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 getting 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.

If they manage despite these difficult circumstances, the language becomes tendencially "artificial". In order to keep a language "alive", it needs to be practiced on different levels: 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? Do they need to choose or can they pass on both or all of their languages?

Linguists usually recommend to talk the “mother-tongue(s)” (i.e. the parents' language(s), the family language(s)) to our children. But which is the mother-tongue if you are a balanced bilingual and if your extended family talks both or even more 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...

I am a multilingual parent and grew up with 2 languages myself (Italian and German). We were living in Italy when our son was born and as Italian is one of my dominant languages and actually the one I'm most spontaneous in, 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 knew 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. Nevertheless, 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 (cfr. 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 Italian 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: I learned Dutch with him and perfectly speak Swissgerman and German 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, there was no real need for him to do so.


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 son and to my twin daughters who were born a year after we arrived to the Netherlands, confident that when they would start talking Italian, my son would follow them and everything would be fine.

In fact, all three spoke Italian to me for almost four months when my daughters were 11-15 months old (cfr. my daughters started forming monolsyllables around month 10/11 in Swissgerman, Italian and Dutch).


When plans change...

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. It was mainly because our son was suffering from this situation – he couldn't understand his sisters and we weren't able to "translate" the meaning of the words they used either – that we decided to choose German as our family language, although as a linguist I know that this something you would avoid as this kind of change can have a negative impact on childrens' linguistic development. They not only can get confused, but the effects of subtractive bilingualism are very well known.

I monitored my children very closely and was ready to support and change the language situation if necessary.

Luckily our children responded very well to this change: after two months our daughters completely stopped talking the secret language and started talking German and our son showed a very positive reaction to us talking German all together.


10 years later...

Today (2017), almost 10 years later, my children talk English, Dutch and German on a daily basis and are learning French and Spanish at school. 

All three children also talk a bit of Italian since we spend almost every holiday in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland, have Italian speaking family, and therefore fully immerse into Italian once or twice a year for 2-4 weeks. This might not seem a lot, but this is not the only time we talk Italian (see here below).


Time and Place

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. – I usually recommend this strategy  with older children who have already a sense of time and understand why a parent would switch to another language. 

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

A few years ago my son asked me explicitly restart talking Italian with him. He observed me talking Italian and understood that this was an important language for me, so we agreed on a plan to talk Italian to each other during our one on one time in the weekends. 

Unfortunately our school doesn't provide sufficient language tuition and I give my children language lessons in German since 2 years and help them occasionally with French and Spanish.

My daughters recently (May 2017) asked me to teach them Italian and I now dedicate 2 hours per week to "teaching" them Italian in a natural way – we read texts, do role plays, listen to music. As all three children have an analytical approach to Italian I introduce grammar (how you form plurals, according adjectives etc.) to them in a context based way, i.e. when we listen to a song or read a text I will focus on one aspect, for example the form and agreement of adjectives in Italian. 

At the moment I dedicate 6 hours per week to teach my children German, Italian and French. – The goal that we have agreed on is for them to become nearly native in German (C2 level) and confident enough in Italian and French (both B2 or C1). 


Reality Check

When my son was born we thought he would become fluent in Italian and German – attending a school in Italy –  but when we moved to the Netherlands we had to reassess our language situation. He went to a Dutch creche and we thought he would attend a Dutch school too, so Dutch became the dominant language for a year. When we decided to send him to an English speaking school, this changed again: English, Dutch and by that time German, became his most dominant languages. For our daughters Dutch and German were the most dominant languages until age 3 and English replaced the Dutch when they started attending the same school as their brother.

Today all our children have a native and nearly-native level in English, Dutch and German. 

We are aware that our children probably won't become fluent in Italian or Swissgerman in the next few years. But we planted a seed and if at any point our children will need Italian or Swissgerman they will be able to build on what they already know. – At the moment they enjoy learning Italian and French (and a bit of Spanish) with me and are happy to become better in German.


When "understanding" is not enough...

I personally am fine with my children having different levels of fluency in all their languages because I know that a language can be improved and even reactivated later in life.

This happened to my Swissgerman which I had a more passive competence in until age 5, when we no longer got the TV channel SF in Italy anymore – I loved Heidi Abels shows (Die Welt ist rund, Was man weiss und doch nicht kennt, Karambuli, Heidi Abel sucht Plätze für Tiere etc.) 

Thanks to being exposed passively to Swissgerman in my early years, when I moved to the German speaking part in Switzerland at age 18, I didn't have any problem to understand and soon talk the local language. The mere passive understanding of the language up to age 5 was enough for me to understand the language when I was fully immersed into it and it made it very easy for me to actively speak it within a few months and improve it during my stay.


Never give up!

Many of my clients struggle with accepting that their children don't speak their language, that they don't respond in the family language. Not sharing their language with their children deeply affects them and many surrender.

One of my clients managed to talk Italian to his daughter for 10 years, not getting any response in Italian, only in Dutch or English. His daughter was perfectly able to understand Italian and would also speak basic Italian with extended family, but knowing that her father was fluent in English and Dutch, and they living in a highly international environment where English and Dutch are the dominant languages, made her prefer these two languages even when talking with her Italian father. 

We all identify with the languages we know, with the cultures they represent and everything that we associate with the language. 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.

Speaking German with my children feels like speaking through a filter, whereas when I talk Italian, I talk from my soul.

I always ask my clients: if you could fast forward 10 years, would you be happy not to talk your language with your child? What about when you become grandparent? If you feel that you have to silence part of you by not talking your language, that you don't feel comfortable with it in some way, then don't stop talking your language to your child, no matter how your child responds.*

The daughter of my client did the same as my son and my daugthers: after several years she started talking Italian to her father again. She had listened to his Italian for years and built a passive vocabulary, knew exactly how to form sentences and is now (at age 15) nearly native!


* I must add that there are some extreme situations where I would not advise to keep talking your language to your child, but these are very extreme (for more information about this you can contact me anytime) 


When the dominant language wins... again

Many internationals whose mother tongue is a minority language know how it feels like when their children prefer a more dominant language even at home. When they 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 this is usually 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, our situations and our language preferences 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 balanced 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 attained (nearly)native fluency in English, German and Dutch instead. 

Would the social setting been different, more in favour of Swissgerman and Italian, we would have another language-picture today.


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


Parents of bilingual children 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 not enough to foster these languages "enough". But it wasn't about reaching nearly native fluency! My son only wanted to exercise these languages with me, talk them and analyze them with me. 

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@UtesInternationalLounge.com – and have a look at my services here.


© Ute Limacher-Riebold 2017 – This post has been re-edited 3 times. Last update: 27 June 2017. 

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