Should I Change Language Strategies Due to Language Limits?

by expert · 1 comment

I’ve become concerned with the strategy my wife and I have taken with our son.

Here is some background: Our son is 21 months old. My wife and I live in Canada and speak English with one another, this is our primary language. Our cultural background is Greek. Both sets of parents speak Greek fluently.

We decided we wanted our son to learn Greek and therefore have been speaking to him in Greek since his first days. Our parents also speak Greek to our son. We figured our son would learn English eventually when he gets to preschool (10 months from now at the age of 31 months). A family friend took the same approach with their daughters and it worked great.

My Greek is not very strong, maybe a 5 out of 10. My wife’s Greek is stronger, maybe 8 out of 10. Compared to our parents who are 10/10. Our son spends 4 days a week with our parents, approx 7 hours per day, 28 hours per week. Our son understands only Greek (we have not spoken to him in English).

I feel as though I’ve hit my limit on what I can teach my son, in the Greek language. Was it wrong to take this approach? Should we not have been speaking English to one another in front of him? Should I begin speaking to my son exclusively in English while my wife speaks to him in Greek? We have another baby on the way. We are confused and would appreciate any insight.

Thank You,

Madalena’s answer:

Dear George,

Choices of language use with our children are never wrong, when the choices come naturally. This was clearly the case for your choice of Greek with your son, up to now.

If you now feel, as I understand it, that you will have to force yourself to go on using Greek with him, then don’t. Nobody forced you to use this language in the first place, and there is no reason why you should go on using it just because you’ve done it so far. I’m sure you also played with nursery toys once upon a time and don’t do it any more (except perhaps to play with your boy!). Things evolve according to circumstances and need, and so do language uses. Languages do not have decision power over people. They are tools that we use as and when we need them, and we decide about them. So you can change language policy at home, whenever you deem it is right to do so.

Any of the strategies that you suggest are fine, whether you and your wife go on using English to one another, or you start using English with your son. Or both. You and your wife can also use both your languages with him: nobody forces parents to use a single language with their children either. You decide. The only thing that matters is that you use your languages naturally. Children are very sensitive to contrived behaviour around them, linguistic or other. Your boy, and his new sibling, will have no problem working out which languages go together with what, and adapting to who uses which languages with whom. All multilinguals do so.

You may even come to realise that your son understands a lot more English than you think: he’s heard it in the home, from you and your wife (and surely from the media), and he’s heard it all around him, outside the home. In time, and because of schooling in English, it may well happen that English will become your children’s peer language, so be prepared. This is what happened in my own family, where my husband and I use two other languages with our children.

I have to add one comment: I think it is wonderful that the grandparents are involved in nurturing your children’s language development.

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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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Antonia April 18, 2011 at 7:27 am

George – maybe you could use Greek in certain situations with your boy and English in others and then you won’t feel your wings are clipped linguistically speaking! For example you could always speak Greek from when you get up in the morning until you drop him off at school and then there will a natural starting and ending point. Or you could do as Madalena says and use both. You might feel strange mixing the languages but just try not to mix them in the same sentence and all will be well in the long run!
You could also try to improve your own Greek so that you progress as he does.
Good luck


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