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3 Steps to Success in Raising Bilingual Children

August 12, 2015

3 Steps to Success in Raising Bilingual Children

There are just three steps to success in the “game” of raising bilingual kids.

As I explain in Why Raising a Bilingual Child is Very, Very Simple—and Very, Very Difficult, the process itself is straightforward…but carrying it out effectively is what often makes the bilingual journey such a great challenge.

Step 1: Stay in the game

As long as you continue moving forward, day after day, giving your honest best to the bilingual aim you seek, you will experience steady progress. Although each day demands attention, you must also guard against a too-narrow view of your current conditions. As your children grow, and as you make efforts, these conditions will evolve and improve. Frustrations are a natural part of the process, and larger issues should be addressed, but if you don’t see them within the broader context of your longer journey, they can consume the immediate moment and drag you down, exhausting your will and energy. Hold firmly to that longer view and persevere for another day, then another, in full faith that your efforts—however clumsy you think they may be—will pay off over time. The next two steps are also central to success, but this first one—just staying in the game—will go a long way toward achieving your aim. If you just show up each day and do your best, you’re bound to succeed to a satisfying degree; if don’t, you won’t. In this sense, the bilingual journey is a test of desire and spirit. There’s no shame in letting go of the goal if it’s not truly important to you, but if it is, then put your heart into this quest and view it not as a heavy burden but as a marvelous chance to empower your own spirit, day after day. To me, the bilingual journey is as much about a parent’s spiritual evolution as it is about a child’s language development.

Step 2: Play the game

Playing the game involves making the most effective choices and actions you can, given your circumstances and aims as well as your current know-how regarding a child’s bilingual development and your awareness of suitable resources in the minority language. And to an important extent, this is a process of trial-and-error, permitting more confident choices and actions as time goes by. When you’re a new parent, and just starting out, this can feel like an overwhelming task, particularly since the first few formative years of the child’s life can be so crucial for fostering the longer-term success you seek—and yet your knowledge and experience may be limited. This is a natural state of affairs, I’m afraid, and unless you’ve already been engaged in language work with children before having your own, it’s unavoidable. But this is exactly why the knowledge and experience of others now farther along on this journey can serve you well: such guidance—whether from blogs, forums, books, conversations, or coaching—will expand your know-how and awareness, and as you gain more personal experience, too, you’ll become better adept at making effective choices and actions for your particular circumstances and aims.

Step 3: Referee the game

In a way, you also have to referee the game, even as you’re busy playing it. When you referee the game, you’re staying continuously attentive to how well your choices and actions are working in view of the progress you seek for the goal you hold. And as you monitor this progress, you make adjustments, as necessary, to your choices and actions. You try new strategies and new resources that will better suit your ever-evolving circumstances and strengthen the effectiveness of your current efforts. Through this dual role of player and referee, you engage in an ongoing dance—back and forth, back and forth—between action and observation. At the same time, I realize that judging the success of certain situations can be tricky, and this is particularly true when the child is still small and hasn’t yet begun to speak. It isn’t unusual for parents with a first child to feel some impatience and wonder if speech will ever emerge. But the fact is, communication in the desired languages will eventually come, as long as the choices and actions made up front have been effective. Again, this is why I suggest that it’s wise to start playing the game early, and energetically, even when you don’t know the “rules.” You’ll learn what you need to know as you play. And if you just keep playing—day after day, year after year—you and your children will travel a long way together over the course of your bilingual journey.

How about you? Is your “game” generally going as you hope? Are your efforts playfully persistent, day after day?

1 Jennifer Boni August 14, 2015 at 10:53 pm

Hello Adam, I’m so grateful I found your website! It’s inspiring and encouraging… Thank you. I am bilingual myself (Spanish and English) but I’ve been living in Mexico for nearly thirty years so my world is basically Spanish speaking. I have a daughter who’ll be two years old next month and my aim is to make her bilingual. She just started speaking a few months ago and I am amazed by the pace in which Spanish is settling in. She understands everything I say in English but she answers in Spanish (frustrating!) and there are some words she started saying in English but switched to Spanish as soon as she learned the translation (more frustrating!) I’ve already decided to speak more English to her, especially with friends and family (something I haven’t done too much). The problem is I communicate with my husband in Spanish, even though he’s a good English speaker it seems weird for us to engage in English on an everyday basis… My questions are… Is it too early to worry about this, I mean can this just be a normal stage in her bilingual development where she’s so excited about communicating that she uses the easiest word available? What can I do to encourage her to answer back in English when it’s just the two of us? Should I simply pretend not to understand her Spanish?


2 Adam August 15, 2015 at 1:01 pm

Jennifer, thank you, I hope my blog and forum can continue to be a source of support to your journey.

It sounds like, combined with the stronger exposure she has received in Spanish over the past two years, your daughter feels a lack of need to use English because it’s become clear that you’re a Spanish speaker, too. It’s true that this is a sign of a child’s pragmatism when it comes to communication: children will generally use the language that’s easiest for them to speak if the other person can comprehend it. I wouldn’t view this as a “stage,” though—in fact, if proactive steps aren’t taken to address these circumstances, her Spanish will likely continue to grow dominant at the expense of her English, turning her English ability more passive.

Shifting to the use of English, between you and your husband, would certainly help you avoid using so much Spanish around your daughter, while boosting her exposure to English. However, if that isn’t realistic, I suggest that you use English while he continues using Spanish. Since he understands English, your communication will still work while strengthening those “core conditions” for fostering active ability in the target language: exposure and need. (This is exactly how my wife and I have always communicated: she uses the majority language while I use the minority language. It may sound odd to outside ears, but it works well enough for us and has been a pillar of the progress my children have made over the years.)

Your communication with your husband is one key area where I recommend that you stick to English more consistently. But as you seem to be realizing, I think you should try to be more proactive about limiting your use of Spanish more generally, particularly during these first few formative years. Getting your daughter to use English more actively with you is really more of a “systemic problem,” rather than a question of direct techniques to encourage the use of that language. In other words, I think you’d find that she will naturally use English more once you’re able to strengthen these shortcomings of exposure and need. The more English you use with her and around her, and the less you use Spanish, the more progress you’ll surely see.

For more food for thought, these posts (and the many comments below them) are worth a good look…

What Language Should I Speak in Public with My Bilingual Child?

What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language

Best of luck, Jennifer! Let us know what happens!


3 Jennifer August 16, 2015 at 12:33 am

Thank you for your thoughtful answer. I’ve been reading through your blog and I’ve found lots of answers, ideas and perspectives that I’m sure will help me on my journey. It also feels nice to have someone to share this experience, so I’ll be looking into the forum as well. One of the things that struck a chord was the idea of how raising bilingual kids can become a spiritual journey for the parent, when done consciously. I am continually pondering issues about language and identity (something I’d like to share in the forum when I get a chance)… On the practical issue, I’ll start right away with your suggestions and I hope to see progress soon. Thanks again!


4 Adam August 16, 2015 at 5:25 am

You’re welcome, Jennifer! Since certain patterns have already been established, in terms of your family’s language use, it may take some time for changes to have a noticeable impact on your daughter. So be patient, but playfully persistent, and I expect you’ll see positive movement over the months ahead.

Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing you at The Bilingual Zoo! :mrgreen:


5 Nikoya August 16, 2015 at 10:56 pm

Looks like this is an article just for me!! :-)

Perfectly sums up everything that we need to keep in mind, going forward!


6 Adam August 17, 2015 at 5:57 am

I’m glad it’s helpful for you, Nikoya! Thank you for the positive feedback!


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