I am a Dane. I can speak 6 languages and I currently live in China with my Chinese wife (we speak English at home). We are pregnant and I am so confused regarding how to go about this bilingual issue.
We are planning to stay in China for at least 6-7 years more but after than we’d like to go back to Denmark. I think our childs’ first language should and will be Chinese but I am at a loss for whether to speak English or Danish with him/her at home.
English is of course much more useful but we hope the kid can take his primary school education in Denmark, so do you think it would it be for the best to go with Chinese/Danish or Chinese/English? I want to point out that I don’t know any other Danes around these parts so my child wouldn’t be using Danish apart from with me and when speaking to family back in Denmark.
Any advice for a bewildered soon-to-be parent?
Languages are useful, as you say, but for particular purposes at particular times. Learning one language from birth doesn’t mean that that language will be acquired once and for all. Similarly, not learning a language from birth doesn’t mean that that language will be lost to the child forever. What matters is whether, when and how languages matter for the user. They will be learned accordingly.
From what you say, three languages will matter to your child in the near future, although I was not sure what you meant about your child’s “first” language. If “first language” comes “first”, then your child will have at least two first languages, one from you and one from your wife. Being the only Danish speaker around your child is not a problem. You may be reassured to know that my children acquired Portuguese from me in this way too, in Hong Kong and Singapore, well up to their late teens. I see no problem in your child’s learning of English either. Whether you use it with the child or not, chances are s/he will pick it up from mum and dad’s use of it with each other.
So you can choose whichever language comes naturally to you, to use with your little one(s). You can also choose to use both Danish and English: many multilingual parents like you do exactly this with their children. There is no obligation to use only one language with one’s children, if you’re multilingual.
Here’s my guess: the minute you hold your child in your arms for the first time, you will know exactly how to use your language(s) with him/her. These things don’t require much planning (or worry). They just flow naturally, and this is precisely why children adapt to them with no problem.
Tillykke med flersprogligheden!
Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.