Both Parents Speak English to Their Bilingual Kids

Posted on Posted in Acquisition, How We Learn Languages, Raising Bilingual Children

Is it okay if both parents speak English to their bilingual kids? I’ve asked myself that question a number of times since I started raising my son to speak English and Spanish. In general, my wife and I stick tightly to the one parent, one language approach to raising bilingual children. I am the one who speaks Spanish to our son, but I often find myself in situations where English seems to be more natural to use.

Both Parents Speak English to their Bilingual Kids
It isn’t necessarily forbidden for both parents to speak English to their bilingual kids to maintain a natural, intuitive barrier.

In my 3 keys to raising bilingual kids (get the free PDF), I lay out the importance of setting an implicit and intuitive barrier for your child. Simply put, your child needs to know when to speak which language. In our situation we decided that one parent, one language was the right barrier for us. This means that I speak Spanish and my wife speaks English to your son. If you stick to this method your child will have little difficulty picking up both languages. However, when a parent speaks both languages to the child it can be quite confusing—the child never knows when to use which language. In this scenario there is no implicit or intuitive barrier, and the child will likely pick up only the dominate language1. I opine that in most circumstances it would be counterproductive to have both parents speak English to their bilingual kids.

Is it okay if both parents speak English to their bilingual kids?

If you are using the one parent, one language method having both parents speak English to their bilingual kids might cause confusion between the languages. This is the general rule, but surely there are exceptions. One such exception would be if a child says an English word to the “other language” parent. Even though I speak only Spanish to my son, when he talks to me he uses whatever language comes into his head.

Normally I let him cycle through languages to get to Spanish. But if we’re out and about and he hears and he says an English word to me, I encourage him by saying something like “Sí, Mateo,’ pumpkin’ en inglés, calabaza en español.” I don’t want to hinder his English acquisition by making him second-guess himself. At the same time, I want him to associate me with the speaking Spanish—he has few other regular sources of Spanish.

So, is it okay if both parents speak English to their bilingual kids? My answer is sometimes. You really need to maintain that implicit and intuitive barrier. However, it is okay to lower your shields from time to time, especially in an appropriate setting. I will admit that I have sometimes spoken English to Mateo, and I’m not too worried about it affecting his long term acquisition. I know that I can stay disciplined enough to keep using Spanish with him. He will keep getting tons of Spanish input and, therefore, keep acquiring Spanish.

The whole point of “one parent, one language” is to help compartmentalize the languages for the child. To ensure the continued stream of input in certain social situations. This barrier is very important, but there can be exceptions. My advice is to follow your instincts on this one. More than likely you won’t make a mistake.

1I would define the dominate language is the one the child perceives to be the most useful for communication. This isn’t as much of an issue of there is another barrier in place. If you speak Spanish at home and English out of the home, that is another kind of barrier. In this scenario the child picks up both languages because both are perceived as dominate. One is dominate inside the home, the other outside.

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