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My wife and I are from Indonesia and we live in an English speaking country. I'm not sure what language we should speak to or teach our baby boy (now 8 months).

Should we use English, so that when he's older he won't have problems with speaking to other people here or in school? Or should we use Indonesian, because it's the language my wife and I naturally use to talk to each other? Also, our extended family (including the grandparents) are mostly in Indonesia and many of them don't speak English, obviously he has to know Indonesian in order to communicate with them.

If we teach both languages (very likely), is there a best approach? Can we teach them simultaneously? Do we have to follow "one parent, one language"?

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2 Answers

My experience tells me you should both speak your native tongue at home, and you can throw in some English along the way just for variety.

You know how you can tell Chinese from Spanish, even if you speak neither? Children up to at least 7 years of age are incredibly good at telling languages apart - even languages they don't speak. Children can learn a lot just by listening. Each language has a different melody, different intonations, different sounds.

You don't even have to try and your son will still figure out on his own when you're speaking Indonesian and when it's English. This is why I suggest that you just speak your own language, because you will likely be his only source of learning that. He will be hearing English all around him, and he'll hear his parents interact with others in English.

You should teach him some English, though. Not teaching him anything at all would be a sad waste of opportunity.

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Parents dramatically overestimate the risk of not learning the community language, especially if you are in the US. In my family alone, over 7 languages have died in the last 3 or 4 generations (German, Russian, Swedish, French, Cherokee, Dutch, Polish). There has never been a case of a child born in the US failing to learn English from the community. My entire extended family is now mono-lingual English, I know of no cases in my family where the minority language lasted even a single generation.

Another common policy is one-parent-one-language. That allows you to hedge your bets, but the minority language would be be "harmed", i.e. your child is less likely to successfully gain a balanced fluency* in the minority language, will identify with it less and be less likely to actually ever use it. The phenomena of kids switching permanently to their better language (the host country language) is common, the best way to fight that is to maximize the amount of the minority language they hear.

*when you speak both languages equally well and don't strongly prefer one over the other.

Ref: books on amazon, Raising a Bilingual Child (forgot the exact author & title, if I have time I'll look it up)

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