Q&A: Is it worth passing on a family language for which there is only limited use?

by | Feb 19, 2017 | Coaches, Language and bilingualism, Rita R | 0 comments

Is it worth passing on a family language for which there is only limited use?




My husband and I are expecting a baby. We live in the US, and he is from a small African country. He speaks his native language fluently and very good English and French.

I want our child to speak his language (which I have only basic knowledge of), so she can feel connected to the culture and eventually speak to the extended family back home, none of whom speak English. But my husband’s language is spoken by relatively few people and has no practical use at all outside of those family visits, which are unlikely to happen often.

We have a few picture books in that language, but there are very few books published in it for any level, and no TV, movies, etc. We don’t know anyone else in the community who speaks the language. We wonder if it’s really worth the time and effort to do OPOL for a language our child will have very little need for or opportunity to use, other than with the dad.



Dear Wendy

Thank you for your question about choosing the languages to speak with your child.

Let me start with saying that I will not give a direct answer to your question, because ultimately only you and your husband will know the answer to it. Instead, I will suggest a few things to take into consideration when making that decision.

You mention that your husband speaks his native tongue fluently and very good English and French. How does he feel about potentially not speaking the language he is most familiar with to your baby? Does he feel comfortable with the thought of not using his native tongue to express his feelings to your child?

I know that you mention that learning your husband’s language will be of “no practical use” to your child, but there is still a big value to it for your son/daughter later on in life. Like you say, knowing the language will give your child and instant connection to his or her roots and relatives in Africa. This connection would still be strongly there through to the next generation. That said, knowing the language is of course not a requirement, but it certainly makes it easier to understand a culture. Try to put yourself in your child’s adult shoes – what difference would knowing / not knowing the African family language mean to him/her?

Resources are always a challenge, especially with small minority languages. Nowadays it is however easier than ever to stay in touch over long distances using online video calls and other apps. Many minority language parents also translate books on the fly when they do not have any books available in a their language.

Being bilingual has many other benefits in addition to the ability to communicate with more people, so I always recommend that parents pass on an additional language to their children if they can do so. If you are committed to raising your child to be bilingual, then the other option is that your husband would speak French with your baby. How emotionally close is French for him? Has he been using the language in close relationships or only in a school or work environment? You would certainly have a lot more resources available to you, should you choose French.

Like I mentioned at the start, I will refrain from making a recommendation, but I hope that I have given you food for thought when you are deciding on your family language choices!

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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