When you end up talking another language with your child…


Many internationals end up talking another language with their child.

There are different reasons for this:

– They live in a country where their mother tongue is not recognized as an important (= prestigious enough...) language, i.e. it is not supported by the school and society, and there is not a linguistic community which could help to support these families to keep on talking this language – at least in private.

– They don't consider their family language important enough to pass it on to their children – because they don't have family and friends who share this language, and are second or third generation speakers themselves.

– Doctors and teachers told them to drop their family language in order to help their children integrate easier into the local school and perform better.

This last reason is, alas, the most common one. In many countries, schools and societies are being more and more aware of the importance to maintain the heritage languages, since research clearly proves the benefits of it on the childrens' academical  performances on the long run.


But what about the other two? – When a language is considered "not important enough" by a society (and, consequently, by schools, teachers, doctors, locals...), and there are no resources available for these families to foster the language in a spontaneous and natural way – cfr. communities, libraries, language learning opportunities etc. – it is almost impossible for parents to maintain a language "alive" in their family. And if they manage, this language becomes tendentially "artificial", as in order to keep a language "alive", it needs to be practiced on different levels: in order to become fluent and confident in a language, one needs to be able to distinguish between several registers, understand slang for example and a broader range of meanings.


This situation becomes even more complex for bilingual parents: Which language should they choose to talk with their children?

Linguists usually recommend to talk the “mother-tongue” to our children. But which is the mother-tongue if you are a balanced bilingual and if your extended family talks both languages? – When it comes to agreeing on the languages to speak to our children when we, parents, are already bilinguals (= understand/talk/read/write two or more languages), there is not one-size-fits-all solution. 


My personal experience...

We were living in Italy when our son was born and as Italian is one of my mother tongues, it was natural for me to talk Italian to him from the beginning. Our home languages were Italian (me and my son), Swissgerman (my husband and my son) and German (my husband and I) and we were convinced that he would pick up German automatically too.

When we moved to the Netherlands our son was 2,5 years old. Two months after he started attending a Dutch daycare, he stoped responding in Italian to me. 

My husband was still talking Swissgerman to him and I noticed that my son preferred to answer me in Swissgerman or even Dutch. – I kept on talking Italian, assuming that this was just a phase. When children are exposed to another language in a "full immersion" way, like it was at the daycare for my son, they tend to prefer that language to the other languages – the "home-" or "family-languages" –  and once they feel more comfortable in both (or more languages), and the input in all languages is still enough and there is a proper need for them to talk all the languages, they get back at talking them all. So I persisted with Italian, knowing that he would at least gain a passive competence in this language.

Unfortunately in this period we didn’t find families with children of his age and I was the only person he would talk Italian with. Also, he realized that I understand and talk the other languages too. So, all he was doing was following the economic principle in languages: he didn't see why he should keep on talking Italian with me. 


The concept of economy – a tenet or tendency shared by all living organisms – may be referred to as "the principle of least effort", which consists in tending towards the minimum amount of effort that is necessary to achieve the maximum result, so that nothing is wasted. Besides being a biological principle, this principle operates in linguistic behaviour as well, at the very core of linguistic evolution. In modern times it was given a first consistent definition by André Martinet, who studied and analysed the principle of economy in linguistics, testing its manifold applications in both phonology and syntax.(cfr. Alessandra Vicentini, The Economy Principle in Language, 2003)


I still kept talking Italian to my children after the birth of my twin daughters and hoped that when they would start talking Italian, my son would follow them and everything would be fine. In fact, they all three spoke Italian to me for almost four months when my daughters were 11-15 months old.

But then, my daughters started to communicate in an autonomous language that had nothing in common – neither phonetically, nor morphologically – with the languages they were exposed to.

This secret language became a problem in our family because nobody could understand what they were saying. Against all warnings from linguists, my husband and I decided to only talk German altogether.

My background is in linguistics. I specialized in bilingualism and I and I know about the negative impact this change can have on our childrens’ linguistic development. They not only can get confused, but the effects of subtractive bilingualism are very well known among linguists.


Luckily our children responded very well to this change: after two months our daughters completely stopped talking the secret language and now, almost 10 years later, they talk English, Dutch and German on a daily basis and are learning French and Spanish too.

All three children also talk a bit of Italian since we spend almost every holiday in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, mainly to meet with family, but also to fully immerse into Italian. 

For bilingual parents maintaining one or more minority languages* requires a considerable effort and is a greater commitment and challenge. Some families follow the Time and Place strategy, ie. they have fix situations and times where they talk one or the other language. This strategy is easier to adopt with older children who understand why a parent would talk one language or the other. 

In our family we have agreed on times when we talk English or Dutch at home: after school and when we have guests who don't talk German. 

We also reintroduced Italian in the weekends with my son (and recently also with one of my daughters). When my son asked me explicitly to talk Italian with him a few years ago, we agreed on a plan that is working pretty well so far: we talk Italian to each other during our one on one time in the weekends.

He probably won't become fluent if he doesn't need to practice, learn and improve this language at some point of his life. I personally am fine with this, but many of my clients struggle with accepting that they don't share the same languages with their children. This has to do with the way they identify with the language, the culture it represents, and this is perfectly understandable.
Not talking a language we feel very connected with with our loved ones feels like missing out the opportunity to share the most spontaneous thoughts and emotions with them.

Many internationals whose mother tongue is a minority language know how it feels like when their children prefer a more dominant language, almost forget their family language(s) or consider it "not worth to be learned". For parents this equals with a personal rejection from their children – although it's not the children's intention.  

With my clients who are in this situation I do regular assessments, to analyze their language situation, the way their children (and they, as parents) cope with it. I consider this very important as we all, the situations and our language preferences can change over time, and we should let all members of the family know what our expectations are and try to adjust and agree on which languages to maintain.

My husbands and my initial attempt to raise perfectly bilingual children in Swissgerman and Italian may seem to have failed, but I would rather say that the focus qua languages shifted: our children now talk perfectly English, German and Dutch instead. Would the social setting been different, more in favour of Swissgerman and Italian, they would mainly talk other languages today.

We had to accept that our children will most probably only have a basic competence in Swissgerman and Italian. But this can change if our children choose to live in the  German speaking part of Switzerland, or the Italian speaking part, or Italy one day.


Bilingual parents have to make choices that may not be the ones they wanted in the beginning, but that are necessary for their children to adapt to the situation they find themselves in.


I sometimes wonder: if the situation with my daughters wouldn’t have happened, my children would still talk Italian and Swissgerman at home, and have a passive competence in German. My children wouldn't be in the German native-speaker class at school, but among the Italian native-speakers.

When my son told me that he would like to speak Spanish and French at home too, I first got anxious because my children spend most of their time at school, have after school activities and homeworks to do, so the time to practice on those languages is less than a few years ago. We agreed on the fluency he wants to achieve in all the languages he is learning and improving, and so far I am very pleased to see that he takes this with the right spirit: he enjoys talking the languages he chose and make the best out of it. 

Heute we talk quasi ogni giorno alle taalen, pero no es importante qu'on les parle parfaitement: it's more important Spaß dabei zu haben en ze alle heelemaal te genieten!


*minority language: a minority language is a language that is different from the official language(s) of a state and usually spoken by less than 50% of the population of a society/ community.

The term "bilingual" is here used to define people who understand and speak two or more language to a certain extent.


If you would like to know more about this and are interested in an assessment of your family language situation, contact me at info@UtesLounge.com – and have a look at my services here.



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