Are You Fluent Enough to Raise Your Child In a Second Language?

by Corey · 16 comments

Raising a child in a non-native language is a hot topic these days.  What with the cost of language schools out of reach for most parents and a lack of native-speaking family members and friends nearby, raising our children in a non-native language has become a desirable option.

The question on most parents’ minds, however, is whether we are doing more harm than good in attempting to raise our children in a language that is not our native language.  How can we know if our language skills are good enough for this undertaking?  Will our children learn our language mistakes and speak with our same inauthentic accent?  And if so, does that really matter in the end?  Aren’t our children gaining more, despite the small downsides?

What will make or break your choice to raise your children a non-native language will come down to how you relate to your non-native language: what is your comfort level with your non-native language, your willingness to evolve your language skills over time and your dedication to the long-term goal?  Your dedication to the process is key.  You can always work on mastering language skills.  Finding the drive to stick with it is something that even native speakers struggle with!

Start by answering the following questions:

1. Why do you want to raise your child in a language that is not your own?
What is it that truly motivates you to do this?  Do you think it will help your child intellectually down the road?  Do you hope it will help your child find a better job in the future?  Perhaps you are inclined to raise your child in a non-native language because it is something you felt was lacking in your childhood?  Most likely you feel connected to your non-native language and can’t imagine not sharing it with your child.  Whatever the reasons are, make sure you are very honest with yourself.  No motivation is in itself bad so allow yourself to dig deep to find answers.

2. How comfortable are you with your non-native language?
This question is not about your linguistic skills (we’ll get to that).  This question is about the intimate relationship you have with your non-native language.  Will you be able to converse comfortably with your child in your non-native language on a daily basis?  Will you feel comfortable using your non-native language even after a long day at work or a day of what feels like endless struggles with your toddler?  It is hard to know ahead of time how comfortable you might feel in raising your child in your non-native language but take a stab at it and try to imagine what it would be like.  Don’t let yourself get discouraged!  Just let yourself imagine the good and the bad and how you might react to each.

3. What resources will you incorporate?
When we raise our children in a non-native language, it is important to have native examples to fall back on from time to time.  This is not only for our children!  It is also to give us the boost WE need to carry on.  Do you have books, DVDs and music in your non-native language that you like to read, watch and listen to?  And do you have the same for your child?  What about native-speaking support in the community?  Do you have a native-speaking friend who can come over once a week to hang out with you and your child and converse in the language?  Or what about a language playgroup?  Having this native-language support will make raising your child in your non-native language so much more fun and inspiring.  Plus, the chances are much higher that you will stick with it!

4. How strong are you in your non-native language?
Be honest with yourself as to your level of vocabulary and grammar.  Will you be able to expand your child’s language skills and expressions as he/she ages?  How do you feel about your accent in your non-native language?  Does it bother you?  Do you feel it is ok?  Will you be keeping your non-native language alive with additional language lessons and practice?  Again, this is not about finding faults in your language abilities!  This is about being honest with how YOU feel about your language skills.  Take time now to address these issues instead of down the road when you hit dips in the road.

If your language skills are not very strong, don’t let this stop you from coming up with a plan for raising your child at least partly in your non-native language!  Answer the questions above and then think up alternate plans for how you can do a “part-time” bilingualism of sorts!

Here are some tips and ideas for part-time bilingualism:

1. Choose a day or two (or three!) a week to speak only in your non-native language with your child.
You don’t even have to make it an all-day thing – just in the mornings or evenings works too.  Watch DVDs together and read as many books as possible!  Reading out loud to your child is a wonderful way to impart vocabulary that we don’t normally use in our day-to-day lives (plus, it encourages lots of questions and discussion).

2. Take a language class together with your child.
Check around in your community for classes where your child could join you (or maybe are even geared toward parents and children!). Since you already know the language, this will simply make it more of a regular part of your life and you and your child will be more inclined to use the language.

3. Hire a native-speaker to come to your house a few times a week.
Come up with a language plan with the native-speaker so that you will feel more dedicated to using the language on a daily basis.  Knowing that you will be meeting with your native-speaking counterpart will most likely keep you and your child cheerfully motivated.

4. Subscribe to (or purchase) an online language program.
Try to find something that is enjoyable and captivates your child’s interest.  Set up a regular time to do the language program with your child and then decide on how/when to use the language during the week.

5. Agree to switch back and forth between languages based on need.
If you feel fairly fluent in your non-native language but find yourself stuck on certain topics, then just let your child know that you are switching to your other language to explain something.  Sure, it is best not to switch back and forth between languages too much but on the other hand, to not offer your non-native language to your child at all because of some difficult linguistic episodes would be a great loss.  Your child will get used to this process as long as you are consistent about how you switch between languages: for example, give a cue via a sentence such as “Mommy is going to switch to English now since she can explain this better in English.”  Use that sentence each time.

As you can see, fluency is only one element in the decision of whether or not to raise your child in your non-native language.  It is something you can tackle through dedication and commitment.  Agree with yourself to only do as much as you feel comfortable doing – no more and no less.  The true determining factor how you relate to your non-native language.  As long as using your non-native language fills you with joy, then continue to use it and share that language joy with your child!

Make sure that you are continually providing your child with words, grammar and expressions that develop and grow in complexity along with your child.  If this means using both of your languages (non-native language for general conversation and native language for more complex discussions), that is just fine!  Don’t worry about this to the point of giving up.  Just keep it in the back of your mind as your child ages.

The main thing is to get your plan in place and then take the non-native language leap!  Take it month by month and then year by year.  Just offer your non-native language for as long as you feel comfortable doing it.  Every plan can be adapted.  The key is making sure that you are 100% honest with yourself about where YOU are at in raising your child in your non-native language.

Are you raising your child in a non-native language in which you don’t feel very strong?  Does this concern you?  What are your concerns and how are you working through them?  Alternately, for those of you raising your child in a non-native language in which you feel very strong, what concerns do you have?  Do you miss speaking to your children in your native language?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, in German and English.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sophie May 24, 2010 at 3:16 am

I should be more fluent in my mother’s tongue than I am – after all, she spoke to me in French almost constantly when I was a nipper… but between my dad’s monolingualism (though he’s much better now, after 35 years of marriage) and few other French speakers about, not to mention me choosing to speak only English as my teenage rebellion (*lol* yes, real wild child here..) I have lost that fluency and a fair amount of confidence over the years.

We’re trying, though! DD is three and she does understand much of what my mother and I say in French. She loves her French books and constantly asks for “Dora in French”.. but aside from counting she will rarely speak French herself. Hubby is trying to learn a little too, bless him – the only other language he learned at school was Maori, and not much at that. The proof in the pudding may come when we visit Mamie and Papie in France this summer.. if she chats with her little cousins I will be absolutely over the moon!

There aren’t any language clubs for her nearby at the moment, but in a few months we’re moving elsewhere, and coincidentally there’s an Alliance Francais toddler group and family lessons there too. Hubby has been informed that we will be regulars 🙂


2 Corey May 29, 2010 at 5:50 pm

Your family’s language experiences and progress sound so interesting! I hope you keep that courage up and stick with it. As you know from your own experiences, it is totally worth sticking with it (even when the kids decide to rebel). 😉 What great news about the Alliance Francais group. Have a great time!


3 Anna Maliszewska July 3, 2010 at 8:55 am

I am Polish, living in Poland, and linguist by university backround. When my son was born (2001) and his Spanish father unsubscribed from our story:( I decided to keep my son’s Spanish side as strong as the Polish one. I decided to speak Spanish to him (my native language is Polish). Even if I spoke Spanish very well, we lived in Poland and it was a big effort to speak my non-native language to my son. I managed, he is trilingual today (he picked up French on the way:)). Looking back my decision was right, however it took lots of my time, effort and money to create his “Spanish” reality-besides speaking to him in Spanish I would always plan long enough holidays in Spanish speaking countries, bought tons of books and kids movies and looked for Spanish speaking kids around. That’s why it worked and it pays back today.


4 Corey August 30, 2010 at 10:21 pm

I am so sorry it has taken me this long to respond to your wonderful comment, Anna! I somehow missed it!

What a fabulous choice you have made for your son (and yourself)! As you said, it is not easy but you are making it happen – so fantastic! I love your idea for incorporating in materials and trips to Spain. How is your level of Spanish? Did you feel that you were learning it along with your son? And to have added French to the mix – how wonderful! What an inspiration! Thank you so much for sharing!


5 Nesomja August 25, 2010 at 6:11 am

We are both English speakers and have had Spanish speaking childcare for our son (now aged 25 months) since he was 18 months old. At first this was just 2 afternoons a week but now it is 2.5 days. He is starting to respond to our nanny in Spanish. His English is pretty good. I am now thinking about whether I should try speaking to him in French – I love French and can converse in it but am self-conscious about my accent and know that I make grammatical mistakes. I can’t speak Spanish well enough or I would probably do that instead as he has already had that exposure. Am I being stupid thinking about introducing a 3rd language and will I just dilute the Spanish to the point where he learns none of it? I feel quite excited about the idea of us learning French together but know it would be mostly up to me as my husband’s French is pretty basic.


6 Corey August 30, 2010 at 10:28 pm

Thank you so much for leaving this great question/comment, Nesomja. I wouldn’t say that you would “dilute” the Spanish per se but you will want to plan things out a bit so that your son will receive consistent language exposure in both languages. Will you keep a Spanish-speaking nanny for a good number of years? How often do you want to speak French with your son? All the time? Just some days?

I definitely encourage you to give it a try! You most definitely shouldn’t let your embarrassment get in the way (even though I can totally relate! See my Language Challenge 101 – Week Seven video diary for my feelings about this)! Ultimately, what do you have to lose? The most important thing is that you are interacting comfortably with your son. Language is our way of connecting so if you find that using French actually makes you more distant from your son or that you can’t express yourself as you’d like and it is coming between you and your son, then maybe use French on certain days but not all the time. Of course, give it some time to try out before making any final decisions!

Good luck and let us know how it goes!!


7 Nesomja August 25, 2010 at 6:14 am

Oh, by the way, we live in England so exposure to English is never going to be a problem! But exposure to French and Spanish might be, although it’s relatively easy to go on holiday to France or Spain.


8 Corey August 30, 2010 at 10:29 pm

Yes, great point about the English. You can always have your son attend playgroups or preschool to get some dedicated English input if you feel he should get that.

I’m envious that you are so close to France and Spain! Definitely plan some visits to those places!


9 Nesomja September 7, 2010 at 12:59 pm

Thanks Corey for your response. I have now been speaking French to my son for 2 weeks, one week of which we were actually in France where we stocked up on DVDs, CDs and books in French. He is responding to some things and repeating a few words. I have been trying to talk to him in French all the time. But I have not had the nerve to tell anyone else I am doing this as I worry what they will think – so I am talking to him in English when we are with friends and family! I’m not sure what it is that worries me except that I know it would get gossiped about and if I gave up later down the line I’d never live it down.
Btw, I have looked into French language playgroups around here but it’s very hard to get in if the child is not Francophone already – they don’t want people who want to use it to help their child learn a language it seems unless they are native speaker level. Not sure what to do about this as it seems like a bit of a catch -22 situation.


10 Corey September 9, 2010 at 12:17 am

So fabulous, Nesomja, that you are speaking French with your son! Yippee! As for speaking it in front of others: take your time. There is no rush and you will know when the time is right. (Of course, if after a year of speaking French you still haven’t shared it with friends and family you might want to ask yourself if it is now time). But I totally agree about giving things a test run first. Get your feet wet with speaking French with your son (both for you and him) before doing it in front of others. The most important is that you are doing it! Yippee!

Yes, that is often the way playgroups are. It is tough! Our German playgroup did that as well. They kind of have to do it so that they don’t all end up speaking the community language by default. The idea is that at the language playgroups, the parents (and kids) can use the language on a native-level to really expose everyone to that unique opportunity.

I would suggest that you find some other resources. Maybe you could contact the playgroups and let them know what you are looking for – they might be able to put you in touch with some other families. Are there story-times at your local libraries? Or maybe there are some language learning classes in the area for kids and families there would be interested in getting together? I also encourage you to just put something together and then advertise it however you can for free. I wrote an article about this (note it is targeted toward families who do speak the language fluently): I am always an advocate of starting something new if it doesn’t exist. You only need one other parent and child to have a group going! That is what is so great. Just start small and let it evolve organically.

Keep practicing your French on your own (find some online resources that you like, things from the library, etc.) so that you will continue building up your language confidence. That is the most important for the long haul!

Thank you for sharing where things are at! So very exciting!!


11 Dolinda May 4, 2014 at 8:09 pm

I guess I’m technically raising my daughter in my 2nd and 3rd language. My native tongue is Dutch but I have been in the US since I started college at 17. I can tell you my English is much better than my Dutch since I rarely use it (one week when my sister is here and 2 weeks when we go back to visit).
I’m also speaking French to my daughter who will be 4 soon. I’m not fluent but do pretty well so far (And my accent is pretty good). She also is doing much better than I had expected and mostly speaks French to me when it is just the two of us (even when she wakes up in the middle of the night). When she is playing on her own she also tends to speak mostly French. We speak English when anyone else is around (or if I really need to get something across to her but she is comfortable enough in French that she will get mad at me in French as well). She watches my iPad when I cook dinner and only in French. We read a lot and only in French. We are part of a French play group although they don’t get together much but someone is the group is doing French preschool once a week and we will be doing that for the summer (even if it is 1.5 hours away…). In the car we only listen to French music and lately have added books on CD to that. We also have done a few sessions of Music lingua but just finished our last session and she was really pretty bored with the last sessions as hashed has outgrown it apparently. I recently met with my friend who is a native French speaker and teaching at the college here and she was pretty impressed with how well my daughter speaks French.
So far so good….but this fall she will start school 4 full days a week (right now she goes 3 mornings a week) so I am sure that will change things a lot as she will have less time with me. And even though I manage pretty well in French I’m still not fluent and there is a lot I still don’t know (Word reference app is my friend for on the go looking up of words) . I hope she continues to have an interest in it and that she will continue to want to read in French and watch shows in French. I am amazed at how much she is influenced by her peers even at 3. She never watches princess shows at home and I don’t encourage it (and she is in a class with only boys pretty much ) but lately is really into princesses and wanting to look pretty. So hopefully despite all the outside influence she will still be interested enough in French and the French shows I’m able to get for her. I’m also hoping I will be able to find a French college exchange student here to come play with her a couple of times a week.
My hope is that in the next 2-3 years I will be able to find her some sort of camp in France/Belgium or Switzerland that she could attend during our yearly trip back home. I don’t really expect her to be fluent (or even close to it) as she would really need much more immersion and I probably won’t be able to keep that up. But I’m hoping she will at least have a pretty good base and have the sounds of the language in her brain for later use is she pursues it.
So overall I’m pretty happy with how things are going (much better than I expected when I started this “experiment”) but I also know it will probably not last, at least not the amount of exposure we have now. I just hope we can keep it going at some level and keep her interested.


12 Olya October 22, 2014 at 11:38 am


I’m a native speaker of Russian and I speak Russian to my 6 month old baby. I would however, also like to speak French to her. I am good in French but not perfect/fluent and I have a pretty strong accent in French. But I love the language. Can I speak both to my baby or will I ‘damage’ her language skills as a result or confuse her? … my husband speaks English to her.



13 孫コンボイ March 1, 2015 at 9:11 pm

Glad to find other people who are raising children in a language that is not their first language. I’m an Australian; I studied Japanese at university and I exclusively speak to my daughter (currently age 5) in Japanese.

I find myself disagreeing with tips 1 and 5 of this article. I’m a firm believer in consistency, and I remain skeptical on the merits of speaking to a child in a language on a part-time basis as well as allowing the child to switch between languages to the same speaker. My wife and I have been using the ‘Une personne une langue’ (“One person, one language”) method (M. Grammont; 1902) to raise our daughter trilingually on a simultaneous basis, which I do not think can be as effectively achieved if it is done part time or switching within the same speaker. The Une personne une langue method relies on the child switching languages between different speakers; e.g. my daughter only speaks to me in Japanese, in Chinese (Mandarin) to her mother, and English to anyone else who cannot speak Japanese or Mandarin-Chinese. This rule has been in place since birth (i.e. before she could speak, I would exclusively speak to her in Japanese, and my wife to her in Chinese, others in English) and continues to be enforced now that she is talking.

I would love to hear thoughts, stories etc. from anyone else who is raising their child in their second language! I don’t know anyone else in my personal life who is doing this (other people who are raising their children multilingually are doing it in their first language), so when I read articles or discuss issues about multilingual child rearing with other people, it’s not quite the same.


14 Richard August 17, 2015 at 7:20 am

I found this all very interesting. My wife and I are expecting our first child in December, and for years I’ve been determined to speak French to my children. My level of french is not as high as I would like it to be. Since we found out my wife was pregnant I’ve been making a concerted effort to improve it. I’ve been researching on raising a child to be bilingual but most of the articles tend to be about an English speaker living in a non-english speaking country with a partner who is a native speaker of the language. My wife only speaks English and I am concerned that English will just bulldoze any french I attempt to give our child. The other comments from people here have made me feel more confident that it is possible to give a child your non-native language.


15 Diana Sampedro. BABY ENGLISH May 3, 2016 at 2:48 am

I am Spanish and my daughter is bilingual English and Spanish. I always speak English with ther, and the rest of the family in Spanish. It is possible, with motivation, and trying to improve your language skills.



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