Q&A: Should I switch to using my native language with my bilingual children?

by | Jun 18, 2015 | Challenges, Coaches, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family | 0 comments



We are a family of four, two kids, age 5.5 and 2. Father is fluent in Arabic, French and English. I, the stay-at-home mother, am fluent in English and semi-fluent in Arabic. We live in the US, talk to Arab relatives on Skype weekly, and spend a month in Lebanon every year, where we stay with grandparents who speak Arabic.

We did mL@H as much as we could from the beginning, though I did not speak that much Arabic at first. I studied and increased to a level where I am very good in Arabic for routine daily living things and kid topics by the time my first child was two. By then I no longer used English with my daughter and she was already speaking Arabic fluently. She started to speak and understand a little English at 2.5 when my monolingual English-speaking mother came to live with us for a while. I switched from reading to her in Arabic to mostly reading to her in English after some librarians lectured me and I realized my reading/translating on the fly in Arabic was not as strong as it should be for complicated storybooks. She has been at English language kindergarten three days a week for a year. Her English is good and fluent, but she still doesn’t know what many things mean. At home she plays by herself in English almost all the time. I encourage her to play with her little sister in Arabic, and she mostly does, but some English words sneak in. She is happy and proud that she speaks Arabic. This summer she will attend language camp.

From the time my older daughter was 3 or 4, I have sometimes needed to switch to English to deal with emotions/discipline. Not every time, but more and more it is hard to stick with Arabic all the time. I have gradually been speaking to my husband in front of the children in English, too. Now it’s at 90% English with my husband. I would say 10-15% English with my older daughter.

I haven’t been studying Arabic that much since pregnancy with my second child, and I feel guilty at times that I’m “ruining” our language plan by not being fluent enough. I equally worry that I depriving my kids of my full intelligence since I can’t always fully express myself in Arabic. Wars and life events kept me from traveling and studying as much as I had hoped to do, and after the second baby was born, I have been so tired it is hard to speak in any language, let another a second language.

Should we change our strategy? I could have my husband continue with 100% Arabic, and I could switch to a different approach, either “as much Arabic as possible, but use English when it’s more comfortable,” or a time/place strategy. I really had my heart set on Arabic being the family language. I don’t feel confident in my ability to get up to speed. Maybe I could temporarily change strategies until I am able to boost my fluency in more grown up kid topics?

Thank you for your thoughts on this,


Hi Laurel,

It’s clear speaking Arabic is important to you. I feel your struggle as I go through the same thing with speaking to my daughter in Chinese. My level is not where I’d like it to be either and can definitely limit what I’m able to express.

How much time does their father spend with the children speaking Arabic? If it’s a good part of the week, I wouldn’t worry about the children’s Arabic as they will pick it up from him. However, you or he will still have to commit to building and teaching literacy as they won’t get that in school. Your children’s English will definitely come along as well, so no worries there.

It sounds like you’re really struggling with a desire to have Arabic as the language of the house and your desire to communicate on an emotional level with your children. I would say that the emotional connection is more important than the language. Just as I have found, you’ll find it harder and harder to connect as deeply as you’d like the farther your language lags behind what you’d like to express. It then comes down to putting more time into practicing the language or just accepting a switch to English. This does have to be 100% either way. You could still have Arabic day several days a week or maybe just after school. That would help you both connect more fully and keep Arabic as a home language.

If you decide to really commit to building fluency, your husband is going to be the key player. I can tell you that studying from books, computer programs, or audio will not build the confidence and fluency level you desire. You’ll need to have daily interactions in Arabic with your husband. Talking with a higher level speaker is the only way to really develop fast. In addition, you’ll want to read a variety of subjects at different levels to build vocabulary, so that, as your children get older, you’re confident in having more challenging discussions.

I would not recommend a temporary change in strategy just because my experience has shown that parents that switch to higher usage of English can never really switch back. It just gets harder and harder the more comfortable your children become in speaking English with you. I’d recommend really thinking about your family’s language goals, coming up with a new plan that works for everyone, and then sticking to it indefinitely.

Hope this helps, please do post any follow-up questions below.

Nick Jaworski

Nick Jaworski


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