Q&A: Passing on a non-native language to a child

by | Feb 26, 2015 | Coaches, Non-native language, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Rita R | 1 comment


I stumbled across this website and found it extremely helpful and interesting. I tried to surf through some of the questions and recent posts but my situation does not seem to be covered. My wife and I are talking about trying to have children in the next few months. Both our mother language is English. Being Canadian, my parents put me through school in French but I never spoke it at home, because neither of my parents spoke the language.

When I was 18, I had the amazing opportunity to go on a Rotary Youth Exchange to Costa Rica for a year. Before I left, I did not understand a lick of Spanish but I returned from my exchange basically fluent. Since being back in Canada, I try to speak to my host family regularly to maintain the language. My wife and I have talked about when we do have children, she would speak English and I would speak Spanish (OPOL).

So my question to you, even though my Spanish may not be 100% up to par, would it hurt for me to still speak it to our child? I do admit, I get confused the odd time with conjugating some verbs when I speak. Would me not being able to perfectly speak the language have a negative effect on my child? We also plan to regularly visit my host family in Costa Rica so we would have their influence as well and again during Skype calls.

We would like to enrol our children in French Immersion so they can learn French as well. I should add that I have lost most of my French because I found Spanish to be so similar. I can understand it but when I try to speak it, it’s more of a Spanish-French mix up!

Thanks for your time,


Thank you, Jerry – I am glad that you have found the information on our website useful! We have answered similar questions in the past, so I would recommend that you check the one from a mother teaching her child French and this one about teaching your little one a third or fourth language.

As mentioned in those answers you do not have to be a native speaker to pass on a language to your child. By your description, I take that you are fairly fluent and comfortable in speaking Spanish, so the answer would be Yes, you can choose to speak Spanish with your future child, even if it is a non-native language to you. He or she would learn English from the mother (and the environment) and pick up French later were he/she to attend a French immersion school.

Here are some things you should take into consideration / prepare yourself for with regards to speaking Spanish with your child:

Expectations – If you want your child to become a fluent Spanish-speaker, then you will need to arrange plenty of opportunities for your child to interact also with native speakers. You mention, that you may make some mistakes when you speak Spanish – if the language exposure were to come only from you, your child would pick up these mistakes as well. However, if he/she interacts with other, native speakers he/she will soon learn the right forms. Providing there will be enough exposure, your child will reach a high fluency level (and may well start correcting you!) What about reading and writing, will you be able to teach your child to read and write in Spanish? Note that you can always find other solutions, such as classes or individual tuition, for this.

Vocabulary – You learnt Spanish as an adult (and you didn’t mention whether you have spent any time with Spanish-speaking children), so you may have to catch up on fairy tales, nursery rhymes, songs, games and children’s programs in Spanish to be able to interact with your little one in a way that supports his or her language development. This will take quite a lot of commitment from you. When your child is a bit older, you can watch Spanish programs together, but the main source of exposure needs to be interactive – watching cartoons online or on TV is a good supplement, but not a replacement.

Emotional connection – English is your mother tongue, it is the language you have spoken with your parents and with your wife. How will it feel to speak a different language with your child? To get used to speaking Spanish you should preferably start at birth (or even practice speaking Spanish to the “bump”!), even if you will have to wait a while before you get a response in the language. It is considerably more difficult to change a language at a later stage, and I would not recommend waiting until your child has said his or her first words in English. Also, think about the situation when your child is a bit older and you will have deeper discussions about new topics and issues. Will Spanish still be “enough” as your common language?

Reactions from others – Not everyone will understand your decision to speak Spanish with your child, so be prepared for raised eyebrows and not-so-helpful advice from certain people. However, remember that this is your and your wife’s decision to make and I for one do believe that you can commit to this goal and achieve it!

I hope my answer has helped you and please do comment below with any follow-up 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 Comment

  1. Nick Jaworski

    Hi Jerry, I’m also raising my child in my non-native language. Many parents are doing it and I definitely wouldn’t worry about your child’s language development overall as they are building a complete system in English already, so any addition is valuable.

    On the non-native end, I take a very different approach to the whole native speaker issue. Native speakers do not own a language. Speakers of the language own it. This is why the international English of sequential bilinguals has so many unique characteristics from that of mainstream cultures like Britain or the US using it. Grammar is simply language patterns that have come to encode meaning over time. These vary and shift constantly. It’s why we can’t say “two fishes” in American English, but it’s perfectly okay in South African English. Or why you’d probably never here an American say “needn’t”, but that’ll be super common in Ireland.

    Overall, the value of passing on another language to your child, whether or not a few of your conjugations may be different from another speaker, far outweighs this concern in my book. Rita’s suggestions for varied exposure is also great. Interestingly enough, children seek out and model the strongest language role models. So if you expose them to enough other speakers, they’ll pick up the current standard forms even if you use it differently on occasion.


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