Non-native parents – Do not let vocabulary stop you from rearing bilingual

Last Saturday, I took my daughters to a Storytelling in English organised by our local library as part of their annual Foreign Languages Week. We bumped into the mum of a little boy we know, who is trying to initiate her 2 kids to English. In our discussion, she explained how with her husband they had tried to speak English at home, but how -like so many non-native parents- they had given up on the idea of rearing bilingual after realising they only spoke business English and hence lacked day-to-day and children-related vocabulary.

It makes me feel sad every time I hear this, as parents have missed on the opportunity to make their bilingual education dream come true simply based on a misconception: that only a native can know all the necessary vocabulary. Whether bilingual or monolingual, no parent has an exhaustive vocabulary in babydom, education and other things you might encounter in your day-to-day life.

For instance, how many natives know how you call the different items of baby clothing or childcare? It might sound obvious in English as it is a rather pragmatic language but some languages like French have very fancy, non self-explanatory words such as a nid d’ange (sleeping bag for the carrycot), grenouillère (babygrow), gigoteuse or turbulette (sleeping bag for the cot), nacelle (carrycot), cape de bain (hooded bathing towel) and what have you!

Truth be told, this kind of vocabulary is not known by many natives unless they have had babies around them before actually becoming a parent.  My husband did not have a clue in his own mother-tongue nor did I in mine. You just pick-up the vocabulary as you sail through the adventure of parenthood.

The following day to meeting this mum, we took our eldest to the zoo.  I remember that the first couple of times we took her to the zoo or when translating animal books from the Majority Language to the minority language, I felt uncomfortable.  When naming animals, I always had doubts as to the name or I simply had blanks. This weekend, it struck me I felt more confident. 6 and a half years using the animal vocabulary, looking it up, and it has finally begun sinking in.  The signs being bilingual French-English for tourists, I was able to check the name of the animals and pick up a few new ones along the way (just like you, I do not use “Mara hare” on a daily basis 😉 ). It was also a wonderful life-size revision.

If you think about it, this go-along vocabulary acquisition also applies to the working-world: when you start a career, you do not necessarily know all the jargon either.  In my case, I learnt on the go the jargon for my industry in my mother-tongue. And being trilingual, I was -and still am- regularly mistaken for a born translator (see François Grosjean’s Myths about Bilingalism) and required to translate these terms into English!  However, neither at school nor whilst living in the UK did I need or learn this highly technical vocabulary related to my then future career! Over the years in my job, I came to learn this jargon.

Well, it is exactly the same with baby/child-related vocabulary. It is something you pick-up along the way.  Remember that a language -any language whether mother-tongue or second language- is like a plant: the more you nurture it the more it will grow and bloom.

So if you are a non-native parent, doubting your vocabulary in the minority language and as a result your ability to raise bilingual, do not let this prevent you from making your bilingual education dream come true. No native possesses an exhaustive vocabulary in every single domains of life: we develop vocabulary in what we put our interest in.  A language, whether native or not, is a living thing that needs to be nurtured to bloom.

Learn to be patient with yourself: vocabulary will come with practice.  Do not dread situations where you are confronted with words you doubt or do not know; for each of these situations are opportunities to pick-up the vocabulary and look up your doubts.  If you are stuck, try to find another word to get round it and look it up later, or simply own up to it to your child and take a dictionary out. Let your child know what a dictionary is, and above all, that it is okay not to know a word as long as you look it up to try and learn it.  Do not let your current limits curb your bilingual education dream. 🙂


    1. So glad to hear it! :). Languages is a lifelong process, even in your mother-tongue! I’ve been trilingual for 30 years now, and none of my languages are absolutely perfect. If you slack you forget very quickly, if you ain’t curious or willing to make efforts, you don’t improve/develop your target language. It is a continuous but invigorating process. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Great encouragement! When our child was in a serious construction machinery phase far beyond my Spanish literature vocabulary I wrote the five most common trucks in Spanish on a whiteboard on the fridge so I could remind myself of the words. That way I could scoop up a word and keep the conversation going. Also when I don’t know a word I talk around it using circumlocution,admit I don’t know it, look it up and report back. Works well. Gracias, Rebecca

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love the fridge trick! It’s brilliant!!
      At first, I used to be embarassed to owning up not knowing a word, but now I realise it is can be a positive image. My eldest thinks one must know everything. So by showing her I don’t, she learns this is normal and that what truly matters is not knowledge per se but learning (by looking word up).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. So true. Even though I am talking to my kids in my native language, now and then I lack some vocabulary, for example I had to look for soccer related vocabulary in Spanish to be able to tell my son the words when he was using the German terms 😉 And more often than not I have had to google how some animals are called in Spanish, while I already knew the German names.

    Liked by 1 person

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