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Raising Your Child in a Language Not Your Own?
Many parents speak a foreign language well but are non-native speakers. Yet, they wish to raise their children with that language. Is it realistic, or even practical, to attempt to raise a multilingual child in a language that is not your mother tongue? Tim from London, shares his concerns:

“My partner is bilingual French-English, whilst I am an English native speaker. My French is really quite good, but we speak English to each other. We are now expecting a baby whom we would like to bring up bilingually. My partner is committed to speaking French to him, but what do I do?

What I like about both of us speaking French to him is that it helps to cement the minority language; on the other hand, I know I would make mistakes, and, at times, be at a loss for the right word. I also — and perhaps more importantly — imagine that I would feel rather unnatural communicating with my son in what is not my native tongue.”

Why would you speak to baby in a language not your own? My answer would be — why not? Maybe it is the only option you have for raising a bilingual child, you may simply like the language, or as in Tim’s case, you’d like to reinforce the second language. All of these are completely understandable and valid reasons; frankly, any reason you may have is a good enough. Why wouldn’t you want to give the gift of multilingualism to your child? But, what are the downsides of not using your own language?

Far from perfect

Not speaking perfectly and occasionally being at a loss of words turn out to really be not problems at all. Here’s why:

  • When baby is small, the language is very simple; as he grows, your own language will grow alongside him. You will have plenty of time to brush up and to maybe take a refresher class or two.
  • Native speakers make mistakes too, so don’t even worry about it. Your mistakes will be ‘overruled’ the amount of exposure your child gets to the language. The same is true for pronunciation. How many different accents exist even within one single language?
  • You’ll always be able to find native speakers to supplement your own efforts. You can or plan a few trips to the country for full immersion which will be good for both of your language skills.

Many non-native speaking parents have found it helpful to keep a dictionary close at hand. Stephanie from Boulder Colorado says, “Now I impress my Spanish-speaking friends with my animal vocabulary. You just won’t believe the range of animals that appear in children’s books: I know hedgehog in Spanish, do you? Better find out!”

Feeling awkward?

So, what about the awkwardness of speaking a foreign language to your child? The only way to find out if this is a problem is to try. The general consensus from parents who have, is that the first few weeks are awful but after that things get easier. Actually, my own experience bears this out. Although Swedish is my mother tongue, I had lived outside Sweden for so long that I hardly ever used it until my daughter was born. It was the strangest thing to start speaking it again, and I had no knowledge of how you speak it to a baby, not to mention all the children’s songs I had forgotten (I actually confess to pressing student drinking songs from my University years into service! My baby didn’t seem to mind). Not until I joined a Swedish parent group did I build a baby-related vocabulary.

Oh, that’s so silly

Another potential problem you may encounter when raising your child in a language other than your own is that your family will think it is silly or strange. In the scheme of things, your child is more important than your family, but their attitude can be discouraging nonetheless. There is not much more you can do than explain why raising your child with a foreign language is important to you and the child’s future.

Unexpected bonuses

If the other parent speaks the minority language you are ahead of the game:

  • You have instant access to a translator and a teacher. And, now that your child provides the reason and motivation, you’ll subconsciously pay more attention to your partner’s language. That heightened attention to the language will on its own accord start to improve your command of it.
  • No adult language learner ever knows the ‘baby lingo’ but if you surround yourself with foreign language lullabies, nursery rhymes, etc., you’ll be amazed how quickly you pick up the missing kiddie vocabulary.

So, be brave, and don’t fall into the trap of perfectionism. There are countless parents raising their children in a language not their own, and both the parents and children have gained great joy and personal growth from the experience. Just take Sara from Austria; hers is the ultimate victory being a non-native speaking parent.

“My husband has been speaking French for almost as long as I have but he lacks confidence and vocabulary. I’ve been speaking French to my 4 year old for 8 months now (started a bit late). My husband rarely speaks French to her. Well, the other day I was absolutely stunned because he said something in French to her, and she corrected him — and she was right! He’s been speaking French for 21 years; she’s been speaking it 8 months. At that moment, I stopped worrying about French not being my mother tongue. I think we are doing great!”

So there you have it, the day your child starts correcting you, then you can relax: Mission accomplished!
Related Articles
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  • How do you set realistic goals? What about literacy?
  • Not enough time together? Make the most of the language exposure.
  • What to expect from an immersion program.
  • More ideas that stimulate language learning.
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Your Guide to Raising Bilingual Children