We Are Mixing Languages All the Time! Are We Confusing Our Multilingual Child?

by Corey · 8 comments

I am Brazilian, my husband is American and we live in France with our 4 months old daughter. My husband and I are both fluent in French and English, and he understands Portuguese pretty well and is working on speaking it.

I mostly speak Portuguese to our daughter, and he mostly speaks English.  Our family language is English but with a lot of French words and expressions, and occasionally some Portuguese. And when French friends are over, we speak French, when Brazilians are over we speak Portuguese, when Americans are over we speak English. Basically, it’s a big mess and our daughter will inevitably hear both of us speaking these three languages, often all at once.

Should my husband and I make the effort of speaking “pure” languages at home when it is just “family time”, or can we keep using our mixture? Will that confuse our daughter? We are not worried about her French since she will be schooled here in France, but for the other languages that she’ll mostly hear at home and during vacation time with families, should we try to keep them pure?

— Paula

Dear Paula,

Using several languages is not a mess, it is what multilingualism is all about precisely for the reasons you describe in your question: multilinguals need to be able to function normally among relatives, friends and workmates who happen to use different languages. Multilingualism is natural in your environment, and so is the use of different languages by the same person. You and your husband know this, and your girl will learn it the same way that you did, through experiencing everyday, real-life multilingualism. After all, if you want your child to become multilingual, there is no reason to avoid exposing her to multilingual adults, yourselves included.

It is also fine for you and your husband to go on using mostly Portuguese and English with your daughter. This will show her that these two languages are important to you parents, and so important to her too. Switching languages or speaking several languages is not confusing to a child. This is what goes on in all multilingual communities around the world – it may reassure you to know that multilinguals outnumber monolinguals, worldwide.

Language mixes (French and Portuguese into English, or vice versa) are not confusing either, so you don’t need to worry about keeping your languages “pure”, as you say. World languages like the ones in your environment are in fact typically mixed, because the people who use them have moved around and go on moving around for different reasons, like you and your husband, naturally borrowing and lending words and expressions in the process. If you feel that you need to “make the effort” to use your languages in special ways, don’t: language uses in a family should come naturally.

Here is a mix for you, just because I think it sounds better in Portuguese: um abraço para si.

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: beingmultilingual.com.

Disclaimer: This post and the comments provided below have been provided for informational and entertainment purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any professional financial, medical, legal, or other advice. This post has been published with the full consent of the author. The author has agreed to Madalena Cruz-Ferreira answering the Ask Madalena question publicly as well as readers leaving comments in the comment section below. Multilingual Living makes no representations or warranties and expressly disclaims any and all liability concerning any treatment or action by any person following the information offered or provided within or through this and any other information on this website. If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional or medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist. Please read our Terms of Use for more detail or contact us with any questions.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Tetsu July 24, 2010 at 1:56 am

Fully agree with Madalena! I grew up using 5 completely diff languages and acquired others to fluency later on.

I’m not confused…I think… 🙂

For example, pls visit my blog (with video).

Thanks Madalena for a wonderful post!



2 Corey July 30, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Thank you for your comment, Tetsu! It is always a delight to hear from others who are living their multilingualism fully! I checked out your blog – wow, you weren’t kidding about being multilingual. I’m very envious.

Madalena’s comments always inspire me as they encourage us to follow our deepest intuition and guidance. How silly it would be for someone who is bilingual or multilingual to be expected to choose just one language to speak with his/her kids. If someone WANTS to do that, then that is one thing. But if that doesn’t come naturally then it is for a great reason: because it is not who we are.

So glad to be in contact! I’m sure Madalena will enjoy reading your comment as well!


3 The Globetrotter Parent July 26, 2010 at 4:48 am

I would diverge with Madalena’s view on one point: I think that using more than one language at home is fine but I would be consistent about which language is used in which context. I have seen cases of children as old as age 4 or 5 unable to put a complete sentence together in any one language (in other words, semilingual) because their language environment is completely mixed.

So for example, when you are alone with your daughter, stick to Portuguese and speak to her exclusively in Portuguese. No English or French. When you are with your husband, change to English if you are more comfortable that way. When you are out and about with other people, speak in French.

Children understand very quickly that different languages are used in different contexts.


4 Corey July 30, 2010 at 10:21 pm

Thank you for this recommendation! I’ve always been fascinated with the difference between families where parents mix languages mid-sentence vs. those that keep them separate for each sentence. This seems to have a big impact as well. I am also fascinated with reports about the differences between young children who are at home and have most input from parents vs once they get older and have more examples from other kids and adults in different communities. Multilinguals are always adjusting and adapting – so fabulous!

Thanks for even more food for thought in this comment!


5 Susan C. H. Siu August 26, 2010 at 9:31 am

Hi Everyone,

I think that whether consistency-in-context is necessary or desirable depends on the child and on the situation. I am fairly inconsistent in the ways that I use our three family languages (French, Chinese, and English) with our children, and although they will mix languages at home, they really do know which is which and never use a non-English word when speaking with a monolingual English speaker. This might not be the case if their environment outside the home were as “mixed” as their home environment, but of the many multilingual speakers I know, only one was unable to consciously control her language mixing–she grew up in a community where everyone spoke the same mixture of French and English–and she quickly learned to separate French and English once she was required to by a move to a different town and school (a French school in an English-speaking town).

I have, however, known several multilingual people who never learned ANY language with the proficiency that an adult native speaker normally achieves due to immigration. My husband is one of these people. He grew up speaking several Chinese dialects and then moved from Hong Kong to the United States at around eleven years of age–just about when it becomes more difficult to learn a new language–and was still surrounded almost exclusively by other Chinese-speaking people for several years after his arrival in Philadelphia. As a high-school student, he switched to speaking English nearly exclusively and lost some of his Chinese-language proficiency. Now he feels much more comfortable speaking English than Chinese but has retained some obvious non-native characteristics in his English speech (he still doesn’t form plurals correctly, for instance). So I do agree that it is possible for a multi-lingual person to be unable to speak any language fully.

My advice would be to simply listen to your children, and if they mix their languages to the point that they cannot put together a sentence in one or that they use their different languages in inappropriate contexts, then perhaps it would be time to try for more consistency.


6 Corey August 30, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Thank you for this comment, Susan! What is interesting is our degree of expectation of “native speaker.” When I listen to American speakers from the “deep south” of the US, I realize how different our definitions of “native speaker” really are – I can hardly understand them due to different accent, vocabulary and sentence structure. I think we often have a standard against which a given culture is compared. I am fascinated with the different Spanish pronunciations right now as we do our Language Challenge 101 adventure! My husband and I realize that we need to pick one pronunciation (Spain vs Latin America seem to be the two big ones) and just stick with it. I really enjoy the fact that there is this diversity because in the end it is about connecting and communication – exactly what it should be about.

I totally agree with what you said: if our children are mixing everything over an extended period of time (initially our children should be given the chance to mix and match) then it wouldn’t hurt to expose them to situations where only one or the other language is spoken. It doesn’t take much – story time, other families, friends, etc. I love the fact that we can pick up language from being surrounded by it!


7 areacode514 August 3, 2010 at 5:00 am

I agree with Madalena and would like to add that it’s expected that children will likely make some mixed sentences that combine words in different languages.
Then, when they get funny stares from their friends or other people around them who only speak one language, they will come to learn which words are part of one language and which are part of the other. It’s all part of the learning process.
Enjoy watching them learn!


8 Corey August 16, 2010 at 10:48 pm

Thank you for your comment! You are so right about it all being part of the learning process. We can’t go from A to Z without practice and time (in anything)! It is amazing how many others think our kids should be able to speak all of their languages perfectly right off the bat!


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