Care and Feeding

I’m Worried Our Bilingual Dreams for Our Kid Could End in a Mess

This might be a bad idea.

A father holds his baby in his lap and reads a book.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Prostock-Studio/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Slate Plus members get more Care and Feeding every week.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I have a 2-month old, our first child. Should we try to raise him to be multilingual? Here are the complications: My husband was born in Kyiv but moved to the U.S. when he was 3. Although he speaks Russian with his parents and it was his first language, English is his stronger language by far. He has a slight American accent in Russian, and feels that he topped out in Russian at about a sixth grade level. He doesn’t know idioms or slang well, and lacks the depth of vocabulary a fully fluent Russian-speaking adult would have. Still, he is functionally fluent.

I am a native English speaker, but I was a French major in college and lived in France for a year. At my most fluent, I was at ease in any situation speaking French, but I still made plenty of grammatical errors when I spoke, and my vocabulary was never encyclopedic. I don’t know much slang or many colloquialisms.

My husband and I speak exclusively English to each other. So, is it worth it to try to teach our son what we do know of our languages, or will we hamper his development in English without giving him much in the way of additional languages? I want him to learn languages while his brain is still a little sponge, but I also want him to learn our personalities fully, which we best express in English.

—Bi-ish-lingual in the Bay

Dear Bi-ish-lingual,

I don’t think you and your husband’s level of fluency in your non-English languages is sufficient to pull off a truly multilingual household. That kind of language immersion tends to work well when languages other than English are spoken not only fluently but unselfconsciously, easily, and consistently. It sounds to me like you two would be tying yourself in knots if you decided, say, to have your husband speak only Russian at home and you only French.

Instead, why not liberally sprinkle your conversations with your child with those languages? Make your husband’s Russian and your French a part of his everyday life as much as possible. Don’t worry about making him fluent (after all, neither of you fully are), but instead make a conscious decision to raise him in a way that is language-inclusive, so that languages other than English don’t seem strange and mysterious to him. Children are sponges. Yours will likely pick up a lot of Russian from the time he spends with his father’s family, listening to them speak to one another—and perhaps they will speak Russian to him, too. And teaching your son the French and Russian words for the world around him will be fun (you two can do this at the same time you teach him the English words for things—why not?). In other words: Don’t hamstring yourself with the requirement that you speak to your child in a language you don’t feel at home in. But bring that language into your home whenever you can.

Michelle

More Advice From Slate

My wife is beautiful, smart, fun, and we complement each other in a lot of ways. But we cannot for the life of us figure out how to stick to a compromise. When we disagree, we’ll talk about it and come to an agreement, then a few days later, she’ll bring it up again, saying I “need to work with [her] and move to the middle.” This kind of moving-the-goal-post thing happens constantly, with things both big and small, and I’m not sure how to handle it, especially with the big stuff…