Q&A: Should a parent switch to a non-native language to support a bilingual child’s minority language?

by | May 1, 2016 | Coaches, Non-native language, Rita R | 1 comment



My wife is bilingual in Mandarin (her first language) and English. We currently reside in the U.S. and would like to raise our 16-month old son to have a high degree of fluency in both languages. He goes to a Mandarin-speaking daycare and we plan on later sending him to a local public immersion school that is primarily taught in Mandarin at the lower levels and eventually works up to 50/50 by about 5th grade.

We are fortunate to have these resources to increase his exposure and also benefit from living near my wife’s mother who primarily speaks Mandarin at home. My question is in regards to our language strategy in our own home. I have been trying to learn Mandarin but am still at a fairly low level – I can speak and understand basic requests, baby and household-related phrases, etc., but I am by no means conversational yet.

I am wondering if I should be trying to communicate with our son in my basic (and occasionally incorrect) Mandarin or if I am doing more harm than good and should primarily speak English to him while my wife speaks Mandarin to him exclusively. Our thought has always been that we should do everything we can to surround him with Mandarin and the English will naturally come later, given our living situation. With this in mind, my focus has been on using Mandarin to speak to him, although he still hears my wife and I speaking English to each other most of the time.

Do you think it would improve his language learning abilities if I were to greatly increase the amount of Mandarin (and therefore the variety of vocabulary) that I speak to him? Or will it help him retain the Mandarin if I were to limit his exposure to English at this stage in his life, even if it means that I have to use a more limited vocabulary around him?

Thank you for your advice and for the excellent resources.
Thank you,


Hello Carson,

Thank you for your question about raising your son to become fluent in Mandarin.

As you say, you are very fortunate to have both daycare and school options where he can be immersed in Mandarin. In addition, his grandmother is also nearby to boost the Mandarin exposure and, of course, your wife will be speaking Mandarin with him. With all this varied exposure to the language, including schooling, I am confident that he will grow up to speak Mandarin fluently.

Your question is whether you should also switch to speaking Mandarin at home, to increase the language exposure. Good question. First I would like to say that we always need to keep in mind that language is about communication, and as you are still on a basic level of Mandarin, I do not think you should switch to speaking Mandarin with your son all of the time. It is important that you can communicate about everything with your son and that you can have deeper conversations when his language develops. It may seem as a relatively easy switch to do now, but your son’s Mandarin skills will develop quickly and will inevitably soon overtake yours.

Instead of speaking Mandarin with your son, you could consider gradually moving to making Mandarin your home language for some of the time when you are all together, but still stick to English when you speak with your son directly. You could start by speaking Mandarin at mealtimes, play time and other situations where you know the related vocabulary and then slowly increase the Mandarin time at home as and when your own skills improve.

It is not that you being a non-native speaker of Mandarin would do your son’s language skills any harm if you were to make mistakes when you speak it with him – he will be getting enough exposure from native Mandarin-speakers and will learn the correct words and grammar from them. It is more about the relationship between you and your son and about a natural way to communicate. By switching between Mandarin and English you will also be a positive role model for a bilingual person.

I admire your commitment to helping your son with Mandarin, and your support is absolutely vital for the success. Your support does however not have to take the form of you quickly learning a lot of new Mandarin vocabulary – instead. you can learn some Mandarin songs, rhymes and games that you can all sing or play together. Encourage his grandmother to speak to him about her life and the Chinese culture. I know your wife will do this as well, but grandma’s stories will be different, thus widening your son’s vocabulary. Show your enthusiasm about the Chinese culture and language – your attitude will enforce your son’s willingness to speak it.

Wishing you all the best!
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. vivi

    when my daughter was born my french was basic conversational but we lived in france at the time so no worries and she was under 2. just before her 2nd birthday we moved to the states and i continued speaking english to her but we quickly realized there was a deficit in her french and her reluctance to speaking french after a year in the states. so i switched to french to help support my french speaking husbands efforts. within a year she was back to speaking and now that she is 6, she is bilingual. english is now dominant but she is totally independent in french. and i only speak to her in french on occasion though my french has become fluent over the years she still prefers to communicate with me in english and might respond to me in english even if initiate conversation in french, though not with her dad or others she knows are french speakers.


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