Should you speak your native language with your children?



A few years ago, I received an email from an English friend who had moved to Canada with his Dutch wife, where they had had a little son. Our friend was worried about his child’s language development:

I need to pick your brains on raising bilingual children. Right now, Jeroen is exposed to more Dutch than English as Anniek is at home with him during the day. If we stay in Canada, I’m concerned that he’ll be behind with his English when he starts school. Should we flip the balance and speak more English at this point?

This, of course, is a worry for many bilingual parents, and many people seem to believe that it is important to speak the language of the country with children, in order to give them the chance to integrate properly. We therefore often encounter demands by politicians that migrant families should use this language in the home.

One such demand was made by the German party CSU, coalition partner in chancellor Merkel’s government, in November 2014. The press release happened to go out on a Friday afternoon around 5pm, and all over Germany, linguists frantically spent the weekend writing opinion pieces, declarations and articles showing why this was entirely wrong. Astonishingly, come Monday morning, we all found we had said exactly the same things (here is a text in English):

  • In order to learn a language, children need to be exposed to it. It is vital, however, that the language they hear conforms to grammatical rules (consider the example of the German couple in Casablance cited here).

    For example, consider a simple grammatical rule: in English, where the subject of the sentence is in the third person singular (he, she, Richard, the table, the dog), present-tense verbs take the affix -s: the dog barks, Richard eats and so on. In all other cases, there is no -s (the dogs bark, we eat).
    Second-language learners struggle with this rule, and even advanced learners can get it wrong more often than right.
    If your use of English with your child is full of such errors, how is she or he to learn the rule?
  • It is very important that by the time a child starts school and begins to read and write, she or he should possess one language fully and age-appropriately. It matters much less what this language is. Several studies have shown that the best predictor for academic success among children from migrant
    backgrounds is how well they know the home language when they reach school age.
  • We communicate best and are most in touch with our emotions in the language that we speak best. It is very important for the emotional bond between parent and child that this should be the language they use.

In any case, a very good test is probably what the people who are experts in these matters do themselves: I personally do not know any linguist who has the opportunity to raise their own children bilingually and does not do so.

Oh, and when I wrote to ask my friend’s permission to use his email on this page, he proudly told me that little Jeroen is by now perfectly bilingual – as is his new baby brother.