue… we live in Brazil). I’m just wondering if you could stick to you inicial plan of rasing your daughter in English. How is she now? (I figure she’s aroung 2 years and a half now). Do you have some tips for parents facing the same situation?

    Thank you,

  10. Nena

    Hi Piotr,

    I am also very curious to hear more about you and your daughter.
    I have a son who i speak English with as a non native speaker.

    Thank you

  11. Nena

    Please Piotr,

    Could you Tell us how it is going so far?

    Thank you!


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