Q&A: Will parents mixing languages confuse a bilingual child?

by | Apr 23, 2015 | Coaches, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Ute Limacher-Riebold | 9 comments


Both my husband and I are bilingual in French and English. We have exposed our daughter to both languages and I now realise that we may be confusing her as we both speak both to her… We currently live in an English-speaking country and plan to move back to France by the end of the year close to family who speak English at home. My question is whether I should speak only French to her and my husband only English or would it be better to stick to English for both of us, as this is the language we speak most to each other unless French-speakers are around. We also currently have a French au pair so she would still be exposed to French until we move there.

Thank you again for your time and your answer. I am worried that I am confusing and her and frankly I feel confused myself…



Dear Gabrielle,

I am glad that you asked this question. It’s not easy for bilingual parents to stick to one language and follow the strict OPOL (one person, one language) method. You say that you are afraid to confuse your daughter. May I ask what makes you think that? You don’t mention how old your daughter is and if she already talks. Do you notice that she is confused while listening to or even talking one (or the other/both) languages?

I would like to get a clearer picture about what happens during the interactions with your daughter: do you switch between English and French in almost every sentence or “every now and then”? Would you say that your daughter is able to understand if someone talks only English or only French to her?

You mention that you’ll be moving to France soon and that your family language will be English: does this mean that you will live with your extended family who speaks only English, in France? – If this is the case, your daughter would have one language at home and one outside of home if you and your husband agree with English-only at home. You mention that English is the language you speak most to each other already, so I imagine this would be easy for you and your husband?

The fact that one person talks two or more languages to a child is per se not a problem. It can only become one, if there is constant mixing – in one sentence, in one conversation, because this could lead to misunderstandings on the receiver’s end.

One option could also be to alternate languages every day or every other day. You could even opt for talking one week English, one week French.

Your au pair speaks only French to her, right? And which language do you speak to the au pair or when you are all together? And will the au pair stay with you in France?

I’m sorry to ask all these questions, but I would really like to assess your situation in order to give you valuable advice. Meanwhile I would propose that you decide together with your husband which language you like to speak regularly to your daughter. If you both prefer talking English to her and this even feels more natural to you both, why not? Or would you rather each talk a different language with her? You could also choose to talk French to her in the weekends for example or when French-speakers are around.

It’s maybe too early to make long term plans, but let’s suppose that you’ll send her to a French school one day, then you could still support her learning by talking French to her when needed.
Please let me know your thoughts and I’ll help you further.

With very kind regards,

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold is a researcher, writer and an independent Language Consultant and Intercultural Communication Trainer at Ute’s International Lounge. She has a PhD in French literature and a Masters in Bilingualism and is a trained Speech and Language Specialist. Ute combines her knowledge in linguistics and intercultural communication, and her experience as multilingual and multicultural, who managed to successfully adapt to other languages and cultures, Ute made it her mission to translate research into evidence based, easy-to-apply tips for parents, families and practitioners, to use in everyday life. After Italy, France, and Switzerland she now lives in the Netherlands with her Swiss husband and three multilingual and multicultural children. Ute is fluent in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Swissgerman, and understands Spanish and Portuguese.


  1. Gabrielle

    Thank you for your answer. I did realise that after I sent off my question that it wasn’t complete.
    Our daughter is 16 months old and she only says a few words. She says some words in English and some words in French. She seems to understand when I speak either language to her. I don’t mix the languages in one same sentence, I try to speak English to her as much as I can but when our au pair is around or other French friends or family I tend to speak French to her. I know she understands both because I have tried asking her things I know she knows the answer to in one language for example she says the word ‘shoe’ in French which is ‘chaussure’, and when I ask her where are her shoes she looks for them and says ‘chaussure’. I’ve tried this with a few words and with words she knows in English too and I get the same result. She tends to stick to the word she learnt in whichever language that may be. She also know some words in both like ‘good night’ or ‘bye bye’.
    When we are all together with the au pair we speak French. Sometimes when we address each other with my husband even if the au pair is there we will speak English. Our au pair will be leaving soon to go back to her old life so sadly she will not be coming with us. And if we stay in an English speaking country we will need another au pair anyway (job wise) so she will be French again. If we go back to France I think that she will just learn through school and French friends and family.
    I have a French friend here who has a two year old boy. She speaks French and her husband speaks English and we have all noticed recently that he is starting to translate words depending on which parent he speaks to. I think it was when I noticed this two year old boy translating the word ‘cat’ to his mother in French that I thought maybe I was confusing my daughter. And I have since then tried to stick to English but fail when I am around French speakers and sometimes not even.
    When/if we move back to France we will be speaking English at home with some extended family aswell. My husband will agree to continue speaking English as this is how he has always addressed me. But I don’t feel I will be able to stick to it constantly.
    I am reassured to hear that speaking two languages to a child will not necessarily confuse them depending on how it is done. Some family has even said to me that I was confusing her. This is why I started to panic about choosing a language and sticking to it.
    Thank for your feed back I hope this helps to get a clearer picture.

    • Ute

      Thank you, Garbielle, for your quick response and for explaining more in detail what makes you worry.
      The impression not to talk enough language A or B to the child, and maybe confusing the child when we don’t stick to one language makes us doubt and feel guilty, is one of the aspects that make parenting a bilingual child more difficult to bilingual parents.

      In my opinion, the OPOL method is impossible to maintain for 100% in a very strict sense if you are bilingual (or multilingual; I’ll use the term bilingual to make things easier). As soon as you meet people who talk the other language(s) and your child hears you speak, he/she will understand that there is another “code” they can use to communicate with you. If then this language is shared with other people they know (at school, in the family etc.), they will try to speak it to you too.

      First of all, I would suggest that you trust your own feelings when it comes to the language development and behaviour of your daughter. Please don’t get me wrong: the advice you get from others may be given with all the good intentions, but if it makes you doubt about what you’re doing, don’t give it a second thought. – If you think you need to change something in your language use with your daughter, I would advise to carefully think about what is possible in your present situation, for you and for your daughter, and what you consider possible once you move.

      As for the connection or translation of words in two (or more) languages, not every bilingual child does it. Some do it quite early, some later, some just don’t seem to find it important to say things like “cat/chat”; they use the right words in the right context and that’s it. Some may not say it overtly but still connect the object (for example the shoe/chaussure) to both words.

      The fact that your friend’s son strictly separates the languages “per person” –  they probably adopt a strict OPOL method? – is simply a sign that the boy is aware that he needs to say “cat” when talking to his mum and “chat” to his dad; but he probably would also say “chat” to his mum if he hears her talking French.

      I have the impression that you are very coherent with the use of English with your daughter. You only talk French with her when the situation requires it, i.e. when French speakers are with you. This makes it a contextual / situational switch which seems very clear and natural to me – and I bet your daughter understands this too.

      If/When you move to France, you say that your husband will keep talking English and you will do too. I don’t think that there should be any problem for you to switch to French if there is a reason for it, like when a French person is with you or when French friends of your daughter will be present.

      If you feel that you would love to talk more French with your daughter also in other situations, you can do so for example by choosing specific moments and situations like while playing with her or reading to her after daycare/school. You can also choose to do so for a certain time after school for example, or some days of the week. – You may want to balance the input of both languages though. If your daughter will attend a French daycare /school, she will be exposed to French for most of the day. You’ll probably want to talk English to her at home, not only to balance the input from both languages, but also to help consolidate her French.

      I assume that you would like your daughter to be able to talk, read and write in both languages one day? If so, supporting her English and French will be necessary. Becoming bilingual takes many years of constant support, input and there will be many ups and downs. At some point you’ll observe that French will be more dominant (when she’ll start going to daycare and school – if this will be in French), and you’ll make sure to support her English as well.

      I think that at this point, the most important thing is that you don’t let others pressure you to talk only one language to your daughter. You’ll need the support of your husband but also from your family and teachers, friends etc. I would suggest that you make this very clear to everyone, especially when they tell you things like that you are confusing your daughter… She is acquiring two language simultaneously and this is a great gift for her. It is a process and others need to understand this. Maybe you can tell them what they can do to support you and your daughter?

      Acquiring a language takes time and your daughter is just at the beginning. Being coherent and
      consistent in talking both languages with her will help you the most during your journey.

      You’re doing a stellar job already and your daughter is really lucky to have such a sensible mum.

      Please keep in touch and let me know how things are going.
      Je te souhaite tout le bon et beaucoup de succès!

    • Chris

      Hi Gabrielle,

      I’ve been in exactly the same position as you. My wife and I are both bilingual French and English. When I say bilingual, I mean it in the sense of we can both speak the others language to a level that the general public takes as bilingual. But there is a difference – as those of us who have bilingual children understand perfectly – between being ‘bilingual’ in the general public sense, and being bilingual in the sense of having ‘two mother tongues’. My wife and I wanted it to be in this second sense for our two children.

      Our general approach has been OPOL, but as Uté and others say, this has to have exceptions. We live in France, and my wife and I have only ever spoken English together at home (a habit from when we first met). So the ‘home’ language has tended to become, by default, English. More of a ML@H approach. The two are not mutually exclusive!

      We had – as every bilingual parent has – the siren voices telling us this and that, how our children would be disadvantaged, speak later, master neither language properly. Let me tell you a secret. Both are perfectly bilingual in the ‘two mother tongue’ sense. Both are reading books in English as I write this, books which English children of the same age would read, and I would even go as far as to say the two have an advanced reading age compared to their average English peers. That may appear as ‘bragging’, and I apologise if it does, but that is my genuine belief.

      Our idea from the beginning was for them to have the same standard as the equivalent native child. We came up with 3 guiding principles: bilingual, binational and bicultural. Bilingualism will happen – if you want it to, and if you do what feels right for you, and most importantly for your child. Binationalism is pure administration. Biculturalism, we’ve found, has been the one you have to work on most. And it is linked to the bilingualism. We brought in loads of stuff from the UK – books, DVDs, and I even allowed some ordinary TV – I found ways to allow them to watch some cbeebies for example. We’ve been very strict on TV. Most of the time it is off. But I let them have a sensible does of cbeebies, and then bought loads of DVDs of stuff like Balamory and the like.

      But it’s been books and magazines where we’ve really gone strong. From the beginning, reading stories every night. Buying books with the CDs to have in the car on trips. Subscriptions to magazines from the UK. And loads have been bought second hand (Le Boncoin is a great place to look in France).

      Cultural references. Before the last General Election, I wrote to the UK parliament educational services, and they sent me their school pack to explain what an election was, and how it works in the UK. Brilliant! And history books. You have to have a ‘English library’, and that takes time to build up, unless you throw money at it at the last minute. I was buying books up to two years ahead of my childs age, so that when they were read, the book was on the shelf to take off.

      A rule of thumb I had was to go back into my own UK childhood, and to see what I could remember that had stuck. On that basis Enid Blyton was bought (say what you like, but my girls read the full secret seven, famous five and five find-outers series!). Richard Scarry came back to me – the books were bought (second hand in an Oxfam shop on a trip back to the UK).

      We also used the ‘Inky Mouse’ DVDs and reading books to get them started – Saturdays were always like English school, as well as the Oxford Reading Tree series. Both of these come very highly recommended from me!

      But it takes time! Time can replace money. But money will not replace time.

      You can do many of the things I’ve discussed here ‘on the cheap’, if you buy second hand, before you need them. If not, you’ll find yourself paying full whack, and chasing to catch up.

      Proactive is a key word. Any cultural events, take them. We celebrate St David’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, St George’s Day, St Andrews Day. As well as Halloween, we watched the last Royal wedding, and the Olympics in English. Anything you can do that’s cultural, do it!

      But most of all, avoid the siren voices, do what it right for you, and most importantly your child. Fill in what you don’t get in France. I’ve even got to the point where I have my old physics and maths text books in English here – and my two daughters (12 and 9) pick them up and read them all by themselves. The stuff has to be on the shelf and available when you – or even better when your child – thinks they are ready for it. They are never ‘too young’ or won’t understand. If the child wants to read it – let them. But you have to have it on the shelf for that to happen.

      If you want to contact me ‘off forum’ please do. Uté has my contact details, and I’d be happy to ‘chat’ about anything.

      Bon courage pour cette aventure! On doit rester solidaires!

      Bien à toi/best wishes


  2. Karolina

    I’ll be curious to read Ute’s response. We have a 17 month old, community language English, husband and I speak English to each other, but we each also speak our native languages, polish and Spanish, to our daughter. We both mix languages at times, often translating back to our native language. We also use ASL signs with her. We have not noticed her getting confused at all, and her vocabulary in all four languages seems to be growing in proportion to her exposure, do Polish and English neck in neck, followed by Spanish and ASL. I stay home with her and we Skype regularly with my mom, so her polish exposure is the widest. But since she hears English from both of us, to her and to each other, plus from the community, her English seems equally strong. Her Spanish seems to lag a little bc she gets most of it in the evenings and weekend from her dad, who also mixes English, thereby lessening her exposure a bit. He’s also the strongest in ASL, which we are learning as a family but he works with a deaf colleague, so he uses more signs with her than I do, and often simultaneously speaks English rather than Spanish, since that’s how he uses it at work. So again, her Spanish exposure is slightly lessened. But we don’t worry about it and speak what’s natural for us in any given situation. I think whether you should make adjustments or not depends on your goals.

    • Ute

      Thank you for your comment, Karolina. I’m really glad that it’s working so well for you and your son. I think that the most important aspect of bringing up a bilingual child is to be natural and confident in one’s choices. But this becomes more difficult if you don’t have the support by family, friends and teachers. When talking several languages within a family becomes a problem, even the best intentioned parents will struggle. You’re a multilingual family already and your daughter has the great advantage that you are providing her regular input to all the languages that are important for you and your family.
      Like I said to Gabrielle, bringing up a bilingual child is a journey with ups and downs. A language that has been dominant for x years may become of secondary importance at some point, but that doesn’t mean that it has to be a problem. I agree with you that it all depends on your goals. And it depends on the needs of your child. If at some point your child needs to improve her language skills in one language – do to school etc. – then the focus will be on that language for a while. But this doesn’t mean that the other languages will be forgotten or that she will gradually regress in it. She’ll be able to catch up with it at another point, but, of course, it requires consistency. And it has to be pleasant and fun to keep learning all those languages, because, let’s be honest, we all learn better if we like what we learn.
      Thanks again for your very interesting comment. – I’d love to know more about your daughter using ASL though (does she use it only with your husband?)
      With very kind regards,

      • Karolina

        Our laid back approach may not be for everyone, I know. I just wanted to share our experience in case it encourages someone not to worry as much.
        As for ASL, none of us are fluent, but we decided to keep learning even after our daughter may “outgrow” the need for baby signs as she gets more and more verbal. I took ASL in college and my husband became very interested in it because of his colleague, who had taught a class he took at the job site. We both encourage our daughter to use the signs she knows, especially if it’s unclear what her verbal words are referring to, since it is a lot of baby slurring still. My mom often asks what a given sign means when DD uses it when visiting. It makes communication much easier, between the fact that babies tend to slur their words plus the three oral languages going on. ASL often serves as an equalizer, a way to say something simultaneously in two languages, sort of. Obviously at our early stage we are focusing on vocabulary and not yet grammar, but I think that will come. We are looking for opportunities for her to see ASL in the community as well. I think exposure to many languages is more important for us than total fluency in either of our native languages. And ASL being such a unique language must have positive implications for general open mindedness that already comes from bilingualism 🙂

        • Ute

          Dear Karolina,
          I’m sorry if my answer to your first comment sounded like judging your approach. This was absolutely not my intention. – I’m honestly glad if parents share their positive experiences with bringing up bilingual children and I truly support this kind of dialogue because we all can learn from each other. I truly like your laid back approach and I did exactly the same with my children – and my mother did the same with my sister and me. But I know that it is not easy to keep cool when people try to interfere.
          I’m very interested in knowing how ASL can make interactions easier for bilinguals and I would love to see it in action once. I’m sure it would have helped me, when I grew up bilingual, and my children too. I agree with you, ASL is a great language and surely must have a positive effect on the acquisition of whatever other language is involved and, like you say, support open mindedness.

          • Karolina

            No worries. I realize we are lucky to have multilingual relatives on both sides, making it easy to not have to worry about naysayers. Hopefully as time goes on, we will have more to share about the added benefits of ASL 🙂

          • Gabrielle

            Thank you all for your responses!
            It really is a great reassurance to speak to other multilingual families!
            It is true Ute that my friend has a strict OPOL with her son, and it was at a time when family members were questioning what I was doing so I think that’s why I wasn’t sure about what I was doing with my daughter anymore! I know now that the exposure is great and that as long as I don’t mix sentences and conversations (which I don’t ) she should be fine. Thank you Karolina for showing me your more relaxed approach, even though I only have the two languages and would prefer if my daughter was fully bilingual in them, it’s still great to know that being more relaxed about it doesn’t necessarily confused them. And thank you Chris for showing me how to get as much exposure culture wise as possible and yes I would love to chat off forum with you to share our similar language situations!
            Ute, I will be sure to compensate the language she hears the least at school / crèche and to support her with her homework etc, I am glad to be able to that that no matter where we live.
            Ute, and everyone I will be sure to keep you all posted on my daughter’s language skills. Thank you all again for all your input, it has really been a huge weight off my chest!

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