Is Speaking the ‘Other Parent’s’ Language Important For Multilingual Parenting?

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Do the parents speak each other’s native language?

Does the answer have anything to do with the child’s multilingual development? If yes, how?

sunrise lightI recently reflected on this question a lot.

In many multilingual families with whom I have had the fortune to meet/converse/engage either in person or through the facebook group, the dilemma often arises when one parent doesn’t speak/understand the other language that the other parent wants to cultivate within their child/ren.

Not speaking the language of the ‘other parent’ very often becomes a key challenge in maintaining/developing the particular language in the child.

Take Family G as an example. Mum L speaks Cantonese to child T, and dad D speaks Italian to T, but L & D do not speak each other’s native tongue and they speak English with each other. Imagine the family dinner – whenever there is Cantonese or Italian involved between one parent and T, the other parent inevitably feels a bit left out, no matter how hard they try to be patient for things to be translated. It takes extreme commitment and discipline NOT to switch everything into English just to ‘make things easy’.

I recently became particularly aware that just how lucky my family is, linguistically, in that my husband and I speak each other’s heritage language (French, Mandarin), and we both also speak English. It is the best possible scenario in raising a trilingual child, or any multilingual family, in my humble opinion. It means that I can speak Mandarin with Nina without worrying that Nicolas feels left out, and he can continue the family conversation simply by continuing/switching to French knowing that everyone else understands.

So my feeling and my experience tells me that the success rate of multilingual parenting is positively proportional to the level of all languages used in the household by both parents.

There is no research, however, that backs this up. I have spoken with a few professionals, and tried my good old friend named google, but nothing really came up.

So I want to throw this out to the readers of this blog. Could you tell me:

From your experience, is speaking the other parent’s language important for brining up multilingual children? leave a comment here, or on the facebook group.

Thanks – I am really curious about what you have to say.

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6 responses »

  1. I know several multilingual families, both of whom include a foreign husband and an American wife. In family one, the wife has learned the foreign language fairly fluently, in the other the wife has not. In both cases, the children prefer English, and even seem frustrated by the foreign language when they’re asked to engage in it. I’m still gathering data, but I think it would be much better if the foreign language was more integrated (The dads are home only in the evenings.)

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    • I agree, Mikel. The cases you described seem to come down to the (lack of) amount of exposure the kids get for the foreign languages. The kids need certain amount of exposure, from their dad, esp if they are not the majority/society languages. Kids also intuitively work out the usefulness of the language, and their brain works out if it’s ‘worthwhile’ to learn that language as well. The fact that one mother speaks the foreign language well definitely in theory should help – but does she use it when speaking to the child? Does she use it with her husband when he’s at home or do they speak English to each other? These are all the relevant questions to ask when thinking of the language dynamics at home/for the kids.

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  2. Hi,
    My answer is : I really don’t know if it is necessary for the parents to know all the target languages, but am convinced that if one aims for a high level of fluency, it can help. However, I have no quantitative nor qualitative data to propose.
    I believe the environment does play a huge part, whether it be defined as the home environment or the social or the scholastic environment.

    Our case :
    2 kids, now nearly 17 and 10, trilingual (French, English, Chinese).
    Dad is is bilingual French/English and knows Basic Spanish.
    Mom trilingual French/English/Chinese.
    All through their lives to date, Chinese was relegated to home. We moved around a lot, and for 7 years, we were the ONLY English and Chinese active languages sources for the children (they had books but that I consider passive) while the environment was Portuguese, then Malay.

    Today :
    The older child is a university undergrad. He is at native level in English and in French, and fluent in Chinese although now that he is out of the house, with no one to speak Chinese with and with a heavy workload leaving little time for leisure, his Chinese appears to be floundering although he is comfortable with the Chinese part of his heritage. He oscillates with extreme ease between the other 2. Proof of fluency : French bac, AP distinctions in Eng Lit and HistGeo-Politics done in English plus max score in SAT for the English section, HSK level 4 in Chinese.
    The younger child is at native level in English and in French (actually 2-3 years ahead as she was pushed up the grades as well). She is reading (with some help) chapter books in Chinese written for students learning Chinese from secondary school on (age appropriate content). She is advancing in leaps and bounds in Spanish as well.

    So in the case of our kids, their Chinese lags behind the other 2 languages. Is this because they never could have mates to play or talk with in Chinese? Is this because when Dad is around we can communicate in English and French only? Is this because Chinese literacy is much harder to achieve than for the other languages? Spanish being so close to French, my daughter is finding it very easy comparatively to Chinese. Maybe it is a combination of everything.

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