Q&A: When and how to introduce the concept of different languages to a small bilingual child?

by | May 4, 2017 | Coaches, Language and bilingualism, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Rita R | 0 comments

When and how to introduce the concept of different languages to a small bilingual child?




What age is appropriate to introduce the concept of language to a child? I don’t mean teaching the child a second language but teaching him that there are different languages and that each one has a name.

We use OPOL at home with our 3-year-old boy. We live in Mexico and my wife and I are native Spanish speakers. I’m fluent in English and I speak to him almost exclusively in this language. He currently has a good level in both languages although when playing alone seems to prefer English.

We have on purpose not taught him that the words he uses with daddy are English and the ones he uses with mommy are Spanish. I’m afraid that if he fully realizes the concept of languages he may start asking me to speak to him in Spanish since he has more exposure to it.

Looking forward to your thoughts on this.



Dear Julio

Thank you for your question with regards to naming the languages you and your wife speak with your child. It is fantastic that your son already has a good grasp of both languages and that he has embraced the language he hears less of, English, to the extent that he uses it when he plays by himself.

To be able to speak about the languages a bilingual child grows up with, just like you, many parents find it easiest to refer to them by mentioning who speaks the respective language, i.e. ‘daddy’s language’ and ‘mummy’s language’. Children’s understanding of abstract words develops later, so attaching a concrete concept such as ‘daddy’ or ‘mummy’ to the language makes it easier to use with a small child.

This said, in parallel or when a child’s languages develop towards the stage where they are kept separate, i.e. the child identifies each language and uses the accordingly, I would also introduce the respective words for the languages. This way you can also more easily point out that there are others that speak the same language as mummy or daddy. I can’t see that there is any risk of your son changing his language preference with you just because he knows that the languages have different names.

Children are pragmatic and do things for a reason. If there is a need for your son to use the language, he will continue to do so. A child’s reluctance to speak a language can have different cause, so if this does happen at some point, you need to delve deeper into the issue. Read my article 4 reasons why your bilingual child answers in the “wrong” language for further thoughts on this.

You are doing well with bringing your son up to be bilingual in Spanish and English and the best way to guarantee that he continues to develop his English is for you to spend as much time as possible with him, talking about different topics, reading books, playing games and doing different activities – all in English. If/Once he watches children’s programmes, choose English ones, watch them together and afterwards speak about the characters and what they did.

By making the use of English a habit between the two of you – having fun in it together and creating the need for your son to speak English by being consistent in your own language use, I am sure you will be successful at passing on English to him.

Wishing you a successful bilingual 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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