Can We Switch to Another Language When Family & Friends Are Around?

by expert · 7 comments

I am the mother of a 14 month old who is being raised bilingually. I am a native English speaker (American) but speak Armenian fluently and my husband is a native Armenian speaker. We both speak Armenian to our daughter.

We had planned to speak English to her when my parents and other English speakers were around but we’ve noticed that even though she understands Armenian and says many Armenian words, she often uses English words when they seem “easier” than the Armenian equivalent. Is this fairly normal for a bilingual child? Do we need to speak Armenian with her even when there are English-only speakers present?

I worry about her continuing to speak Armenian as she gets older and want to try to provide the best foundation we can for her. It’s probably too early to start worrying, but I’m a mom, it’s my job! 🙂

Thank you for your time and consideration of my question.


Dear Colleen,

From what you say, I gather two things. First, your daughter is well aware that both Armenian and English are languages that matter to her: she can understand and use both. Second, that your worry concerns her eventually losing Armenian. I also presume your worry comes from your family living in an English-speaking country, although you don’t say this.

You can use your two family languages in the way you choose. If you fear that Armenian may be at risk, as it were, go on using it to your girl. She will understand that this is the language that mum and dad use to her, and she will respond accordingly. If you want to switch to English with her when English-only speakers are around, you can do this too.

There is no problem whatsoever in using different languages to a child. This is what happens in multilingual countries all over the world, and your girl will understand that mum and dad use English with her when specific people are around. This is what being multilingual is all about, using different languages for different purposes and with different people.

Your daughter’s use of easier words in one of her languages is typical of multilingual children, and typical of any child. All children create their own baby-words, and other ways of dealing with language difficulties, because small children have yet to develop sophisticated pronunciation and language abilities. They’re learning. Have a look at this Ask-a-Linguist FAQ, where I explain children’s language acquisition strategies.

My children also chose the easier words among their languages, when they started speaking, as I report in my book Three is a crowd?. In fact, we all do the same thing, at any age: monolinguals too, when they choose “easy” words like “thingamajig” or “thingy.” The difference is that multilinguals have the choice to do it in different 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:

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.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Caroline March 24, 2011 at 1:58 pm

From what I have observed, kids whose parents switch to the dominant language when friends or family are around are more likely to respond to the parents only in the dominant language in the long run, and end up being only passively bililngual (i.e., they have fluent comprehension but can’t speak the language). This is not surprising given that 1) every time you switch to the dominant language, exposure to the minority language is further reduced and 2) the child fully understands that the parent is willing to speak to the child in the majority language so why make the effort to speak in the less-used language.


2 Mich March 24, 2011 at 4:41 pm

What we do here – as a single parent, only french speaker, french second language, in a minority context is I flip back and forth consistently and continuously. So I speak to the English speakers in English, but I speak to and insist on french with my children, repeating in English for the other person, where necessary.

It means that I am often speaking twice as much… but by insisting on this, they have picked up that it is okay to switch to french to speak to mom… and they will translate for the other people too.
It is really cute to see my son now 3½ to translate for my mother so that she knows what I told him. Even if he does mangle the english a little! 🙂


3 Tess March 25, 2011 at 6:39 am

My children are now 10 and 12 and I was being stubborn and a bit rude and did not switch to the dominant language among others, when speaking directly to my child/children. Sometimes I explained to the others what I said. I think it is important to be stubborn, especially when the children are younger. Now that they are older I use the dominant language (English) when my child/children are among their friends, but not when we have adult guests at home. Just try to use your language as much as possible, in as many situations as possible. My children have with time become quite good translators to their friends or our friends. 😉


4 BookishIma March 25, 2011 at 9:39 am

I do the same as Mich, in all situations. When I address my child, it is always in the minority language. If necessary I repeat in the dominant language for others. We do OPOL (my husband doesn’t speak the minority language) and so when I address my husband, I of course speak with him in the dominant language. In a group of mixed-language adults we speak to one another in the language everyone can understand. So, my son hears it and knows that I speak it. However, every single time I talk to my child, it is in the minority language. I also don’t read to him in the dominant language; I will spontaneously translate stories if he requests them. I do not respond to anything he says in the majority language. It sounds strict, but to us it is perfectly natural. My son seems to genuinely enjoy both languages, likes wordplay, and is very verbal. So far (he is 3.5) he has never tried to speak to me in the majority language. I know some adults find it rude or off-putting but it is too important for me to compromise on.


5 Anke March 26, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Our daughter is now 21 months old and growing up with three languages – German (mum), Spanish (dad) and English (environment, nursery). She mixes all three of her languages when trying to get across what she wants – after all that’s hard enough if you only speak in two word sentences! So I do think the most important thing is for her to be able to communicate and be understood. This is why I will respond to what she says, no matter the language. However, I only talk to her/respond in German. When others are around, I find myself translating whatever I am saying to my daughter in German – to English or Spanish, so noone feels left out. I think the important task of language(s) is to bring people closer together, not to let anyone feel left out. So far, I have only had positive feedback from outsiders.


6 Daphne March 30, 2011 at 7:37 am

I second Caroline’s experience. I am the sole speaker of our minority language, and try to speak it to my kids regardless of context. Sometimes I translate to others, but rarely.


7 Antonia April 16, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Colleen – you need to ask yourself why you are speaking English to your daugther when your parents or other non-Armenian speakers are around – is it so they don’t feel left out? If so, is that more important to you than your daughter’s bilingualism?
As others have said here the solution is simple, (if a little tiring and hard on the throat!) – just say everything that you say to your daughter twice, once in Armenian and then repeat it in English for the benefit of the non-Armenian speakers in the room. You don’t have to repeat everything, only if you think they need to know what you were saying. It is tiring, but it does work. The important thing is that you continue to speak Armenian to your daughter. If you switch to English in some situations you might give her the message that Armenian is a very private language that she only shares with you and her father, which it is but not to the extent that it should go ‘underground’ every time non-Armenians are around! Good luck!


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: