Q&A: What to do about bilingual teenagers mixing languages?

by | Nov 20, 2014 | Challenges, Coaches, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Rita R, Teenagers | 0 comments

Question:

Our children have grown up learning both family languages and they are now teenagers. We are happy they can speak both languages, but are horrified by how much they mix the languages when they speak to each other. When they speak to people who only speak one of the languages, they do manage to stick to the right one. My wife and I have always been very careful to speak our languages “cleanly” , not mixing in any words from the other language. Where did we go wrong and what can we do?

Thank you,
B.L.

Answer:

Dear B.L.

Thank you for your question. First of all you have not “gone wrong” at all, you’ve done a fantastic job at raising your children to speak both languages! Sorry to start my answer with another question, but it needs to be asked: Why do you want your children to change the way they speak? From what you write, I can feel your passion for your own languages (I have been known to be a bit of a pedant myself at times) and that you like the languages to be spoken “purely”. However, as children grow up, parents can not really steer their choice of language. Most bilinguals mix their languages when they communicate with other bilinguals. This is called code-switching and has its own strict rules.

When a bilingual person speaks to another bilingual with the same language skills, both languages are active in the brain, ready to be used. When it comes to a choice of a specific word or term, the one which is most accurate for the context will be used – sometimes it happens to be in the other language. Note that code-switching only occurs in discussions between bilinguals. Like you say, when your children speak to monolingual people they do not mix their languages – a testament to your and your wife’s excellent work at bringing them up to be bilingual. When your dear teenagers mix their languages, what they are demonstrating is a great skill of using their languages in the optimal way, and I would say that is something to be proud of!

All the best!
Rita

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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