Speak or not to speak to your child in English?

Recently I have talked to a small group of parents whose children were learning English as an additional language. Some of the parents in the group spoke only English at home. They believed they were helping their children develop good English language skills.

At the same time the parents couldn’t understand why some teachers suggest that they should speak to their children in their first language rather than in English. In their eyes, the advice was counterproductive and didn’t make sense. At the end of the day the more parents speak to the child in English the better her/his English becomes. Right?

Well, it really depends on parents’ English proficiency. In the above-mentioned group all the parents spoke fluent English. Their English proficiency level was approximately between B2 (intermediate) and C1 (operational proficiency). In other words, parents’ English was definitely good enough to develop children’s communicative level of English. At the same time, parents might not have been proficient enough to develop children’s more advanced academic language.

And here is the thing, most of bilingual children develop their communicative English skills independently. Parents don’t really need help children with basic English skills. Children learn communicative English through the play and talk with their friends. If the parents in the above-mentioned group hadn’t used English at all, their children would have learnt the communicative English anyway.

The real problem is that many bilingual children struggle with more advanced English (academic language). It is the language of texts, books and assessments. It is the English children need to be successful at school. Thus, the most important question is whether parental use of English at home supports children’s academic English?

Stated differently, can parents develop children’s academic vocabulary, complex syntax, conceptual knowledge and advanced grammar? Can parents clearly explain in English words/expressions such as: community, resident, strategy, the lowest common denominator, equation and survey. Can parents provide children with a consistently rich source of lexical development e.g. more sophisticated vocabulary e.g. conclusion, regulations, evaluation, distinction, consequence.

If the parents I met couldn’t answer to these three questions positively, probably their home instructional effort was ineffective. They were helping their children with skills children can master themselves and ignoring the skills which children badly need help with.

It is kind of ironic, since parents who are not proficient in English can actually develop academic language in children’s first language. The research shows that academic proficiency can be developed first in home language and then transferred to English. For instance, if a parent explained to the child the word ‘evaluation’ in Spanish, the child would have little difficulty to learn/comprehend the same word in English.

Many parents who choose to speak English at home, inadvertently, shoot themselves in the foot. They abandon the language they know and in which they can help children in the long-run. Instead, they choose the language where positive effect might be negligible and unsustainable. Of course, they have good intentions, but the results of their choice might be disastrous.

In this blogpost I am focusing more on language-related aspects of language choice. However, parents should remember that speaking to child in the first language is also highly beneficial for children’s psychological development and family bonds.

A few more important points to consider:
There are situations when speaking to a child in English is justified and indeed contributes to her/his English language development e.g. shy children might not be able to learn basic English through play because they rarely play with other children.

The use of English at home should be always carefully weighted with parental English language proficiency and children’s development of primary language.

Prescriptive approach in which parents are suggested to speak at home either primary language or English does not seem to reflect everyday realities of many bilingual families. There are frequent situations in which English and primary language are used interchangeably in a flexible manner. That is OK. Yet parents should pay closer attention to patterns of language exposure at home. Once you start speaking to a child in English, it might be difficult to return to using home language again. Mixing language does not usually confuse children. It can also be used for pedagogical purposes (google: translanguaging). However that requires a conscious and well-organised effort.