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Thank you for the post, Paul. I really resonate with it!

My husband and I are both American and live in the US. My husband’s family is from Colombia, which is where his parents and brother live now (his other brother lives in the US). My husband was raised with Spanish in the home and is fluent. I learned Spanish in college and consider myself an advanced speaker.

While we have always wanted our children to be raised bilingually, we never considered the fine details and practicalities of achieving this. We simply assumed that we should provide her with only Spanish all of the time at home. I like challenges so, when she was born, I just jumped in and started speaking Spanish. I also liked that I would be able to practice and improve my skills while building a foundation for her Spanish. I have stayed at home with my daughter since she was born (19 months ago) and have spoken 99% of the time to her in Spanish (the occasional phrase and word comes out in English). She has also taken Spanish music classes and is part of a Spanish playgroup. A nanny who speaks Spanish comes twice a week to help with her care. My husband also speaks to our daughter only in Spanish. My husband and I speak to each other in English.

She seems to be progressing nicely with Spanish – 95% of her vocabulary is Spanish and she responds to commands and requests made to her in Spanish. However, recently, I have been feeling uncomfortable speaking to her only in Spanish. I feel like our interactions lack a certain authenticity. I also feel that she is missing out because she is not exposed to the more nuanced communication that I can provide her in English. I am further concerned that I won’t be able to effectively teach her critical analytical and social skills. A friend expressed concern about me switching to exclusive English now, at 19 months, because it could confuse and frighten her.

I am really struggling with how to proceed. I do want her to be bilingual and I don’t want to confuse or frighten her.

Here are some of the questions that I have: Can I switch to English altogether and expect her to learn Spanish from the nanny and my husband (who works 60+ hours a week)? If I do switch altogether to English, when should I do this? What age is appropriate, in terms of her development? With luck, she will be going to preschool this fall (it is very competitive in NYC), should I wait until then? Or, can I mix it up? If I can, how should I mix it up? Can anyone recommend books/experts that address these concerns?

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Hallo Brenna,

I am afraid I don’t feel qualified to give advice on how to change a language strategy. As the Irishman said when asked for directions, “I wouldn’t start from here”.

All I would emphasize is that languages are not only a technical skill, they are part of who we are. I am sure that you can start to use English with your daughter if you want to, but of course the most important thing is to try to give her what you think she needs. Perhaps when she starts to need English in the outside world is a good time to start, but don’t let her feel abandoned with that challenge by withdrawing what she is used to. Spanish is now no longer just a language to her, it is part of who she is, and part of her relationship to you, so I wouldn’t think that a sudden, complete switch is a good idea.

You ask for expert advice, so let me repeat that I am not an expert in any sense, I am just expressing a reasonably considered opinion.

All the best,


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My Colombian -American husband and American I decided to speak his native Spanish to our kids (since I am an advanced speaker) and let them learn English from the outside evironment.  Our kids are now 5,3,and 4months.

I was very confident and pleased with their language development until my oldest turned 4 and we started noticing that sometimes she has trouble expressing herself — because of a ‘lack’ in her language even though she speaks quite clearly and has appropriate vocabulary.

Paul – I find what you are saying intriguing. 3 questions and then I will go on rambling about our situation: 
Do you think that someone speaking in their non-native language will make up for the lost nuances/authenticities with non-verbal cues?  
Do you think that it is more of a big deal if it’s the primary caregiver – as opposed to the parent that is not around as much? 
Do you have any specific readings/resources that you draw your opinions from, or is it from your experiences?

I have been paying attention to my interactions with the new baby.   And I realize that I do use English phrases as well as gibberish in my interactions with her…although any direct speaking I do is in my non-native Spanish.  I don’t feel like there is any loss of ‘authenticity’.

But, with my 5 and 3 year/olds, I frequently find myself saying what I want to say in English quickly, and then going back and re-saying it in Spanish when it is something I am passionate about (admittedly usually angery). and that makes me wonder if what the OP is saying is true

I remember a loooooong time ago hearing that kids growing up with 2 languages can feel like they don’t really have a true identity or ‘homebase’ to go back to.  I am not sure why that would be the case, but it seems a relevent point to bring up in this discussion.   

Brenna – (we seem to have some things in common! )  If you really are interested in switching to English with her, I would say start when she starts picking up English from the outside, and maybe start by using English with her while you are outside the home, so it becomes a known habit.  That is just an opinion for you to consider.
You mentioned that you are worried about being able to teach social skills… since most your social interactions will probably take place in English, that really shouldn’t be an issue.  Has she surprised you yet by speaking in English while outside the home (like even a please/thank you?)

in the UK, parlando Spanish at home, Kids age 5,3,0.4


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I don’t think that someone speaking in their non-native language will make up for the lost nuances/authenticity with non-verbal cues, because non-verbal cues are also to a large extent language-dependent. You can often tell what language someone is speaking by observing them, even if you can’t hear them. The way I gesticulate changes with the language I am using. My English non-verbal cues usually don’t fit when I’m speaking German, so I can’t use them to reinforce German meaning.

I don’t much like the concept ‘primary care-giver’, or quantification in general. Kids soak up whatever is on offer from wherever they can get it, and different people play different roles for them, so, for example, I wouldn’t accept that because Dad isn’t home much, it’s OK for him to use a non-native language when he is there, and that would be the corollary of saying that the primary care-giver is more important, even if it is quantitatively true.

I don’t agree that bi-lingual kids have no home base, provided they have native competence in at least one language.

I can’t give references for my opinions, I hope that I justify them persuasively. They come from the inevitable engagement with the topic, living in a tri-lingual family.

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Hi everyone;

I would like to ask you regarding this topic.

I am a single mother who talks in Spanish to my 2 and a half years-old son.
As my native language is Spanish, I feel confident and in command with it, and since he was born, I wouldn’t have thought of using English to communicate with him. The problem is that we live in the Uk and obviously, he will be starting nursery in an English environment. I am quite worried that he is not going to understand the English speakers and that he may delay his speech because of the confusion. He seems to understand me without any problems but am I doing the right thing, or should I alternate both languages ? I don’t know what is the best thing to do. Please help if you have any ideas on how I can tackle this.
Many thanks to you all.

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Paul, I was going to say that you are setting up a straw man in postulating a parent who uses a non-native language with h/h children, to the complete exclusion of the parent’s native language. Then I saw Brenna’s and Krissie’s posts and realized that some folks do exactly that! I hadn’t known.

So now I’m thinking that if a parent has a very strong, but still non native, minority language that they want to speak with their children, perhaps it would be useful to have a “pocket” of the day or week when that parent used the native language. It could be a meal, or daycare pickup, or Saturday morning, or whatever. Then if a situation like Brenna’s develops, there will be a place to start from in expanding the parent’s use of h/h native language.

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Most posts seem to be about people who have at least some command of the language they speak to their babies. My husband is English speaker and is not much beyond the most rudimentary level of my language (we live in a sort of bilingual environment), yet he for some peculiar reason insists on speaking it to our baby who is 2 years old and linguistically very able. DS speaks a lot and masters my rather difficult language with surprising ease but speaks none of my husband’s language yet. I feel my husband’s poor skills in my language affect DS adversely: he seems to start copying my husbands mistakes, and just like Paul, I feel they cannot communicate properly already at this “simple” stage. And as DS’s vocabulary blossoms, even if my husband tries hard (which he unfortunately does not), his skills won’t catch up.

Hopefully it will all work out somehow, and speaking to DS will motivate my husband to make a huge leap, but for now I fear this arrangement ruins my son’s natural sense of language. Any advice or consolation?


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Pilar, forgive me for this late reply.  I realize that you submitted your post in September. 

From my experience in talking to friends that have put their children in daycare/school where the native language is used, the children have picked up the new language without any problems.  My good friend grew up in New York City speaking only German with her German immigrant mother.  She didn’t know a word in English until she entered kindergarten and yet she picked it up very quickly.  I think the fact that you’re starting to expose your son to English at a younger age is great.  By learning it first in daycare, you won’t have to worry about him hearing it for the first time when he enters school.   So, I would NOT stop speaking Spanish to him.  He will pick up the native English language by spending time with other people outside the home.  I think most people would agree with me, especially since it sounds like your son is didn’t have a problem learning Spanish.

Good luck!

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Hello, Paul and everybody,

I wish I saw this discussion earlier…
This is a very important question to us, as I am torn between my desire to teach our 1-year-old son Hebrew and Russian at the same time.

My native language is Russian and I also speak Hebrew with near-native proficiency (learned it at the high school, graduated from University in Israel, lived there for 11 years, speaking mostly in Hebrew), . I decided to speak Hebrew with our son as I am the only one in the family who can expose him to Hebrew, the rest of the family speaks Russian, the community speaks English, although some classes of Hebrew will be offered in the school by the native speakers.

 I was speaking mostly Hebrew to him since his birth in situations one-to-one through the day, and a little Russian when other members of the family were around. The official language in school is going to be English, as we live in USA. My concern is that although I am fluent in Hebrew and can express myself very well, even on the academic level, still it is not my native language. I feel like I would be able to talk more in general and to teach him more words if I would speak Russian. Right now I may be talking somewhat less to him (it is a very subtle difference, but I can feel it) and sometimes I may not know some insignificant specific words, in addition I have a little of a Russian accent when I speak Hebrew.

I believe that it is important for a child to know   well the patterns of one language both vocal and written, which may make it easier to learn other languages as well. My extensive knowledge of Russian helped me to learn 3 more languages later on, from the high school on. I don’t want to limit his language acquisition by my personal knowledge (in case of Hebrew), On the other hand I do want to give him both languages. and I know that the earlier he is exposed to the languages, the better he will learn them. What is a better way to do it? Maybe I should switch to Russian (although he heard Hebrew from me for all these 12 months) and include some Hebrew when he acquires Russian, when he is around 2-3 old? In any case, both are foreign languages for him, as the community language is going to be English.


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Hello all,
Well, that’s most of my Saturday night gone! I have read all of this thread and found it very interesting.
We are expecting our first child soon. I found this site only the other day and have already found a wealth of information. We are still considering different options for our child. All the comments have been very helpful for me, thank you.

Also, I was reminded of a few things. I teach music, in English. The first time I taught in another language gave me great difficulty as I wasn’t able to create a good teacher/student relationship. I now stick to teaching music in English – my native language. I also teach Kindermusik – a program which uses music in the development of the whole child. Through this program I teach that the relationship between parent and child is the most important learning relationship a child has. Through vocal and non-vocal communication, the child learns who he is and how to express himself. A child is constantly watching the parents for cues on how to behave.

I have also spent the last few years improving my ability to express myself in my own language. I would hate my child to have similar difficulties later in life.

Reading all these comments and being reminded of my own experiences has helped me to come to some decisions about which system we should use. This is most probably native language at home and outdoors… well, go with the flow and keep good communication the highest priority.

One last point: Everyone has a different situation, it seems vitally important to consider the facts most relevant to you and your family.


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Brenna, my situation would seem to be similar to yours. I am English living in Republic of Ireland with my Dutch wife. We have two boys 3yrs & 14months. My wife has lived in Ireland for many years and speaks fluent Dutch and English. I have studied Dutch over the last number of years and am at an intermediate level. We both speak Dutch to our boys and each other ( when the kids are around). This approach has worked fine and has been a good opportunity for me to improve my language and for us to give our boys Dutch language skills. However, in recent weeks I have been worrying about my eldest son who is not keen on play-dates etc.. which we are concerned is because of the language barrier. While my eldest understands a lot of English and uses it sometimes to respond to questions from English speakers it is a not as developed as his Dutch. I have always read to him in English and Dutch and he watches Dutch and English television but, the English knowledge is more passive. I have been considering me switching to English and then my wife carrying on with Dutch and my wife and I continuing to speak Dutch. I don’t want my son/s to feel isolated from the community or when they go to playschool or school.  Added to this I sometimes struggle to explain some things in Dutch and this I find hard but, I console myself that giving my boys the gift of 2 languages will be worth it in the end. I have not made any decisions on what to do but, would be keen to hear from you as to what you decided to do and how it is working out and or any others in this forum with a similar experience.

Paul – Just a comment on this thread and the views you have expressed. It has clearly promoted a good discussion but, to me one of the fundamental points is the level of the non-native language. If it is sufficient not to create any communication barriers then it should not have an impact on the relationship.  In my case while sometimes i can struggle to explain some things my relationship with my sons is fantastic and I have never had a conversation with them in English however, as time goes on if my language development does not increase there is always a possibility it could effect things.

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Hallo Dave,

I have two comments on your contribution:

You say, “I don’t want my son/s to feel isolated from the community or when they go to playschool or school”. Well, you’ve brought them up so far, actively withholding the language of their environment, so they will at least feel different when they go to playschool or school. I find it difficult to understand that choice. They will get up-to-speed in English quickly, once they are immersed in the public sphere, and in situations where it can’t be avoided, kids deal with encountering a new language outside the home, but why would you do it actively?

“If the level of the non-native language… is sufficient not to create any communication barriers”. Well, yes, that’s the question being begged, right there. Is it? You seem to share the opinion that intermediate language skills are sufficient for communication with small children, and that is exactly what I am questioning. You say your language development must increase in the future, but what about the present?

All the best,

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Dear Paul,

With all due respect I think you and the other people on this thread are coming from completely different starting points, and since you are in an extremely privileged position compared to most people it doesn’t fit well that you are telling them that they may be doing the wrong thing.  No one knows the answer to the questions you are posing, and you have no evidence for your statements – it’s just how you feel about it.  You haven’t in fact spoken a non-native language to your children so you don’t know how that feels and you seem to assume that other parents haven’t also agonised about these issues to the same extent you have.  You are in the ideal situation in terms of language acquisition, we would all like to be in your position and it has gone well, so you feel that others should do what you did – or, you say, risk causing suffering. That is a highly emotive thing to say and I really think it’s better to resist saying things like that unless you have evidence.  
For example, when my son was small, I felt that friends of mine caused their children suffering and possible emotional damage by using ‘controlled crying’  but in the absence of evidence I had to assume that they had thought about it as much as I had and come to different decisions, so I kept my mouth shut.  There is always the possibility you are wrong and that a child grows up monolingual when they could have been multilingual because of you.  
All the beste.


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Hallo Tosomja,

I thought that forums were for expressing opinions. Do you not think so? My opinons could be wrong, although I do still hold them. That seems to me to be self-evident for all opinions, but I don’t mind saying it here, if it helps to clarify anything. I have done my best to explain the reasons why I hold my opinions. Maybe someone can come to their own, different opinion by disagreeing with mine. Or they can agree with me. Or ignore me.

My experience may be privileged, but it’s no more or less valid than anybody else’s, and I don’t assume that other parents haven’t agonised about these issues to the same extent that I have. Other opinions are just as valid as mine (again, self-evident to me, but maybe not to everyone, so here it is in writing).

I would be amazed if any child were to grow up monolingual when they could have been multilingual, because of me. It’s just an exchange of opinions.

Have you found this thread to be of any interest and value? Would the world be a better place if I had kept my mouth shut?

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Hi Paul, it’s not expressing an opinion that I object to but that you (and people replying to your thread) seem to feel that your opinion on this issue is more valid than any other monolingual parent – when in fact you are in the same position as them.  It’s really irrelevant to your argument that your children are trilingual because you have no experience in your family of non-native bilingualism.   It’s not hard to find people who have the same opinion as you, I meet people down the playground all the time who hold it, and it’s generally not at all controversial.   So I wonder why you are motivated to come here and express it in an environment where people are looking for support in non-native bilingualism? 

From my experience, I do think people like you can make a difference.  I only started trying to bring up my son multilingually after reading a post on an internet forum from a dad who was doing the same, in a non-native language.   Before I started, I looked around at the evidence, as I had always assumed, like you, that a parents should not speak any language other than their native language to their child. I found that this is very much a western world opinion, that parents in Africa often speak to their children in 2 or 3 different languages at different times, and that children appear to grow up multilingual without it causing any sort of emotional damage.  Advice in the western world to speak to children in your native language only arose because some immigrant families were raising children who could not speak their native language at all.  

Because it is such a hard thing to do, every time someone says ‘but you’re damaging your child’ it does make me stop and think – but I know from looking at my son this isn’t the case.   I am simply teaching him a language at the time that he learns it best and most easily – no one would complain if I was doing it the traditional way in 10 years time when it’s harder for him! 

And from looking at this thread I do think you might change people’s minds about what to do with their children.  I wish that someone had encouraged my parents to speak their second language with me when I was small, it would have saved me years of struggling.  Do you know anyone bilingual who wishes their parents hadn’t taught them a language? I think you are being disingenuous about your lack of influence – if you don’t want to stop people from talking a non-native language with their child, why start this thread (entitled, after all, speak to your child in your native language!)?


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