Expat Families: Which Language Should you Speak at Home?

Pascale Chauvot

3 Aug 2015

The number of international relationships has grown inexorably as more and more people travel, study, live and work outside of their home country. When it comes to finally settling down and starting a family the issue of language often arises. Which language should you speak at home and how does it impact on your children?

Expatriates, who have immersed themselves in their new home, will undoubtedly speak the language of their new home as well as their mother tongue. Equally, their partner may or may not be a local and may have similar linguistic experiences. But what about the children? Which language should you speak to them at home?

Language Choice

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article raising this question about language use in multilingual families.  In the case of the journalist, both partners spoke different mother tongues, and established English as their family language.

Many multicultural partnerships have similar decisions to make.  Choosing a shared, third language has several advantages.  A third language is theoretically neutral, giving neither party a linguistic advantage over the other if both learnt the third language as a non mother tongue language.  A third language may be easier to learn than a partner’s mother tongue language.  Many families choose to speak in a third language for business or other practical reasons – maybe it’s the everyday language of their country of residence or it’s a good language for advancing a career.

What About the Children?

Once children come along, linguistic choices in a multilingual family multiply.  Which language or languages should a young child learn?  When?  Who should teach them?  How?  Will they get muddled?  Will they fail to learn any one language correctly?

The Challenges

As many adults know, language learning can be very difficult in adulthood, especially for adults who have little or no command of an additional language.  Linguistic rigidity can defeat the most enthusiastic language student, especially if they are attempting to learn a language very different to their own.  However, as the WSJ article points out, projecting adult anxieties onto young children would be a mistake.

Linguistic Sponges

It would be incorrect to assume that children face the same struggle, especially when they are very young.  Children are like linguistic sponges, exhibiting the ability to learn more than one language – often several – concurrently and in the long term, with very little difficulty.

In multilingual families, learning each parent’s mother tongue gives the child the platform to speak more than one language fluently, ie to obtain two genuine mother tongues.  Different languages also provide a window into the culture(s) of that language/country.  This is particularly important if the child is not living in that environment but shares the cultural heritage represented by the language.

Expatriate children can also be beneficiaries of learning not only a third language, but often a fourth language as well.  This fourth language often comes courtesy of maids or nannies, who may introduce their own mother tongue into the mix.

Sorting Languages

Mixing languages is a concern for families with young children, especially for children young enough to be forming their initial language skills.  Very young children often choose words from more than one language when communicating with others.  However, the article’s author points out that multilingual children are also adept at code-switching, i.e. adapting their language to the listener.  It also points out that children sort out language differences by the age of 2 or 3, even if the occasional mix up occurs.


As language skills are practised, fluency is achieved by young children in particular.  It also sets up these children for future language learning, especially if they are an expatriate family with many future assignments ahead of them in linguistic greenfields.  As the WSJ article points out, children with a multilingual foundation from an early age are best suited to adapt and learn additional languages later in life.

Lost in Translation?

Perhaps the opposite.  Expats, especially expat children are more likely to be our linguistic ambassadors of the future.

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