Language Switching with Your Bilingual Child When It Counts

by Corey · 16 comments

Language Switching & Codeswitching with Bilingual Children

Corey’s son blowing out his 7 candles.

By Corey Heller

My middle son had a birthday party today and as usual we invited our varied mix of friends: German-speakers, Spanish-speakers, English-speakers, homeschoolers, traditionally-schooled, young, old, babies, dads, moms, sisters and brothers.  I was so very impressed with how well a group of people can come together and find common ground for conversation and play.  The parents mingled in the kitchen and dining room while the children found areas to play throughout the house.  There was no fighting, no yelling, no screaming.  Some spoke English together, others German and a few Spanish. It was a delight.

As happens during parties like these, I found myself switching from German to English many times during the party.  This is to be expected, as some people don’t speak German.  However, what is special during social situations like these is how often I find myself speaking both English and German with my children even though as a rule we only speak German together.

I know quite a few parents who don’t do this.  They feel it is important to only stick to their language when speaking with their children, no matter what.  I can totally understand this reasoning and I am continually impressed with their resolve.

I’ve often wondered why this doesn’t work for me.  Is that I lack the same resolve?  Is it because German isn’t my native language?  Or is is simply the way I have chosen to interact with my children in social situations where German isn’t the only language spoken?  Regardless of what it may say about my personality and choices, what follows are a few reasons why I believe I switch back and forth between English and German with my children…

1. I want my non-German speaking friends to feel comfortable.
Yes, I know that technically it is none of my non-German speaking friends’ business what I say to my kids.  But as they are my friends and I honor their presence in my home, I’d like for them to feel comfortable in our midst by feeling they are sharing in my communication with my children.  However, that having been said, I don’t always speak English when my non-German speaking friends are within earshot.  I do so based on the following…

2. I want to indirectly share information with non-German speakers in my midst.
Often I switch to English with my children when I want to share the information with those around me.  For example, today at the party, I told my kids in English that it was time for cake and ice cream so that their friends standing nearby would hear it.  The same was true when I discussed the gifts when my son was opening them.  At times I have switched to English when my kids did something wrong.  I wanted other kids and parents to hear my discussion with my children so that they’d know that that I take my children’s actions seriously.

3. I don’t always know how to say it in German (unique for us non-native speakers).
There are times when I just can’t explain something in German, especially when someone explained something complex to me in English and my kids ask what the person said.  I have two choices in that moment: I can explain it in a more “watered-down” German: “Uh, he said that there is a thing that can do this special thing when you hold it in a really special way.”  Not very helpful, especially on the learning vocabulary front!  Or I can just explain it in English as it was explained to me (for a child’s understanding, of course) and thereby include a bunch of fabulous vocabulary.

4. I’m confused.
This is when I’ve just spoken to someone in English, I turn to my child who is pulling on my sleeve and without thinking, I ask my child in English what he or she wants.  It isn’t that I meant to speak English.  It just simply came out.  It is during parties in particular that my mind gets all discombobulated switching back and forth between English and German-speaking parents and I can’t even remember which language I am speaking at any given moment.

No one really knows what the consequences are to switching back and forth between languages when speaking with our children, mainly because each child and each family is unique.  However, currently experts recommend against it when our children are young simply to give our little ones “pure” language examples. As our children get older, experts agree that it is less of an issue. In fact, it may even be a sign of language mastery to be able to switch back and forth (see this excerpt from Colin Baker’s A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism – he is speaking about code-switching but we can apply the same reasoning to language switching).

It is empowering when we can switch back and forth between languages with our children and they can seamlessly go with the flow.  It is a magical dance in which we are full participants.  It is something we can control and manipulate with precision.  My children are no longer tiny and just learning to speak.  They are mastering their language in ways that continually amaze me!  Their sentence structures continue to evolve and their vocabulary expands in leaps and bounds (which isn’t always a pleasant experience for me!  As I write this, my children are discussing in minute detail the construction, design and benefit of a specially crafted “poop-gun.”  Sigh.).

As we, as a family, continue to navigate our way through our languages and cultures, I get a little teary-eyed.  My children are little bilinguals!  Look at them go!

Do you switch back and forth between languages regularly?  Do you do it in specific social situations?  Have you seen any consequences to switching back and forth with your children?  What do you recommend based on what works best for your family?

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.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sonja in Bothell May 24, 2010 at 12:13 pm

That article was great! I have felt like that many times since I also switch from English to German depending on who I am talking to or who is around me. I tend to speak German with my kids much more than English, but if a non-German speaker is nearby and I want them to know what I am saying to my children, I will speak English to them. My kids usually react the same way to me in either language, but I know they think it is strange when I speak English. I hope that when my children are older, I will be able to get them to continue replying to me in German since many German-speaking people I know tend to speak English once the kids get to be school-age, and now the kids can’t speak German any more! Keep up the good work, Corey. Your kids are wonderful!


2 Corey May 29, 2010 at 5:35 pm

Thanks for the comment, Sonja! Knowing how dedicated you are, I can’t imagine you won’t find some great ways to make it all work in your favor!


3 smashedpea May 24, 2010 at 12:38 pm

I do the same thing – speak English when others are within earshot that should probably hear what I need/want to say. My almost 5 year old sometimes gets confused by that and is likely to tell me to “Sprich Deutsch, Mama!”, but the little one doesn’t care, likely because he’s only in the beginning stages of separating his languages.

Switching languages depending on context or who is around seems quite important to me. I do it all the time (though I try to keep it to German only with my kids), and to be honest, I want the kids to be able to do it, too. It seems to me that they are still a bit too young to understand this or be able to do it themselves, but in the long run I do want them to be able to do it.


4 Corey May 29, 2010 at 5:36 pm

Yes, good point about wanting our children to experience their own level of bilingualism – getting used to using both languages and having fun with that!


5 Rachel O. May 24, 2010 at 12:43 pm

Thanks for the neat article! We’re still trying to figure out when to use what language, and this was helpful.


6 Corey May 29, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Thanks Rachel! It is kind of fun giving all of this thought, aside from what we do!


7 Belinda Mullinix May 27, 2010 at 1:31 pm

I speak English to my children as that is my native language and the one I am proficient in. When they were tiny, I spoke both French and English, but now, their grasp of French far outshines mine. We have one day a week where we speak only French in the home, but that’s really more for me than them. They are completely and comfortable bilingual, and also speak Breton at school, which is similar to Welsh or Cornish. It’s fun to listen to them flip back and forth, even in the same sentence, with the two main languages, I love it!


8 Corey May 29, 2010 at 5:46 pm

Wow, Belinda, this is fabulous! What can we say when our children’s language ability outshines ours? A little frustrating but no complaining, right? I wonder about that with my kids too. I need to keep brushing up my German all the time (and my husband corrects me a lot). 🙂


9 Laura July 30, 2010 at 9:19 pm

There are two thing that make me like you very much Corey. The fact that you are a non-native like me square in the middle of this bilingual business AND the fact that you said discombobulated in your article. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. 🙂


10 Corey July 30, 2010 at 10:55 pm

Laura, you crack me up! The funny thing is that I got that word from my mom, the writer and poet. She would use it all the time and I picked it up without even really thinking about it. She used all kinds of words (as I’m sure you can imagine, being that she was a poet).

So glad to have you and your comments here!


11 Barbara April 19, 2011 at 10:48 am

Having children brought up in the Flemish school system in Belgium and being surrounded by multi-cultural people has allowed all of us to switch from language to language to language…to language since they are knowledgable in 4 different languages. And the allow me to stumble along in my own way in those languages that I’m not as proficient in. It’s about making those around you feel comfortable and if that means speaking their language then that’s what you do. Sometimes we start speaking another language to each other because the situation calls for it…or we are just feeling more ‘French’/’Flemish’/’German’/American at that time. Being as they are older children (high school/college) they are learning to embrace their uniqueness now here in the USA having lived all their lives elsewhere. In their world growing up, it was quite normal to have to speak in several languages. They are just now realizing how lucky they have been to have this opportunity…and lucky to have parents who had also been exposed to languages as they grew up.


12 Nichole Gully April 19, 2011 at 12:14 pm

I stick to speaking Māori to my son no matter who is around. Its not my first language but its our heritage language. I figure that if I am talking to my son, then I am talking to my son. I am not being rude, I am simply communicating something to him. Poeple ask if they want to know. Most are intrigued. If I want to include a non Māori speaker then I will say someting in English to the non speaker in his ear shot, and add in Maori something like ‘isn’t that right’ or ‘tell such and such about it son’. Consistency and normalising the use of our langauge no matter where we are is really important as the Māori language is endangered. If I didn’t he’d likely get the message that our language is something to be hidden or other than ‘normal’. Its about role modelling too, that the language can and should be spoken everywhere, not be relegated to the privacy of the home. We have a beautful language that should be heard and spoken with pride. Different situation to world languages.


13 Mich April 19, 2011 at 2:22 pm

This is an important distinction… heritage languages don’t have a “back home” to go home to and need constant reinforcement.
Kudos to you!


14 Anke April 19, 2011 at 3:36 pm

As usual a fascinating and thought-provoking article. I disagree with you on the lack of vocabulary being unique to non-native speakers. I left Germany 14 years ago when I was 17. My family is German, I grew up mono-lingually yet after 14 years abroad, I often find it much easier to express myself in English, particularly as I haven’t been around German children that much so lack some core colloquial expressions. It’s not that I wouldn’t understand them, but they have never been part of my active German vocab and short of studying / reading up / spending more time in Germany there are no easy ways to pick up these expressions, often leading me to use English instead, because I became a mom over here & I know the mummy lingo 🙂


15 Joy April 20, 2011 at 5:25 am

Very helpful insight. I often wonder what to do in those situations and since I am also raising my kids in my non-native French I find this reassuring. Thank you!


16 Susanne April 20, 2011 at 5:37 am

Another really thought-provoking article, Corey, thank you. I speak only German to my daughters because I know how easily you forget (one year of total immersion in English was enough to temporarily wipe my German and French, both of which I had studied at school for 12 years! It really shocked me and I am now very careful to include a bit of each whenever I go on the internet.)
When we are sat around the table at home with non-German speakers – almost every day at some point due to boyfriends and friends staying to supper/overnight – we do switch out of courtesy, but whenever something is directed at one daughter or other or I have to pull them up about their manners it is done in German. The friends normally do a double-take but then as we consistently act in this way it just becomes “the way they do things”…
Our second daughter decided to rebel against speaking German by taking French for her ‘A’Levels and now she adds this to the mix by speaking French to me whenever she addresses me directly. If I’m very busy it can require a real effort not to reply in G or E but then I am grateful that she was interested enough in improving her spoken French for me not to have to nag!
School undoubtably makes it much more difficult to keep up the second language, but, boy, is it worth persevering!


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