Q&A: About language exposure, family language strategy, speaking a non-native language and confusion

by | Jul 13, 2017 | Babies, Coaches, Non-native language, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy, Rita R | 1 comment

About language exposure, family language strategy, speaking a non-native language and confusion




I am Italian but I know English very well so I really want to try to teach it to my one-year-old daughter. I speak English to her since she was three months old. In the beginning I thought to use the OPOL method but it’s really hard for us, because my husband doesn’t speak English at all and I felt I was excluding him.

Now I’m using English with my daughter just when we play and sometimes during the day – is it enough? A part of me is really paranoid because I think I’m not an English mother tongue speaker and I want to use Italian too in my day life, but I love English so much. I really need your advice – what would you do?

I am also really worried of getting my baby confused, because sometimes I switch from Italian to English.



Dear Alice

Thank you for your question about speaking English with your daughter to bring her up bilingual in Italian and English.

The one parent, one language method (OPOL) can be hard to implement in a family where one parent does not know the other language at all. That said, in many families the other parent has been able to pick up a lot of the new language just by listening to the other parent using it with the child. Every family should find the best approach for their situation – there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it is possible to use different approaches successfully. What works in one family does not necessarily work in another, although the circumstances might seem similar. Every family is unique and has its own dynamics.

You are now using a variation of the time and place (T&P) where you speak English with your daughter when you play together and occasionally during the day and wonder whether this exposure will be enough for your daughter to learn English.

There is no hard and fast rule for what is enough language exposure. You may have come across a figure of “a third of a child’s waking hours”, but I have not been able to find any research to support this as the magic number for bringing up a bilingual child. There are simply too many variables – most importantly, it is not all about the quantity, but very much about quality. For example, a child who only hears others speak a language (which counts as exposure), but is rarely spoken to directly, will most likely not learn as quickly as a child who has less exposure but has more direct interaction in the language.

You do not mention how much of the time overall you speak English with your daughter, but whenever you do, try to make these situations as effective as possible by engaging your daughter in communication. One-way-communication such as children’s programmes are not as effective as interactive language use. Read this article for more ideas:
3 ways to intensify the minority language exposure for your bilingual child

Your next concern is about using a language which is not your mother tongue with your child. Many parents have successfully done this to pass on an additional language to their children. There are certain things to keep in mind when raising a child in a non-native language, also called intentional bilingualism, but it is doable.
Please read my three-part series on this topic: Considerations, Family language strategy and Activities.

Thirdly you are worried you might confuse your daughter since you switch between English and Italian. Again, switching between languages is a natural thing for bilingual people to do and this is exactly what happens in all multilingual families.
Read this article for more thoughts of bilingualism and confusion: Bilingual children – no language confusion!

To maximise your daughter’s English exposure, I would recommend that you stick to English as much as possible when you speak to her directly. To reiterate, I am not recommending this because there is a risk for confusion, but to establish the routine and maintain the English exposure and making sure the language becomes an active part of your day-to-day life. It is fine that you speak Italian when you are all together and in other situations where you feel it is called for.

Once your daughter is a bit older, you can look for playgroups in English – being surrounded by other children speaking English is an effective language booster. If you are unable to find a group, maybe you could consider starting one yourself and invite other families to join!

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.

1 Comment

  1. Annalisa

    Rita, at one point I heard a figure of “two hours” of language exposure to achieve fluency. I think it was per day. I don’t know if there is any research backing that up either, though. (It was at least a decade ago when I was considering taking up Finnish.)


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