Multilingual Parenting: Q & A


Multilingual Parenting: Questions and Answers

Can children grow up with more than one language?

Yes, absolutely. This is very common in most parts of the world and does not lead to any disadvantages for the child as long as there is no pressure.

What does a child need to acquire a language?

For children to acquire languages, meaningful interactions are needed, which includes the child’s full involvement in this interaction, usually within a close personal relationship, as well as the quantity and quality of the input. From school age on, this usually happens more often in the majority language than with minority languages which need more attention. Meaningful interaction can, e.g., happen when children can share their views or ask questions that matter to them.

Which language should I use with my child?

There is no right and wrong, but the best language to use is usually the one that feels most natural to use with the child. This might be the first language but can actually be any language(s) acquired in the course of a lifetime, as it depends on individual circumstances. The child will profit from the fact that the parents feel confident in using the respective language. It does not have to be just one language. Maybe one language feels right to use during dinner conversations and another one for lullabies.

Why should I raise my child multilingually?

Sharing the same language enables creating a close bond. It might be important for the child, the parent and other family members to easily communicate with the child and build close relationships. Moreover, additional language skills and cultural competencies can be a benefit, e.g. at school or for future careers. Most importantly, however, if several languages are part of a family’s repertoire, children might want to have access to this repertoire when they are older.

Can I mix languages?

Yes, absolutely. Code-switching and translanguaging (mixing languages and other forms of communication) are helpful and natural ways of communication. However, it is important to remember that in order to acquire a language, children need enough opportunities for interaction in each language.

How can I convince my multilingual child to speak a family language?

It is natural for any person to participate in communication within their social group. If a language is relevant in a family, with the extended family or in society and if children feel it is valued, they will, in most cases, try to be part of the conversation. In some cases, other languages might still feel more important or suitable for a child. In this case, children should not be forced to use another language and it might be unethical for parents to pretend that they do not understand the language their child chooses to speak. Rather, parents and children could try to find out what the child needs to use the family language. Maybe the child does not feel competent enough and needs more support in understanding and speaking. Maybe the child has heard someone saying that this language should not be used.
If only one parent speaks the language, it is harder to maintain this language. It can be helpful to get support from the community, from extended family or by using films, books and other materials.