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Raising Bilingual Kids When You Don’t Speak Your Partner’s Language

Raising Bilingual kids when you can't speak your partner's language

Raising Bilingual Kids When You Don’t Speak Your Partner’s Language

A common situation with parents raising bilingual kids, is where one parent is not able to understand their partner’s language. In this article you can find ways to cope with the situation, and help your relationship to thrive on your language journey.

Help! I can’t speak my partner’s language!

Raising bilingual kids comes with many amazing benefits, there is no doubt about it. For some families it can feel quite natural right from the start, but for others, it can be a more challenging journey.

If you and your partner are both bilingual, you may choose to use language strategies such as OPOL, or Minority Language at Home which are pretty straight forward.

However, if you are in a relationship with someone who speaks a language you can’t speak or understand, it may not be that simple. You may be wondering how you can possibly raise bilingual kids together if this is the case. You may ask yourself how you can watch your partner speak to your kids in a language you don’t understand without feeling isolated from the conversation.

From being in this situation initially, and also from speaking to many parents over the years who have been in this situation, I am here to share some tips to help you get through it.

Related: How my bilingual child motivated my language learning journey

Tips for Raising Bilingual Kids When You Don’t Speak your Partner’s Language

Whether it is you that can’t speak your partner’s language, or your partner who can’t speak yours, here are 6 strategies which have worked with many families, including my own.

Raising Bilingual Kids When You Don't Speak Partners Language

1. Talk about it and be open

Have the conversation before your kids are born if possible. Talk about it and be open. Share your feelings with one another. Make sure you are both on the same page and make the decision together regarding the strategies you are going to use when you are raising your bilingual child.

Once you have your kids, keep talking, keep having the conversation. Talk about your feelings with one another. If you are feeling left out, let your partner know. Come up with some ideas on how you can overcome that feeling.

Remember that it is normal if you feel left out or isolated. But know that it isn’t intentional to exclude you from the conversation. They aren’t doing it on purpose, it is for a good reason.

2. Have your partner translate if needed

One thing that can help if you are feeling isolated or left out of the conversation, is asking your partner to translate. Of course, this may not be practical every time. However, if the conversation has importance, or you feel you should be involved, having your partner translate during or after, will help.

When I first had my son, I didn’t speak Italian. My husband and his family only spoke Italian with him and I would sit there trying to make out what they were all saying. Every so often my husband would translate the general idea of the conversation so I knew what they were talking about. It actually helped me learn some new vocabulary.

3. Have the kids translate for you

This will only work as your kids get older, but it is a great way to have the whole family involved.

I used to do this a lot when we visited the grandparents who only spoke Italian. If I noticed them looking over at us talking, I would ask the kids to let them know what we are talking about. The kids feel important like this too and it gives them confidence in switching languages back and forth.

4. Compromise and adapt your language strategy

If you have decided you want to raise your children with both languages, exposure is key. You can still use the OPOL strategy though, with an adaption. For example, you can set your “family language” to the one everyone speaks and understands. You and your partner speak one language to your children each when you are alone with them using OPOL. But then when you are together talking or playing together as a family, you can use your family language so everyone understands.

A couple of things to note with this strategy though. The first is to make sure the parent who speaks the minority language gets some one on one time every day to speak with your child in their language. Making this a priority will make sure your child gets a balance between both.

The other thing is to make sure that parent is consistent in making sure to speak their language every time they are alone with your child so that they get used to it, and not making a habit of using the family language full time.

5. Learn your partner’s language, or at least some of it

If your partner is speaking their language with your kids on a daily basis, you will no doubt pick up some words here or there so why not learn some of it along with your little ones.

My husband is Italian, and speaks English. When we had our first child, I didn’t speak Italian except for a few touristic phrases here and there as we were in Rome at the time. There was no doubt we would raise our kids bilingually, however it really hit me when I was pregnant, that I wasn’t going to be able to understand my kids if I didn’t learn some Italian.

So, when he was born, I made an effort to learn the language. We used OPOL, my husband only ever spoke Italian with our son, and I only spoke English. However, I learned the songs and rhymes and sang along with them every night so I could feel involved too. I listened to my husband read my son stories, and I made a daily effort to learn new words and phrases. I spent a lot of time with my in-laws who didn’t speak English, and eventually I learned to speak Italian. You can read more about our story here.

When we moved to Australia, I even started speaking Italian with my kids so I could get better at it. They still laugh sometimes if I pronounce something the wrong way, but in general they are very good teachers.

6. Think of the big picture

One of the most important things is to think of the big picture. Think about your family goals. Think about the future and the reason you are doing what you are doing. Once your children start talking and become fluent in both languages, it will get better.

Raising bilingual kids can sometimes mean making small sacrifices for great benefits. If you can live with these sacrifices initially, you will see the amazing advantages soon enough.

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Raising a Bilingual Child When You Can't Speak Your Partner's Language

2 Comments

  1. Anna

    Great tips, thank you very much! Of course, life is easier if both of us is able to speak the both family languages. But it’s not always the case. Best!

  2. Tereza

    Thank you, this is very helpful
    My partner doesn’t speak my language (Czech) and often doesn’t understand what I am saying to our kids. I am trying to stick to OPOL as much as possible, but sometimes need to translate a lot. My older one (2yo) now slowly starts to speak but uses more English than Czech even though I thought his exposure is quite a lot.
    Hope you are right with saying it gets better 😅👍

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