We Are Relocating. Can I Change to Another Language with My Bilingual Child?

by expert · 2 comments

Dear Madalena

We are a bilingual (Japanese-English) family living in Tokyo raising our three boys age 3 years old, and 4 months old twins. Our children were all born in Tokyo. We use OPOL at home and I speak to my children in English, but as my three year old attends Japanese daycare from 9:00 – 4:30 daily, his speaking is almost all in Japanese for now.

We are planning to relocate back to New Zealand (my country) in around 18 months time. At that time I feel there is a real risk that my son could eventually stop speaking Japanese as there will be little Japanese language input in his life other than from my husband, plus he will start school in English.

For that reason, I am considering switching to the minority language at home method, since I am a fluent Japanese speaker.

I was wondering if there are any problems with changing the language spoken to one’s children in this way? My older son will be around four and a half by the time we relocate.

While we are thinking of making Japanese our “home language”, there are certain things that I am not willing to give up in English – eg. story reading, and I plan to speak English when I am around other English speakers, just as I currently speak to my son in Japanese when there are others present who don’t speak English.

I would appreciate any advice!



Madalena’s answer:

Dear Rachel,

You are right in saying that the language of schooling tends to become a preferred language. You are also right in considering a change in your home language policy, in order to nurture your children’s multilingualism.

Switching language policies is no problem for children, so long as this is done in a way that makes sense to them. Your big boy will experience the move to New Zealand as a significant change in his life (just like you!), and exposure to all sorts of new things will be part of this, language uses included. His new school will also “speak” a different language from the one his current school does, and so will his new friends.

I am sure that your boy knows that you speak Japanese, so the new thing for him here will be that you will use Japanese with him. This is no problem at all – perhaps you have even already done so, without noticing it? Using other languages than the one I thought I always used to my children certainly happened to me, and I realised this only when I reviewed tape recordings of our interactions.

One interesting thing about multilinguals is that we often cannot tell in which language people spoke to us, or we read or heard something. We register the happening, not the tool used to encode it. Changing linguistic tools will be part of the coming change in your children’s lives. So you can do exactly what you suggest and use both your languages to them in the way you describe.

After all, you want them to grow up multilingual, and you will be giving them the perfect role model by doing so: you.

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.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 tetsu December 3, 2010 at 6:33 pm


I’ve had folks change languages all the time while growing up. I’ve had no problems to this day…. in fact, it’s done me wonderful things… hmmm… I think… 😉 well, why don’t you check it out for yourself at:


…and see if you like what could be awaiting for your children if you simply give them as much exposure to various languages while they’re young?

Hopefully you like it, because I can’t thank my parents enough for what they’ve done for me, and I am sure that your children will also feel that way later!

Best wishes.


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