Can one parent pass on two languages?


Every so often, I meet a parent who would like to pass on more than one language to their children. Sometimes they are a single parent, dealing with a home and societal language, sometimes they are a bilingual themselves and want their children to speak both of their languages. So, the question comes up, is it possible for one person to be “in charge” of passing on more than one language?
There is no absolute answer, but I lean strongly towards “not a good idea”. While I understand the reasoning behind the desire, the elements for successful bilingualism are hard to achieve with one person and two languages.
Firstly, in the early years, consistency is important in helping your children’s brains anaylse input and create a fully competent language system. If one parent is attempting to use two languages, it would be very hard to structure the input to be always consistent in language usage. For example, you could try and do one language each day, and alternate, but may find that sometimes you slip into the other language without noticing. While this may not be a problem once in a while, trying to maintain artificial language use patterns may ultimately feel too hard.
Secondly, the amount of input needed to truly acquire a language is substantial, and one person trying to provide input in two languages may have a hard time finding enough waking hours in which to do so. A general benchmark is 20% input is the minimum for successful language acquisition, although I personally find that children need closer to 30% to begin using the language. So, if a child is awake 10 hours a day (when they are young), you would aim for about 3 hours minimum in each language. Of course input doesn’t need to be this rigid, sometimes it comes in chunks on the weekend and is limited during the week (for a working parent), so I encourage parents to look at the pattern of weeks. But realistically, it’s very hard for one person to have enough interaction time to successfully transmit two languages.
Now, that being said, some people do choose to pass on two languages, and work very hard to ensure success. The vast majority of the time though, they need to bring in outside support for one or both, in order to ensure adequate input and consistency.
If you have a story of someone doing this successfully, I’d love to hear it.

14 thoughts on “Can one parent pass on two languages?

  1. Olga @The EuropeanMama says:

    Maybe a good idea would be not to start the two languages at the same time, but instead to wait a while? My parents are both bilingual (Polish/French and Polish/English), but they raised me with German as my second language (in Germany with the ml@h aproach, in Polandthey spoke German with me every Sunday). Later on, when I was almost an adult, I started learning English and this is when my mother came in- I would speak English with her, and my parents had lots of English books. So, yes, my mother would pass on German first (together with my father, and on top of Polish), and then English (as she is perfectly bilingual). However, I ended up having German at school (and later studied it at University), and I attended many good-quality English language classes, so my parents weren’t the only ones to take care of my language skills. So, while my parents passed on their many languages, I guess my situation isn’t exactly what you meant with this post.

  2. Annika @ Be Bilingual says:

    I agree that it can be challenging for one person to pass on two (minority) languages all on their own, at least to the point of the children becoming active bilinguals (or in this case trilinguals if the community language is a third one). However, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. One of the languages can be the main language of communication between the parent and the child, and the other language can be used at times for playing, reading stories, and singing. This sets clear boundaries around the use of that language (less arbitrary and unnatural than having a different language on different days, for example). I would also enlist help from other speakers of this play-language, through expat groups etc.

  3. A French American Life says:

    Came across your site – it’s a great one. We are a bilingual household, my husband is French and I’m American. Our kids are young, 10 months and 2 1/2, and I’m concerned that because they are primarily with me, they aren’t getting enough French. My daughter attends a French preschool, which has helped a lot, but we may not have that opportunity next year. We’ve started to use French more as our “common” language – when we are all together, and that seems to be helping some. Such a struggle to figure out what to do, as it is important to us both that they get English and French!

    • eacrisfield says:

      Welcome! You didn’t say where you are living, but I presume the US? If that is the case, using French at home as the “Family Language” is a very good way to increase the French input your children get, and to have a better balance with English. It’s also a good way to maintain the status of French for and in your family, against the juggernaut of English in the US… Good luck, and if you have any specific questions, feel free to ask.

      • G.W. says:

        Hi I’m a single parent, bilingual myself French and Dutch, as I was raised in France by Dutch parents.
        I have been living in the US the last 8 years.
        Now my daughter is now 8 month and I have been wondering a lot how to pass my 2 languages to her.
        Right now I have been speaking Dutch to her. And the plan is to continue doing so especially as I’m spending a lot of time in France at my Dutch parents house. So hopefully I will pass her my Dutch and she will learn French in France and English in the US.
        I wish I had a better solution… And am sometimes debating because French is a more difficult language and I would want her not to struggle with it, like my brother and I did while learning it at school, not speaking at all at home. I don’t remember it being hard as a small child but as a teenager spelling has been hard. I will try to place her in French immersion programs when in the US. But before reading this article I had been debating how to introduce speaking french to her.
        I have friends who are raising their daughter trilingual very successfully: the dad speaks French to her, the mum Spanish and the nanny English. They live in Brooklyn too. Their daughter is 3 and answers in the right language to the right person amazingly well. Their strength is the consistence of each parent and presents of both equally. And maybe that their daughter learns all the words she needs in the 3 languages at the same time.

  4. Bailamos says:

    Hi, I am a single Mum to be and will be bringing my child up in Ireland.I am bi-lingual-my Mother tongue is English and I speak fluent Spanish.The Spanish language is very close to my heart but I am not sure whether to only speak Spanish to my child at the exclusion of my 1st language English.

    • eacrisfield says:

      Well, the first thing you need to do is decide how important it is to you for your child to be bilingual. If you are going to be the Spanish-input person, you will need to be committed to using Spanish all the time, for the first years of your child’s life. This is absolutely fine – you can have the child learn English from other sources (family, childminder, nursery etc.) and eventually of course they will go to school in English. Alternatively, if that feels too difficult or like too much commitment to Spanish, you can decide to use English in the early years and introduce Spanish as a learned language later.

    • Kiwi says:

      Hi Ballamos,
      What did you do in the end? I use mainly English with my little one (we live in France) but I speak Irish sometimes too. I think you have to use the language of your heart more. Any extra languages are fun and a bonus, but for me at least, it ‘feels’ different to speak in a language I am less sure of (i.e. French!)

  5. S Rosemary says:

    Hello, I’m am a single parent raising my two year old daughter in London. I am bilingual – English and French and have a sound knowledge of Spanish. My daughter is half Peruvian and I am from the Ivory Coast so it is highly important that she speak both languages as I feel that it will go a long way in shaping her identity and helping her understand both cultures. I speak French to her at home but I also speak Spanish to her as a part of our bedtime routine. Her comprehension of both languages is sound although she responds in English. She attends an English speaking daycare. I plan on joining a Spanish language group where she will be exposed to the language more frequently. My family also help with reinforcing her knowledge of French. Teaching a child two languages at the same time is not impossible but it takes immense planning and determination! I think at this stage, developing their knowledge and awareness of the minority languages is important as well as providing natural opportunities for the child to begin using the language. Bon courage! X

    • eacrisfield says:

      You are right – it’s hard, but if the languages are important and necessary for a child, it’s worth it to keep planning and keep trying – keep up the good work!

  6. Laura says:

    Thanks for the great article. It gives me hopes. My situation is a bit different. I.m Romanian, my boyfriend is English and we live in Spain. My boyfriend.s job implies a lot of travelling around the world. I started to speak to Conall (our son) in Romanian but I fear that he won.t be able to communicate with his father in the future, considering how little time they spend together. I.m really worried. I.ll try to alternate the languages each day, as you suggested. Any other advice would be appreciated. Thank you.


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