Can I Sometimes Switch To Another Language With My Multilingual Children?

by Corey · 3 comments

Corey’s mother, Sharon, with her first born bilingual grandson.

My children and I used to speak English with one another for a few weeks every couple of months.  We’d prepare ahead of time for the event by discussing our plans in detail and my kids would get excited about the whole thing, “Three more days, right Mama?  Three more days until we will be speaking English together, right?”

That was then.

We don’t do this anymore.  A year and a half ago my mother died of breast cancer and with her she took away our need to speak English together.

My mother had always been shocked that I could even consider speaking anything other than my native tongue with my children – and she let us know this!  It had little to do with our children hearing German in our home and much more to do with how my mother felt that she fit into the whole language scheme of things.

She wondered aloud:  “Will my grandchildren know that I am part of the family, being that I speak a different language than the both of you?”  “Will my grandchildren ever hear YOU say the words ‘I love you’?  The words I raised you with?” she would ask me.

After months and months of bitter debates, angry meanderings and quips, I seriously started wondering whether it was worth the growing resentment and alienation that my mother was feeling.  What was the point of us raising our children bilingually if it meant their maternal grandmother felt left out from our conversations?  Whether it was fair or not, she felt hurt and slighted.

Up until that point, I had believed that things were fairly black and white: either speak German or English.  Choose one and stick with it.  No changing allowed!

This made sense but the overarching question on my mind was: WHY?  I wanted to know why this was so important and what the consequences would be if I didn’t follow these rules.  Would my children be damaged for life?  Would they never speak German again if I spoke English with them for periods of time while their grandmother was around?  What would be the cost of choosing to foster my mother’s relationship with her grandchildren over my language hopes and dreams for them?

I started an in-depth analysis of what the research actually said about this and I also spoke with many parents with bilingual children older than mine.  I was determined to get to the bottom of this.

What I found was that the recommendation of “stick to one language” was not an either-or threat.  It was a recommendation for how our multilingual children could reach the greatest chance for multilingual mastery.  It was an encouragement for how we could best keep our minority languages alive.  Analysis of the research and discussions with other parents revealed to me the key to being able to make it work.

  • You will NOT damage your child if you switch back and forth
    Let’s start right off and make sure this is clear: if you speak more than one language with your child, you are not going to damage your child.  You are not going to make their brains blow up.  You are not going to ruin them for life.  And yes, they will still have the same chances for going to college, being successful and raising healthy, well-adjusted children.  In fact, they have the same chances of thriving as any other multilingual children.

So, now that that is cleared up, here are some reasons why we are encouraged to use one language:

  • Sticking with one language is about making multilingualism easier for you
    The reason researchers encourage us to stick with one language is so that we don’t have to always question, second guess, and hesitate in our multilingual parenting choices.  Choosing to speak one language with our kids can free our minds up for more important things, like coming up with creative ways to keep language alive in our homes!  It is a way to make our lives easier, not a threat.
  • Sticking with one language is about making multilingualism easier for your child
    Your child shouldn’t have to be making decisions about when, how or why he speaks any given language.  It should be something that comes naturally to him and feels comfortable.  He should be using language as a way to communicate and relate with the world, not trying to conform to something he isn’t clear on.
  • Sticking with one language has a higher success rate for that language
    It goes without saying that if we only speak one language with our children, then the likelihood that they will associate that specific language with us is higher.  Our children know that we can speak more than one language but it is different to speak more than one language with them.

Here is what you can do if you want or need to use more than one language with your children:

  • Come up with a language plan
    It is pretty darn difficult to be clear on our language use if we aren’t sure what, exactly, we are doing.  Make it easier on yourself and come up with a language plan.  The best language plan is one that the family as a whole has decided upon.  It can be as simple as “I speak French whenever I am at home with the kids but when we are at your parents house then I’m going to speak Spanish.”  Or it can be more complex such as “Let’s speak Spanish in the morning until noon and then Arabic from noon until you go to bed.”  The plan is whatever works for you and everyone can agree upon.
  • Discuss the language plan before each switch
    Make sure to talk about the language plan with your children before the actual switch takes place.  Prepare your children (and yourself) by discussing the details: “When grandpa arrives, we are going to speak Polish with him.  But when he leaves we are going to switch back to French, ok?”  Give your children the chance to participate in the whole plan and encourage them to remind one another about the agreed upon rules – this gives them a chance to “own” the plan themselves.
  • Allow for a transition period
    If you decide to speak the minority language most of the time and then speak the community language for a period of time, it is possible that everyone is going to need to transition back to the minority language.  Be patient!  Give your children time to switch back and forth – this isn’t something we can just expect to happen instantaneously.
  • Be prepared for possible resistance
    It is very possible that your children may not want to switch back to your language, especially if it is not the community language.  So make sure to be prepared for this.  Have some ideas prepared for how you can bring your language into the forefront again: games in your language, books, fun written activities, DVDs, CDs, friends and family who speak the language.

Switching to English for the few weeks that my mother would visit was completely worth it for me.  Yes, we experienced all of the above but I am happy to report that my children and I still consistently speak German with one another.  Language is fluid and we learned, as a family, to flow more smoothly between our languages.

Now that my mother is gone?  What I wouldn’t give to have that break in our German language bath!  What I wouldn’t give to override my fine-tuned German-language-home-life to have my mother walk through that front door again, bringing with her hugs and kisses and love and joy and, yes, a change to our language rhythm.

Who could have known that in such a short period of time she would be gone.

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.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Colleen Trimble June 11, 2010 at 4:43 pm

I haven’t ever spoken Italian with my 3 year old daughter, but who knows? It would feel weird, but someday I or she or someone dear to us might “need” me to speak Italian to her. This article just kind of reminded me that it’s good to be flexible.


2 Corey June 13, 2010 at 10:25 pm

Thank you for your comment, Colleen! I know what you mean about it feeling weird to speak another language with your daughter, which is such a good thing! That means that speaking our language(s) is habit and comes naturally, which is fabulous – the best it can be!
As you said, we never know what might come our way so it is always good to know that if we need to be more flexible, all will be just fine in the long term. Had I chosen to be inflexible with my mother, I wonder if I would have regretted it later after she passed away. Would I have asked myself if I should have been softer, gentler and more flexible? I am so relieved that I don’t have to ask that question. I was also able to prove that being “flexible with a plan” can work!


3 Lindsay Oesch May 9, 2016 at 3:50 pm

Nice post! I like the family language plan idea. For the caregiver, it’s great to speak in the language that feels is the most natural. That way, the model is not “broken” as some might say, with incorrect syntax or limited vocabulary. If a family member is fluently multilingual, the language plan is certainly a good idea!


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