Q&A: Is it too late for a parent to start speaking a family language with a 2-year-old?

by | Apr 13, 2017 | Babies, Coaches, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Rita R | 0 comments

Is it too late for a parent to start speaking a family language with a 2-year-old?



Dear Coaches,

I am Chinese and my husband is Dutch. We live in the Netherlands. My daughter is two years. Now she speaks Dutch but very little Chinese.

In the beginning when she was born, I tried to speak Chinese to her, but when everyone around (parents-in-law, friends, husband) could not understand Chinese, I too automatically started talking Dutch to my daughter.

Now I still want her to learn Chinese but it feels very difficult, she speaks Dutch all the time and also talk Dutch back to me even if I speak Chinese to her. I don’t know if she understands most of the Chinese I’m speaking to her to. Is it too late now to start expose her to Chinese?

Sometimes when I point a bird and say to her in Chinese, she will even correct me in Dutch. I feel very frustrated. Can you please give me some advice?

Thank you very much!


Dear Serena

Thank you for your question about starting to speak your family language Chinese with your little daughter after having stopped when she was a baby. Your daughter is only two years so in no way are you too late in introducing Chinese to her. Many children do not speak any language at all at that age!

To have the best chance at succeeding with sticking to Chinese I recommend that you talk with your husband to get his support for you speaking Chinese with your daughter. As your reason for stopping to use your mother tongue was that he (and others) did not understand what you were saying, it is important that you can overcome this feeling, and that your husband is fully on board. You can then together inform your parents-in-law about this change in your family languages. Note that I said ‘inform’ not ‘ask’ or ‘discuss with’ – it is your decision to make.

As you have already noticed, getting into the habit of speaking Chinese will take some time and it will take even longer before your daughter answers you in the language, so you will need plenty of patience and persistence. When they have a choice, children speak the language they feel most comfortable with and for your daughter this is currently Dutch – a perfectly normal behaviour.

Don’t take it personally when she answers in Dutch. She is not rejecting your language but communicating in the way she knows how to. So when you point at a bird and say the word in Chinese, she will use the only word she knows for a bird, which is the Dutch one. When she does this, you can nod and say (in Chinese).  “Yes, that is what daddy says – mummy says …” and then you give the Chinese word. This way you are enforcing her budding bilingualism and not making her feel that the word she knows for something is not the right one. It will take a lot of repeating, but it will pay off in the end.

Use a lot of gestures and other visual cues to support your daughter in understanding what you say. For example, when you say “Come here!” do a hand movement to show what you mean. Likewise, say the words for different toys, food items etc. when you hold them in your hand. Check this recent Q&A for further ideas on how to start using Chinese with your little one.

I do understand that you may feel frustrated, but take comfort from the fact that your daughter is still very little and you have plenty of time to pass on your mother tongue to her. Most importantly, don’t lose heart and remember to praise her every attempt to use the language and be delighted when you notice that she understands what you say in Chinese.

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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