Will English Confuse the Baby?

Here in Boston, many of my students, coworkers, neighbors, and friends are raising multicultural and multilingual families. I love living in a city with people from all over the world where we get to share and learn from each other! Of course, there are questions and challenges specific to immigrants, international students, and their families. One comment I’ve heard from my students can sound something like this: “My older daughter goes to school, so her English is very good. I want to speak English with her so I can practice, but I speak Portuguese with my husband and my baby, and I’m afraid that speaking two languages at home will confuse my baby.” This is a complex subject with different perspectives, and teaching your children your native language(s) may certainly be a priority for you. But is it harmful to speak your native language(s) and English around small children? 

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  • Children’s brains are really flexible and they are able to learn different languages’ vocabulary and grammar without confusing them. They may mix languages together (like “Spanglish”, “Brazinglish”, “Portinglish”, “Franglais” etc.)- this is called “code-switching”, and even adults do it! This is a normal part of being bilingual or multilingual.1 
  •  A young bilingual child will typically have less vocabulary in one language than monolingual children of the same age, but their total vocabulary in both languages is more than the vocabulary of the child learning just one language! With regular language exposure, a child learning two or more languages will “catch up” and have the same amount of vocabulary as monolingual children their age by about 10 years old.2 So, it might seem like bilingual kids learn to speak more slowly, but that’s only because they’re learning more languages, and they will catch up and have the same range of language later on.
  • There are many ways to raise multilingual children. In some families, each parent speaks a different language to the children. Some families speak to each other in one language at home and in another language while in public. Some people speak one language with their spouse and other adults while speaking English with their children. Some people speak English and their native language(s) with their spouses and children. You can choose what is comfortable for you, and your children will learn multiple languages as long as they have the opportunity to hear and speak them! 

What is your experience? What language(s) do you use with your family and friends? 


  1. Lowry, Lauren. “Bilingualism in Young Children: Separating Fact from Fiction.” The Hanen Centre, n.d. 

http://www.hanen.org/helpful-info/articles/bilingualism-in-young-children--separating-fact fr.aspx.

  1. Hoff, Erika, and Cynthia Core. “What Clinicians Need to Know about Bilingual Development.” National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, April 29, 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5021218/.
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