12 things parents raising bilingual children need to know

12 things parents raising bilingual children need to know

1 – It doesn’t happen by magic

Children do not become bilingual “by magic”. There is a persistent myth claiming that “children are like sponges when it comes to language” and that they will learn all languages they hear regularly – this is simply not true. Yes, in the right circumstances children will naturally grow up to acquire the family languages, but this cannot be taken for granted.

2 – You need a plan

To be in with the best chance of succeeding in bringing up bilingual children, you need to plan ahead. How fluent do you want your children to be? What about reading and writing? Who speaks what and when? Discuss this in the family and agree on the goals.

3 – Consistency is crucial

Once you have your plan, you need to commit to it as a family and stay consistent in your language use. Yes, children can certainly become bilingual if parents mix their languages with them, but the risk that they will at some point prefer to stick to the majority language is far greater if they have become used to the minority language parent easily switching to the majority language.

4 – You will have to pay attention to exposure times

Once you have your plan, you need to look into how much exposure your children get to each language. There is general recommendation that children should be exposed to a language at least thirty percent of their waking time to naturally become bilingual. This should however only be taken as a guidance – depending on the type of exposure, children might need more or less time to acquire a language.

5 – You will have to invest some extra time (and sometimes maybe a bit of money)

You will need to find the time talk a lot, to do the reading and to find resources to help your children learn the language. You might find that you need to use your holidays to make a trip to boost your children’s motivation to speak the language.

6 – There will be doubters

Not everyone will agree with you that it is a good idea to raise your children to speak all family languages. There will be those who tell you that there is no point, that it is not going to work. Others will think that you are expecting too much of your children, and some will say that you are confusing your children with all these languages. Ignore these doubters, but also forgive them, as they do not know what they are talking about.

7 – Don’t listen to bad advice

There might be times when a professional tells you to stop speaking a certain language to your children. If in doubt with regards to your child’s language development – speak to a specialist who is experienced in dealing with bilingual children.

8 – It is not always easy

There will be all sorts of challenges along your family’s multilingual journey – apart from the doubters and the ill-informed “experts” there will be more mundane obstacles: will you be able to stick to your plan when “life happens” and offers its surprises in form of changed family circumstances, moves, career progressions, influence from others and so on? When it feels difficult, ask for advice and help.

9 – Your child might answer you in the “wrong” language

This one usually hits the minority language parent. You feel that you have done everything right and stayed consistent, and still your darling comes home from school one day and no longer answers you in your language. You will feel disappointed and disheartened if it this happens, but it is crucial that you don’t give up at this point, and that you continue to stay consistent and if possible, also increase the exposure time.

10 – Your children will gain an array of benefits by becoming bilingual

If you are still in doubt about whether to bring up your children to become bilinguals or not, read about all the great benefits your children will gain if you do decide to do it. We all want what is best for our children, so why wouldn’t you support yours to have the wonderful gift of speaking more than one language?

11 – You will never regret it

I can assure you, you will not regret your decision to stick with it and make sure that your children grow up to speak all the family languages. On the other hand, I have heard several parents who are sad that they gave up on passing on their languages – not to mention the many adults expressing their disappointment that they were not taught a language their mother or father knew when they were small.

12 – You will be proud

You will be immensely proud when your children for the first time speak to their grandparents or other relatives in “their” language. I can assure you that the feeling is absolutely wonderful. Not only will you be proud, so will your children and the rest of your family. You will also be a great role model to other families.

May the peace and power be with you.


© Rita Rosenback 2014

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92 replies

    • What would you advice a parent who has a 3 year old child who had a myringotomy on both ears and child has been going to speech therapy ever since she had the surgery? She is having trouble speaking English as it is so introducing a second language like say Spanish can benefit her or hurt her? If you can answer this for me and give me some examples of how introducing two languages would work then please enlighten me! Thanks!

      • Dear Rosa, I can’t see the connection between myringotomy and speech therapy – if the condition affected her hearing to the extent that it had an impact on the speech, then it might be a good idea to wait with the second language. The introduction of a second language as such will not hurt her, however if learning another language puts pressure on her, this could have and impact on her language development. I would recommend that the parents find a speech therapist who is used to dealing with bilingual children to get the best possible advice. All the best!

    • For my children to learn Portuguese it was natural. I spoke to them in Portuguese at home and they would learn English at school and with there peers.

      • Hello Sueli – thank you for your comment! When the circumstances are ideal, just like in your family, with one language consistently used at home and the other language in the community or at school and with friends, children will grow up to learn both languages. In many families the setting is not always that straight-forward, and that’s when parents need to know how to go about raising a child to confidently speak both (or all) languages.

  1. I’m Hungarian, my husband is Italian and we live in Germany with our kids. The kids are learning German and english in the School, and they speak hungarian and Italian.It IS a Kind of challenge for everybody!

  2. The words I most often heard coming from my father, growing up, were “Sorry, I don’t understand French.” He is a francophone raised in French and English and decided that he would be talking to us in English, when I (the eldest) was 5, and my mother was speaking French to us (the majority language in Quebec).
    It was frustrating at times because we very well knew that he understood French, but he made us talk to him only in English. He would provide the words if we really did not know how to say something, then make us repeat. I took a lot of energy for him to be so strict and firm, but I’m grateful for it because I’ve seen so many kids and teens understand a second language spoken at home, but not speak it, and later regret it as adults. So thank you Papa!

    Now, as a second-language teacher, I have learned that studies say that as long as the circumstances in which a child hears a language are very clear and there are no blurred lines, there is no problem with exposing a baby to 2 or even 4 languages. The child won’t mix up the languages if there is a clear “Mommy language”, a “Daddy language”, a “Daycare language”, and so on. It’s when the context for speaking a specific language (people mixing languages as they speak) are blurred that it’s more a challenge for the child’s brain to sort out which words belong to which language. But eventually he will. Though he might mix words of different languages in his speech too, and not understand that not everybody he speaks to will know these languages.

    • Thank you, Eliane, for telling your story! You are echoing so many other adult bilinguals’ thoughts when you say that you are grateful to your parents for sticking with it. It is an important message for all parents currently raising their children to become bilingual.

      A bit of mixing languages is ok (this does happen in most multilingual families), but as long as children also spend time with people who speak the language without mixing in other languages, they will learn to keep the languages separate when they speak with monolinguals. Consistency along with enough interactive exposure are vital, and yes, there can be up to four languages at the same time.

      • I agree with Eliane. I am Italian and my husband American, we live in Germany. We used opol with the kids (now 15 and 13 years old) and strictly never mixed languages. Now they speak fluently all three languages (Italian, English and German). On the other hand my daughter had some problem learning French at school because, her words: “they teach you to translate from German. Once I know the words, how to express a concept, it is a step too much to translate it to German”. She is looking forward when she can be in France and be forced to “absorb the language and just speak it”.

  3. Very interesting! I grew up in Brazil from a family of Japanese background. My parents first language was japanese and while growing up I attended a brazilian regular school in the mornings and a private japanese language school in the afternoons for 7 years. However, It wasnt enough because at home nobody spoke japanese at all. Everything was always in portuguese and me and my sisters we never got deeply interested in Japanese culture. My friends who lived with their grandparents ended up learning both languages very well, though. So my point about sharing my story is that parents sure have a great role at not just teaching the language, but showing why the language should be learnt and make their kids get interested in it.

  4. #9 is certainly a stage that many children go through, but persistence is the key. I am first generation bilingual (english-turkish). with our daughter we upped the ante (english-turkish-french) and for about a year she wouldn’t speak english (we had moved from canada to turkey and her father was monolingual in english) but a year later with constant reinforcement in english everything had smoothed out…

    • Thank you so much for sharing your family’s experience. I admire how committed you are as parents and so happy to hear it has paid off! It is so important that other families who are struggling get to hear success stories like yours. Thank you again!

  5. Great food for thought! I am Argentine by birth, but am a US citizen by family, my husband is Argentine, but we are now moving to Brazil as missionaries. Our daughters are 3 and 17 months. I am trying to figure out how to juggle all three! They will learn Portuguese in school, I am determined they learnEnglish, I would like for them to speak Spanish… we have a long road ahead! Thanks for the tips!

  6. All sound advice!!! Everyone should be bilingual!
    I would add two other items that I used when teaching my son Italian and were very helpful. I hope they can be helpful to others also:

    1. Avoid always correcting the child, but let the child make mistakes as he/she speaks the language….with time they figure it out. At times I would feign forgetting a word in English and let my son come to my rescue with the proper word so that the exercise of remembering a correct word in a language was equal for both and not just for the ” other language” .

    2. Find something that is interesting to do, hopefully together in THAT language. For the past 50 years Disney has had a standing deal with an Italian publisher allowing them to create and publish their own stories with Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse etc. The fusion of Italy and US that comes out of the comic books is unique and a magnet for kids…..to the point that I would read the stories to my son at bedtime until the day when I told him I was tied of reading all the words and that he should read Donald Duck. He said he did not read Italian and I told him he could read the letters and knew what the language sounded like so why could he not? Not only does he now speak Italian but he also reads and writes Italian fluently. I credit Disney 🙂

    • Fantastic, thank you very much, Fabio! I know there are different opinions with regards to correcting a child’s mistakes, and I am sure you can succeed even if you do correct, but I am largely with you on this one (I wrote about it in this post). Love the idea of letting your son “help” you find a specific word – that would have been so motivating for him!
      Yes, comics can be such a helpful tool to get children a) listening attentively and b) learning to read themselves.
      Thank you for sharing your experiences, much appreciated!

  7. I am raising my son bilingual in English and Spanish in Mexico. My son is a dual national as I, because my mother is American. I have spoken English exclusively to him since he was six months old and he only watches TV in English. We is 3 and a half now and his dominant language is English. He started speaking Spanish at school and my husband is reinforcing it at home, and he is acquiring it very fast. Now he “translates”, he talks to my husband in Spanish and then turns to me and says it in English. It’s amazing!

    We have had many challenges, including doctors and teachers telling me to stop speaking English to him, because of a (slight) speech delay and some phonetic problems. I have refused every time.

    I didn’t grow up speaking English regularly at home . My father did not like it. Although I had a native pronunciation and could say some things, I was not fluent at all. We moved to Canada when I was twelve and I was not able to understand TV, movies and had a really hard time at school. When I saw my mother being able to speak and understand everything, I was angry. I couldn’t believe she had not shared that with me! I felt cheated. I learned English properly those two years in Canada and later by watching TV and reading a lot. As an adult I lived in England and spent some years in the States, and that’s when I really became fluent.

    I work in English language teaching now and I know that you cannot acquire a language 100% (especially native pronunciation,) unless you are exposed to it by a parent or by the environment in a consistent and significant way from a young age. Thank you for a great article! The advice is excellent.

    • Thank you Diana for sharing your and your family’s story! My daughter also translated as soon as she knew a few words in both of her first languages. She was not even two at the time, it did feel amazing 🙂 Sorry to hear that you have also had to stand your ground against incorrect advice, I am so glad you did!
      I can understand your pain when you felt cheated as a twelve-year-old, but I am sure your mother had her reasons – fantastic that you have become and English teacher!
      Thank you for reading – I am happy you enjoyed my post 🙂

      • Thank you, Rita!
        I know challenges lay ahead. As you mention in the article, I have heard from friends that sometimes children don’t want to speak the minority language anymore. My plan is to stay firm and to travel to the States as much as our budget allows- lol. I’m sure the sightseeing, shopping and restaurants will motivate him, let alone Disneyland!
        Thanks again for the article! Sometimes bilingualism feels like a lonely road and it’s great to hear other experiences and very good advice!

        • I can read from your comments how passionate you are and how committed your are to raising your son to be bilingual, and I am sure you will succeed! When it feels lonely – reach out, there are so many others who are sharing a similar journey!

  8. Hi, I am Mexican and my husband is Italian. We have two children 7 and 5 who speak since they were born in Spanish with me and Italian with dad. Although we live in Italy, I always wanted them not only to be able to learn my beautiful language but about their culture and heritage. Also, I have always spoken English since very young so I wanted them to learn English, so we decided to put the eldest one in an international school where she has learnt the language since she was in early years. Now at 7 her English, Italian and Spanish are fantastic!!! And she keeps on developing her reading/writing skills in all three languages. I definitely struggled to keep to Spanish and also relied on t.v. And technology to help me with exposure to the language. My youngest son has the same except that he goes to a French school, he is in his second year and already his French is developing amazingly. We now speak four languages at home without it being chaotic!!!

    • Wonderful, thank you for telling us your family story! We had a similar situation in the family with four different languages, and we seemed to be the only people who didn’t find it difficult or confusing 😀

  9. Great Post! Me and my Husband are italian and we live in Germany since 10 years. Ous son is 4 years old and is growing up speaking perfectly italian and german. Sometimes he mix them and it’s so funny 🙂 And it’s incredible how his German pronounce is PERFECT. Much more perfect as ours! 😉

    • Hi Rosanna – thank you for your lovely comment! You are so right about children and accents – as adults we have to work really, and I mean really, REALLY hard to get anywhere as authentic an accent. That said, I like accents, they are part of our make up as bilinguals, I think 🙂

    • Hello Rosanna,

      Your son was born in Germany, or you just moved here?was he going to a German kindergarten?? I had a bad experience with a german kindergarten, because at home we speak Italian and hungarian but no german.. The teachers could not work with a 3 years old kid who not knows german..everyday was a mess for him and for me too!! Than we decided to move back to Italy, at least he learned italian and now that he is almost 7 we moved back to koln and he is going to a German-Italian school..

  10. My friends Walter and Sophia (now retired), living in the Netherlands, raised their two daughters speaking their father’s native German with their father, their mother’s Dutch with their mother, whichever language started first in collective conversations, and English as a secondary language. Not only did both daughters come out exquisitely trilingual, but also, one has adapted to tough economic times in her original profession by becoming a primary school German teacher. (There may be some family talent: Sophia has become a fluent Swedish speaker as a hobby, and Walter is able to converse comfortably in Latin, French and Italian.)

  11. Reblogged this on Everyday Issues and commented:
    Shame I cannot speak one of my languages…but am proud of it.

  12. My husband and I both grew up only speaking English but invested a lot of time, money, and energy throughout our lives learning Russian and Spanish respectively. Neither of us are “native” in our second language, but we are conversationally fluent and speak correctly with little accent (we lived in Russia and Spain). We would like to pass our second languages to our children because we have invested so much trying to learn them ourselves and because we believe that foreign languages are so important. Do you have any advice for this situation? Our child will be in a Spanish/English daycare and we plan to use technology to help. Our first baby is due in 3 weeks, so we’re trying to plan ahead :).

    • Congratulations and well done for planning ahead! If you feel comfortable about the idea of speaking the language with your child, i.e. you can relate and express your feelings in the language, and you can achieve approximately 30% exposure time in each language for your baby, I see no reason why you couldn’t succeed in this. If you want your child to have a native-like accent, you would need to make sure your baby also gets exposed to native speakers of the languages. Good luck!

      • Thanks for your response! It gives us encouragement and the 30% exposure goal is very helpful as a guideline. We will be getting some children’s books and CDs of songs to help us out :).

  13. My five children speak German (my language), Spanish (their dad’s) and English. They were all born and have always lived in the US. I was more consistent in speaking German with my older ones, and they definitely are doing better with it than the younger ones. My second-oldest (college-aged) pretends she does not understand me when I speak English and even texts me in German. So proud of her!

  14. Hi everyone! My husband is from the US, I am from Austria and we both live in Austria. We both became fluent in the other person’s language (English vs. German). This is why on the odd days (e.g. on March 7th) we speak English, on the even days we speak German to each other. We plan to continue this with our future kids. Does anybody have experiences with this model? Switching the family language each day? Thanks for your response.

    • This can be done, and I have a friend who has successfully implemented language switching in her family – though I think they use two-week intervals. I will ask my friend to comment on this thread.
      That said, since you are now living (and plan on staying?) in Austria, you might want to consider the ‘minority language at home’ approach. When the children grow up, they will be surrounded by German most of their day and English will play a smaller part in their lives. Having English as the home language would at that point safeguard their future as fluent English speakers.

    • Dear Susanne, If you have found a rhythm that works for you and your family, then by all means stick with it! We personally work on a two-week system, a personal adaptation of OPOL for our family. My husband is French and I am American born to a Hispanic father and a Mexican mother and raised bilingually in California. While living in the U.S., we used classic OPOL (Papa – French, Mama – Spanish) and our children got English everywhere else. When we moved to France 8 years ago, we switched to an every two week system. Papa still does the French and I switch from Spanish to English every two weeks. It usually takes us about three days to get everyone on track with the new target language (we do a lot of mixing of languages those first three days!) and then for the rest of the two weeks, it’s usually smooth sailing and we get a true immersion experience in the target language. This rhythm has been working like a charm for us for the past 8 years. We are the proud parents of 4 budding trilinguals (all at different stages, of course), ages 16 months to 13 years! Good luck to you!

  15. Hi everyone, my family live in Australia and at the moment we all speak English, my husband is from brazil and we have always wanted our daughter to speak Portuguese as well. She is three years old and we have found that she is very resistant to speaking Portuguese, she knows at least fifty words in portuguese but will rarely speak thwm. she is speaking very well in English and can understand complex concepts. should her father simply start speaking portuguese to her all the time, or should we ease into it more slowly. I suggested to her moments ago that daddy will start to speak portuguese all the time and she was upset because it is to hard and she can’t speak portuguese, I am expecting her to be quite resistant and she is quite stubborn, I don’t want it to be a negative experience. How to proceed from here?

    thank you for your advice,

    • Hi Sharon, thank you for your comment! You ask “should her father simply start speaking portuguese to her all the time” – the answer is Yes, he should. The longer you wait, the more difficult it is going to be to change the language (you can read what I had to do to change language with my daughter). She will be a bit upset to start with but if you both support her and make it fun for her, it will soon become a norm in the family. Do a lot of activities in Portuguese: play games, watch cartoons together and “discuss” what is happening. You could also learn Portuguese alongside your daughter and even ask her to help you with words that you know she already has in her vocabulary (kids love knowing something better than their parents). This will be a great motivation for her. It will take a bit of effort getting into the Daddy-speaks-Portuguese routine, but the longer you wait, the more tricky it is going to be. My suggestion is, start with the Portuguese today, doing something she really loves.

  16. I never felt so good in my life. Every and each word is true. My children speak three language and we did exactly what you (Rita) wrote. It is so good to read that other people support and understand us. Thank you

  17. Hello, I always wanted to raise my son bilingual. I was born in the US. My dad is American and my mom german. We lived in the US for about 5 years. I grew up bilingual. Than we went to Germany and I went to german Kindergarten , than german school and than the german school for nursing. I never forgotten the englisch language. I do think that I speak it fluently and understand everything. But german has become my main language.
    I am now 28 and live in Austria and my son will be 3 in June. I have such a hard time to speak english to him. My boyfriend is Austrian and also understands english. But its just so hard for me to actually use the english language for the everyday speak.
    We read English book’s to him and he gets to watch english television….but I am afraid that is not enough.

    • Dear Mel, thank you for telling your story. The passion for English and for teaching it to your son clearly comes through when you describe your situation. Reading English books and watching English on the TV will be beneficial for your son, but you are right when you say that it will not be enough for him to become an English speaker. Are there any English playgroups in the area that your son could participate in? Any American or English families whose children speak English with each other and you could arrange play dates with? It is important that you feel comfortable when you communicate with your son. While it is fantastic to pass on a language to a child, remember that the relationship between the two of you is more important than which language you use. Try to think what would make you more confident in using English with your son – would it be to listen to English TV programs, read magazines and books – what about frequent Skype calls with English speaking friends and family? You could also choose a specific day, or the weekends to use only English with your son. In this way it would probably not feel as hard. Even if he doesn’t learn to speak English at home, he will gain an immense advantage in having a passive understanding of it, which can later be turned into active use of it. Good luck with everything!

  18. We are raising our boys in Brazil so their main language will be Portuguese. My husband is Brazlian but he has made the amazing choice to make our home an English speaking environment. This is an enormous investment for his sons which we all appreciate. Our eldest is now 2 and speaking primarily in English and showing obvious signs that he knows there are two languages. They are very lucky boys. We have a blog about child development where we write about our language journey. Please let me know if you would like the blog page. Thank you for this inspirational post 🙂

  19. Rita, it there a way your post can be translated into SpanishThat can helphelp a lotf families in my community in Houston Texas.

  20. Hi Rita, and thank you for this post: it is excellent advice.
    I feel a bit deflated as for us, it has not really paid off. Before having children, it was very clear in my head that I would raise my children bilingually. I am French living in the UK. My husband does not speak French, and furthermore, I speak excellent English. (By this, I mean that I do not have an accent at all, and no-one suspects that I am French at all). My son is 5 and my daughter is 2. Because we speak English at home, the only exposure they have is when they speak to me and me only. So we are very far from the 30% time you advocate for the minority language.
    I religiously spoke French to my son, and tried to encourage him to watch French cartoons. However, we noticed his speech was very delayed, and after two years to observations and visits to specialists, he was finally diagnosed as having Autism Spectrum Disorder. He is very bright, and his speech is improving, but he is still behind his peers. The specialist who diagnosed him did query if perhaps the French might be a hindrance to him. She did not advise me to stop speaking, but implied that she simply did not know. I decided to stick with the French because more than a language, I also believed it was part of his identity. Perhaps I should have sought more help at the time. What happened is that gradually, I have slacked. I gave in. I speak English to him when I really want cooperation. I know that he can understand French and he usually translates what I say, but he is still struggling with his speech and comprehension. So from little exposure, he now has very little exposure. I feel a bit of a failure, but it is very hard to communicate with him at the best of times. He has also refused to speak French to me. Taking him on holidays to France are difficult because of his attachment to routine and familiar environment. I have taken him three times by myself (without dad who speaks English) and this was before his diagnosis. These were very difficult and stressful times for me. Not holidays at all!!!
    My little girl is now starting to speak, and she understand French, but there again, I feel that the exposure to minority language is still too little. I speak a lot to her, I do a running commentary of everything, but all the play groups she attends, and all the friends she has are English-speaking.
    I suspect she will copy her brother (like she does for everything) and “reject” the French when she realises that I can speak English very well too, so there’s no need to bother!!!
    So I gradually accept that I did my best, but that my children will probably not be bilingual. It is tough to accept, but not as tough as having a child with autism. Life does not turn out as you plan…

    • Dear Abigail, how lucky your children are to have you as their mother. Not for a single fleeting moment should you think you are a failure! Your concern and eagerness to do the best for your children shines through so clearly in your message. As I write in the post, bringing up a bilingual child is never an easy task and when you add to that the fact that your son has ASD makes it a big challenge, Instead of feeling that you have slacked, look at it this way: you have given your son a passive understanding of another language, which is more than most ASD children will ever have! (I do actually prefer the more positive term “receptive bilingual” for someone who understands a language, but doesn’t speak.) The most important thing for your relationship is after all that you can communicate, not which language the communication happens in. Your little girl can still become a fluent French speaker, don’t give up on the idea. If you diligently stick to French with her, this will be THE language between the two of you. The fact that she will realise you speak English is not that important, the main thing is that you always stick to French when you speak directly to her. The chance of a child giving up on a language is greater if a parent switches between languages in direct interactions.
      Life certainly never goes to plan, but you have done and are continuing to do the very best for your children. Give yourself a tap on the back and be proud of yourself, you are a great mother!

  21. Hello and thank you Rita for sharing very helpful advice and insights from your own multilingual experiences!
    We are raising our son (almost 2 years old) in two languages: German and Russian in Germany, I speak exclusively and try to expose our son to the Russian and my husband to the German. I speak to my husband in German as he does not understand Russian. Now, is it ok that I speak to my husband in German and translate him what I just said to our son and what our son said to his father, i.e. isn’t it some sort of blurring of languages? Our son mixes the languages and I understand him as he for example asks me and I answer in Russian. Is it okay, if I understand and not pretend not to understand. What language did you speak to your Punjabi speaking husband?

    • Hi Dinara, thank you for sharing your story. It is ok for you to speak German to your husband, just always stick to Russian when you speak directly to your son. Bilingual children almost always mix languages to start with, so that’s nothing to worry about. With regards to whether or not to pretend not to understand when your son speaks German to you, I would leave that up to you and what feels right. My option would be to repeat what he said in Russian and steer the language to Russian that way. Initially I spoke English with my then husband and when our first daughter was born, I switched to Finnish which he was getting up to speed with at the time. He learnt Finnish alongside our daughter.

  22. Just a quick question. I didn’t see it mentioned in your post but what’s your opinion on language delay caused by learning multiple languages? I seem to remember hearing/reading in a linguistics class that it often takes bilingual children longer to speak initially but when they do, they have a general grasp on both languages.
    I keep warning my husband of this fact as we’re currently speaking a mix if English and Portuguese at home (in America). Thanks for the other guidance-I like the 30% exposure guideline.

    • Hi Erin, the pace at which children learn to speak vary greatly, independent of whether they are mono- or bilingual. Bilingual children in general have a slightly different learning pattern, they are after all learning two meanings for each new concept. So while a monolingual child might seem to have a greater vocabulary, a bilingual child will in total know more words. Bilingual children quickly catch up with any perceived delays. Just as an example, my older daughter started using two languages when she was two, the younger one didn’t speak until she was three and a half.

  23. I came across your blog by chance. It’s a great way to provide advice on raising multilingual children.To all the parents out there, don’t give up. I speak,read and write in 3 languages, 1 dialect and understand (but cannot converse) in another. The proverb of “It takes a village to raise a child” rings quite true for me as different family members would force me to speak in an “assigned” language/dialect to them when I was younger. Along the way, the school system introduced an extra language which was then added to my already confusing list.

    At first, it may be a struggle for parents to introduce multiple languages to a child since the child will always favour the one he/she could express themselves best in. They may pout, answer in a dominant language instead of complying with your request to speak in another, or may feel that you are out to get them in some way.

    But when they are adults, they will thank you for all the hours you have put in. Life becomes so much more interesting! So hang in there!

  24. I grew up bilingual and raising bilingual kids nowadays is key to their career success http://thecitizenculture.com/2014/01/growing-up-bilingual/

  25. Hi Rita, it’s interesting, I’m mother of one young man 29 years old and one boy 9 years old, I’m in Italy since 30 years, always speak to my sons in spanish and also in english, never in Italian, y first son speaks italian, spanish, english and french, the second one speaks italian and spanish without any problem, for the english I’ll need a little more time 🙂

  26. I disagree with your article. People always overcomplicate things just go with the flow. My kids are trilingual French, English and Spanish and I would say at a very high level of proficiency in all 3. Actually many many of my kids friends also, Like me none of them paid any attention to what they were doing or read articles about it like this one. most of them ether married into a different ethnic back ground or just sent their kids to a school with a different language then the one spoken at home. If i was to post this article on there Facebook page they would be laughing in tears.

    1 – It doesn’t happen by magic -1) ya it did kind of just happened like that.
    2 – You need a plan -2) no we had no plan see above, why do people always over complicate things.
    3 – Consistency is crucial -3) no we were not consistent i switched from one to the other when ever.
    4 – You will have to pay attention to exposure times 4) lol what can i say apart from see answer above

    Basically the only good comment in this is 7 – Don’t listen to bad advice (basically this article.)

    • Hi Ben, thank you for your feedback, I am glad you took the time to read my article and post your comment. I am very happy to hear that it all worked out well in your family and your children naturally grew up to become bilingual. Actually, that is how I became bilingual as well! However, this is definitely not the case in all families, and based on the response I have had to this and many other posts in my blog, there are many families that appreciate some help and encouragement along the way. Have a lovely day!

    • Hi Ben!

      #2 –looks like you are really against the plan. But didn’t your friends at least several months ahead thought about enrolling their kids into language immersion school? Or they just all woke up in the morning and thought “Why won’t we go to school today to learn a foreign language?” That is called a plan.

      #3 – You had a luxury not to be consistent. I really suspect you had a very strong community and school support for all three languages. For those of us who does not have such a strong language environment – NO Consistency means NO Language. If you don’t use it you lose it.

      #4 – exposure times – lol what can i say apart from see answer above,

      And as for #1 – magic: Ben, science, you don’t know, looks like magic. And there is a lot of parenting science behind magic of multilingualism. I definitely agree with you, that hearing children speaking comfortably multiple languages is magical, but as any magician will tell you, it takes time, preparation and dedication.

      It is great that your friends will laugh on FB, but most of the people usually cry in real live that they did not read this article when their kids were young.

      P.S. I hope your children along with languages learned manners at school too. And if they disagree on an article, they would prove their points politely.

    • It is so nice that {you} think you had none of those struggles that majority of multilingual families have.
      Even if you had no plan, you had consistency and no, there was no magic. It is just that if you read more into the scientific research on linguistics and how the languages are learned, if your children constantly heard members in your family and community surrounding you speaking all these languages on a daily basis (switching from one to another or not), they have picked the languages up. Did you know that children are capable of learning up to 10 languages simultaneously without making much of an effort besides hearing them on a regular basis before they are 5 years old?

      And last, but not the least, I hope you DO post this article on your page and let your friends and acquaintances decide (without posting mocking comments alongside, but rather something like – what do you think?) whether it is bad advice or not.

      Being respectful even online is just a basic courtesy. No one has mocked you so far on your punctuation and mistakes you’ve made in your comment? 🙂

      Have a lovely day!

  27. In response to Ben-

    I meet a lot of multilingual families, including those with grown children. I have yet to meet a family where bilingualism/multilingualism “just happened.” For most families, one language becomes the dominant one and children become, at best, passive bilinguals (mostly understanding but unable to communicate in the written or verbal form). For many, children resist the non-environmental language, only to regret in later years that they didn’t put in the effort to know those other languages. The only true bilinguals I know got that way because their parents actively pushed multiple languages on them – through immersion schools, traveling and living abroad, tutors, and even “assignments” from Mom and Dad.

    I suppose it is possible that a person could learn multiple languages – understanding, reading, and writing -just by chance. But if it is truly possible (and I still have my doubts) it is certainly the exception to the rule. As for your personal experience – chances are great that there was a lot more structure and science to the language acquisition path your children took than you realize – via your home, your environment, and the schools they attended.

    Rita’s insights and experiences provide a valuable service to the thousands of families out there attempting to raise their children with multiple languages. As a bi/trilingual person – I’m saddened that you don’t see the value in that, but rather feel the need to insult – quite rudely – what she is trying to accomplish.

  28. Hi, I have a question. My partner and I have spanish as our mother tongue. Later on, by living in some english speaking countries I manged to learn english pretty well. Since our son was born we talked about getting him to become bilingual, but it has been two and a half years and I haven’t taken the courage to talk to him exclusively in english. I know that all this talk about bilingual kids is usually directed to parents from different countries… but… do you have any advise to parents trying to teach their child a language that is their second one (of course, in addition to their first language)?

    • Hello Juan, my first question is, how do you really feel about speaking only English to your son? How would it affect your relationship? You don’t have to be a native speaker to pass on a language to your child, but it is not an easy task to take on if you are not fully confident about the situation. I would also recommend that you arrange some exposure from native English speakers for your son if you decide to go down this route. If you were to speak English exclusively with your son and spend enough time interacting with him in English, he would no doubt learn the language.

  29. Your post is so interesting. I have no story to share as both my parents are native English speakers, though I love learning other languages.
    I have several mixed-language parent friends raising their kids to be bilingual. It is such a gift, and so sad for both parent and child if the opportunity is lost. It looks like you provide wonderful practical support here.

  30. this is a great topic and the article i believe is directed to the parents that just want to introduce a second language to their child..
    if you live in a country with a different language and your child goes to school or watches TV all day and listen to you speaking a second language to the people in the store they will learn for sure. But it definitely is a plan and depends on your dedication to keep them bilingual.
    im from Brazil, my husband from Panama and we live in USA. at home, my 2 daughters speak portuguese to me and in spanish to my husband (he doesn’t speak portuguese at all) and perfect english at school. but it IS a challenge because they will mix the words specially with portuguese and spanish and you need to make sure you correct them nicely and make them repeat.. they will eventually learn, kids love to learn. I refuse to talk to my kids AT HOME in spanish and english. I only do so when we have people either speaking spanish or english around. It is really nice see them abe to communicate with my parents in Brazil (they only understand portuguese) and with my husband’s parents in Panama (they only understand spanish) it is really important to keep the relationship.. they live so far away can you imagine if they can’t understand each other when they spend a few days together?
    but again, my recommendation to the parents that for example: both speak spanish and they live in a spanish speaking country but they want their child to be bilingual, to start with music, movies, books and start little by little talking to them about a specific topic they like in the language you want them to learn and 30 min today and 45 min tomorrow and so on.. and if they don’t want to talk don’t force them they will get frustrated and start hating that language 🙂
    my 4 yo told me the other day that her friends at school need to eat more vegetables so they can get smarter and learn portuguese or spanish! she still doesn’t get that how in the world they cannot speak portuguese or spanish, it is so easy… LOL

    hope you all have a nice day!! specially you Rita!

    Thank you! Gracias! Obrigada! 🙂

    • Thank you, Jacqueline, for your nice words and for telling us your family’s story. I can see that consistency has been high on your agenda and that it has paid out, wonderful! Absolutely love your 4-year-old’s take on language learning – not only is she aware of language skills but also of what is healthy to eat! 🙂

    • Spanish and Portuguese are not so different that they are mutually unintelligible. I would think the probem would be more one of confusing the words than of not understanding.

  31. Rita, your article is very interesting for me. I would like to know your opinion about this: my husband is Norwegian and I am Spanish but I grew up in France. We live in Spain. We have a one year old girl, daddy speaks Norwegian to her and I speak mainly French but also English to her. My mother and aunt speak Spanish and my husband and I use Spanish to communicate.
    Am I doing right? Could it be confusing if I continue using two languages?
    Thank you.

    • Wow, let me just get my head around all your languages to start with 🙂 Your daughter will learn Norwegian from her dad and Spanish from her grandmother, other relatives and the environment you are living in. So we are left with the two languages that you speak to her: French and English. How do you alternate between the two? Do you use French and English on different days or different areas in the house? It is not an easy task for one parent to teach a child two languages simultaneously. I am not saying it can not be done, but you need to find a away to clearly separate the two, so your daughter can identify which language you are using when. Another option would be to speak to her in one language first and when she has mastered that, switch to the other one. This is what I did with my elder daughter. Note however, that the switch is not easy – you can read about it here: http://multilingualparenting.com/2013/05/08/pricken-the-swedish-speaking-kitten/

  32. Hi, interesting article I am still hesitating what to do about languages with my soon to be born baby boy. We have four languages in our family. We live in Geneva so French is the local languange. I am venezuelan, I speak Spanish, English and French, but not Lithuanian. My wife is Lithuanian she speaks Lithuanian, Russian and English but not French or Spanish. We speak English between us. Should we each just speak in our own languages Lithuanian and Spanish and hope he picks-up French from the nursery and English from us? Is this too much? Should we phase in the introduction of one or two of the other languages?

    • What an amazing amount of languages to have in one family! You are right, ideally you should speak your respective languages, Lithuanian and Spanish, to your boy from the day he is born (or even before that!). He will most likely also pick up at least a passive knowledge of English (which will benefit him hugely when he goes on to learn English later on in school). Your son will learn French from other children or by the latest at nursery – so I wouldn’t worry too much about French. This is not too much, as there is a consistent use of the different languages. Best of luck to you!

  33. Thanks so much for this article. I have a similar question as Raul above. I’m German, my wife is Chinese, and we live in the US. We hardly understand each other’s languages, so our marriage language is English. If we now decide to each talk to our daughter (due date in a few weeks) consistently in our respective languages (German and Chinese), but talk to each other in English, will she be confused? And more importantly, in what language will we have family conversation in? Should we resort to English once she picks English up from kindergarten, or will we have three-way conversations in three different languages at the dinner table, translating each other back and forth to make sure everyone understands what was said? Thanks for your advice!

    • Thank you for your question, Josh! Your family language set-up is a fairly typical one for international families . Like I might have mentioned in previous comments, your daughter will not be confused with the two of you speaking English together as you will both be using your respective languages when you speak to her directly. Remember that she will not learn “overnight”, it will take some time before she starts speaking German and Chinese – during this time you both will have the opportunity to learn alongside her to gain some more insight into each other’s languages. This way you will both feel more comfortable in speaking your languages without worrying that the other parent cannot understand anything of what you are saying. Your daughter will initially probably become a receptive bilingual (i.e. understands English, but doesn’t speak), but depending on how much other exposure she gets to English (from other children, TV, when out and about etc) she might even speak before she goes to nursery or school. Don’t worry if she doesn’t, she will pick it up soon enough. From then on your challenge will be to keep German and Chinese going at home. Being very consistent from the start with your language use with her will be the best guarantee that she will continue actively using both languages. As to what you should speak when you are all together – if at all possible, avoid switching to English when you speak directly to her. Like I said, you will both learn to understand at least something of what is said in the other parent’s language and from the context you can figure out a lot more. Agree that it is ok to ask for a translation when you feel like you need one. Good luck on your multilingual family journey!

  34. Hi Rita, congratulations on writing such a relevant article!
    I have a question that I’m wondering if you could help me with. I am raising my 3.5 year old daughter in Canada and both I and my husband speak only Portuguese with her. It’s going great and with the exception of a couple of mistakes here and there in both languages, I can say with confidence that she is fully bilingual.
    My question is about reading out loud to her. I read to her a lot, and love it when I have Portuguese books to read, but sometimes we receive lovely gifts of books in English from our friends here in Canada, or she finds books she likes in the library. Up until now, I have been doing “simultaneous translation” with her in those cases – reading English books but saying the words to her in Portuguese. I don’t know if this was the “right thing” to do, but it felt right at the time. Now, however, she is starting to learn her letters, will start kindergarten soon, and I am worried that not reading the same thing as what’s on paper will interfere with her learning process. I am concerned that she will see a letter, think it should sound a certain way, but I will be saying something completely different… So, should I start reading English books in English and portuguese books in Portuguese even though I consistently only speak Portuguese with her?
    Thank you!

    • Thank you for your kind comments, Luciana! You have absolutely done the right thing to translate English books on the fly for your daughter. Also, by doing that you have done a high level mental gym exercise yourself, which benefits your brains! You don’t have to stop doing it now that your daughter is learning to read English. It is also ok for you to read to her in English if you want to. What you can do is to explain to your daughter that you are TELLING the story in Portuguese when you translate on the fly, and when you want to use English, say (in Portuguese) that you will now READ a book to her in English. This way there will be a clear distinction between your use of Portuguese and English with her. By your dedication I can tell that she will grow up to be fluent in both languages and probably be interested in learning more! Good luck!

  35. Reblogged this on Carmen Arias and commented:
    Interesting and straight to the point , really useful tips when raising bilingual children . By a practicioner herself , Rita Rosenback


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