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Lingua Franca VS Dialect: How To Avoid Making a Decision You'll Regret!

You are facing a dilemma.

You want to raise your child to be bilingual or trilingual, but you’re debating whether to speak to them in the official version of your target language (AKA the lingua franca) or the local dialect that’s such a big part of your identity.

How should you choose?

That’s the dilemma I faced 5 years ago.

By the end of this article, you’ll know the THREE questions you need to ask yourself to make the RIGHT decision and AVOID the regret that I have experienced!

Just a quick background for those of you who are new to my blog.

I’m a UK-based mum actively raising her two children to be trilingual in Mandarin, Russian and English.

The lingua franca vs. dialect debate is very close to my heart, as my husband and I have faced this exact dilemma ourselves.

One of my YouTube viewers recently mentioned in the comments that he’s sad to see so many overseas Chinese parents talking to their kids in Mandarin in favour of their local dialect. And I know this debate isn’t only relevant to people of Chinese descent, as many major nations around the world also have an official lingua franca that coexists alongside local dialects.

Hindi in India, or Spanish in Spain, are just some examples.

Spanish and Hindi are some examples of lingua francas; raising bilingual children
Spanish and Hindi are some examples of lingua francas

In this article and my YouTube video on the same topic, I will discuss the THREE MAIN questions that you must ask yourself, which will help guide you towards the right decision for you and your family.

You’ll know what the main pros and cons are with each decision and how you should weigh them up.

I’ll also share my own experience and tell you if I have any regrets about our decision.

Why listen to another stranger on the internet?

First and foremost, I’ve been through this dilemma myself as a mum raising two trilingual kids. I have a degree from Cambridge University and am a qualified translator and language instructor. I’m also an Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

In short, I’m absolutely passionate about empowering parents to raise multilingual kids. After reading this article, I encourage you to download my free family language planner, which will help you formulate a plan for YOUR family.

So, without further ado, let’s get started!



Question 1: What Are Your Values?

What’s the FIRST question that you need to ask yourself when trying to figure out whether to speak to your child in the lingua franca or your local dialect?

Let me tell you a story.

When we lived in London, I met multilingual families on a daily basis. In fact, I would say that we knew more bilingual or multilingual families than families that only spoke English! There was a high concentration of people from Western Europe, so I was very familiar with the sounds of Spanish or French, for instance.

But one day, in our local playground, I saw a European-looking dad speaking to a little girl in a language I didn’t recognise at all. Being the nosy person that I am, of course I had to approach him! When the subject of languages came up, he told me that he was from the Basque-speaking region of Spain and that he only spoke to his daughter in Basque.

The Basque-speaking region in Spain
The Basque-speaking region in Spain

But what really stuck with me was the words he used.

He said, in these exact words, that he had a MORAL DUTY to pass on the Basque language to his daughter.

A MORAL DUTY. These are very powerful words!

And now let me tell you another story.

Around the same time as this encounter, I also met another family at our local soft play centre. I got chatting with a mum who had twin girls. The mum told me that she’s English, but she and her husband and children lived in Barcelona in Spain. I asked her, do your little girls speak the local language then?

And here’s what she said, pretty much in these exact words:

Yes, they do. It’s a shame that it’s Catalan, not Spanish, though.

Now, to me, these two stories encapsulate the essence of the first question that parents facing this dilemma must ask themselves.

What are your VALUES?

Are you an idealist who believes in passing on their linguistic heritage and culture, like that Basque-speaking dad, or a pragmatist like the English mum?

Of course, we must bear in mind that there’s a fundamental difference between their situations: the Basque-speaking dad feels this sentence of moral duty and obligation because it’s HIS language and culture.

For the English mum, she quite understandably thinks that Spanish is more “useful” than Catalan, hence her comment about it being a pity that her daughters “only” learnt to speak Catalan. She doesn’t feel an emotional stake in preserving the Catalan language, or any sort of attachment to the language and culture.

What do YOU value more as a person, as a parent: passing on the heritage and culture of your forebears, or passing on a more “useful” language to your child?

When I say useful, I mean purely in terms of numbers – it is a fact that Mandarin is spoken by 1.3 billion people, versus Cantonese, which is spoken “only” by 85 million people, which is still 8 times the size of Sweden, but you get my point.

Cantonese VS Mandarin: Which One Should You Choose When Raising Bilingual Children?
Cantonese VS Mandarin: Which One Should You Choose?

Or take Spanish as an example.

It’s spoken by over 400 million worldwide as a first language, and a further 100 million as a second language. Compare this with Catalan, which “only” has about 8 million speakers worldwide.

Spanish VS Catalan: Which One Should You Choose When Raising Bilingual Children?
Spanish VS Catalan: Which One Should You Choose When Raising Bilingual Children?

So, it’s not unreasonable to think that languages with a greater number of speakers are more “useful” on a practical level. And by extension, it’s also not unreasonable to think that your child will gain more competitive advantage by knowing a more “useful” language.

Leaving aside the whole heritage argument, some people would also argue that we have the moral duty to preserve linguistic diversity by keeping our dialects alive.  According to Unesco:

Despite the immense value of languages, more than half of all languages are in danger of falling into disuse, with devastating impacts for the global linguistic diversity and the situation of language communities, particularly Indigenous Peoples. - UNESCO

So, if you speak a dialect or language that’s highly at risk, you may well feel very strongly about preserving this language for posterity.

Indeed, there’s a compelling case for the idea that a world with less linguistic diversity will be a more culturally impoverished one.

At this point, you might be wondering – what did WE decide to do?

That's what we’re gonna delve into right now.

My husband and I are very pragmatic people. We both decided to raise our kids to speak Mandarin instead of my native dialect, Cantonese.

To give you some context, I was born in Shanghai and raised in Hong Kong, before moving to the UK as a teenager. I consider Cantonese my mother tongue, and for the first two years of our first child's life, I did speak to him in Cantonese as it came more naturally to me.

However, when he turned two, we decided to introduce Mandarin to our language mix. Gradually, Cantonese fell by the wayside as we struggled to keep four languages going at the same time. So, in the end, we "only" kept Russian, Mandarin and English.

Do I have any regrets about our decision?

I’ll tell you more later on in this article, but for now let’s get back to the key point: you need to ask yourself what your core value is, what matters to you more. It’s almost like that perennial head vs heart debate…

Are big emotions at stake here?

Do you have a super strong emotional attachment to one language over the other?

Asking this question will help clarify your thoughts and guide you toward the right decision.

And when I say the “right decision”, I mean the right decision for you and your family because I firmly, 100% believe that there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to multilingual parenting.

Every family is different!


Question 2: What Are Your Family's Goals and Needs?

Now that we’ve asked ourselves this first fundamental question let’s move on to the next question: What’s the next thing I need to consider when deciding between the lingua franca and my local dialect?

First, let me tell you about my cousin and her family.

My cousin was born and raised in Shanghai, China, and is fluent in Shanghainese and Mandarin. She and her German husband live in Germany, where their son was born. Like me, she faced the same dilemma when deciding whether to raise her son in Shanghainese or Mandarin.

Like me, she started off with Shanghainese, as it came more naturally to her.

Again, like me, she switched to Mandarin later on because, apparently, everyone around her told her it would be more “useful!”

Well, selfishly, I’m glad that she did, because when our kids get together, they can now communicate in Mandarin, the only language they have in in common!

Also, let’s not forget the fact that my cousin and I would also be unable to communicate with each other if we didn’t both speak Mandarin, the official lingua franca of China. When my mum, my cousin and I are together, our conversations are always a chaotic mix of Cantonese, Shanghainese and Mandarin, but having Mandarin at least means we can actually have a conversation! (Although, to be fair, we could probably get by speaking to each other in English, but… well, that would be a bit weird!)

Why did I tell you this story?

Because I want you to ask yourself the second crucial question when choosing between the lingua franca and your dialect.

What are your family’s goals and needs?

This will be a major determinant of which language you choose.

In our case, Mandarin allows our children to communicate with their extended family in China and their second cousin in Germany, which is important to us. Because both my parents are from mainland China, we actually don’t have any relatives in Hong Kong, so for me, it’s more important that they can communicate with their uncles, aunties and second cousins.

But this can be different for YOUR family.

In many countries, younger people are more proficient in the lingua franca than older people.

A case in point is my late grandmother: she would’ve been in her 90s now were she still alive, and she never learnt to speak Mandarin in her lifetime. Because I don’t speak her dialect, we could never communicate with each other properly. And I imagine this would be the case in many other countries.

So, if communicating with grandparents who don’t necessarily speak the lingua franca is high on your family’s priority list, raising your child to speak your dialect might be a necessary choice.


Question 3: Can You Do Both?

We now know the two key questions that you must ask: 1) What are your values? 2) What are your family’s goals and needs?

But there’s one more question you need to ask yourself.

Before we find out what that question is, let me tell you about my regrets about our decision.

Yes, I do have some regrets about giving up Cantonese in favour of Mandarin.

I remember a while back, I stumbled upon an old video of me playing with my son, when he was still a toddler. Back then, I was still speaking to him in Cantonese, and in that video, he was playing with a ball in the park on a beautiful spring day and said the word ‘bobo’ 波波 with a big grin on his chubby face.

And, oh my god, I was hit with this tornado of feelings… an immensely poignant and bittersweet feeling, a visceral sense of loss. To me, this one word 波波, uttered by my little baby boy at that moment in time, captures the essence of what we’ve lost by giving up on Cantonese. 

Part of me will always be a bit sad that my children can’t speak my mother tongue.

Also, I’ll always be sad that there’s this whole other dimension of my existence that’s foreign to them.

Language can be such a big part of your identity and history that it can feel like an integral part of yourself.

So, it is sad for me that my children will not get to know or understand that part of my past.

Also, a part of me feels like I can’t be 100% fully authentic in conveying my thoughts and feelings to them when I speak Mandarin because there’s just something about communicating in your own dialect that just feels more… natural.

If you’re someone from a country where speaking a lingua franca plus a local dialect is the norm, I think you’ll know what I mean.

The lingua franca somehow feels, in a way, more functional, while the dialect just feels more connected to your emotions. Share in the comments below if you feel the same way!

But on the whole, I do NOT regret our decision.

As I said earlier, we’re very pragmatic so for me to invest so much time and energy into raising our kids to be trilingual, I just want to get maximum practical value from it.

Also, in the case of Mandarin and Cantonese, it’s just a lot harder to establish a reading and writing routine in Cantonese – I can write a whole article just explaining why that is, but I won’t do it right now.

In a nutshell, Cantonese only has dialect status and has no official corresponding written language. For my husband and me, reading and writing is really important and it’s just easier to do in Mandarin.

Also, in terms of the parent-and-child bond, I can say hands-on-heart that this bond hasn’t been weakened in any way by our communicating in Mandarin rather than Cantonese. My mum also raised me in her non-native language, and we’re as close as any mother and daughter can be.

But, in view of the regrets I do have, the third question I want you to ask as part of your decision-making process is this:

Can you do both?

Yes, that’s right.

I want you to at least consider the possibility of raising your child to speak both the lingua franca and your dialect!

In theory, there’s no reason why you can’t do that! We wanted to keep our number of languages to no more than three, but there are certainly families out there successfully juggling four or more languages.

And if you’re currently a bilingual family living abroad – say you and your partner are both from India and are living in an English-speaking country, raising your child to be bilingual in Hindi and English.

Let’s say you and your partner both speak Bengali. Maybe try incorporating Bengali into your family’s language mix?

It’s definitely worth trying. If you’re already doing something like this, please share in the comments below, as I would love to hear your experience!

Anyway, in our case, If I could turn back time, I think I would have tried holding on to Cantonese for at least 6 months before giving up.

This is a genuine regret, that’s why I really encourage you to experiment and at least try keeping both the lingua franca and the dialect in your family.

Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t – multilingual parenting is always a process of trial and error anyway so I really do encourage you to try different things and see what works! Try the Time and Place strategy to separate your languages – I’ve written a blog post and created a video explaining how that works, so check it out!

One last thing I want to add is that no matter which option you end up going for, be reassured that knowing the lingua franca can often help the child acquire the local dialect later, and vice versa, as a lingua franca and the local dialect would often, although not always, share some similarities.

Also, don’t forget that learning any second language will make learning a third and fourth language easier in the future!

Ultimately, my advice to other families out there is to do what’s right for your family, to recognise what’s important to you.

What are your values?

What are your goals?

What truly matters to you and your family?

As I mentioned at the beginning, you can download a free family language planner that I created to help you kickstart your family’s language journey! The link is in the description box below. I really think it can help you.

If you’re in the early stages of the journey, read this article/ watch this video where I share my top 5 tips for raising a bilingual baby, as the baby years are so important.


 Thank you for reading!




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