Top tips

Common concerns

My partner doesn’t speak or understand my language. I feel that s/he is being excluded from family life because s/he does not understand conversations between my child and me.

Our members have had different ways of dealing with this. Much depends on whether the partner is him or herself supportive of the decision to raise the child bilingually. Some partners have used the opportunity of hearing the language spoken to begin to learn the language – perhaps backed up by an evening class – this is easier for those with an ear for language and some confidence than for others.

In other cases, agreement has been reached that any very significant or important interactions are repeated in English for the partners’ benefit. A number of people have told us that they allowed this concern to influence the language they spoke with their first child (who is not, or who is less, bilingual) but decided with the second that they should just go ahead and not let this worry them (and in each case the second child is much better able to understand and willing to speak both languages.) Where the partner is very anti-bilingualism, it does make things very difficult, we know a number of cases where one parent has stuck to their guns and the partner has eventually come round.

I have read that it is very important to have a system and not to switch things around. Despite this, I find it very difficult to stick to speaking one language to my children.

This raises a number of points and it is a difficult area where the experts don’t agree. Over 90% of bilinguals switch and mix their languages. This is normal. Professional translators are given special training and lots of practice to stop them doing this. If you find you can’t stop switching, this is normal. It is not something to feel guilty about and it is one of the instances where you should maybe invest energy in reinforcing the language in other ways, rather than putting all of your efforts into sticking to one language at all times – and seeing this as the most important thing in terms of achieving bilingualism. If you are in a family where each parent speaks one language, it may be more of a problem if the parent not usually speaking the community language (here English) starts to switch frequently into that language. Doing this will reduce the amount of the other language the child will hear – although we know of many families where this has been the case and the children are still bilingual. In some cases, but by no means always, frequent switching is the first step of a process whereby the person stops speaking their language most of the time and talks in English. Switching may be more of a problem for very young babies and toddlers (who have not necessarily worked out that two different languages are involved). Once your child can distinguish and says things like Grandma speaks Spanish/Swahili etc, this is almost certainly not going to be a problem. It is certainly our experience that when the parent who would normally speak the community language (English) switches into a minority language e.g. Farsi, French, etc it can be very positive for the child. It reinforces the language which is getting the least input/support. The fact that the person may speak the language imperfectly may also not be a problem as long as the child is hearing a mother tongue speaker as well. What is almost certainly a bad idea is when wholesale changes are involved before children understand that separate languages are involved. E.g. a couple who both speak Spanish to their child whilst living in England decide that the mother will switch to English when they move to a Spanish speaking country in order to retain the children’s English. One of their children, who is around one year old is very confused by this. Older children adjust fine.

My child understands my language but won’t speak it

This is extremely common – it is usually a phase and usually quite short lived – although some members’ children have kept this up for several years. Spending time in a place where that language is the community language, (for those for whom this is an option) almost always solves it (when the child is good and ready i.e. not necessarily the first time you try this). This is possibly because speaking that language starts to become normal instead of the exception, but also since if the children want to ask for anything to anyone apart from their parents, they need to ask in the language they are reluctant to speak.

This works particularly well with relatives and friends you may be staying with. It helps if parents refuse to translate. If you find this difficult to resist, some members have arranged to leave children alone with grandparents and aunts to help this process along. It can also work well with other children – e.g. around a hotel swimming pool.

Clearly it only works if the community does not speak the child’s other language(s) and so will not respond if they make the request in that language. This type of scenario can be engineered without travelling by arranging for childcare by a relative or friend or carer who either genuinely speaks only the language the child is reluctant to speak or who is prepared to pretend to only speak and understand that language (obviously not an option if your child has heard this person talking English in the past).

The good news is that once your child has decided to speak, it is a bit like a switch being turned on, within days, they will make sentences and in many cases the switch stays on once they get home.

Some members have reported the process taking over 3 weeks, others under two weeks. It is probably the case that a concentrated day in day out process is needed – one day every week of the minority language may or may not be enough – let us know if you know of people who have done this without a concentrated period and it has worked.

My child says she doesn’t understand when I explain things in my language and asks me to reply in English.

This tends to be an issue with slightly older children who are spending some time in an English language environment whether at daycare, a nursery school or school itself. It can be even more the case with children at school who are given homework in English.

Members have different views about this. Many are concerned that children have the vocabulary in English to discuss the subjects at school. Many are concerned that their children genuinely won’t understand the answers in another language and will be none the wiser.

Others feel that children will never gain the full range of vocabulary or concepts in their other language, if these issues are only discussed or explained in English. Even if their other language is less developed, they argue that even complex issues can be expressed in relatively simple language that the child can understand. (A slightly different question arises when a child asks for a word to be translated. Here most of our members would give the child the requested translation – if they know it! – although some would instead refer the child to the parent who normally speaks that language with them if they are present.)

Is it possible to learn and speak perfectly 3 or more languages in parallel ?

I don’t feel confortable speaking my language in family or public because nobody understands and I don’t want to be rude

Should I first teach speaking the language and then reading and writing ?

Can I switch the family language when my child is a toddler ?

Our family is relocating to a different country, what are the language issues ?

At what age is it best to start teaching my child a second or third language ? When is it too late

discontinuity in learning another language, gaps ?

I have been advised by a professional, not expert in bilingualism, to stop speaking another language to my child

how to handle status and negativity towards a language

missed opportunity and regrets