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What If a Parent Speaks a Different Language Than Their Toddler Is Growing Up Speaking?

by Maggie McCormick, studioD

Toddlers are constantly learning language, and if you expose your children to two different languages, they are likely to learn both. Speaking a different language other than the one your toddler speaks can certainly be frustrating at times, but this does not mean you cannot develop a strong relationship with your child. Gestures that demonstrate love and care can be just as effective as words.

Bilingual Children

Your toddler's other language may be dominant, but soon he will still start to understand your language. If he has been hearing it from birth, he probably understands your language as fluently as a native does speaker does at the same age -- even if he is not speaking it. In the early years, this is "semilingualism,” but if you continue to speak your language, his semilingualism will develop into a more balanced bilingualism, according to an article in "The American School in Japan Alumni & Community Magazine." It is common for your child to answer your questions in his dominant language, even though you asked in your language. This demonstrates understanding.

One Parent, One Language

In homes where parents speak different languages, it is common for each parent to speak his or her own language to the child. This ensures that the child is hearing the language from a native speaker, which affects pronunciation and intonation. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, it is easier for children to learn both languages if they are similar in nature. However, as children get older, they can learn concepts that are more difficult.

Communication Problems

One of the most frustrating aspects of speaking a language that’s different from your child’s is that you may not be able to understand each other all the time. She may understand your question, for example, but she may not be able to answer in a language other than her dominant language. Use hand gestures to help your child understand what you are saying. Demonstrating this will probably encourage her to do the same when she answers. Resist the urge to get visibly frustrated when you cannot understand your child.

Building Fluency

Continue speaking to your child in your language to build her language skills in that language and try to learn some of her dominant language as well. If you can translate some of the basic words, you will have an easier time understanding each other. For example, if you know that the word he is trying to say is "water," you might repeat it in English and in your language. Enlisting the other parent's help with translation also makes things much easier.

About the Author

Maggie McCormick is a freelance writer. She lived in Japan for three years teaching preschool to young children and currently lives in Honolulu with her family. She received a B.A. in women's studies from Wellesley College.

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