Can We Use the Other Spouse’s Language? Will Our Bilingual Child Forget English During Vacation?

by expert · 4 comments

I am a Swede who moved with my Anglo Australian hubby to Australia where we have been for the last 2 years.We now have a 19 month old daughter that we are bringing up bilingually.  I mostly speak Swedish to her and my husband English but many times he helps out with repeating words she picks up in Swedish and me in English, is this bad & confusing to her?

I would also like your opinion on the following: my daughter and I are going home to Sweden for a 6 week visit.  My husband is scared she will forget English from the trip we had to California where we booked a trip with whale watching california and had a blast. I also like to keep up what she learned, for example: ‘Twinkle little star” in English and some other words.  How should I go about language for such a long trip?  — Emma

Dear Emma,

Speaking to children in more than one language is neither harmful nor confusing. This is in fact what parents do wherever individual multilingualism is the norm, in all continents.

From the way you formulate your question, I presume you must have heard about the so-called “one person-one language” policy (OPOL), where each parent in a mixed family sticks to their own language to speak to their children. The OPOL is a linguistic behaviour that was observed in studies dealing with monolingual parents in mixed families. It is not an overall recommendation for how to bring up children multilingually. There are many multilingual parents like you and your husband around the world, who raise multilingual children through using several languages to them.

Your husband need not be scared that your girl will lose her English. She will, quite naturally, prefer Swedish while she is in a Swedish environment and will almost instantly improve her command of this language. When she returns to Australia, she will probably appear to have forgotten the English that she knew.

If you think about it yourself, it is likely that the same thing will happen to you to some degree – I know it certainly happens to me: you may feel that your English has rusted a bit while you were away from daily use of that language, and the same with your Swedish in an English-only environment. Like you, your girl will remember her English again, and go on improving it, as soon as she returns to where English is used.

A bit of extra reassurance: my children did exactly this, forgetting and then remembering and then forgetting again, and so on, two of their languages, one of them Swedish, as it happens, according to the frequency and length of their stays in the countries where those languages are used. That’s what languages are there for, to be used as needed, and children are very good at understanding what is required of them, including where use of languages is concerned.

While you are in Sweden, why not use English to sing ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ with your girl, or read books to her, or play with her the “let’s talk like daddy” game, or “write letters” to daddy with huge colourful drawings, or speak to him on a toy phone, since English is one of your languages too? I did the same with my children. There is no copyright in languages.

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at:

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 C... July 8, 2010 at 5:20 am

This has been a question I have gotten all my life. “How did you learn Spanish and English at the same time.” As you said, kids are great at adapting and knowing what’s expected of them in different situations. I learned Spanish first because my parents only spoke Spanish while I was very young but once I started going to school/headstart/pre-school everyone spoke either Spanish, English or something else. I was able to adapt almost immediately without any trouble and am often asked now why I have no Spanish accent when I speak English.


2 Madalena Cruz-Ferreira July 8, 2010 at 12:25 pm

C…, the reason for what you say may be that a lot of people do not realise that multilingualism can be simultaneous. Compare the usual questions that simultaneous multilinguals get asked about “which one” of their languages is their “mother tongue”, for example. Always one language, always one mother tongue, in the singular. It shows, doesn’t it, how people still think about multilingualism in monolingual terms.


3 Ale August 25, 2010 at 3:46 pm

I lived and spoke Spanish from birth to seven yes old and moved to England after 3 months I forgot Spanish (my mother tongue) and have never regained it sadly, you probably know mire than me so it could happen… I’m proof and I’m a bright person.
Good luck!


4 Corey August 30, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Oh how frustrating, Ale! Have you visiting Spanish-speaking countries since then and does your Spanish return? As Madalena often says: when we need language then it often comes back again. If we don’t need a language, we are extremely efficient and instead focus on what we do need. Frustrating yet so very fascinating!


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