Can you teach your child a language if you cannot speak it properly?

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It’s not easy to be a parent, and it gets even more complicated when you are a parent who lives in a foreign country. All over the world, people are on the move and high numbers of migrants like my family every day face the challenges of raising children abroad. Surely, we all must have similar problems?

I want to share my story and experience in the hope to inspire more migrant families to gain the confidence and courage to help their children learn the community language in the best period of time – by the age of three.

I feel it’s a great shame that there are so many parents who live in foreign countries in their monolingual families and feel hopeless because their second language is thought to be not good enough to help introduce the community language to their children. We all want the same for our kids: to prepare them for the encounter with the big world, the life outside our home. We want them to be able to express themselves when they want to play, eat, sleep or go to the loo. And, when they start school, we want them to comprehend what they learn, just like their monolingual peers from the same class.

However, many specialists are still claiming that migrant families like mine should communicate with one another only in their native language and wait with patience until our children step by step learn the community language. And I believe it’s wrong. I also believe that those specialists do not appreciate enough how amazing and easily adaptable the brains of young children are.

Who We Are

We are Polish, but we moved to Great Britain a few years after Poland had joined the European Union. Our son was born here, in England. We are one of those millions of migrant families who speak at home the same heritage language and are facing this great dilemma – what language should our children speak?

The country we live in is the place where they will go to school, make friends, grow up, get a job, and contribute to the community. This is what one day they will call a home. What language then? We live in an English-speaking country, but our English is not perfect. I started learning when I was 15; my husband was a mature adult, so could we teach our baby something that we didn’t perfectly embrace ourselves?

Expert Opinion

Most of the old-school specialists recommend that parents like us, who are of the same nationality, should speak to their children only in their mother tongue, and he or she will learn the community language from its native speakers. This approach is called the Minority Language at Home (ML@H). The idea and its principles are noble indeed: the child is exposed to two languages at the same time and learns them both from people who speak it best because it’s their first language. No errors, no mispronunciation. Perfect. In reality, though, it means that most of those children will start to learn the community language only when they are five and go to school. Why? Because in order to acquire a language we need to be exposed and interact in this language for a certain amount of time. If we fail, we won’t learn it well enough to communicate and comprehend it.

The question I asked myself was – could my little son feel that he belonged to the place where he lived if he couldn’t speak English for the first five years of his life? If I as an adult cannot speak a language that everybody else around me is speaking, I’m not feeling entirely comfortable. I want to understand, I was to express myself, I want to communicate and connect with others. Why then assume that my child would feel it differently? Because he is too small to express himself?

Why This Blog

I wanted to write about those dilemmas, talk with other parents and see whether they had similar thoughts, and share my experience. Then, in the middle of my excitement and plans, I revealed my idea to this lady. Her answer stroke me hard. “I don’t want to discourage you but if you want to write about the language, your English has to be perfect”. Right. It’s true. If one wants to teach others about the language, first their grammar and stylistics need to be perfect. The issue is that it’s not the language I want to discuss. It’s not, even though “a language” will be probably the most frequently used word in this blog.

I want to share my experience on how I, a person with English as a second language, with this non-perfect English grammar, stylistics, and pronunciation was able to create a native English speaker, my little son. I want to write about the first three years of my son’s life because that’s when I introduced the community language to him. I want to tell about my family challenge and explain why as a parent I felt it so crucial that my son needed to speak English as his first language, equally to his parents’ mother tongue. I also want to tell you how happy I am that he managed to learn the community language with the help of the people who care the most, his parents, and while he was still in his comfort zone: at home.

I tested on my family (scared as hell but I did) and proved that you don’t have to be a native speaker to introduce an infant to another language, and I succeeded. I want to tell you all the tricks I have been using and answer today’s question in the most positive way. Oh yes, you can teach your child a language even if you cannot speak it perfect! I could, and I’m certain you can do it, too.

Standard Situations Do Not Require Standard Solutions

In an “ordinary” situation, i.e. if we followed the standard guidelines of the language experts our five-year-old would be just beginning to learn English. Many old-school linguists still believe that if you try to teach your child a language that is not your mother tongue you may cause more harm than good and to a certain extent they are right. We all develop in stages and if we go past the certain stage while still trying to use the same method, we may fail. For this reason, a significant number of parents with the best intentions instead of helping would just mess up their kid’s language because they didn’t know what to do, how to do it, and, what I personally find incredibly important, when to stop. In the result, by the time their child was five and went to school those parents would pass onto him or her all their language habits, foreign accent, and grammar mistakes, which were later much harder to get rid of. That’s nothing to look forward to.

This is why, if you are a migrant parent, and you ask a teacher or your local council what to do, just like I did before my little boy was born, most certainly you will hear this one thing: “Don’t teach your child a language that is not your mother tongue”. In other words, wait until he starts school and then we will teach him English as an Additional Language. Well, fine. It’s just that his additional language will be the native language of all the other people around. That doesn’t matter, though, does it?

It mattered to me as a parent. I didn’t want my child to feel for the first five years of his life like he didn’t belong to his place of birth. How could he belong if he wouldn’t be able to communicate? I put then on the scale all my concerns together with what I could achieve in case I succeed. The conclusion was simple. I took a deep breath and I did what any concerned parent would do, especially if she was a parent who knew a thing or two about linguistics.

I have been introducing my little son to the community language for the first three years of his life. I was carefully watching him develop his language skills both in Polish and in English and I was listening to his pronunciation in both languages. Having a linguistic background helped me to get through those first experiences but today, nearly six years later I know that you don’t have to be a scholar to make it work. I make errors when I speak my second language (six years ago I made them even more often, be sure about that), my English stylistics is sometimes really rubbish (and I am aware of that, which makes it even worse). Nevertheless, I made it!

Today my son is naturally bilingual. From the start, he has been learning Polish and English at the same time and the same speed. He speaks and writes fluently in two languages, and he can read in both languages on a level that is a few years higher than expected for his age. He is articulate and never has been through the so-called silent phase, when a child refuses to communicate until he feels confident enough to embrace the new sounds. Both at preschool and school he made friends with his monolingual peers and has never had any problems with expressing his feelings or his will to his teachers. I was introducing him to English for the first three years of his life, so before he became grammar conscious and started to develop more complex phrases, thanks to which he didn’t get from me the errors I am making in my second language.

This is what this blog will be about. And yes, I will write it in my rubbish English because I believe that what I have to say exceeds the importance of how I write it (but I’ll do my best to make it understandable and readable, I promise). When I look at my family experience, I can assure you that even my relatively weak language skills still were good enough to introduce my child to another language and create a confident little English speaker, who loves to correct my pronunciation. A parent can do more than they think if they must. You can do it, too.

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5 thoughts on “Can you teach your child a language if you cannot speak it properly?

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  1. Many thanks for sharing your story and experience. I am a immigrant in Spain and I am try to teach my little girl three languages in the same time (Spanish, English and Persian) I really don’t know how manage it to be in right dirrection.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Matt, I’m so happy to hear that you are interested in my experience. Introducing three languages seems like a great challenge, I’m impressed. At the same time I’m also sure that your little daughter will be fine with it if only she has enough exposure to each language. I don’t know how old she is but as you could see in my post, I found it incredibly important that a child needs to be no older than three years. Until then you can do so much to help her get to know the other languages. Please follow my blog, I hope you will find it useful for your family. Meanwhile, if you have any questions, feel free to ask, I might have already been through it 🙂

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  2. Many thanks for your valuable thoughts. Your recommendations surely help me to teach my girl languages in right way with your guidance according your experiences with your son.
    I have more questions:
    1. My girl have 1 years and two months, which way is suitable to teach her languages?
    2. She love to watch TV and movise in different voice and language it’s useful or not?

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    1. Matt, to your first question I am not able to reply in one, or even a few sentences, so please be patient and read my blog, I’m working now on another post and your questions certainly motivate me to keep on working :).
      Regarding watching TV – I am also going to write a post about it but for now I can say that I would be wary of letting your little daughter watching TV. With my son at that age we did – if any at all – maybe 15 minutes, 20 at the most. Not every day. But I did play music for him in English, lots and lots of nursery rhymes during our English time – he just not necessarily had to watch them. Hope it helps 🙂

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