My wife and I speak to our daughter (13 months old) in Hebrew and in English, respectively; we're careful that each of us speak to her consistently in our own language all the time.

She's on the verge of her first words, and I instinctively want to encourage and strengthen her when it comes to "words" she recognizes. The issue is that some of these phrases are in Hebrew - and I'm not sure I should be repeating Hebrew words to her, when I'm trying to stick to English. For example, she recognizes light and light fixtures, and says "Oh!" - very close to אור, "Or", Hebrew for "light" - and I feel very silly saying "Yes! 'Oh'! Light!". That seems unnecessarily confusing.

Under these circumstances, how can reinforce her attempts at first words while keeping up the bilingual distinction?

  • 2
    A great question! I'm struggling with the exact same situation! (Danish/German) Commented Jun 15, 2011 at 13:45
  • My niece is 17 months old, and our problem is that we can't tell which language she's attempting. She'll happily babble away to her toys, sometimes with a book open on her lap so that she's "reading", and it sounds like we ought to understand what she's saying — it's right at that cusp of intelligibility — but we don't know whether we should be interpreting it as English or as Hungarian.
    – Martha
    Commented Dec 28, 2011 at 16:43

3 Answers 3


My son did the same.

He'd point to the light and say, "lampe" (Danish for lamp) and I'd say, "that's right for Daddy's language. Mommy calls it a 'lamp'" and then I'd encourage him to say it in English.

My husband does the same to help reinforce the English words since I'm the 'minority language' parent. He'll say, (in Danish) "That's right - do you remember what it's called for Mommy? "lamp"" and then encourage our son to use the English words.

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    My daughter's still on her very, very first words, so trying to encourage her to say a second word when she's barely saying the first is probably not going to happen quite yet :) But I really like what you've said here - just mixing the encouragement and "yay!"-ness with the language distinction. Thanks :)
    – Ziv
    Commented Jun 15, 2011 at 7:52

If she's that young, I'd say don't worry about it. Don't stress her out too much. Keep speaking to her in your language (which is a good thing, but not even that is strictly necessary according to bilingual research). Accept whatever she produces as it is. She's smart, eventually she'll get both words.

In a year or two, you can start worrying about re-inforcing the minority language.

(Curiously enough, there is some evidence that one "problem" with raising bilingual kids is that the parents have more trouble understanding them. Because we don't know which language they are trying to imitate, they are harder to understand at first. Therefore, we can erroneously think that they are delayed in speach capability.)

  • My son is learning Danish and English, and yes sometimes it comes out as 'Danglish' - but we rarely have a problem understanding him - if he does say something we can't get, we ask him to show us, and he'll either bring us to what he's talking about, or bring it to us, then say the word again. We correct the word once that's done.
    – Darwy
    Commented Jun 16, 2011 at 17:26

This tends to progress naturally, my wife speaks to our kids in Mandarin mostly, while I am using English and they've learned both words. We encourage them when they use the words with us, and I repeat it to make sure that what they say and I hear are the same, sometimes they repeat it if I get it incorrect. Slowly they learned to use one language with me and one with my wife, my oldest speaks back to my wife in Mandarin and understands her, but also speaks and understands English with me - we try not to mix yet and my oldest gets upset when I do. Encourage the words anyway, you'll probably get some mixing at first, we did, although it also took awhile before our oldest really started talking because he was not comfortable with either language yet but once he started he did not stop.

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