Google+ Raising a Trilingual Child: What language should I speak to my child in public? - Multilingual parent dilemma.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What language should I speak to my child in public? - Multilingual parent dilemma.


Long time before my first child spoke his first word, I asked myself: What language should I speak to him in public, when I am surrounded by other people who do not speak my language? Should I switch the languages and speak to my child the community language so everyone understands? There should not be any harm if I do it (right?), since I am bringing up my child trilingual anyway.

However, after giving this matter a thought, I decided to always speak the minority language to my child and this is why:

When a child surrounded by more than one language, a non-community language speakers' best strategy is to ALWAYS speak the language of his choice in order to help a child separate the languages and start speaking, (See more on this in Bilingualism and speech delay. How can you help?) and to avoid the situation when your child suddenly refuses to speak your language and starts speaking the community language.

Love. Pride. Embarrassment.
Children are very sensitive creatures. They can read what we feel just by looking at us. They might interpret your preference to speak majority language in a wrong way or they will read what you feel deeply inside and will follow your example.

This little story made me think and might make you think too:

When I was looking for an apartment to rent at a university town in the states, I went to an open house and met with a bunch of students from all over the world. We chatted and then the landlord asked us where we were from. Everyone named their home country except for one boy. He spoke with a heavy foreign accent but still said he is an American. I remember there was a long silence pause, we looked at each other and then someone asked him about his heritage. The boy repeated again: "I am an American".  We just let it go. I do not know his story, he obviously did not want to share it with us.  What I know is that I don't want my children feel inferior or different just because their parents came from a different country. On contrary, I want them to have pride in it and see it as an added value.

Politeness and Respect.
I respect people around me and I would like them to respect me. I am passing my mother tongue on to my children and this is important to me. When I come to a playground, I greet people I do not even know. I greet people who live on my street. I greet people who work at local stores, even if I go there once in a blue moon. I speak my mother tongue with my children outside and translate or make a brief outline of what my conversation was about to others. I explain them that I have to speak Russian, because this is the only way for me to pass on my language. Many are happy for my achievements and say: Wow! Your children are bilingual! and speak words of encouragement. Others express concerns that my kids may not integrate well or study well at school, but they stop the moment I tell them that the kids should be fine, as they already know how to read in Russian and that is a transferable skill. I do respect the people around me and I am more than happy to translate relevant parts of my conversation with kids if they are interested. I do not have language limitations, I speak the community language - Italian.

To those who need an encouragement to speak their mother tongue to their kids in public:

Do not think about what other would think about you or about the country you came from. An educated person will take a hat off to you, and as for others ... why should you think about them?
If you work and there is no other language support, every minute you spend with your child speaking your mother tongue is precious. Just do it! Speak it everywhere and set yourself free from judgments!

Why do I encourage you to speak your mother tongue in public?

If you consistently speak your mother tongue with your child, you have a better success rate for your child not only understand the language you speak, but to actually speak it.

Also translating back and forth is not easy. Just start early and you will get used to it and  will even feel comfortable speaking to your older child and to his friend in two languages at the same time.

What is your experience and feelings about speaking non-community language to your child  in public? 

Are you a multilingual family and looking for a playdate in your language? Click here to find it now!

You might also like:
How much time do we have to influence a child's minority language development?

7 principles to keep in mind while teaching your child to read.

Does PASSIVE language LEARNING work?


  1. Thanks so much for this inspiring post. I am in the same situation - I'm a mother in spe. I speak a minority language in a minority place - I speak a dialect of German whereas German is the official language. My boyfriend is Arabic speaking, but our communication language is English and we even consider to live in Spain soon.Now, my language is not an official language,it is a dialect. It feels (I am sure of that) awkward for me to talk my children in Standard German, it just doesnt feel natural - but that is also the language I want them to learn. Then, Arabic. I speak some little small talk phrases, but that's it. Should I start learning Arabic?
    English is a must, since that is the communication language of me and my partner. ANd then, probably Spanish. ... WILL IT BE TOO MUCH?? I want my children to be able to communicate with my family back home..and so does my partner with his.

    1. Thank you for your comment and congratulation on your pregnancy! It is great you are planing to bring up a multilingual child. :) Did I understand right, you would like to speak to your child Standard German? If yes, it might help you to start reading to your child in it early to get your mind used to speaking the language to him ( see my post Bilingual child: When to start reading?) and the feeling of awkwardness might disappear all together. Moreover, I think you still could pass on your German dialect through the songs, rhyme, some sayings... for which you could assign a certain place in your daily routine with your child. For example, speaking dialect only in the evening while putting your little one to sleep. Also, ask your parents what language they would feel more comfortable to speak to the baby - it could be the dialect or standard German. When the baby is born, you'll understand how to organize things better.
      Your husband should speak only Arabic to your child and English to you. Your child can learn English later at school, so for now passive exposure to it would be enough.
      For the first year of child's life I would concentrate on your two languages. Talk them to your child, comment what you do, read, read, read a lot. Also look for playgroups, schools in the languages you would like your child to learn.
      I support your idea to learn more Arabic before the baby comes. You want to know it better to feel comfortable around your husband and child when they will be speaking it. It would be ideal for you husband start speaking it to you now to help you learn it fast.
      Where do you live now? If you move to Spain, you can keep the same language arrangement. The child will learn Spanish outside of the house , at school...
      Good luck! Let me know if you have more questions.

  2. Thank you for that post. It's exactly how I feel and I'm proved right by my children, so far successful bilinguals, so proud to speak their minority language!

    1. Thank you, Emilia! I am happy for you and your bilingual children! :)

  3. I know exactly how you feel. I speak French to my son all the time, I don't think I ever spoken English to him - and we live in Britain. I have had some of my friends (close friends) who were worried about him to integrating. I have now gone back to work, and he is going to nursery - where he is the centre of attention (hardly not integrating). He speaks French to us - he uses the odd English words but we kindly try to make sure he uses the French word, and apparently he speaks English at nursery. He has done this on his own - that's how clever little people are. ALSO, it meant that I have met other French people in the playground and hopefully my son, in time, will have some 'French' friends like him - it is also a networking opportunity!

    1. Thank you for writing! Bilingual children are amazing! I am glad your son is doing great in both of the languages. And it is true, speaking the mother tongue outside helps to network. Nowadays the immigration has taken a global span that one can meet many people speaking community language with some accent which is often difficult to read and tell where the person is coming from.

  4. I speak English, Mandarin and Cantonese to the kids however they have chosen to converse to me mainly in English as the majority of people and instructions are given in English and I'm a English Language Teacher ( the irony)'s quite difficult getting the youngest to speak in either Mandarin or Cantonese however the elder boys are able to speak all 3 quite fluently.. I guess within time they get more use to speaking more then 1 language.

    1. Hi Dominique! Thank you for commenting! Congratulations on your older son's achievements! I am sure the little one will follow the trilingual brother's example. I see how my two children try to compete with each other, even though they have 2 years age difference. Good luck!

  5. We speak one of the main languages here so I'm not coming from your angle. I just want to say from the other side of the equation that I've only ever seen understanding when it comes to speaking between parent and child in a foreign tongue. So I think rock on with confidence!

    1. Hi Bronwyn, Thank you for commenting! When one is bring up trilingual children consistency is a must. Good level of confidence helps too! :)

  6. Thank you for this post. It's a delicate question and I think it pretty much depends on the age of the children too. I grew up in Italy and when my mum talked German to me in public I didn't mind until I was a teenager. At that age children want to fit in and would most probably not want to talk the minority language. At least this was my case and my friends - all foreigners, Germans, French, English etc. - felt the same. I think it's important to talk the minority or family language in public, unless it's a situation that requires that everyone involved - maybe a local friend who doesn't understand the language - feels uncomfortable. Yes, because others can feel uncomfortable if you talk another language while being out with them. We had this several times: my mum, me, my sister and italian friends (mums and children) and then my mother would not talk German with us the whole time simply because it would be disturbing the flow of the conversation. Just picture 8-9 people sitting around a table chatting and one or two (or three) having to translate every sentence they talk to the two others... simply not feasable.
    I think there are situations where not talking the minority language is also a sign of respect towards the locals. At least for me, us, it was like that.
    I guess I'll write a "response post" soon ;-)

  7. I can relate to the child who insists that he's an American even though English is not is native language. And I'm struck that you, although you're a foreigner in the country you live, don't seem to understand his experience. Because of his accent, which he might never lose, he'll be considered a foreigner his whole life. People who know him will forget his accent, but our urban lives are full of people we don't know who will always assume he's just a tourist visiting in the place that he calls home. It's the same thing for me. Every time I speak my native language in public, I have to deal with people making assumptions, comments, judgments and even well-meaning micro-aggressions. Sure I could try to rise above it all and do as you recommend - that is not care - but when over and over the underlying message is that I don't belong in the place I've chosen to spend the rest of my life in and I will always be a foreigner, well that hurts. I don't think I'll be able to speak to my daughter in my mother's tongue in public. My experience seems to be common for immigrants and has nothing to do with being proud of one's origins. I'm surprised your article didn't dwell more on that.

    1. Lucie M., I completely understand and share your same experience. When we grow up abroad we want to fit in. And if fitting in is to talk the local or majority language, then we just do it without questioning, right? I think this post here is more suited for parents of very small children who do not (yet) interact with locals? As soon as you try to interact with others around you, you'll adapt. And adapting means you talk the language others talk...

  8. Hi! I just found your fantastic blog and very happy about it. I'm Russian-Israeli living in Japan and teaching English. My husband is Japanese and we're expecting our new member of the family to arrive in January. My husband speaks intermediate level Russian and obviously Japanese. I guess my goal is to help my child to acquire three languages: Russian, English and Japanese. My husband is not an English speaker at all. So we speak Japanese and Russian most of the time at home. You mentioned that there is a possibility of one person using two languages to speak to their children and just to alternate days or week. How does the idea of me speaking English and Russian to my kid and Japanese and sometimes Russian to my husband sound to you? Are there any other options?

  9. Love your blog. We're a trilingual family (German, French, English living in the U.S.) and we speak our minority languages (one-person one-language system) in public UNLESS it's important/respectful that others understand what we're saying (e.g., in a play situation with English-only speakers). We never had any negative comments, although - since we routinely speak three languages in normal conversation - everybody thinks we're tourists wherever we go (even when we visit my native Germany or my husband's native France). That has led to some funny situations (where people were making comments they thought we wouldn't get - hah!) and saved us a few times (when our young kids made honest but inappropriate comments but fortunately used a minority language). I can only encourage the use of minority language across contexts - a lot of vocabulary is exclusively associated with situations outside the house, so if you only speak your language in the home, the kids will never make the transfer.

  10. Thank you! Exactly what I needed to read. I greet and talk and respect everyone speaking the majority language but what you are saying is so true. "I am passing my mother tongue..."