We're a bilingual household in a country that speaks a third language. I speak Finnish to the kids, my wife speaks Japanese, and I speak Japanese with her.

Our older son recently started going to preschool, so he's picking up English at an expected-but-still-astonishing rate. He occasionally tries to speak it with me, in which case I pretend not to understand until he switches to Finnish, and my wife does the same for Japanese. So far so good.

But now he's also started speaking English to his younger brother, who's not yet verbal but will be soon enough. Uh-oh.

Now I realize that English will be their primary language (as long as we stay here), and I'm totally OK with that, it's my strongest language as well. However, I would like them both to have a decent grasp of their parents' languages, so I'm not too keen on 'unnecessary' English in the house; unlike this question, my wife and I never speak it at home.

So: should we enforce a "no English at home" rule? If yes, how and to what extent (eg. at dinner table, when talking with both of us, even when it's only the two of them), and if no, why not? Extra points for links to actual research.

Update: To expand on this a bit, our children have three passports, and it's entirely possible that we'll move to another country (with a fourth language!) at some point. Our short-term goal is to make them fluent enough to talk with their grandparents; and longer term, that they can realistically study/work in any of those three countries when they're old enough.

  • This question is going to be all about how people feel about "respecting autonomy" It would be a more interesting question if it were about "how" given a decision & a goal to teach a 2nd language. By saying "should we", that's like saying "should we make kids learn piano". Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 21:58
  • Also, what country are you in? If you're in the US, if you don't do something radical, the natural course of events if for all 2nd language to be extinguished. I'd speak about 15 languages if they would all last 2 or 3 generations. Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 22:00
  • I believe you're making an assumption that there's "only so much room for language" in their heads and that English will get in the way of the others. That's not the case. Child minds are gigantic sponges. A 3rd language isn't any hindrance to the other two.
    – DA01
    Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 23:42
  • If I believed that, I wouldn't be raising trilingual kids! The issue is not English, but that we're the only sources of Finnish or Japanese around, so if you cut that off, they won't learn either language. Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 0:24
  • I like your plan. Realistically, you can't control the language big brother uses with little brother without being punitive in what I believe is an inappropriate way. You can control the language you speak, and you should continue to do so, as should your wife. Stick with it, a second lauguage is among the greatest gifts you can give your children.
    – Marc
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 20:59

4 Answers 4


Personally, I would definitely try to enforce the 'No English' rule at home, although realistically, I'm not sure you will be able to keep it for very long. I'll also second what JPmiaou wrote about using every chance to expose them to the minority languages, and taking comfort in the idea that they won't forget what they learn, even if they one day decide not to use the minority languages.

I think this website might help you further: http://www.francoisgrosjean.ch/myths_en.html (also check out the links at the bottom of the page)

Edited to add:

I've still been thinking about this. In the last paragraph, Prof Grosjean wrote "It is important though that the situation be truly monolingual (and not a "pretend situation" in which a bilingual parent pretends not to know the other language); children will make an effort to speak only one language if they feel it is vital for communication."

I understand this as meaning that yes, you can set a 'No English' rule at home, it''s just that once they're older, they might not have the motivation to answer you in Finnish or Japanese, and you'll probably have to accept that. However, when you address them, you are free to keep speaking your language as long as you feel that makes sense. In any case, I would not try to enforce the 'No English' rule for when the two kids are talking to one another, as you'll only make them resent the minority language.

  • 1
    Good point about possibly creating resentment if you try to enforce a negative "no English" rule between the kids -- but I would still try to encourage them to speak Finnish or Japanese with each other, perhaps by pointing out the Secret/Private Language aspect to them. (Make it a FUN thing that they can speak to each other in a language that others in the store or restaurant don't understand.)
    – JPmiaou
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 13:58

This is a variant of the "both parents speak the minority language" model of bilingual childrearing, except with two minority languages, one for each parent. My sister and I grew up in the bilingual version, and I think its success definitely depended on the strict No Majority Language In The House rule that our parents enforced. Our friends from similarly bilingual homes whose parents were less strict -- most of them had televisions, gasp! -- were not nearly as fluent in the minority language, and some of them barely speak it now as adults. Others have become fully fluent, however, with spouses or jobs that depend on their knowledge of both languages.

I'm not sure how my parents handled things once my sister and I started learning English, but I think it helped that we're twins -- it meant that we were both learning the same things at the same time, and it also emphasized the "private language" aspect of bilingualism.

Regardless of what you decide about enforcing a "No English" rule, do keep in mind that language in children is easy come, easy go -- anything they don't use, they forget. You must reinforce your minority languages every chance you get, with reading, writing, music, and every type of popular entertainment you can lay your hands on.


My suggestion would be to not enforce it, but do 2 things:

  1. Don't generally speak English to him. If he speaks English, simply answer in Finnish/Japanese.

  2. Make a game out of it. When he starts learning new words, ask him what they are called in Finnish/Japanese.

I think learning through playing is really useful to kids.

My husband and I are both Danish, and we live in the US. Our kids go to preschool/daycare, and our 3 year old is bilingual.

We always speak Danish to him. When we are somewhere else, with other people we sometimes speak English - to teach him it is not respectful to speak a language other people don't know in a social setting.

I don't think you can pretend to not speak the local language where you live, if you do speak it. The kids would hear it.

Recently, our oldest (3) have started to ask about 'what is this called in Danish/English' and we happily reply. He understands the concept of 2 languages, and wants to use both, and wants to learn both. We want to support his vocabulary in both. We also read books to him in both languages, since reading to a kid really helps vocabulary and most likely they will go to school here in the US - so they need to learn all they can.

He really responds well to 'And what is that call in Danish?' 'Can you count in Danish too?' Making him proud of knowing both languages.


No research (sorry!) but personal experience:
I'd like to suggest that you take into account whether they are likely to need your languages (Fin/Jap) outside of your home? For instance, if you're in Britain, then knowing Finnish is a neat gimmick but hardly useful - unless you frequently visit (or have visitors from) Finland. Same for Japanese, of course.

My situation is similar: I'm Danish but live in Austria. I speak exclusively Danish with my family although I am fluent in German. I accept that my kids speak German to me. I'd love if they'd speak Danish to me but at least I am certain that they understand everything I say, so it's half a victory. I think they would be able to make themselves understood in Danish if they really need to.

If it's not really important that your kids learn to actively speak Jap/Fin then accept that they'll learn it passively. I don't think you will be successful at forbidding English at home. Embrace all languages.

  • Are you planning to stay in Austria forever? If your kids can't even speak Danish, they're going to have a hard time in school if you ever go back. Commented Mar 19, 2014 at 22:31
  • @jpatokal: I've just built a house here so I think I'm settled but I'd be pleased if they would go study for a while in Denmark, for instance. I realize I'm going to lose the battle eventually though, because they probably won't ever be totally fluent in Danish, and they won't pass it on to their kids. This makes me sad, but at least I have a clone (twin) who is still in Denmark. Honestly though, I believe English is much more important to master, and I'll make every effort to ensure that! Commented Mar 20, 2014 at 7:28

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .