Will my child be confuse if we change our language strategy?

Will my child be confused if we

On this episode of Bilingual Avenue, I give advice to a mother who is worried that changing her language strategy with her daughter will confuse her.  Currently, they are speaking English at home while her child picks up the community language, Spanish in school.  They will be moving to the United States and the target language and community language will be swapped.  She is concerned that their relationship will be impacted because her daughter feels much more comfortable conversing with family members in English.  I assure her that although it may be difficult at first, her daughter will eventually sort out the shift in language strategy.

Transcript #86

Hello and welcome to another question and answer edition of the Bilingual Avenue podcast!

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Alright, this week’s question came in from a reader at MultilingualParenting.com.  You can read the written response to my question at the show notes page at bilingualavenue.com/episode86 or on the multilingual parenting website.  I will have a link to the page on this episode’s transcript.

Alright let me read you the question that came in from Multilingual Parenting and I shortened up just a bit just for the purpose of the podcast.

A little background, my husband and I are both perfectly fluent in English and Spanish.  We currently live in Mexico and have a 2 yr. old daughter, but will be moving back to the US in 4 months. Not knowing we would move back, we decided to adopt the minority language at home strategy where we only speak to her in English and began speaking English towards each other as well.  Our daughter attends full-time daycare in Spanish has contact with many children in that language.

 It would not be a problem to switch to all Spanish at home and speak to her only in that language – although my husband has admitted that he is much more comfortable speaking to her in English. She will also see my parents everyday who speak to her in Spanish.  

My concern is that by doing this we will throw her off a little and maybe change her behavior and her attachment to us since we’ve only used English with her since she was born. She is a lot quieter with people who speak Spanish and keeps more to herself. Should we slowly transition her to Spanish at the house, maybe adding a couple of hours a day until we are full-day Spanish? I thought I had all this planned out perfectly and now with the move I am so confused.

Our goal remains the same though: for her to be fluent in both, and when I say fluent I want her to be verbal and feel comfortable writing in both of the languages. She has family members that she sees very often who speak either English or Spanish and we want her to be able to communicate with all of them. Thank you in advance, Ximena

Now here is the interesting thing.  Since Ximena submitted this email to Multilingual Parenting a few things happen and she since has an update for us that is relevant for our answer. She says:

Since I wrote to you I tried to start speaking more Spanish to my daughter and it has been one of the most difficult things to do.  I know, from lots of experience that once you begin speaking to someone in a certain language it can be difficult to make the switch, but never imagined this would happen with my own daughter. My husband has all but given up and feels like his relationship with her is completely changed if he speaks in Spanish. This transition has really been a challenge for the two of us. This has also been a challenge for both sets of grandparents.

My daughter, however, seems to be adapting quite well. Her vocabulary has increased exponentially in both languages where she is now using three to four word phrases in English and Spanish. She is able to switch back and forth and answer in the language that the question is asked in. However, English is still her preferred language.  She initiates any interaction in English and demonstrates a far better vocabulary.

Any advice on how we can make this easier for all of us, do you think that switching to Spanish at home is the right way to go?


Thank you for reaching out to the Multilingual Parenting team regarding your language concerns and for really opening up about what is happening at home.

It looks like just when you were in a groove on your language journey, everything got turned upside down on you!  Take heart, many multilingual parents before you have faced similar situations and have had to make changes along the way and adapt their language policy.

To answer your general question, no changing the language policy will not cause any long term confusion for your daughter.  The concern is less about confusing your daughter and instead more about making sure that she feels comfortable.  Even though there are some patterns that arise for children as it relates to language learning at the end of the day every child is different.  I always encourage parents to take their child’s personality into consideration whenever you are changing or introducing a language policy.  You want to make sure that your child feels at ease in the environment that you are creating around them.  Especially if it is going to affect their home life.  For many children, this is their safe space and we want to make sure that we are respecting it as such.

It sounds like you are already taking steps in the right direction by making the transition gradual.  You mentioned that your daughter is quieter around those that speak Spanish and so it is important to follow her cues and take that into consideration whenever you are implementing the transitional changes.  It sounds like your daughter has reacted positively to the policy change which is great!  It is natural that she still feels most comfortable in English since that is the language she has been exposed to the most but I am certain that with time and rich vocabulary input her Spanish will develop quiet well.

Now here is perhaps the trickier part and that is that you will also have to address the transition with your husband and your other family members.  Just like it is important for our little ones to be comfortable with our language choices, we as parents want to also be content with those choices.  It sounds like your husband is really having a tough time with the transition.  Have you consider implementing a One Parent, One Language (OPOL) strategy instead?  If you feel comfortable with speaking Spanish to your daughter, but your husband prefers English, this may be a very valid option for you.  Many multilingual families have applied this strategy and successfully raised bilingual children.

Having a strong father-daughter relationship is important and I would not want you to jeopardize it based on your language choice.  The linguist, Madalena Cruz Ferreira in a previous episode, shared a very valuable quote with me on a podcast interview.  She said that “at the end of the day, what your children really need is parenting.”  Keep that in mind and that may help you all arrive at decision that makes every family member comfortable.  The same can be applied for the grandparents.  If they really do not feel comfortable switching at this point, give it time.  Make the transition gradual for them too and do not rule out the option of having them simply speak the language they prefer.  You could make up for that exposure they were previously providing to the target language through other activities. So don’t let that be a limiting factor.

One last thought I would like to leave you with is that just because you choose a strategy like One Parent, One Language now does not mean that you cannot revisit it later.  That may feel really daunting now since you are already changing your initial approach but later on it may just feel like the right choice after all.  So don’t disregard the possibility that it can be visited later.

Best of luck on the upcoming move and the changes.  I commend you for really taking the time to think through this and staying committed to your language goals.  In a few years, I promise, this will just seem like a little hiccup along the way but one that you will be glad to have worked through.

I hope to everyone else that this answer has also been helpful if you are in situation where you may have to change your language policy.

You can find a transcript for this episode’s show notes at bilingualavenue.com/episode86.  If you have any questions of your own, feel free to send me a note.  You can do that by going to the contact tab on the Bilingual Avenue page.

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


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Comments 1

  1. Pingback: Q&A: How to encourage a reluctant child to use the minority language? – multilingual parenting – bilingual children

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