Q&A: What is the best way for one parent to pass on two languages?

by | Oct 16, 2016 | Coaches, Q&A Choosing the right family language strategy, Rita R | 0 comments

What is the best way for one parent to pass on two languages?



Hello Family Language Coaches,

I have a question on one parent passing on two languages:

I was born in the US to Korean parents. My parents spoke English to me instead of their heritage language, even going so far as to read to me in English every night, so I acquired English first and also a lifelong love of reading in English. Later we moved to Korea and my parents switched to Korean with me, and I completed my education in Korean, but continued to read for pleasure in English. I now work with languages and feel most comfortable translating and interpreting into English, but speak Korean with my family members and Korean friends.

My partner is a native French speaker who lived and worked in the UK for a few years. A news junkie, he reads the English news every day and enjoys watching TV shows in English. We have spoken English with each other from the beginning, as at the time I spoke no French. I can tell when he has difficulty in expressing himself in English but for the most part he is very competent. We now live in France and have a 7-month old baby daughter.

I am not concerned about her French, as her father speaks to her in French and she will learn French in school later on. I am however unsure how to pass on my two languages, English and Korean, to her. I am the only Korean-speaking person she will have contact with, and as I consider myself a native speaker I am only too happy to share my language with her. Indeed, I have spoken Korean to her from the day she was born.

However English feels equally if not even more natural to me, and I speak native English while my husband does not. Also my love for reading has been almost exclusively in English, so while I have begun to collect Korean books for her the many books I treasure and look forward to sharing with my daughter are in English.

At the moment I alternate between speaking to her in both languages. Sometimes I’ll repeat whatever I said in the other language, or I’ll follow up with something different but on the same topic. I should also add that baby talk and everyday instructions come to me more naturally in Korean (especially if I am feeding her Korean food), but when I am explaining longer things I tend to switch to English.

My concern is whether she will get enough exposure to Korean this way – her father speaks no Korean and as I said, our home language is English. I am loath to limit myself to speaking in Korean to her for the numerous factors mentioned above, but am unsure how to proceed if I do continue using both English and Korean with her.



Dear Nina,

Thank you for your question on passing on two languages to your daughter – which is a challenging but doable task!

Your daughter is growing up with three languages: French, Korean and English. As you rightly mention, she will learn French since this is the language she speaks with her father and you live in France. It is then left up to you to pass on Korean and English, both of which you are fluent in and have a passion for.

There are a few things you should take into consideration when deciding on how to approach this. First of all, your own preferences, you mention that you would not want to limit yourself to Korean only with your daughter; secondly, the amount of exposure to each of the languages; and thirdly, the natural flow of conversation and how your daughter learns her languages.

I will start with the last point. You will be the sole source of both Korean and English for your daughter, and she will learn these languages from you, in the way you speak. Generally, babies and children are very adept at separating languages, so some mixing of languages is fine. However, since your daughter does not get to interact in the languages with any other people, I would recommend that you try to create some kind of separation between Korean and English.

I would try to speak as naturally as possible in one language at a time – I cannot really see the value in repeating the same phrase in both languages, or even switching from one language to another mid-topic, as this is not how you would like her to learn to speak the languages. She should be able to naturally speak only English with English-speakers and similarly with Korean-speakers.

You could look at some variation of the time and place (T&P) approach where you choose a certain time, activity or location for each one of the languages. This way you can still use both of your languages with your daughter. For example, you could dedicate weekends to English (if this is when your husband is around more) and stick to Korean during the week. Of course, you would still speak English with your husband also during the week, but switch to Korean when you address your daughter directly.

Another alternative of the T&P strategy is to dedicate certain areas of the home to different languages – let’s say bedrooms and kitchen for Korean and living room for English. This may sound odd, but I know of families who have successfully raised their children to become bilingual this way. It takes a lot of dedication to stick to such a routine, so you need to decide whether this is something that you could make work. My fellow coach Maria Babin is alternating languages every two weeks to teach her children both English and Spanish, so this is another way of keeping the languages apart.

Then it is the question of exposure time. When you compare the two languages, it is clear that it will be a lot easier for you to arrange additional English exposure for her later on than it will ever be to find the equivalent in Korean. She will most likely learn English at school, she will be hearing and reading it through media and can be exposed to English even in the community, much more than Korean. This means that your role as the person who she can learn Korean from is crucial. I can imagine that it would be easier to find for example play groups in English in France, while it may not be so simple to find something in Korean. Also since you and your husband speak English with each other, there will always be a certain amount of English exposure in the home. Of course, you can also read English books to her alongside the Korean ones.

Since you want your daughter to learn to speak Korean, it would be better if you could also talk about “longer things” (as you express it) in Korean with her – that is, if you do want her to become a fluent speaker of the language. All the Korean she learns will come from you, so if you only speak about everyday simple things with her, this is what she will learn to speak herself and she would lack the vocabulary to discuss anything more complicated. However, keep in mind that it is always possible to improve language skills later on in life!

So in the end, it comes down to your own preferences and the goals you want to set for your daughter’s language skills. How fluent do you want her to be, especially in Korean? The higher the fluency, the more and varied exposure she needs to the language, and you would have to be the person to offer her this. This has then to be balanced with your own wishes as to which language you would prefer to speak with her – try to find the middle way where you are still comfortable with how you communicate with your daughter but simultaneously offer her enough exposure to Korean.

Wishing you a successful multilingual 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.


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