Against the common advice, backed up by countless research that states that parents should speak their L1 – first language – with their children, it is time to explain why this is not always the best solution for multilingual parents. I think there is an important misunderstanding leading to many parents doubting about the decisions they are making. But let’s start with explaining what is meant by L1 and how this differs for multilinguals.
L1 is, chronologically speaking, the language we acquired/learned first. It is the language some still call mother-tongue, and which can also be our native language – if our level of fluency is (nearly)native.
For multilinguals, their first language or L1 is not always the one they feel most comfortable speaking, reading, writing in. Not everyone who grows up with multiple languages will obtain and maintain the highest level of fluency in their L1.
This is very obvious in the case of those who were adopted at a very early age. Adoptees can loose their L1 if it is not supported and fostered by their new parents. Depending on their age when they were adopted, and on their language development stage in their L1 at that time, they might only have a receptive (some call it “passive”) knowledge of the language, i.e. they might have understood it, but weren’t verbal yet, or were about to speak.
Fact is that the level of fluency in L1 for those who grew up with more than one home language, and live and work in another language, can fluctuate, and this can also happen to simultaneous and sequential (and a combination of both, considering the amount of languages they have learned) bi-/multilinguals too.
Let’s make an example*:
Laura who grew up with Italian and German in Germany, learns French at age 6, English at age 11 and later Spanish, Portuguese and Greek. After studying in Italy, she moved to Spain where she works in a Spanish company. Her partner, Davide, is Portuguese and British, and they speak Italian, Spanish, English and Portuguese together. They then move to the Netherlands, where they both speak English every day at work and in the international community. Of course, they learn Dutch too. – Do you find this unusual? Well, this scenario is not that uncommon! I work with many internationals who have such a scenario; they grew up with two or more languages and added several more during their life, studies and work in different countries.
I mentioned that language fluency and dominance changes over time. In fact, we tend to invest more time and energy in the language we need for social contacts, school and work, especially when this language is not our L1 (chronologically speaking). If we grew up with multiple languages we may prefer another language than L1 to speak with our partner and colleagues.
In the example above, Laura has experienced three language shifts.
- German was her most dominant language while living in Germany as a child
- Italian was her most dominant language when she studied in Italy
- Spanish was the language she was using on a daily basis at work and in the community for several years
- Now that she lives in the Netherlands, English is the language she speaks, reads and writes on a daily basis
These language shifts have an important impact on multilinguals and their families.
The most common question I get asked from multilingual parents is: what language should I speak with my child?
Let’s go back to Laura: while living in the Netherlands, she gives birth to a son. Laura and Davide are not sure what languages to speak with their son: should Laura speak German (her mothers’ language) or Italian (her fathers’ language) with him; and Davide, should he speak Portuguese (his father’s language) or English (his mothers’ language) with their son? And what about Spanish? Spanish is the language Laura and Davide worked in for a long time and it is the language that is most spontaneous for both and they are very competent in it…
Considering the most common interpretation of research on this matter, Laura and Davide should both speak their L1 or native language with their son.
For Laura this would be German and/or Italian, for Davide Portuguese and/or English, as these were the languages both parents acquired during their first years of life and these are the languages of their extended families.
- But are these the languages Laura and Davide feel more comfortable with?
- Are these the languages they are, at that moment of their life, the most competent or proficient in?
Laura told me that Spanish is the language she likes the most. It’s the language she spontaneously spoke with her son when he was born. Should she switch to German and Italian though? And Davide? He hesitates between Spanish and Portuguese.
What needs to be very clear not only when choosing the language to speak with our children, but also when filling in application forms in daycares and schools: make sure to clearly state what language is the most dominant for you, as a person/parent, at this moment and phase of your life, and what language you are most competent and confident in: this would be your L1.
Research says that one should speak the native language to children also because of the emotional bond that is apparently stronger in our native language than in any other language.
This is where we need to further investigate the research on the matter. The research in question was conducted with people using foreign languages in a given situation and compared with the way native speakers would react.
But what was their level of fluency in those languages, how confident were they when they used that “other” language? Was this other language a language they just learned as additional language to one or more other languages they knew before? What was the emotional and cultural bond they had with those languages? Were they using the “other” language with their partners too? – There are so many parameters that were not explained and taken into consideration in that study (or at least it was not shared overtly), who could have given another outcome than the one we now consider important when choosing the language to speak with our children. – Please don’t get me wrong: we should choose the language we feel most comfortable expressing our feelings in; but this is not necessarily the chronologically speaking “first language” or L1, “native language” in the common use of the term!
Couples who communicate in their 3rd or 4th language with each other and who made that language their emotional language, following this study, could not have a strong emotional bond with their partner because they speak in another language than their native language or L1.
Again, we have to define L1 as the language we are most confident and competent in, the one we have gained a nearly-native fluency; this can be also another language than the language we acquired first, chronologically speaking!
Therefore I suggest multilingual parents who attained a high level of fluency in a language and feel comfortable expressing their feelings and emotions in it, and can be spontaneous in it, maybe even know nursery rhymes and lullabies in that language – or are willing to learn them! – to consider that as the language to speak with their children. As the language we speak with our children from day one is the one that we build an emotional bond with them, it is extremely important to think about possible scenarios in the future: will we always (!) feel comfortable to speak that language as the primary language with our children?
But what if we speak one language with our partner and would like to speak another one with our children?
That is a very common situation in multilingual couples. It is the base for the OPOL (One Person One Language) and the 2P2L (Two Persons Two Languages) strategies.
When I work with multilingual couples who wonder what language to speak with their children, I start with assessing their language situation, the past, the present and the foreseeable future, and I ask them a (long!) series of questions. We usually have several sessions over a longer period of time to make sure that they take long term oriented decisions. Furthermore, they get to experience different strategies and asses themselves before taking a decision.
Here are some standard questions I start with:
- What is the language you would choose to speak spontaneously with your child?
- What makes you doubt that this language might NOT be the right one to choose?
- What language would your child need to be speaking with your parents & extended family?
- Is it possible that your parents & extended family would speak another language with your child? Which one?
- How comfortable do you feel (from 0 to 10) speaking this language with your child?
- Do you know some nursery rhymes etc. in that language(s)?
Most multilingual parents want their children to grow up with as many languages as possible. Their first priority is for their children to “have more chances later in life”, and opt for more prestigious languages like English, French, Spanish, German etc. if these are in their repertoire, especially when one of the parents’ languages is a minoritized one. For example, instead of speaking Farsi with their children, they would opt for English, instead of Swiss German, they would prefer German etc.
Some further questions I ask are:
- What languages they speak, read and write on a regular – preferably daily (!) – basis
- If there will be any changes in their language use in the next 5 years
- What short and longterm goals look like with regards of living in that country, working for that company, using that language on a daily basis etc.
- What their short and longterm goals are with regards to their children’s language fluency (understanding, speaking, reading, writing) in all their languages
My main focus is on what languages parents are more comfortable speaking with their children as it is preferably** the language they will be sharing with them throughout their whole life.
If parents can not or do not want to reactivate a language they have not spoken on a daily basis for a long time – and this can be their first language chronologically speaking – it might be less dominant than their L2/3/4 etc. and, as a consequence, they won’t feel comfortable using it on a daily basis with their child. Asking them to speak it with their children would feel like a burden and they would need to put extra effort into it. The attempt to re-animate a “dormant” language can be successful, but only if there is a real need for the parent to do so. If for example the family is living or is going to move to a country where this language is the community language, or if the parent works in that language.
The time and effort the parent puts into re-activating a language can be too overwhelming if the situation and context are not supportive, and eventually lead to frustration, self-doubt and guilt and possibly failure.
When we become parents we tend to question which language would be most important for our children to learn.
We think about the importance for our children to understand their grand parents and our extended family, to succeed in the society and community we live in, and later academically. – Generally speaking, if a language becomes less important in our life and it would not be a spontaneous and natural choice to use that language with our children, we should consider alternative solutions.
Please don’t get me wrong: I am a convinced and avid defender of heritage/home language maintenance – but not at every cost!
The reason I do what I do as an Independent Language Consultant is that every family language situation is different and every family deserves a personalized solution, and that is the advice and support they get from me.
When it comes to decide what language to speak to our children we should decide consciously, considering the pros and cons about what is best and most natural for us.
I work with many multilingual parents who face this kind of situation and who very often find themselves discussing about the importance of their heritage languages and the importance for their family to find one, maybe two, languages to speak with their children and to each other.
Why two, or only two languages?
Because in the long run, many multilingual families – I might say “most multilingual families” – will find it too much to keep up with 4 languages at home, especially when their children are schooled in an additional 5th or even 6th language! Like a parent said to me, juggling 6 languages in one family feels like “having a UN situation at home”. It might sound interesting and exciting at first, but it is very difficult to maintain.
Laura and Davide both speak each others’ languages, which is not always the case in multilingual couples. They have the imbarazzo della scelta: they can choose whatever language combination they want. The most important aspect for them to consider is what their son will need to be able to speak and to what level of fluency in the setting they are right now and in the next 10ish years.
Did Laura’s and David’s language situation seem complicated to you? It really is not. It is a typical situation for so many cross-cultural couples who live internationally.
The most complex situation I had to work with was the one of a family that had 8 family languages, 6 children, 6 parents – yes, a patchwork family – with 2 community languages, and the parents/couples living in three different countries.
But let’s go back to Laura and Davide’s family. So, Laura and Davide speak Spanish with each other when their first child is born. Laura speaks mainly Italian with the child, but speaks also Spanish when they are all together as a family, while Davide speaks Portuguese with him and Spanish, like Laura. Instead of OPOL (One Person One Language) they use the 2P2L (Two Persons Two Languages) strategy combined with T&P (Time and Place), which allows them to focus on one language in one-on-one situations and add the other one at specific occasions at home (and outside home).
When their son starts attending daycare in Dutch they also welcome Dutch at home, for specific situations. – When 3 years later a daughter is born, they decide to maintain the same languages at home, until they realize two years later, that their children prefer speaking Dutch with each other, the language of the community and that they speak with their peers. And, just to complicate it a bit more: the whole family is about to move to Germany…
You can imagine that Laura and Davide wonder what to do next. How can they make sure their children will maintain their home languages – Spanish, Italian and Portuguese – and what will happen to Dutch when they move to Germany?
Laura doubts if her first decision was the right one or not, because maybe choosing to speak German with her son from the beginning would have been the “better” option.
Fact is that they couldn’t foresee what would happen and all the decisions they took were right for them, at those moments. Laura and Davide have set a very clear base of languages in their family and they will continue building on that. Changing the foundation of a house that we are building is never advisable, and neither it is to change the family or home language!
The advantage of this young multilingual family is that their extended family speaks German with their children and this will surely help them adjust to their new life in Germany.
Life with multiple languages is never straight forward, it is never easy and clear from the beginning. It is a journey. And like for every kind of journey, Laura and Davide will need to readjust the sails. And they do!
If you are a multilingual parent, what language did you choose to speak with your children?
Have you maintained the same language throughout the years or did you change it, or add another one? If so, I would love to know when and what made you change.
Please let me know in the comments!
If you would rather prefer talking about this in person, book a free consultation with me.
Language Shift in Multilinguals
* I have changed the names of the parents.
**I say “preferably” because, like in all multilingual families, it can happen that the home language or the language one parent speaks with the children will change. It is not very healthy for the connection between parent and child, but it can happen, usually because of outer circumstances.
© Ute Limacher-Riebold 2020