Both Parents Speak English to Their Bilingual Kids

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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.

Bilingual Children and Chomksy’s LAD

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

I didn’t always want to raise a family of bilingual children. When I was younger I assumed that I would just raise my kids like I was raised, which is to say monolingual. However, that was mostly because I wasn’t smart enough to have considered raising a multilingual child to be a possibility. It didn’t even cross my mind. Fortunately that thought did occur to me when I was in college thanks to some top-notch professors.

When I was an undergraduate student at Washington State University I took an intro to linguistics class. My professor was AWESOME! (Shout out to Sabine Davis, whom I adore). I loved going to that class to learn about different things like, “what’s the difference between a code and a language?”, “Why do most people stop ‘being able’ to learn new languages at or around puberty?”, and “What are the best ways to raise bilingual children?”. Since I write a blog that is based largely in applied linguistics, you are safe to assume that this course impacted me tremendously.

Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device

It was in this course that I first learned of Noam Chomsky, perhaps the most important and influential linguist in the world. In his many writings on the subject he talks about the innate human ability to learn languages. He argues that, despite their obvious superficial differences in lexicon and word order, languages are not that different in their internal structures. Furthermore, he stipulates that all humans (monolingual and bilingual children alike) are born with an intuitive knowledge of internal grammar. This instinct for children to learn and speak any language is referred to as a “Language Acquisition Device”.

Bilingual children can learn language despite a poverty of the stimulus
Even if you can’t provide perfect input, you can still raise bilingual children.

One of the main arguments supporting the existence of a Language Acquisition Device, our innate ability to learn the languages around us, is what Chomsky calls the “poverty of the stimulus” 1. A “poverty of the stimulus” is a fancy way of saying that the language we hear around us isn’t perfect. There are constantly ‘mistakes’ in the language we hear, yet somehow we are able to acquire the language without difficulty.

What’s more is that we often know instinctively what is grammatically correct, even if the majority of our linguistic input is “wrong”. For instance, take a generic speaker from the American South. Let’s call him “Bill”. Bill uses the phrase, “I ain’t gonna eat a turkey sandwich.”

To a generic Northerner, this sounds like an incorrect use of grammar or vocabulary. Or Something. It sounds wrong.2 However, it’s highly likely that Bill could give you a ‘corrected’ version without any difficulty: “I’m not going to eat a turkey sandwich.” Bill knows the ‘right’ grammar, even though it’s not used as commonly in his geographic region.

Bilingual Children and Chomsky’s Language Acquisition Device?

For me, the biggest takeaway is that we don’t have to be perfect in speaking the languages we want our kids to learn. And even if we use our native language, it’s pretty safe to assume that we won’t be perfect. Our children already possess the tools they need to acquire language.  All it takes from us is the time and dedication to speak it with them in a meaningful way.

If you speak the language consistently with your children,  they can’t help but acquire the language. Even if you speak with errors, you can still raise bilingual children.

1 Chomsky is an academic and part of his job is to obfuscate meaning with complex words and jargon. Although, to be honest, Chomsky’s work is quite approachable, despite the fact that he’s an academic.

2I hesitate to say this is ‘wrong’ or ‘improper’ speech, since it is just a different dialect of English than the one I speak. Who am I to determine what is ‘proper’ speech?

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