Bringing up a Child in a Non-Native Language

Lynn Schreiber
Is it possible to bring up a child speaking a language that is non-native to either parent?
The global population is becoming increasingly mobile, and it’s not unusual for a family to consist of parents speaking two languages, sometimes even living in a country where a third language is spoken. Sometimes it might even be the wish for a child to learn a third language, that the parents feel will be beneficial to their development and future career.
Let’s take an example – one parent is from Germany, the other parent from Venezuela. They meet and fall in love in Paris, but don’t speak each other’s language, so talk to each other in English, even though neither of them are native speakers. What language should they speak to their child? Or consider the case of a couple from Slovenia. Both are Slovenian, the native language of both is Slovenian, but one speaks English to a very high standard. They decide to bring up their child speaking English.
I spoke to Millie Slavidou, Jump! writer, linguist and mother of bilingual children to find out what she thinks about bringing up a child in a non-native language.

Hi, Millie and thank you for joining me to discuss this topic. Do you think it’s possible to 1bring up a child in a non-native language?


2I think it is possible, but that many parents don’t realise how much work it is going to be. It’s a lot when it is your own language and you are pretty dedicated, like me.

Admittedly, I am teaching mine Italian, but as a foreign language, through the medium of English. And they understand that it is a foreign language. My enthusiasm must be catching though – they think it’s fun so far!


1As we both know, bringing up children bilingual isn’t easy, even when you speak the target language fluently. What should parents take into consideration, if they aren’t native speakers? 


2This is not a simple matter. There is a lot to think about.  Firstly, what are you hoping to gain? What are your reasons for trying? You will need to be very motivated, and if you don’t have a strong reason to keep you dedicated, you may forget and lose your way. It’s no good just speaking the target language whenever you remember: this is a round-the-clock effort.

So what are your motivations? Do you just want your child to learn the language? Or do you want them to feel that they are part of the culture of the language? This is very difficult even for  native speaker who does not live in the country of the language: for a non-native speaker to pass on a culture is an enormous task, and it will take a lot of tireless effort.

Perhaps you are hoping simply to enable your child to pass exams more easily, which is much more easily achievable by a non-native speaker. In this case, you will lay the foundations by speaking the target language, and fill in gaps later on with appropriate books. You may feel you can take a more relaxed approach.

Do you want the language to be a real, living thing for your children, a major part of their lives? If so, you may be disappointed if they don’t achieve the same fluency as a native speaker brought up in that linguistic community, so you must consider your ambitions very carefully before starting out.

Whatever your reasons, be prepared to defend them. You will be given unsolicited opinions and advice from all sides, and not all of it positive. Some people may consider you mad or cruel and overly pushy towards your children. Forewarned is forearmed: be aware and prepare yourself mentally to deal with it.

Once you have thought about your reasoning, the next step is consider your own language level. Are you fluent? Do you have gaps in your vocabulary that you will need to fill? For example, there was a lot of baby-related vocabulary that I didn’t know in the community language before I had children, from baby-wipes to dummies, from co-sleeping to nursing-bra. And then they started school and there were other areas of vocabulary, as well as cultural references known by all the other children, such as nursery rhymes, well-loved tales and songs, popular games.

Apart from specific areas of vocabulary, you may be more used to using your non-native language in a professional, business environment, or it may not even have left the classroom for you. To make this work with your children, it needs to become a home language. You need to be comfortable with it, not merely proficient.


1 There really is a lot to consider. I recall going to a playgroup in UK and not knowing the songs. I could have sung all the typical German songs though! 

 Just how good does the parent’s grasp of the language have to be, to enable them to bring up their child speaking that language?


2I have met non-natives who speak excellent English – but none have the same command, range of vocabulary and ease of expression that I have. That is not a boast, it is a fact. I also speak excellent, fluent Greek, but I am not a native speaker.

There are often very tiny points, things that non-natives say that give the game away. These are not always grammatical errors. Sometimes they are turns of phrase that a native speaker would be unlikely to use, words in not quite the right context. Perhaps not everyone would notice, but there you are.

Also, can you imagine using expressions of love and tenderness towards your children in a foreign language, no matter how well you knew it? I sometimes use some terms of endearment in another language with my children, but the terms in question are not foreign to me, and never have been, due to my own multilingual background.


1Hmm. I do use German when speaking to the kids. Even when cuddling and using endearments. Saying that, I agree that a non-native speaker can never be completely fluent. And I’m as fluent as someone could get in German. Other than my grammar, which I should actually get you to teach me! I never did get around to learning it. 


2Good idea! I do know more about German grammar than vocabulary! I never use Greek endearments. Perhaps because I am too busy using Welsh and Italian ones!


1I like using German ‘ich hab dich lieb’, with the kids. It’s slightly less formal than ‘I love you’, and I think it’s easier for kids to say in return, particularly when they are in their teens. It’s somehow less scary.


2Ah, that must be like ti voglio bene in Italian, it’s a similar thing rather than ti amo with your children.


1I speak a non-native language to my children some of the time, but it’s the language of my husband and one I speak very well. If it were only me speaking German, not their father, they’d miss out on so much of the flavour of the language.

I see it like a recipe. You add meat and potatoes (vocabulary and words) but without the accompanying spices (cultural understanding and idioms), the meal will taste bland. It’s missing vital components.

I’m very immersed in German and so it doesn’t feel odd to say ‘ich hab dich lieb’, to my kids. It would feel very odd to say it in French or Italian.

And it’s not so much the vocabulary or grammar, but the missing cultural references that I notice. Like when someone asked if we had products featuring Biene Maia, and my colleagues were astounded I didn’t know who Biene Maia was. It’s like not knowing the Wombles, or Bagpuss!


2I know exactly what you mean – for us it was Ach Kounelaki. I have given them books/ tv programmes in both cultural worlds as much as possible – and enlisted my sister-in-law to help choose the Greek children’s books.

Regarding cultural references – Of course I am fluent in Greek, but there are old black and white films I have never seen (or whatever), and they are well known. People sometimes come out with expressions from them, or mention the lead character or something. Obviously I don’t get those.

But then my husband was stumped at my brother’s Blackadder references and his puns.


1 A bit like me, when Germans would ask me about Dinner for One. It’s a TV show that is traditionally shown every NYE, a short sketch of an elderly English woman and her butler having dinner. They speak English during the entire sketch, and many Germans think it is a well-known British show. People would say the punchline ‘Same procedure as every year, Miss Sophie!’ to me, and I wouldn’t get the joke!


2Ha! I bet that makes you feel awkward. Humour is of course an enormous area of cultural reference that’s a problem for non-natives. And although I understand it, I just do not find a lot of Greek humour funny. I laugh politely at some things, for social reasons.

There is a satire programme that my husband absolutely loves and he laughs all the way through. I find it crude and some bits just seem pointless, or excruciatingly silly.


1I always say that language is only one part of bringing up a child and the emotional needs have to be weighed up. For instance, even though I speak a lot of German with my kids, when they are in pain or are troubled, I automatically switch to English. Even now, with my tween/teen kids.


2That’s another point on non-native bilingualism. Think about danger. If your small child went to step into a busy road, would you want to engage your brain in German first, or would you shout STOP in English out of instinct.

When we lit the fire in our fireplace, I remember calling out NO! to my young son. I didn’t think about the language. Instinct took over. You don’t even think about it when you see your child putting themselves in danger.


1I recall a family I met in Germany. The father was English, the mother German. The dad always spoke English at home, and when their son realised that he actually could speak fluent German, he felt it was a betrayal. He refused to speak English to his father after that.


2This is not an uncommon reaction. I think we should be open with our children. My children have always known that I speak Greek. They hear me speaking to their Greek friends, to relatives, and in various social situations. There has never been any great revelation.

As children grow, the non-communty language may help to give them a connection with the other culture and country, but it should be done in as gentle a way as possible and not forced. It’s only natural that children will feel a greater connection with the country, culture and language where they are brought up rather than another that they have only visited a few times.


1So we agree that it is hard work, but then bringing up a child bilingual is – we’ve talked about this before, and the Sponge Myth, that children learn a language easily.

This doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t do it, or that it won’t work, just that they should be prepared to work hard. You wrote a great post for parents, on how to support children who are being raised bilingually. Do you have any tips for parents to boost their child’s understanding of a non-native language?


2Put native-language TV or radio on in the background for passive language learning even before your children are at the age where they want to watch.  Listen to how native speakers play with the language, how they make jokes and puns. Try them out from time to time. All these things will make a difference to the quality of your children’s language.

You will need to put in a lot of effort. Some study may be required, and it is advised. Don’t wait for your children to start school – prepare in advance for any vocabulary gaps. Read plenty of books written by native speakers – both to your children and for yourself, to help you reinforce the vocabulary so you are ready to use it. I would read through children’s books in advance – the vocabulary level may not be high, but you will also want to be able to deal with any questions that may arise – and I have yet to meet a child who does not ask questions!

Most languages have a number of dialects and regional accents. You will have to be consistent when deciding which one to use. Let’s take the example of English. You may have learnt a kind of international English. If this is the case, then you would be wise to choose a particular dialect and stick to it as much as you are able. If you wish to go with British English, then find out what differentiates it, learn some idioms, some expressions and words that are more common in Britain. If you want to use US English, then stick to it. Make sure you know the different spelling rules when the time comes for your child to learn literacy skills. Don’t go from one dialect to another, don’t switch back and forth. It will sound odd. Consistency is the key here.

This brings me onto another point. Think about your own pronunciation. You may have a foreign accent and intonation, but these are not problems in themselves. You can improve over time. Just make sure that your accent is clearly intelligible to a native speaker and that your pronunciation does not immediately set you apart. You can work on this with daily practice and by listening to media in the target language.


1Thank you, Millie for an interesting and informative chat.


Read more on Bilingualism and Parenting here. 


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