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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…

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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:

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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.

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4 Adam August 6, 2014 at 4:55 pm

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

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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.

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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.”

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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?

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
Rob

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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