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I am actually a language researcher, but when it comes to my own situation I have a hard time being objective and make some choices for my own family. My husband and I are expecting our first child, and I am really confused as to which languages we should speak and when.

I was raised in Denmark, but have Iraqi-Kurdish roots, and my husband was also born and raised here but has Turkish roots. Thus, my native language, and the language I learned first, was Kurdish, and I do speak it with my parents and the rest of my family. However, I am more proficient in Danish. I know a little bit of Turkish, but only speak Danish with my husband.

So my question is, would my child be confused if I spoke Kurdish with it and Danish to my husband, and my husband spoke Turkish to the child? Also, if I know myself well, I would probably speak Danish to the child outside our home, since Kurdish is not valued in the Danish society - I know that´s a bad excuse. What are your suggestions?

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    Also, apparently, English. – imallett Oct 21 '15 at 17:07
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    I grew up with 3 languages as a kid (the language of the country, the language of my parents and the language of another minority), and never ever regretted learning all 3 of them (and English much later) – vsz Oct 21 '15 at 20:05
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    The capacity for learning is greater in early childhood. The more languages, the better! – Dan Henderson Oct 22 '15 at 1:41
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    My wife speaks Dutch to our daughter (3.5yrs) and English to me. My wife is more fluent in English than Dutch. Occasionally she speaks English to our daughter if our daughter is playing with someone who doesn't speak Dutch. This does not cause any problem for our daughter. And it's caused me to become somewhat passing in Dutch. Our daughter speaks a mixture of Dutch and English with us, and sometimes if she is having trouble getting us to understand something she's saying, she'll switch to the other language. For the most part with others she speaks English. No problems. – Joel Oct 22 '15 at 4:10
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    Will your decision affect their ability to communicate with grandparents? Do not underestimate the value of grandparents being able to help with your children. – Joel Oct 22 '15 at 4:13

10 Answers 10

7

If you speak two languages your child may be confused but you can speak Danish and your husband Turkish.

Your child will associate Danish with you and Turkish with your husband.

more info with a similar problem

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    Are there any good sources for this claim, as it counters everything I've ever learned about language acquisition in my life? – Davor Oct 22 '15 at 9:16
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    It counters everything I have learned as well. There is no problem with the same parent speaking two different languages, especially if it is in different contexts like the OP asks - one at home and another in public. – AgapwIesu Oct 22 '15 at 12:04
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    @DevSolar - Consistency does not have to be tied to individual parents, it also can be tied to contexts - a mommy language at home, a daddy language at home, and a national language outside the home (not just from others, but also from mom and dad). This would be easy for a child to deal with and exactly what the OP is asking about. It is simply incorrect to say that "if you spoke 2 languages your child may be confuse(sic)", when the 2 languages the OP asked about where in clearly distinct contexts - at home and outside the home. – AgapwIesu Oct 22 '15 at 14:31
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    @DevSolar - You can say that the operational word is "may", but what is the message the mom will walk away with after reading that speaking 2 languages may confuse her child. I am certain her most likely response, if she accepts this, is "then I'd better stick to only one language." So whatever the operational word is, the overall message is wrong, and I do not think claiming it is incorrect is too harsh. – AgapwIesu Oct 22 '15 at 15:16
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    @DevSolar - as far as consistency, if by consistent you mean that the lines will be solid, I can pretty much guarantee that will never happen. Mom will talk to dad in Danish, but switch, even mid-sentence to Kurdish or Turkish. She will talk to her daughter in Kurdish in public and switch to Danish, mid sentence, midspeech, even mid-word. Such code-switching is inevitable. But look at Joel's comments to the OP. The thing is, mom and dad will be more consistent if they just do what is natural in each context, and it will be consistent enough, and their kid will pick up the languages easily. – AgapwIesu Oct 22 '15 at 16:11
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I am a linguist (master's degree in linguistics), speak three languages fluently, and have studied a few others. I have four children, and my wife and I also have different mother-tongues - Spanish for me, English for my wife. Because one of my children had speech acquisition problems, I have done a bit of research into this topic. The bottom line is that kids have an amazing ability to pick up on language. If they grow up hearing two or three languages, in different contexts, they will learn them and distinguish them, easily.

I would encourage you to speak whatever is comfortable for you to use in each context. Don't try to force one of your languages into a situation so that your child will learn it, because you will not be consistent and that might add unnecessary confusion. But as long as you can be consistent, in a particular context, with your language use, I would not be worried about your child being able to keep things straight. The brain's ability to learn and process multiple languages, at that age, is astounding.

However, as with all things in raising a child, be watchful, observant. If your kid struggles at some point, you may have to adjust. When one of our kids' speech regressed from age 2.5 to 4, we were of course very worried. After seeing a speech pathologist, a psychiatrist, and a neurologist, we found that he was severely impaired in speech comprehension and production. He was diagnosed with a rather severe form of Autism. Because of this, we limited our language at home to only English, my wife's native language, and started an intensive regime of speech therapy at home, designed by my wife. Now, 13 years later, he is highly successful in school, taking AP classes in high-school, and being recruited by top schools like MIT, Caltech and Harvard.

Ok, could not resist the little bit of bragging on my boy. But the point remains - do what is comfortable language wise. Do not try to use a language just so the child can learn it, but don't rule a language out because you think she may be confused by too many languages. Speak whatever language comes most naturally to you in each context, and be consistent, but be watchful and be ready to adjust to each of your children's individual needs.

PS: because of the "English only" rule at home, my kids grew up speaking only English. But my two older ones have made a point of taking Spanish in High School so that they can speak to my parents. The third and fourth are already saying they want to do the same thing when they get to High School. So that is sometimes an option. If the language is available in the schools where you live, you can let that be the way that they will learn it.

  • "regressed from age 2.5 to 4" This reads a bit unclearly to me. Do you mean regressed from age 4 years to age 2.5 years? Sorry for the nitpick; I +1ed anyway as it doesn't affect the point. – jpmc26 Oct 26 '15 at 5:25
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    @jpmc26 - his speech actually regressed from the time he was 2.5 years old to when he was four. He was already putting senteces together at 2.5, like "go wide, go look airklane" (go for a ride and go look at the airplane). But by the time he was four, he had lost the ability to combine words and his vocabulary was down to almost no meaningful speech. – AgapwIesu Oct 26 '15 at 12:04
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Being parents of different "tongues" implies, in my opinion, an obligation to give your child(-ren) as much diversity as possible. I am not qualified to argue against linguists, but I see it as no different than that if you're a mechanic, odds are your kids will learn how to wield a wrench; if you're a musician, perhaps a guitar. With language, you can start sooner (should, in fact, given the 6/7 year "window" of language learning).

Personally, my mother is Austrian and my father is Danish; they spoke German and Danish with me. In addition, we moved around a bit and so I learned Swedish as well, plus English in school. My experience is that it's a valuable asset that you can give your offspring "for free". I have friends where the Danish grandparents and their Portuguese grandkids simply cannot speak with one-another, and that is just a darn shame!

Therefore, I would suggest you speak your family's language, so your child will learn it and associate it with (and be able to communicate with) your part of the family; and for the same reasons that your husband should speak his family's language. In addition, if the child is immersed in a third language (the general environment, plus your common language), I'm convinced s/he will learn that very easily and naturally. There may be some cross-over in the early years (words or syntax) but that should fade long before age 8.

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    +1 for the point about communicating with grandparents. – Scimonster Oct 21 '15 at 19:02
  • "I will not argue against linguists" - feels a bit like a reference to my answer saying that I am a linguist.... I generally agree with this answer's emphasis on giving children a multi-lingual environment when possible. But there are other factors. Generally children have the capacity to easily acquire multiple languages, but there are children who do not. When a child is impaired in her language acquisition, it means that they have difficulties learning one language, much less multiple ones. In such cases, limiting the home to a single language is probably best. – AgapwIesu Oct 22 '15 at 14:16
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    @AgapwIesu, I was actually referring both to you and Wand, and not in any aggressive way I might add. I agree with you in that "not everyone is equal", but the world has yet to see how this applies to this particular human. :-) – KlaymenDK Oct 22 '15 at 14:39
  • @KlaymenDK - ok. I think we are on the same page - expose the kid to all three languages, unless some evidence comes up later that the kid has needs that conflict with this. By the way, I meant linguist in the sense that I have studied linguistics, not in the sense of being skilled in foreign languages. – AgapwIesu Oct 22 '15 at 16:17
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Anecdotal evidence: When I was living in Barcelona, my neighbors were a couple with a kid. The father was German, the mother was French, they talked to each other in English and the kid was going to the British School of Barcelona. At 10, the kid was fluent in Catalan, Spanish, French, German and English.

Was he sometimes mixing up and making some mistakes? Yes, sometimes; all kids do, don't they? But he was able to communicate without issues in 5 languages and pronounce correctly all the sounds of the 5 languages.

Another anecdotal evidence: As a kid, my mother spoke to me in Catalan and my father in Spanish. Since I was a kid I was able to use both languages without any issue and, even, switch language in the middle of a sentence depending if I was looking at my father or my mother.

Is Catalan a language worth to learn? Well, it is for sure not the language that helps me to travel around the world, but it is the language that allows me to communicate with most of my family and my best friends. Also, thanks to the fact that I am fluent in Catalan, I later learnt French in a bit more than one year.

In my opinion: A language is not just a grammar and a vocabulary. It also carries a culture with it. If you teach your kid Kurdish, you are also offering him a Kurdish identity that he wouldn't be able to get otherwise.

Also if you expose your kid to as many languages as you can, you will not do any harm but you will help him to be able to communicate with more people from different cultures.

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So my question is, would my child be confused if I spoke Kurdish with it and Danish to my husband and my husband spoke Turkish to the child?

As an adult, when I'm a 2nd language learner, I never, ever, ever, ever confuse languages. (Exceptions being Spanish and French, they are very similar, and that 5 minute warm up period when you are switching languages). Who constantly warns about the danger of "confusion"? Monolingual grandparents and other monolingual bystanders.

Also, if I know myself well, I would probably speak Danish to the child outside our home, since Kurdish is not valued in the Danish society - I know that´s a bad excuse. What are your suggestions?

Here are the options, they are used everywhere:

  • 1 language 1 parent. A household could manage 3 language this way. (Mom's language, Dad's language, the language Mom & Dad use, more if you have grandparents)
  • 1 language per "domain", i.e. street vs home. Common domains are school, street, home, work, religion. From language extinction research, when a language isn't used in at least one of these domains, it become extinct in a community.
  • Mixture of above
  • Diglosia- switch constantly among languages (common in the Philippines, India, hipster Scandinavians)

What amazes me most is the policy that adult 2nd language learners might find confusing-- diglosia-- is the rule in some places. In immigrant communities though, diglossia is not the best policy because it risks the minority language being used less and less. I think diglossia gets going because everyone is doing it. If a child only does dilgossia with one person, I think they would rationally speak more and more of their stronger language until the weaker one becomes extinct.

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    I'm bilingual, raised on English and learning Spanish fluently after high school. A friend of mine, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was raised on both languages together. When she's talking with you, it's the weirdest thing, because a menudo ella cambia al otro idioma en medio de hablar and then right back again, and she doesn't even notice until someone points out "you did it again." But the crazy thing is, she only ever does this when talking with other bilingual people! So yes, from personal experience, language confusion is real, and it can get really bizarre sometimes. – Mason Wheeler Oct 22 '15 at 19:35
  • @MasonWheeler: how does she detect that a person is bilingual? After they use Spanish words ocassionally when speaking in English and she instinctively responds in the same but intensified way? Or maybe just the knowledge that other person understands Spanish is enough for her to start wandering? That may be interesting research – quetzalcoatl Oct 23 '15 at 23:15
  • @quetzalcoatl: As in, she only does it with people who she already knows are bilingual, even though she's not aware she's doing it when it happens. – Mason Wheeler Oct 24 '15 at 1:03
  • I have frequently seen language confusion--my wife is a native Mandarin speaker, English only from middle age. If she's just been using some Chinese dialect (she speaks several) it's not exactly unusual for her to speak to me in the same language--and I'm lucky to understand one word. – Loren Pechtel Oct 25 '15 at 4:56
  • @MasonWheeler I'm going to guess that her mind has you filed as both an English and Spanish speaker, thus it's free to use either language when talking to you. Without the language being tied down her mind wanders between the choices. – Loren Pechtel Oct 25 '15 at 4:58
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I very strongly doubt that using multiple languages around your child will cause any damage or problems, and I strongly suspect that in the long run this will be beneficial to your child. They may be cross-lingual (for example, using some Turkish or Kurdish words when conversing in Danish) on occasion, but as they become more fluent in a particular language they will learn to separate their use of these languages. When we are young we're genetically wired to learn languages, and it appears that your child will have a great opportunity to learn from you, your husband, your families, and the world at large. I suggest that you continue to use the languages you know as you have always used them, and don't make a big deal out of it.

  • Speaking extra languages is certainly beneficial, and it's even more beneficial to figure out which. – Dan Dascalescu Oct 27 '15 at 9:07
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You might also want to think about the problem in terms of opportunity costs vs. future benefits.

I am a Romanian native, and looking back to my high-school years, I'm grateful that I was taught English (the world's de-facto universal language) and French, instead of Russian, which had been mandatory until a few years earlier, while my country was under a communist regime.

If your child spends X hours a day listening to Danish or Kurdish, that's X hours a day spent not listening to English, German, Spanish or French. There is a well-calculated return on the investment of learning a language:

The annual ROI for native English speakers in the US on learning a foreign language is small: Spanish 1.5%, French 2.7%, German 4%. But only 1% of Americans claim they speak another language fluently (which suggests the number who actually do, is even smaller). 1/6 of the time spend in high school goes to learn foreign languages. So overall, learning foreign languages is an economic waste.

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    Are there benefits to learning a language beyond economics? – Acire Oct 24 '15 at 12:10
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    A contrasting example: I learned Latin in school. The absolute number of Latin speakers is negligible, Does this mean my ROI is bad and I should have invested in, say, Spanish instead? Certainly not. What I learned was a systematic approach to grammar, language systems and learning techniques. I practised analytical skills way beyond anything I did in any other language and thus recieved better grades overall. Even today I benefit from Latin when using or understanding technical terms in basically every sciencentific context. ROI? Probably even higher than the one from my now fluent English. – Stephie Oct 24 '15 at 21:02
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    As someone with professional translating experience you should be aware that not every term or expression that works in one language and culture can be translated in any other language - simply because the concept behind the expression doesn't exist in the target language. By not teaching a language, a child looses some of his cultural roots and suggesting Danish being a waste of time is - sorry for being blunt here - BS for a child that lives in Denmark. I have seen enough children struggle at school because they weren't proficient enough in the language of the country they lived in. – Stephie Oct 24 '15 at 21:13
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    @Stephie, if we're talking about the propaedeutic value of languages, then Esperanto beats English by a factor 7. Still doesn't make sense to learn Latin. And if you really want to develop analytical skills, learning is a computer programming language is far better. Learning some obscure language only makes sense in narrow economic or personal contexts, e.g. doing business with speakers of that language, or having family you must communicate well with. – Dan Dascalescu Oct 26 '15 at 1:39
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    @Daniel: I wish, but (un)fortunately I'm not a Sim. – Dan Dascalescu Oct 27 '15 at 9:05
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I would like to tell: Give importance to the language with more priority for you both. After a few years you speak with your child in the other language as well.

He can identify both easily and can get knowledge of both the languages. Also, your whole family can feel comfortable.

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If you speak both languages your child might be confused, but if you speak Danish and your husband Turkish, your son/daughter may associate Danish with mom and Turkish with dad. Also, your child might learn 2 or even 3 languages (right from home), but there is a possibility your child will not learn them.

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Exposing a child to multiple languages will build more robust language processing in that child's brain. The only downside is that less brain real-estate will be available for other skills. You shouldn't worry too much about that, as society itself imposes plenty of brain molding forces.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

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    Do you have a source for your claim that "less brain real-estate will be available for other skills"? I always had a different impression.... – Stephie Oct 22 '15 at 7:21

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