Which Language Will Your Baby Speak?

“Will your baby speak Marathi, or just English?”, she said as she looked at me, almost disapprovingly. As if my influence would be shielding my son from speaking the local language. I had to suppress my urge to turn defensive and simply smile and say, “both”.

I didn’t even know who this woman was.

Why did I take it personally?

Well, most of the children I know here in India have a great grasp of English, and can speak Marathi and Hindi fluently. Indian does have 22 official languages, after all. My husband can speak Marathi, Hindi, English and even Sanskrit. So, why would our child “just” speak English? Probably because I haven’t managed to become fluent in Marathi myself. This is something I am working on, but I’m certain the fact I am no polyglot will have little impact on the beautiful human we are raising, as we are living in a multilingual household.

There are various ways you can encourage children in multilingual families to grow up speaking two or more languages, we’ve thought about it a lot. We are currently living with my husband’s parents, so they talk to him in Marathi and our neighbour’s sons (ages 6 and 11) chat to Rohan in Hindi. My husband and I speak to Rohan in English, along with a couple of Hindi songs, as it’s the language we communicate in. We often have visitors in our house speaking Marathi or Hindi. I like to encourage everyone to have conversations with Rohan, so it’s worked out pretty well so far.

Which Language Will Your Baby Speak?

Isn’t it too soon to be thinking about this?

A funny thing happened that made me realise that it’s never too early to start exposing a child to multiple languages. My husband was discussing the recent demonetisation of the Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes with his mother in his mother tongue. Rohan looked at him with an expression I can only describe as astonishment. Maybe he was surprised by Modi’s radical move, but I think he was shocked by his Daddy’s language change. I later read that research suggests that babies start recognising words from 6 months, It seems my 6 month old already knows more Marathi than I do, I don’t think he will speak “just” English!


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20 thoughts on “Which Language Will Your Baby Speak?

  1. Personally I dont have experience bringing up children multilingual, but I am a multilingual child. My mom speaks another language than the country we were living in (and my dad). She started talking to me in my native country’s language from the beginning, and in her own native language from the age of 3. I am fluent in my native language, but I am very confident in my other mothertongue. Grammatically its not very good (very tough grammar and no official classes) but we can have a good serious conversation in my moms native language and on holidays there I always talk that language only.

    I would tell you from my own personal experience as a multilingual child that it is amazing. Keep on talking to your baby in all the languages you know and keep on encouraging people to talk and communicate with him in whatever language. When he is older he will thank you for your hard work.


  2. Hi Lauren -as you know we have both French and English in our home and Thomas speaks both fluently – French was dominant but after his almost 5 years in the UK and Canada things seem to be evening out … We chose to have one langauge per person, as linguistic research says that children can get confused, but in your case your husband could maybe be said to have 3 mother tongues, including English so it’s more complicated. At about two or three Thomas tried to speak French to Grampy because he thought men spoke French and women English 🙂 & then later decided the language was connected to the country and decreed that Patrick should speak only English from when we got on the boat. The main advice I could give as a mother and a linguist is not to listen to advive but to go with your heart and that could work for Abi too – if he feels he can express some things better in Marathi or Hindi then he could use those languages too in his communication with Rohan. He could perhaps have a Marathi moment and a Hindi moment for the baby, as well as when he is communicating with other people in those languages – the affective side of language is so important, as are the cultural references .. The other is that children need to use languages with other children to feel their interest and it looks as though that is already happening. How exciting, especially when it comes to learning writing, that’ll be a real chalenge and an asset for Rohan !!


    • That’s so funny Aunty Ali, I had never heard that story before!!
      I’m definitely going to try and learn the Devanagari alphabet soon so I can create some games using it (I’ll have to ask Rosie for some tips!)
      Lots of love ❤


  3. My mother lounguage is polish, but with my Fiance I’m talking in englih. My Fiance talking in 5-6 languages or even more (like not only english or hindi but also nepali or punjabi) so we already know that our kids will talk in minimum 3 languages and we will teach them since they will come to the world. I think its totally natural in multicultural families. My friend and her husband are polish but they are teaching they small daughters 3 languages and girls are fluent with all three because for kids especially small, learning is much more easier than for older people. 🙂


  4. Speaking from personal experience, this will never be an issue. When I had my daughter and realized that I would have to raise her in multilingual household (I am from Odisha, working in West Bengal since last 10 years), initially I was very apprehensive as I was not sure in which language I should communicate with my child. My in-laws stay with me and I did not want to deprive them of the joy of communicating with their grandchild. Since I stay in West Bengal, I was also thinking what will happen when my daughter joins school as the medium of communication would be English and I thought my child will not be able to express her needs once she joins school if I communicate with her in Odia only (all this when she was not even a month old). In the end, I just decided to go with the flow and not bother too much about this and I let her get exposed to all sort of languages. Eventually she grew up speaking Odia with family, Bengali with my maids, picking bits of Hindi and English while watching rhymes and once she joined school she picked English really fast and was very comfortable within a month in school. So I realized that my fears were baseless and children are like sponge, they will take on whatever they are exposed to.
    There was one hilarious outcome of all this.. Similar to what you say when Rohan first heard his dad talk in Marathi. In Kolkata, my daughter would speak in Odia with family and in Bengali with maids so I think she associated Bengali as the language of common man outside home. Initially whenever I visited our family in Odisha, she would talk in Odia with them but whenever she saw a maid or she went outside, she would start speaking in Bengali and she was so baffled why nobody understood her. It took her some time to get used to the idea that there is something called mother tongue belonging to different states in India and now she is a pro.. Often when she is describing her day at school she would say so or so child is a Hindi baccha or a Bengali baccha to give me a context of what and why it happened and all I can think at that point is why the hell I was worried about all this 🙂


    • Hi Manisha,
      That’s great your daughter has picked up so much!!!
      So sweet, awww! I cannot wait to see how Rohan figures this all out!
      Lots of love, thank you so much for sharing ❤


  5. Hi Lauren and greeting from Finnish/South Indian couple! It’s truly fascinating to read your blog. I just started one myself and you are a big inspiration for me.

    Kids learning languages – that’s an interesting topic. Please keep us updates how it is going in your family. Have you heard this Freakonomics Radio episode called “Does ‘Early Education’ Come Way Too Late?” (http://freakonomics.com/podcast/does-early-education-come-way-too-late-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast/). If not, I would highly recommend it!


  6. I’ve never had anyone that I didn’t know make a comment about what language my little ones would speak, although it has certainly come up in conversation. I don’t know why the assumption is always made that we are only going to teach our children English when they are growing up in a culture that already uses multiple languages. I’ve been in India now for several years and still cannot communicate in Hindi (I manage to get by with a limited vocab). My DS who is 2 now speaks in and responds to both English and Hindi. I don’t think it is possible to live in this country and only speak English. As for the comments, I think people need to learn to bite their tongue. If it doesn’t involve you keep mum unless we’ve solicited your opinion! Lots of love to you and the family 🙂


  7. What’s interesting is any child being born in India has to learn English. Next time anybody asks, question them back if their children know English or not. They will proudly say, “Yes!!!”


  8. Saira started off so well – she understood English and spoke it but also understood some Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati and Konkani as these were the languages spoken by neighbors and friends. After two years back in the UK she lost pretty much all of it except for the pigeon Hindi I attempted to talk to her (much to the puzzlement of the general public when I told her ‘mut ko ro!’) Bizarrely she responds to being told off better in Hindi than in English! Now we are back she is really struggling with her Hindi and it definitely impacts on being able to socialize and make friends. We speak in English at home for ease but she gets a good amount of exposure elsewhere. I’m going to get her (and me) a tutor as what she learns at school is very basic.
    There are so many advantages to bringing a child up bilingual – it will help them to learn other languages later in life should they wish and there are all sorts of interesting studies on brain development out there. Children are like sponges for information and particularly language so they have an added advantage over us oldies! They are also great to practice your own language skills on and it won’t be long before he is correcting your grammar and teaching you new words!
    Another interesting question to ask is not only what language your baby will speak, but what language will they dream in? This is an aspect of language fluency that has always fascinated me!


  9. I want to share two stories. Our new neighbor is a Bengali family their daughter age around 2 years. Whatever she learn so far she speaks in Bengali with her parents, with other neighbor kids she speak in Marathi and with some other elders in Hindi. She very well understand which language words to use with whom.

    Second story is about my friend who was born in one of the Northeast states of India and was fluent in local language till 5th standard later his father got transfer back to Maharashtra and slowly he forget that language.


  10. Same at home! My older daughter speaks English, Mandarin and Korean (though I teach her and her younger sister some Tagalog and Hokkien once in a while) but we are very fortunate because we have the environment. I speak to the kids mainly in English, my hubby and the helper speaks to the kids in Korean and my older daughter attends a Chinese school. I really hope they can retain these languages! 🙂


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