Q&A: Should parents always speak their native language with their children?

by | Jan 29, 2017 | Coaches, Language development, Non-native language, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Rita R | 3 comments

Should parents always speak their native language with their children?




I work in a school and we have concerns about a child whose English vocabulary is very limited. Her mother (who is native English speaker but who spent part of her childhood in France) speaks to her in French at home. Father is absent so French is the main language used at home.

Our concern is that the child’s lack of English vocabulary may be caused by the fact that the mothers vocabulary in French is not native-speaker level and therefore the child is not being exposed to a wide enough range of vocabulary in her home language.

Would it be better if the mother spoke her native tongue at home? Although this would mean the child would no longer be learning French. Would be interested to hear your views. I had always thought that parents should be speaking their mother tongue with their child?



Dear Louise

Thank you for your question about the concern you have about one of your pupil’s English vocabulary. It is always difficult to answer a question where all the relevant information is not available so I will answer on a general level.

Without knowing the age of your pupil, how long she has been attending school and whether she has made progress during this time it would not be right to comment on the expected level of her English vocabulary. Many children start school with a very limited English knowledge and soon catch up and go on to do as well as their monolingual peers. For this I also have an example in my own family.

It is true that a strong home language, whatever language it may be, is beneficial for developing the command of the language used at school. However, from that I would not draw a direct parallel between your pupil’s French and English vocabulary. I also do not know what your assessment of your pupil’s mother’s French skills is based upon, or whether you are aware of the full family language picture and the reasons for choosing French as their home language.

Parents should speak a language which they feel comfortable in and which allows them to express themselves freely with their children and thus create the important bond between a parent and a child. This is in most cases the parents’ native language. However, with mothers and fathers who speak more than one language it may also be a different language. I know many are of the opinion that parents should “only speak their native language” with their children, but I have seen no research evidence to support this view.

Generally, I would be very careful before making any recommendations or even question the language a parent speaks with his or her child. There are many factors that play a part in the choice of language and parents make the best possible decision based on what they know and think is right and best for their children.

If you find that your pupil is not making progress and you have concerns about her overall success at school, I would speak about this as you would normally do with parents. However, please, approach the topic of home language with great care. With regards to language, give the mother the same advice as you would do to English-speaking parents to support their kid’s language development: read a lot of books, talk about different topics, watch quality children’s programmes together. If you think your pupil needs additional support to do well at school, bring this up with the mother, but without making her feel guilty about her choice of language.

Wishing you all the best in the valuable work you do for the children in your school!

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. Lex fagen

    I am a native English speaker working in a large french school in Asia. I have only spoken french to my son since he was born as he attends the french school where french is required. It all works out perfectly, he is fluent I need Chinese, french and English…each situation is different, speaking french to my son works for us perfectly…

  2. Andrew James Chandler

    Linguists and teachers of English as a Foreign Language are moving away from a ‘model’ of English as a native language, which is just as well as there aren’t enough native-speakers to go round a world in which it is far more often used as a means of communication between non-native speakers. My son is older now (13), but since we returned to Hungary when he was eight, he’s been far more exposed to Hungarian at school and in conversation. However, because English is all-pervasive, on youtube, the internet (esp. Netflix etc) and on computer games, he doesn’t show signs of ‘relegating’ English. He reads a lot in English, ‘adult’ texts, too. He prefers to talk about school in Hungarian, but also enjoys discussing favourite subjects in English with us. So, when the child’s ‘other’ language is English, I don’t think we should necessarily think of it only as a native language, even if it becomes a medium of education later. My other son is 26, and we lived in Hungary until he was six, with me away a lot as his only source of English. He now speaks four languages fluently. When we’re together as a family (sometimes with their monoglot grandmother) we just use whichever language is most naturally inclusive at any particular time.

  3. Sibylle

    My daughter is 30 months now. She was born in the US and attended nursery school their until she was almost 2 years old. My husband and I spoke exclusively our native German to her. Now that we moved back to Germany last summer (when she turned 2) we switched languages on her. Both my husband and I are pretty fluent in English, though discovered that in some areas we had to consult a dictionary or our American friends like potty training and other non adult subjects. My daughter now attends a predominantly German day care with some English (a girl from Australia, a little Scottish boy…). My perception is, that her English vocabulary is much more advanced then her German – then again it is not easy to judge, since we both my husband and me talk exclusively English to her. However, she uses more sophisticated language talking to me and my husband in English then I hear her talking to her teachers and friends in German. I think, this may be due to the language settings. In a toddler setting, the language used is less sophisticated and advanced. She has mostly same age or younger peers. Teachers in day care will also use more toddler adapted language, then a family including a toddler…

    So from the outside the perception may be, that my daughter’s German is less advanced then maybe that of some of her German monolingual peers in her age group. I still believe it is best for her, that we speak non native English to her, even though I sometimes would like to pass on my German standards to her. Why is her English better then her German ? I think it mainly a question of language sections in her life, since the more sophisticated language input occurs in English not German. I think over time this will level out as her German language exposure becomes more varied. We do mainly minority language at home, but are using German as we would with adult bilingual or monolinguals too. That means, if the book is written in German and it would loose in the translation due to rhymes or language precision we read it to her in German, if not we translate it on the fly. If monolinguals are present and should be included in the conversation we speak which ever language that makes this possible. We do sing my daughter’s favorite German songs, but talk about them in English… or if she wants to sing a German song but a German word is missing, I will provide it to her saying German for hippopotamus is Nilpferd….

    So, I think there can be perfect reasons to pass a non native language on to your child, and I believe the child may benefit from that a lot. Surprisingly, we met very little open criticism to this yet. But I think a lot of the people believe that my husband or I or both are either American or native bilinguals ourselves… Then we live in a pretty international environment, where most people including kids are multilingual. I remember an incident where I told my daughter, that to the kid she just met at the playground she most likely needed to speak German, and one of them was saying he was bilingual English German too the other was bilingual Italian German so understood the concept of more languages as well 🙂


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