“I’m not a native speaker – is that okay?”

More parents are recognizing the benefits of bilingualism for their children, but not everyone has easy or automatic access to a second or additional language for their children. In some of these cases, both parents share one language, but also speak at least one other language that they have “learned”. There is a common myth that you should *absolutely not* try to parent in a language that is not *your* native language. I’ve heard all kinds of justifications for this (You will never bond properly with your child. You don’t know nursery rhymes in that language. Your grammar, or pronunciation, isn’t “native” so you will be passing on “bad” language.) and I’m sure you have heard a few other scare stories if you are a parent who has tried this, or is considering it.
Speaking both as a researcher and a parent, I categorically refute these claims. It is, absolutely, possible to pass on to your child a language that is not your native, or first, or mother tongue. And you won’t necessarily pass on a bad accent, or bad grammar. There are, however, several factors to consider.
1. How well do you “master” this language? Do you use it every day, or regularly? Do you think you could happily use it all the time with your child, or only some of the time?
Speaking from my own experience, when I had my oldest daughter, I was living in a francophone environment, and I had no problems speaking to her in French (I am a native English speaker, but fluent in French). And as she was an only child at that time, whatever dynamic I set up between us was what she went with, so we used almost exclusively French until she was 2,5 years old. When my twins were born, I had to contend with the fact that my older daughter (now 4,5 years old) used a comfortable mix of English and French with me, and so it was harder to speak French exclusively with the two new ones. So, they got less French in the early years, as I was not in sole control of what went on linguistically in our home.
2. How will you access “child” language in a language you were not raised in?
It’s very important to have some kind of basis in the types of language that help kids with language acquisition; repetitive language, simplified language, using exaggerated tone and intonation. If you don’t have any exposure (through play groups or other native-speaker friends) you will need to buy some books and CDs and learn some nursery rhymes and songs in this language. Or, you will need to bring in “outside” help, in the form of a babysitter/mother’s helper etc. who can do this for you.
3. What is your “affective” language? Can you really connect with your baby and eventually your child, in your second language?
I lived in French for many years, including having close friends and relationships in French, so my “affective” French was very well developed. If you have only used your second language at school or work, you may find it harder to connect with your child in this language, which of course would not be a good thing. Consider carefully if you could really use this language all the time, and feel comfortable and connected and nurturing.
4. It’s not an “all or nothing” thing.
You do not need to commit to always speaking your second language to your child in order to pass on some benefits of bilingualism. You do need, however, to make a good plan for how you will proceed. If both parents share a second language, then you can create “domains of use” in which all family members use the second language. For example, if two French-speaking parents who also speak English want to pass English on to their baby, they can create a system of domains of use wherein the whole family commits to speaking English together. This can be something like English at dinner every evening, or English all weekend, or another system that ensures a good amount of input and works for them. If only one parent speaks the second language, then the domains of use would be situated in the time they spend alone with the child.

If you consider all the questions and decide (as I did) that you are committed to using your second language with your child/children, you do need to be realistic about the outcomes. If you, or you and your spouse, are the only ones using the second language, your child may not be as proficient as they are in the “mother tongue” of the family. For the best chance of success, consider what other resources you can bring into your language plan, including child care, family and friends, and eventually school. By combining your dedication and input, and input and support from native-speaker sources, there is a good chance that your child will be successfully bilingual, with all the benefits that come along with that. Good luck!

6 thoughts on ““I’m not a native speaker – is that okay?”

  1. Saqib Hussain (@ArabicStudio) says:

    I’m currently facing this exact dilemma! My sister’s daughter has just turned two, and she (my sister, that is), insists that I speak to her in Arabic. That’s great, except that I learnt Arabic primarily for academic reasons, and have neither the vocabulary nor the “affective” nuances of playing with a child in that language. I’m determined to make it work, however. I think it should be viewed as a good opportunity to expand your understanding of a particular language.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Nina Shurts says:

    Hi there, loved your article. We are living proof that you can indeed raise children who are fluent in a language that neither parent speaks natively. We have raised 8 children who are fluent in German and both my husband and I are native English speakers and reside in America. Here’s our blog address. It’s been such a fun journey and I wouldn’t change any of it. Thanks again for your insightful post. You are welcome to link to our blog: http://nonnativebilingualparents.blogspot.com/

  3. Third Culture Mama says:

    I just fell in love with this blog post because it is so encouraging for non-native speakers wanting to raising children multilingually, but also incredibly wise and grounded. The questions that you ask are so pertinent (namely language ability and the affective language question). In essence, you are calling parents to recognize their given circumstances and the dynamics they have to work with and acknowledge and commit to what it takes to fill in the gaps. If they are committed, “the sky is the limit”. The only obstacles are those they place upon themselves. As for “it isn’t all or nothing”, I believe this is absolutely true. However, wouldn’t you agree that the more consistent you are, the better the results?
    Well done on your dedication. Your children will thank you for it one day!


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