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Paul Daniels

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This contribution is probably controversial because I think that the opinion which I want to express contradicts the editorial line of this site.

I read the section “Raising your child in a language not your own”, with which I disagree. I wanted to send a direct reply to the author rather than “go public” straight away, but Contacts directs to the Forums for substantive contributions, and anyway it’s a valid discussion.  

In my opinion, in the absence of external pressure, parents should speak their native language to their children. That’s it briefly.

This is because I do not agree with the assertion, “when baby is small, the language is simple”. I think that speaking a language other than your own restricts the communication between the parent and child, even in the child’s pre-verbal stage. A baby absorbs all the communication signals sent out by parents, and the signals a parent sends are largely language-based. Speaking a non-native language will restrict a parent’s ability to send appropriate signals. If you are surprised by something, in which language do you spontaneously respond? I think that a child has a right to this level of spontaneous response.

The advantages of introducing another language are clear, and it is technically feasible. I just think that it has an emotional price.

Now let me give some background and attempted justification.

Let me emphasize:
– I do not mean to be aggressive or to insult those who do not share my opinion
– I am not sure that my opinion is correct
– my opinion has no particular ideological, theoretical or scientific basis, it is my attempt at common sense
– it is a question which has affected me directly, and caused disagreement between myself and my wife
– I welcome controversial (but not aggressive) responses.

We live in Germany. My wife is Italian and I am English. We speak German to each other. We have two children, a ten-year-old son and an eight-year-old daughter. We each speak our native language to the children and they answer in German. We all understand all three languages. The children speak Italian and English very well to the respective in-law families.

Like most parents on this forum, we had our most important language strategy discussions while expecting our first child. As we gathered opinions and advice, there was a moment when my wife thought that more than two languages would be asking too much, and she considered speaking German to the children. She has a degree in German and had already lived here for many years, so she was much better than what most people seem to mean by fluent, but I strongly disagreed, for the reasons which I have given. I certainly never considered speaking German to the children, and I am a professional German-English translator, so my German is OK. I still can’t think why I would have done so.

In the event, we became convinced that three languages could work, and saw no alternative to the children learning the languages of their monolingual relatives, so the crisis passed and we adopted our current strategy, which has worked wonderfully well.


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I would do exactly what you are doing if it would result in my child being other than monolingual. I am a native speaker of English and I live in the US with my family. My husband is a native speaker of Russian, but after 11 years in the US has near-native English. For whatever reason, he finds it easier to speak with our son in English. Sometimes he will use Russian, usually at my urging. So I try to use at least some Russian with our son (my Russian is probably much weaker than your German–I majored in Russian and lived in Russia for two years) so that he will grow up with at least passive knowledge.

I agree with you philosophically, but my husband does not, so in our, and many people’s, situation, if I went with my first choice our son would barely know any Russian. My mother-in-law, who lives nearby, speaks Russian with him, so he’d probably not get away with zero knowledge, but I want him to have a lot more than non-zero knowledge! So, I try to add to it sometimes. I figure my contribution is better than nothing. And I hope that my husband will come around at some point.

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If you speak to your wife in a second language, why couldn’t you do the same to your children?  Ideally, it would be better to learn from a native speaker, but we each do the best we can with the situation that we are in.   As a non-native Spanish speaker teaching my kids, at times I run into more serious conversations/situations where I feel like it’s important to communicate as effectively as possible, and I’ll switch over to English when that happens.  But 98% of our communication is still in Spanish.  My kids are better off knowing a second language, even if it’s not as fluent as a native speaker, and it hasn’t inhibited their English language development at all.

Paul Daniels

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Let me clarify that I did not say speak to your child ONLY in your own language, I am just saying don’t suppress your native language, because that will restrict communication. I see teaching a child a second language as being comparable to teaching a musical instrument: extremely worthwhile, but not an emotional replacement for native language communication.

Karen, I said in the absence of external pressure. A partner who does not share your strategy is external pressure in my sense. Anyway, you do still speak your native language to your child, you are just not following the one person one language strategy.

Matt, my wife and I do have linguistic and cultural misunderstandings, but we do not have a shared native language, so we have no choice but to pay that price. And we are not relying on each other to develop our own identities, as a child does on its parents. You, like Karen, do use your native language when you feel the need, and that’s all I mean. I am not saying that native language development is inhibited, I am talking about emotional development.

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You are fortunate to have 3 languages to expose your children to.  I live in small town Arizona, USA and my children do not have exposure to much other than English.  I learned German in college and spoke only German to my children for 6 years.  It didn’t hinder our communication in the least.  now that my oldest is 10 we speak some German but more in English.  He is not fluent in German but understands more of languages and other cultures than any of his friends or cousins.  I don’t think it hurt us and I believe it helped them in the long run.


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Paul, I agree with you in some way. I speak English to my daughter since she was born (19 months ago). I started back in the USA during a faculty exchange program. I am more than happy with the results so far though sometimes I wish I could express myself clearer though I know it’s due to my not being a native English speaker. What I do not agree on is “largely language based” since I take it that at a pre-verbal stage language does not count that much.


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What would you do in my case, Paul?

The community language is English.  (Canada)
My husband is Hungarian with no relatives in Canada.
I am English Canadian, but speak Hungarian fluently. (I lived in Hungary for 4 years and learned the language there.)

My choice of whether I speak my native language or my second language with my children influences whether or not our children will be able to actually speak Hungarian or only understand it.  In a totally English environment, the father’s minority language is totally in danger.

You speak English (the most prestigious language in the world) in a country where English is highly regarded.  Your children will even study it at school!  So, their peers have high regard for the language, which encourages your children to take pride in their minority language knowledge.

My children will have a Hungarian father in an only-English society.  It isn’t enough.  So, I must either “emotionally harm” my children by allowing them to become actively bilingual, or allow my children to become passive bilinguals who can understand grandma but can’t speak to her. 

Hard decision!  

This topic is not so black and white…



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I have to say that speaking a non native language to my daughter is a struggle for me.  I constantly question whether it is the best thing to do, but always come up with the same answer – if I do not, my daughter will not get another language without a huge amount of effort on her part, if ever.
With respect, Paul, you are in a very privilaged position.  Your children are going to be tri-lingual without you having to make any real effort to help them get there.   All you have to do is continue speaking your native tongue.  If I were in your position I’d do the same.  If you were in my position, perhaps you’d be speaking a non-native language to your children,  too!  I don’t really get why you’d want to come onto a discussion board for people talking a non-native language to their kids and tell them ‘speak to your child in your native language’.

Paul Daniels

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Pablo: I do think that communication from parent to child is largely language-based, even in the child’s pre-verbal phase, because adults express themselves through language. That’s the conviction that I am expressing here. I can’t prove it, and not everyone will be persuaded. That’s fine.

Marni: the status of the minority language is significant but later on, not in the initial language learning phase. My children learnt to understand English almost exclusively from me, and the fact that it was English rather than any other language made no difference. I don’t see why your husband’s Hungarian should not be enough, particularly if you support him without suppressing your own native language. You will have to deal with the question of language status when the children start to decide whether to continue to make the effort themselves, but worry about that when the time comes..

Helena: I’m surprised that you think this thread needs justification, it’s interesting and relevant.
Mark Rogers

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Before I decided to speak a non-native language to my child, I had many of the concerns you expressed in your email. I am a native English speaker (American), married to an American, living in San Francisco. I learned German in high school, and have spent a lot of time in Germany, although I have never lived there for more than a month or two at a time. Still, I generally pass for German in Germany and would estimate my comfort level in German is about 85-90% of my comfort level in English. I have strong social ties to friends in Germany and an affinity for the language, so I decided to try speaking only German to our son.

He is now nearly 4 and speaks both languages fluently. It helps that he attends a German language immersion pre-school and that we have German play-groups. I realize your view is different, but I honestly don’t feel any “emotional price” for speaking German with my child. Our relationship has been built in German, and it would feel strange to speak English with him at this point. Actually, speaking German with him has helped open up more of the culture I didn’t have, and given him a background he wouldn’t normally get in the U.S. (we just finished reading ‘Der Räuber Hotzenplotz’ and have a lot of fun playing at hiding in Räuberhöhlen).

My only question is about when he realizes that I’m not German. He’s told a few people that his papa is German, which is of course not accurate. He’s very aware that he speaks English and German, and that certain people speak only English, German, or they speak both. He’s also been to Germany 4 times and is about to go again, so he is aware that the dominant language is not English everywhere.

I am only writing you to offer a counterpoint. I feel comfortable speaking German with him, and don’t feel that our relationship has suffered at all. In some ways, it’s strengthened it, by allowing him access to a part of my life that he wouldn’t normally have. I’ve also allowed him to be bilingual, which he wouldn’t normally be with two American parents living in San Francisco. My feeling is that if a parent is comfortable enough in the second language to have other kinds of social relationships (friends, partners, etc.), there’s not necessarily a reason they can’t have a normal relationship with their child in the second language.

Paul Daniels

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Hallo Mark,
thank you, that is as good a presentation of the counter-argument as I could imagine. You present the considerable benefits of speaking a non-native language to your child, and I wish you all the best as you enjoy them.
Perhaps for the last time, I’ll try to re-state the essence of what I am trying to say, and then we can respect each other’s views, agree to differ, and leave it at that. 
All I have tried to say is that to suppress your native language will restrict communication to your child to some extent, a very small extent in your case, and I stand by that. You don’t feel that your relationship with your son has suffered at all from your not speaking to him in your native language. I hope you’re right, but it’s just a feeling and we’ll never know for sure. Suffered would certainly be putting a bit strongly anyway, and I am not really talking about damage, just perhaps a loss of some shades of the native language culture. Presumably the little man has had intensive native language English communication with your wife, so, given the level of your German, you’re probably right in your case. 
The difference between other kinds of social relationships and the relationship to your child is that your child absorbs all the communication which you send and uses it to develop its own communicative capacity, so you should communicate to the very limit of your capacity. I was almost the sole source of English for my children when they were small, and the non-verbal aspects of my culture which I taught them were also transmitted in English. I think that it would have made a small, perhaps unimportant, difference if I had done it in German. See what I mean?
OK, ’nuff said, as we say where I come from. I’ve enjoyed this discussion.

All the best,
Mark Rogers

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Hi Paul,

I certainly find the topic interesting and don’t see any reason why the discussion needs to be controversial or uncomfortable. Before my son was born, I definitely had concerns about whether it would affect our relationship. I have actually been pleasantly surprised at how well it’s worked.

If I were in your situation, I would have definitely spoken English to my children. Under a few plausible scenarios, I could have married a German woman and lived in Germany. In that case, I’d want my children to share my background and language, and would have spoken English with them, even if the family and community languages were German.

But living in San Francisco, that’s not our case. My son has all of the language and culture I would have given him, since my wife is American, the environment is the same as my childhood, and both our families are American. I’m essentially adding a language (and even a culture, especially through the German pre-school) that he wouldn’t have had otherwise. It’s also been very good for my German! Even though my proficiency is good, a 2 year old constantly asking what everything is called has certainly led me to learn new words…

My question to you is whether you would have considered speaking German to your children if you had ended up married to a British woman and were living in England? If you’re working as a translator, your German is obviously at a very high level, and you’d have no technical problem doing it. I can understand if you’d choose not to, since I debated the decision for a while, but I hope you could also see the benefits to it.


Paul Daniels

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Hi Mark,
as far as I can say from my current perspective, I would try to teach my children German, but not at the cost of suppressing my native language. So German would be an add-on, and I would not have the goal of bringing them up properly bilingual. I think!
Specific situations always require specific answers. Perhaps I would act differently in the actual situation than I think that I would from here, but even though German culture has become an important part of my identity, I have difficulty imagining creating and maintaining a little island of German culture in an otherwise completely English-language environment, as you are doing.

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Hi, I tend to agree with you –
My husband and I communicate in Afrikaans (only a handful of people speak this language in South Africa, so not very useful, except with family).

We both grew up with English as a second language and are both fluent (my husband more so than me, since he lived in the USA), but we do not find it natural to speak to each other in  English.
We are living in France.
We decided to speak Afrikaans to our child, because it comes most natural, we know the correct intonations, expressions, play on words etc…,even though it is not useful outside of South Africa.
Someone told us that when a child reaches adolescence he wants to feel part of his family, and if he cannot speak the same language as his parents, he feels left-out (what do you think about that??)

We have to decide if we are going to put the baby in a All-French school or in a French-English bilingual school. (what do you think? I am scared to introduce English as well, since I want my son to really MASTER one language in writing) 

We assume that French will be his first language, and English his second – completely developed in all aspects, reading, writing, speaking, listening.

We are planning to use Afrikaans only as a conversational language.

So far I cant tell you if it is working  – the baby is 7 months old!

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Hallo Cecilia,

I don’t want to give the impression that I am “moderating” this thread, but you pose some specific questions, which I will try to answer.

Your decision to speak Afrikaans within the family is exactly what I am talking about, and I entirely agree with you. I don’t think it matters that it is not of great practical use outside of South Africa. South Africa may well become important to your child, and anyway, if I am correctly informed, Afrikaans would provide a good basis for Dutch, Flemish and German, which isn’t bad for someone growing up in Europe with a romance native language. I am already mixing strategic and private arguments, and that is what makes this topic tricky.

If you intend to stay in France, French is obviously essential, but normal social contact and at least a bilingual school should be sufficient. How is your French and your integration into French society?

That leaves English, whose appropriate role for you depends on your reasons for wanting to pass it on to your child. You both speak English but you won’t pass it on to your child if you speak Afrikaans in the family. Do you want to pass English on because it is part of your cultural identity, or because of its status as the world language? What would you do if your third language was one of lower status? Only you can answer.

If you are going to remain an international family, and there is a good French-English bilingual school near you, I can’t think of any reason why you should not send your child there, but I would regard that as more of a strategic decision than a private one. I wouldn’t expect that to interfere with his literacy in French, as long as you are happy with the extent of his normal interaction with French society, so I think it’s up to you.

Someone pointed out earlier, that it’s easy for me to pontificate: my native language happens to be the one with the highest status, so the strategic and private considerations point in the same direction. That’s true, of course. As a translator I am more or less a professional English-speaker, and there is a better market for that than for any other language. Nevertheless, I think it is worth trying to separate the strategic and private arguments, and to be clear about your reasons for choosing your language strategy. Conscientious parents should certainly teach their children English, but not by devaluing their own cultural capital.


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