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Have You Failed at Raising a Bilingual Child?

July 30, 2014

Have You Failed at Raising a Bilingual Child?

Lately, I’ve heard from several parents with the same concern: they feel that they’ve “failed” at their goal of raising a bilingual child. Because this feeling is so common—and can be so counterproductive—I thought I might share my perspective on “failure.” If possible, I’d like to help rekindle hope.

1. There is no “failure.”

True, your child’s current ability in the minority language may not match your original hopes or expectations, but this isn’t “failure”—it’s simply the level of ability achieved to date. In other words, let’s properly put the stress where it belongs: on achievement. The fact is, you’ve already made substantial progress, I’m sure—maybe not progress that feels satisfying to the degree you’d like—but progress nonetheless. And whatever level of ability your child has achieved to this point can then be advanced as you move forward.

The tricky part is—and here’s what breeds the feeling of “failure”—much of this progress, especially early on, can’t really be seen if the child isn’t speaking yet, or tends to rely on the majority language to communicate. But if you’ve been making consistent efforts, you can be sure that knowledge of the minority language has been steadily growing inside the child’s mind. (See Important Thoughts on Babies and Hammers for a helpful metaphor.)

Frankly, the only way you could truly claim that you’ve “failed” is if your child makes no progress at all, despite your continuous efforts, over the course of 18 years of childhood! In this light, is “failure” even possible?

2. “Failure” is actually “feedback.”

When your child’s level of ability doesn’t match your expectations, this isn’t “failure,” it’s “feedback.” Life is giving you a clear, constructive message: If you really want to fulfill those original hopes, you have to do more. (What “more” is obviously depends on each family’s particular situation.)

Make no mistake: life isn’t saying that you “failed.” That would be misinterpreting the message. Life is simply telling you to try harder if this goal is important to you.

At the same time, there’s no shame in resetting your expectations, and your aim, if you find that you’re unable to do any more than you’ve already been doing. In fact, it’s the wise step when the alternative would be ongoing frustration over an unrealistic goal. Remember (as I mention in Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child): You must be mindful of the actual size of this challenge and make certain that your efforts match the scale of your dream.

3. “Failure” is positive, not negative.

Viewed properly as “feedback,” this feeling of “failure” becomes a positive development that spurs stronger, more effective action. The problem, of course, is that such feelings often do the opposite: they sap our strength and undermine the efforts that now should be made, that would make a difference to our larger, long-term success. The irony is that, just when we have the chance to improve the situation, discouragement can keep us from grabbing this opportunity. (Remember the words of W.J. Cameron: “The last dejected effort often becomes the winning stroke.”)

Of course, feelings of disappointment are natural at times like these—when reality doesn’t match expectation—but if the greater goal remains important to you, you must rise again and brush off the dust. You must go on, bravely, boldly, confident that the more efforts you make, and the more effective those efforts are, the more distance you’ll ultimately travel through the years of your bilingual quest.

4. Passive ability is a significant achievement.

I understand how badly parents want their children to speak the minority language. For many parents, communicating with their children in their mother tongue, for the life of their relationship, is a deep, deep desire. (I share my own feelings on this in Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me.)

Sometimes, though, the challenges involved in providing a child with sufficient exposure to the minority language, and a genuine need to use it—the two “core conditions” for active language ability—are simply beyond the capacity of the parent to meet. When this is the case, despite the disappointment, the parent should realize that even “passive ability” is a significant achievement. Although the child may not yet be ready to use the language actively, the more the parent can continue to expose the child to the minority language—thus persistently enriching the child’s passive knowledge—the more readily that passive knowledge can be activated in the future, when the time is right.

Again, don’t let discouragement prevent you from seeing the bigger picture, the larger arc, of your child’s bilingual development. Whatever efforts you can continue to make will surely pay off over the course of your longer journey.

Progress is guaranteed

The truth is, the only way to really fail at raising a bilingual child is to give up entirely. (Or follow my “advice” in the satirical post How to Fail Miserably at Raising a Bilingual Child.) If you give up, yes, I’m afraid you’ll fail. But if you don’t give up, if you go on and persevere, day after day, year after year, progress is guaranteed. How could it be otherwise?

“When you get right down to the root of the meaning of the word succeed,” said F.W. Nichol, “you find that it simply means to follow through.”

P.S. Keep in mind, too, in those lower moments of your journey, that You Are Not Alone.

How about you? What are your thoughts on “failure” when it comes to raising bilingual kids?

1 Kelly August 4, 2014 at 11:01 am

I just found your web site! I’m a native English-speaker in the US trying to raise my two sons to be bilingual English/Japanese. I feel like a failure quite often, because basically all they do is repeat after me sometimes; they don’t speak more than a few basic phrases in Japanese on their own. But they do understand what I’m saying, at least…


2 Adam August 5, 2014 at 6:52 am

Kelly, don’t be too hard on yourself. I don’t know where you live, exactly, but I suspect your circumstances are very challenging. If it’s difficult to foster active ability at this point, definitely continue nurturing their passive ability. As I stress, the more knowledge they finally have of the minority language, the more readily they can activate that ability at a later stage of their bilingual development.

Keep at it, Kelly! :mrgreen:


3 Raffaela P. August 6, 2014 at 4:44 pm

Great article Adam. I have copied some sentence in my diary so that I will not forget. Thanks.


4 Adam August 6, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Raffaela, I’m glad this post spoke to you.


5 Priscilla August 14, 2014 at 2:58 pm

Your post just came to me in perfect timing! When I was feeling little hope and struggling in talking to and teaching my child Chinese, your words just reminded me what “failure” truly is – only when I give up. Thanks for your words and encouragement.


6 Adam August 14, 2014 at 3:07 pm

Priscilla, I’m really glad this post spoke to you and has given you some encouragement to go on, as best you can. Thanks for taking a moment to let me know.

As we keep moving forward on our journeys, let’s hold in mind these simple, profound words from Elbert Hubbard…

“There is no failure except in no longer trying.”


7 Maria October 8, 2014 at 4:04 pm

Thank you for this article! The timing could not have been better. I have been feeling like a failure raising my bilingual three years old boy for the last weeks. My friend and I have been raising our bilingual kids very similarly, using the same methods and being persistent and consequent. The only difference between our methods is that she “forced” her child to speak the minority language, for instance not willing to help him with things unless he would say it in the minority language. I disagree to force my child to speak my language on such terms, however the result is that her three year old has started speaking the minority language in sentences, while mine only understands and has a vocabulary to do that but won’t initiate the talking part. Since summer I have been trying to speed up his abilities but he simply says to me: now it’s enough! And yes I have been teaching him through playing with him, having constant contacts with my family and other children speaking minority language but it just doesn’t happen. I ask him to try to tell me sentences, he seems to be struggling to say it out loud and it ends by him simply repeating what I have said. Does it mean that he will never ever speak my language with me? Or should I try to neglect him contact with me unless he speaks the minority language since it apparently is working better?


8 Adam October 9, 2014 at 9:05 am

Maria, I feel your frustration. Because I don’t know all the key details of your situation, it’s a bit difficult for me to offer specific feedback. And please keep in mind that your situation is also different from your friend’s, even though it may appear similar on the surface. The largest difference, of course, is that your two children are different and so their language development will naturally be different, too. (Even siblings in the same family, like my kids, vary in their language development.)

My sense, though, is that the basic problem involves the simple fact that your son doesn’t really feel an organic “need” to communicate with you in the minority language because he knows that you speak the majority language, too. Children, remember, tend to be very pragmatic about their use of language and if they can use their stronger language, they generally will, unless they feel a real need to communicate in the second language.

So I suspect that your son has some good knowledge of the minority language in his head, but he isn’t using it actively because he doesn’t really need to—he can mostly rely on the majority language to communicate with the other people in his life. Imagine, though, if he was suddenly placed in a situation, like a minority language school, where he genuinely needed the minority language to communicate. I think you’d find that his passive ability in the minority language would be quickly activated.

I recommend that you look closely at What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language and consider how you can address this lack of “need” because need and exposure are the two “core conditions” for fostering active ability in the minority language.

At the same time, you might be able to encourage some use of the minority language with playful ideas like A Sneaky Way to Get Bilingual Kids to Use the Minority Language. But such tactics don’t really address the basic problem, and, again, that’s the lack of organic “need.”

Maria, stay patient and persistent, and keep a longer view of your son’s bilingual development firmly in mind. I’m cheering for you!


9 Maria October 9, 2014 at 4:58 pm

Thank you, Adam! I think you are absolutely right and I will reread the articles you recommend. By the way, my son has just started at minority language school once a week and it gives some good results.


10 eSpectacularKids October 8, 2014 at 10:47 pm

Very important post! Learning is always a work in progress, and bilingualism can take a long time. It’s important to continue encouraging children and to have fun with languages!


11 Adam October 9, 2014 at 8:41 am

I completely agree. The tricky thing is, as parents of bilingual kids, we must keep one eye fixed on our short-term efforts, from day to day, and the other eye focused on their longer-term progress over time.


12 Michelle August 4, 2015 at 7:36 pm

I honestly don’t think that going full on bilingual with both languages always on the same level is for everyone. As I said in my other post, I have the perfect circumstances. But for some families who do not have such great circumstances, doing what you do is not feasible either. But I very much agree, the only way to fail is to give up completely. If all you can manage in your circumstances/family is to keep on doing what you’re doing even though you get few results, or straight up quitting – it’s better to keep doing what you’re doing. Having a foundation, however small, is always better than having nothing at all.


13 Adam August 5, 2015 at 3:17 pm

Michelle, I agree with everything you said! Not every family will want to, or be able to, pursue this path as vigorously as I do, and that’s perfectly fine. My intent is only to support other parents in fulfilling the bilingual aims that are appropriate for them.


14 Reina VandeBogart August 15, 2015 at 10:33 am

How do you define bilingual vs. second language learner? I always thought that the bilingual person acquires 2 languages simultaneously in anatural way without the process of translation, just like babies learn. If you are going through with learning grammar and stuff, would it be second language learning? I feel that I’m a failure in raising bilingual children because my children didn’t get the language the natural way. It bothers me very much and I’m feeling so much guilt. But I’m hoping that it’s still not too late for my children to learn my language as a second language learner.


15 Adam August 15, 2015 at 2:22 pm

Reina, there are many roads to the goal of bilingualism, and this aim can be achieved at any age, really. Some children acquire two languages simultaneously from birth, but most don’t. The majority of children develop their two languages sequentially: first one, then the other. I wouldn’t worry too much about labeling the process. The important thing is to provide your children with as much exposure to the target language as you can, as well as a real need for them to use it actively. These are the core conditions for fostering progress.

As long as you make the most effective efforts you can, day after day, and you don’t give up, your children’s ability in the target language will grow steadily over time. It’s really best to set aside your feelings of “failure,” which are counterproductive, and refocus on your daily efforts. As I stress in this post, “failure” isn’t even possible if you’re persistent.

Reina, to help lift your spirits and empower your efforts, I suggest that you also make use of my eBook Instant Inspiration for Parents Raising Bilingual Kids.


16 Rob December 13, 2015 at 11:10 pm

Thanks Adam,
Even though my babies are practically new (3 months old) I sometimes feel like I haven’t been doing enough to build their minority language ability. As the only person in the family who speaks to the babies in the minority language, and when the minority language is my second language as well, it sometimes seems like I can’t possibly have an impact. Thanks for the reminder that my expectations and their progress are not the same thing, just sign posts on the road.


17 Adam December 14, 2015 at 6:49 am

Rob, that’s well put. The truth is, as long as you continue making consistent efforts to nurture the second language (and definitely make reading aloud each day the cornerstone of your efforts!), you will see progress over time. The metaphor I share in this post, Important Thoughts on Babies and Hammers, might also be useful to hear in terms of faith and patience in the process of language acquisition.

Keep at it, Rob! :mrgreen:


18 Ed March 29, 2016 at 6:59 am

I tend to disagree with your article. I’ve heard many parents using similar arguments to yours. Parents who had all the elements to raise bilingual children but failed because different reasons such us: lack of discipline or consistent approach, persistence, providing media support, sticking to OPOL, etc. There is no half way on this. Children who “understand” two languages but can’t speak a second one, it is a failure from the parents. Dot.


19 Adam March 29, 2016 at 7:36 am

Ed, I think this depends on perspective. When children have developed some passive ability in the target language, but don’t yet use that language more actively, it’s far too premature to say that the parents have “failed” since children will continue to evolve throughout childhood and it’s certainly possible for that passive ability to become more active, given more conducive action, timing, and circumstances. I have seen this process play out in many, many families, with passive ability eventually becoming more active, so conflating short-term “failure” with long-term “failure”—and shutting the door too soon on potential progress over the whole length of childhood—is, to my mind, a false and unproductive choice. I see language acquisition as an organic, ever-evolving process of growth that lasts a lifetime, and that can always be bolstered by making stronger, more effective efforts, not an all-or-nothing proposition that’s permanently determined within the first few years of childhood.


20 Sashee June 3, 2016 at 1:58 am

My child started to speak in 2 languages after I started to provide him opportunities to use those languages with other people who speak those. So, I believe the best method to make a child speak a language is giving him lots of exposure through other people too. Only a parent speak (specially) a minority language won’t work well.


21 Adam June 3, 2016 at 6:10 am

Sashee, I’m glad you and your son are making good progress. Yes, efforts to create opportunities for interaction with other speakers of the target language can be enormously helpful because this strengthens both exposure and need, the two “core conditions” for fostering active language ability.


22 Mack January 29, 2017 at 3:53 pm

I’m an American and my wife is German and we are raising our 5 year old in Germany. I spend a lot of time with my child speaking and reading in English but my child has almost always refused to answer me in English as she knows I understand German. The only time she speaks English is when she wants something and she knows she won’t get it without asking in English but the English is always pretty bad. We go back to the states every year and make a point of going to playgrounds so she can mingle with the other kids but even there she just speaks German even though she knows the other kids don’t understand her. To make matters worse, her German grammar is behind her monolingual schoolmates. Is this normal? Thanks.


23 Adam January 30, 2017 at 12:32 pm

Mack, without knowing the full details of the situation—particularly involving the two “core conditions” of language acquisition, exposure and need—I can’t really be concrete in my response. I understand your concern and, broadly speaking, I can tell you that young children develop on different timetables so this may be a perfectly “normal” timetable for your daughter. Unless there are developmental issues I’m not aware of, as she continues attending German schools, I expect her ability in German will grow strong and natural. When it comes to English, though, it sounds like those two “core conditions” of exposure and need must be addressed more proactively, day by day, in order to strengthen her progress and encourage her use of this language.

Mack, you may find my forum, The Bilingual Zoo, a useful source of support toward this end, especially the Track Your Progress board. Hope to see you there!


24 Kay November 28, 2017 at 6:31 pm

Hi Adam,

Great articles!!!!!

I have a 2.5 y.o child and we live in Canada. I speak Spanish and my husband only English. I have been speaking Spanish to my son since birth. To cultivate Spanish I decided to avoid the daycare setting and hire a full-time Spanish speaking nanny while I work. All our outdoor activities are 80% in Spanish. I only speak English when it’s about correcting a behaviour so my husband can understand the situations. He is an only child and will be always. I know that he needs the social part of his development as I can see that he needs to learn how to share and play / communicate with other peers. I am trying my best to find a daycare that is run in Spanish but no luck. There is pretty much no Spanish community here. I had to find my own Spanish speaking soccer and music instructors and a group of parents over Facebook pages.

I have to say that I have done a pretty good job and my son uses Spanish first and English with his dad; he even speaks more Spanish to his dad than English. My question is what could happen if I enroll him in an English daycare and he starts to lose his Spanish. Many friends have the experience that their kids stopped speaking to them in their native language after they started school, and it happened super quick. I know I am pretty much avoiding the situation by keeping him in no daycare. I know that he has to go to daycare soon and get ready for kindergarten. I don’t want my son to be in kindergarten with very low English and struggling with their ABCs and instructions. Please, could you give suggestions on what to do before and after, putting my son in a daycare that is not my native language? What to do if he starts to speak in English to me instead of Spanish? How hard/firm can I be to a toddler about speaking my mother tongue? Muchas gracias!!!


25 Adam November 29, 2017 at 6:33 am

Kay, thank you for sharing your situation. I hope this response can be helpful to your concerns, and that my work can continue to lend support to your success.

First, I’d like to applaud all the good efforts and progress that you’ve made to this point. Raising a bilingual child can be much more challenging than most people realize and you’re clearly giving your best to this aim, day by day, in order to nurture your son’s ability in Spanish. Good for you, Kay!

Now, about his English and how the start of schooling could impact his use of Spanish. If kindergarten begins at around age 5, I would recommend waiting to enter him into an English daycare setting until just prior to that: 6 months before or maybe a year. The longer you can maintain your use of a Spanish-speaking nanny, as well as your other Spanish efforts, the firmer his foundation in Spanish will be and the more likely this pattern of using Spanish for your communication will continue beyond these early years.

I understand your concerns about his development in English, as well as his opportunity to socialize with other children, but since his father speaks English—which means that this development is already proceeding—and entering a daycare setting a bit later will still give him plenty of time to socialize with other children prior to kindergarten, I think continuing to place a higher priority on his Spanish, for now, would be a more effective choice for long-term success. In other words, the more you can emphasize Spanish during these early formative years, the more likely you’ll be able to “condition” him to continue using Spanish actively with you after his schooling in English begins, and the greater the odds that you will experience satisfying bilingual success throughout the childhood years.

Because schooling in the majority language is such an important topic, I’ve written about it extensively at this site, and in my book, and I encourage you to see this post as well as the links below it.

As for what might happen later, after your son begins his schooling in English, it’s really best to address the actual circumstances as they arise—and my forum, The Bilingual Zoo, is designed to do just that so feel free to join me and hundreds of other parents there, anytime. But really, the best way to avoid larger difficulties with the use of the target language, after schooling starts, is to prevent them from arising in the first place through “preventive medicine”, by being as mindful and proactive as possible so that the minority language is given strong support during its early development.

Keep going, Kay! You’re doing really well, and I expect you’ll continue to experience a lot of success over the months and years ahead. :mrgreen:


26 Elena December 1, 2017 at 5:48 pm

Hi, Adam.

I am reading your book and blog and I find the ideas very useful. Thank you!

My husband and I are both Bulgarian living in U.S. and our daughter is 2 years and 4 months old. We have been speaking to her 100% Bulgarian until now as our parents were rotating to take care of her. She started English daycare part-time 2 months ago and now we need to take her full-time as our parents can no longer take care of her for different reasons. She speaks great Bulgarian for her age with full sentences and she knows many of her books almost by heart.

However, I am really afraid she will switch to English as she is already trying to say some words/songs at home. I almost feel like it will become a losing battle for us as we both work much. Moreover, all our Bulgarian friends are telling us that their experiences are she will end up just understanding it and not speaking it.

Do you think our great progress up to date will be lost if we continue speaking/reading to her in Bulgarian at home? We go out with friends/other children which are mostly American and I am afraid this will hinder her Bulgarian abilities but I don’t want to isolate her as she is a very outgoing child. How can we make sure she doesn’t lose Bulgarian?


27 Adam December 2, 2017 at 7:30 am

Elena, hello! I hope my work can continue to lend helpful support to your successful bilingual journey.

First, let me loudly applaud all the good efforts that you and your family have made up to this point. What you’ve already accomplished—fostering a strong and active foundation in the minority language—is a highly significant achievement and this foundation can now be built upon for continuing progress, despite the changing circumstances.

At the same time, I understand your concerns, which are valid. I’ve written extensively about the “dangers” of the transition to schooling in the majority language (see Principle 25 in my book) and the need for parents to stay very mindful and proactive once this transition occurs.

Elena, while we can’t exactly predict what will happen in your daughter’s case, it seems to me that the key to sustaining her active use of the minority language will be to firmly maintain Bulgarian—and only Bulgarian—as the language you use at home. Of course, you’ll have to bend this policy a bit when she gets older, and support is needed for homework from school, but especially during these early, formative years, the more you can establish Bulgarian as the family language, and enrich your home with Bulgarian books and other resources—while limiting the encroachment of English into this environment—the more you’ll raise the odds of “conditioning” her to continue using Bulgarian with you, even as her English ability grows. In other words, you create a norm for her where English is her language for other people but Bulgarian is her language for you.

This is definitely doable, but as I mentioned, you and your husband will need to continue being as mindful and proactive as possible over the next few years. Toward that end, I encourage you to become a member of my forum (it’s free), which serves as an ongoing place of support for many, many parents. In fact, although the circumstances are different, your goal of limiting the influence of the majority language at home reminds me of one of our most active members, Amy, who has chronicled her experience in this thread and in this guest post.

So, while I understand the difficulties your Bulgarian friends are describing, I believe that your persistence and perseverance will pay off and that you can continue experiencing many more years of rewarding progress, despite the new challenges ahead. (Along with maintaining interactions with your parents and other Bulgarian speakers, to the extent you can, trips back to Bulgaria, as often as this is realistic, should also be made a high priority.)

Elena, don’t hesitate to reach out to me again, anytime, through my blog or forum, if I can be of further support to your success.

Thank you for reading my book—please enjoy the rest of it! (And when you’ve finished it, I’d be really grateful for your review at Amazon and/or at Goodreads.)

I send my best bilingual wishes to you and your family, from Japan to the U.S.! :mrgreen:


28 Elena Ivanova December 4, 2017 at 4:44 am

Thank you very much, Adam!

My biggest concern is what to do once she tries to use English words/sentences at home (and I know this is coming). Some of my friends said forcing them to ask their questions in the minority language works long term while others say kids start rebelling against it later on. At the same time, I can’t let her speak English because this will become the norm…what is your experience?

Is there a way to completely avoid this problem from occurring?


29 Adam December 4, 2017 at 6:13 am

Elena, the outcome of any bilingual journey (like the outcome of parenting itself) can’t be completely controlled, but it’s certainly possible to strengthen the odds of success by taking effective action. In your case, the more you can firmly (but patiently) maintain the “rule” that Bulgarian is the home language, provide her with ample exposure to this language from you and your husband and others, and visit Bulgaria as regularly as possible, the more you’ll raise the odds of success and minimize the potential problems you mention.

If such problems do arise, they will need to be addressed in ways that are specific to the child and circumstances at that time. The post 7 Steps to Get Your Bilingual Child Using the Minority Language More Actively offers a variety of ideas for responding to a child’s use of the “wrong” language.

I think it’s also important to stress that difficulties aren’t a sign of “failure.” They’re simply part of the journey and every family experiences difficulties throughout this quest; they can’t be avoided entirely. But as I suggest in my book (see Perspective 13: Practice “Preventive Medicine”), what we can do is be very mindful of the future and make proactive efforts, from early on, to prevent or reduce these difficulties so that our challenges will be fewer and smaller.

So, no matter the difficulties that lie ahead, whether large or small (but hopefully on the smaller side!), you and your husband can surely address them, and overcome them, with steady patience and perseverance—much like the members of The Bilingual Zoo.

Elena, keep moving forward with your best efforts and I expect you’ll continue to experience a lot of good progress over the months and years ahead! Let me know what happens!


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