Episode 36 – Q&A – Should I communicate with my child in a non-native language if I am not fluent?

Episode 36

On this episode of Bilingual Avenue, I share my thoughts with a listener who is proficient in English but not completely fluent.  I give her some words of encouragement while suggesting some ideas to support and infuse more English into her interactions with her son.

Episode #36 – Transcript

Welcome to another Question & Answer edition of the Bilingual Avenue podcast!

I am glad you have joined me for today’s episode and are clearly committed to your family’s multilingual journey!  Since starting Bilingual Avenue, I have had the pleasure of meeting so many families raising multilingual children and I have simply being amazed by how different and unique each family is! Many of us have the same obstacles, like how to create enough of a need for our children to use it and how to provide enough rich content and exposure in the target language.  But because we are so different, there are some obstacles that are unique to our particular family dynamic.

Today’s question, may be one of those examples.  This question comes from a parent who is considering teaching her child a language other than her mother tongue.  Some of you who are listening may not be facing this exact obstacle but I hope there are still some takeaways for you from today’s episode.

Now before I jump into the question, I just wanted to remind you to join the Bilingual Avenue newsletter.  I share additional tips and strategies on the monthly newsletter that I don’t’ share on the podcast or the blog.  And I do have some new projects coming down the pipeline that I hope many of you will find helpful.  I’ll be announcing those soon on the newsletter so check them out at bilingualavenue.com/newsletter

I will also have a link on the show notes page including a transcript of everything we discuss today at bilingualavenue.com/episode36

So let me read you the email I got for today’s question:

Hi Marianna, thanks for taking my question.  I am really enjoying the podcast and I have been inspired to teach my nine month old English.  He is not yet talking so I think I can still start on this path.  My concern is that English is not my mother tongue.  I learned it in school and I’ve kept up with it ever since but I am just worried because I do make some mistakes from time to time.  I am very comfortable in English but I wouldn’t call my English perfect.  What do you think? Should I do so?  Thanks for your advice.

Alright! First of all thank you for sharing your question with the Bilingual Avenue community.  Remember you can ask a question too, head over to the contact page and leave us your question.

So todays’ question essentially boils down to should I speak to my child in a language other than my mother tongue?  What makes it a little more complicated is that this particular parent is not completely fluent in English yet is quite proficient.  That last part is what is at the crux of this issue. Being proficient in the language but not completely fluent.

Well this is something that more and more parents who appreciate the benefits of multilingualism are wrestling with nowadays.  You heard for example, Michele Cherie on episode 3 talk about her journey with French as a non-native and Nick Jaworski on episode 19 talk about his journey with Mandarin.  Many parents are choosing this path and having great success along the way!  It’s certainly not easy but with hard work many are accomplishing this admirable goal!

Even though I don’t know the exact situation in this case, I am still going to lean towards yes, go for it! But with a few caveats.

Let me share with you my thought process –

To start, I do think the benefits of multilingualism are evident and highly beneficial so even if at the very least what you are able to do is just create an appreciation for languages at an early age, I think there is great value in that.

What you may find is that in the early stages will be easier because the vocabulary that you will be using with your child will be less intensive.  You mentioned in your question that your son is only nine month olds so even though you want to expose them early on to lots of vocabulary there is a good chance that these are all words that are already very familiar with in English.

What you will likely find as your child gets older is that the demands for both vocabulary and grammar will increase.  Your child will in theory only be able to gain the same level of proficiency that you have if you are the sole provider.

So if you are really serious and committed, I would suggest finding other ways to infuse more support to meet the language needs of your child.  For example:

  1. Stock up on a lot of books! Maria Babin, for example, on episode 27, talks about how she leveraged books to increase her knowledge of insect names in Spanish since her son was really into the topic at a young age.  Books are a great way to increase both your child’s vocabulary and your own, especially if you are working with authentic text.
  2. You can also use YouTube to find many kid age appropriate resources. You mentioned that English is the language you are considering and well you are certainly in luck because YouTube really does have a wide variety of content in English.  As I have said before, I am not a huge fan of screen time but if you do limit the exposure and are very intentional about it you can add a few tools to your language repertoire.  I can recommend the channel Super Simple Songs again that’s on YouTube.  You can find many traditional nursery rhymes and highly engaging songs all presented in a very simple format as the name of the channel suggests.  Again that’s Super Simple Songs.
  3. And then what I would really recommend the most is adding more exposure to English with native English speakers, whether its children or other adults. Find others that are willing to help you on this journey. Have them come over and interact and play with your child. Don’t just have them over to just chat with you, have them really engage with your child.  This can infuse again both your son’s vocabulary and your own!  You can see the interactions, some of the words that are being used and then incorporate them into your own play.
  4. You can also dedicate some time to your improving your own language skills. There are wonderful resources available for adult learning so if you want to take on this task of passing English to your child, make sure you are committed to your own language learning because any improvements you can make on your own language acquisition of English will ultimately help your child in the end!

I do want to leave you with one last thought.  There may come a point, as your child gets older, that you feel like you are no longer able to keep up with him English, and that’s ok!

When you get to that fork in the road, you may find that it is better to go back to speaking your mother tongue so that you can continue to engage in a way that meets his growing developmental needs.  You may never get there and feel that you are perfectly capable of keeping up through your own English learning.

But if this does happen, don’t get discouraged!  You still created an amazing foundation for his English.  It also doesn’t mean that the journey is over.  Maybe he is not getting a daily input of English from you but you can certainly find other ways to supplement through language classes, literature, etc.

So to wrap up my answer, yes you can do it.  Make sure to manage your expectations along the way and be creative about finding ways to support English at home. I wish you the best of luck!

For anyone else out there who has a similar question, that you’d like answered on the podcast just head over to bilingualavenue.com/contact and submit either your audio question or your email question.

Now before I wrap up, I did want to send out a special thanks to Nikolay and Anya for translating one of the Aesop Fables into Russian!  We need your help translating fables into your target language.  To know more about this collective effort, head over to bilingualavenue.com/episode30

May you have fun travels on your language journey! Hope to see you again on the avenue.


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Comments 1

  1. Hey, this was a great episode! I loved hearing how you answered this question. I started a similar journey nearly 14yrs. ago with my almost 16 yr. old son. He was 2yrs old and I was pregnant with my second son. I realized that I wanted to share the language that my father introduced me to when I was younger. I barely had a real foundation in Spanish, but I was determined that they would know at least as much as me. I gave them all that I knew. They got nothing but basics until my oldest son was 6. My mother in law got me a book with extended basic vocabulario and noun and verb usage. Then when my oldest was 8, I got into the Internet and library classes. I took off in my learning and started reading and writing. Now I am conversational in Spanish and can read and write at an advanced elementary level. We moved to a heavily Hispanic neighborhood almost 5 yrs ago. I was pregnant with our youngest daughter. She has grown up here and sees speaking English and Spanish as normal. Everyone has gotten better in Spanish since moving here, especially me. I just finished my second class at the library with the best teacher ever. Her Spanish is fantastic and she has had exposure to language and culture here, Mexico, and Spain. It was great the information and language and culture points that she was able to share. I am tutoring 3children whose parents do not speak much English. I already helped 2kids with their English and school skills. I am enjoying the opportunity to help them and learn. My kids are inspired with the exposure of the local Hispanic community and the children we are helping at home. I am thrilled to see them each time they realize they understand more of the language being spoken in the local community. They still mostly speak English, but understand Spanish. It is a matter of choice and continued exposure. I am not a native Spanish speaker. My kids are still learning. Maybe not as well as if I were a native speaker and maybe some more consistency. I get frustrated some days, other days I speak a lot of Spanish. Wow, sorry for talking so much.! Thanks for the great episode!

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