Is It Too Late For My Child to Become Bilingual?

October 22, 2013

Is it too late for my child to become bilingual?

Recently, I’ve gotten several messages related to this question, so I thought I would try sharing my thoughts on the subject and open up the discussion to all of you, through your comments. (If you missed the lively discussion in connection with What Language Should I Speak in Public with My Bilingual Child?, I highly recommend a good look at that page.)

For me, there’s a short answer and a long answer here.

The short answer is…

No, it’s certainly never too late. Your child has the potential to become bilingual at any age.

The long answer is…well, the long answer is a lot more involved.

The “easiest” way

First of all, I should emphasize that the “easiest” way to foster bilingualism is generally by providing ample exposure to the two languages from birth and permitting the inherent power of the child’s brain to naturally turn that exposure into a firm foundation for bilingual ability.

Recent research in The Journal of Neuroscience, as reported by the BBC, seems to reaffirm that the brain has a special window for language development “before the age of four.” If this is roughly the case—and I believe it is—by aligning with nature and being proactive during the child’s earliest years, nature itself will back your efforts and fuel your child’s bilingual growth.

At the same time, let me stress that this “window” certainly doesn’t slam shut after the age of four. A child can become bilingual at any age, but I do suspect that the window is widest during the early years, then closes incrementally as time passes.

The point is, the same efforts will likely yield a more productive result if undertaken while the child is younger, as opposed to older. In fact, I would even argue that it can ultimately take greater efforts at a later age than it would have otherwise if those efforts had begun from birth. This is why starting early is “easier”: working with nature is the “Zen approach” to bilingual parenting.

Let me add that starting early is also a form of “preventive medicine” (as I discuss in What Frustrates Me About Raising Bilingual Children), because the often difficult challenges and choices of fostering bilingualism in later years can then be avoided.

Four basic options

If your child is a bit older, though, and you wish to begin or boost bilingualism, what can you do?

If you haven’t already read What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language, I encourage you to view that post. It discusses, in detail, the two key factors of need and exposure—your child must have some organic need to use the target language as well as sufficient meaningful exposure to that language. It also attempts to provide possible remedies.

Expanding on that post, let me now suggest four basic options for promoting an older child’s bilingual development.

1. Relocate to a new country or region
I’m not kidding. In fact, I heard from a family the other day who have done just that. They were in England, but their concern over their children’s development in French led them to decide to move to a French-speaking part of Switzerland. And the results, in the year since their relocation, have been impressive, with very solid gains in the children’s French.

I realize, of course, that this more dramatic option isn’t possible for everyone, but if it’s feasible—and if the bilingual goal is deeply important to you—then such a move could make all the difference in your child’s language development.

2. Send your child to a minority language school
Again, this option may not be available to you, because of cost or location, but schooling in the minority language is a highly effective way of increasing both need and exposure, and elevating a child’s language level.

Over the years I’ve worked with many bilingual children who attend Hiroshima International School—first as a teacher and now as a private tutor—and the success rate, in terms of their eventual bilingual proficiency (though naturally at varying levels), is 100%.

3. Change your work situation
More than a few parents have changed their work situation so they could increase the amount of time—and the amount of exposure to the minority language—that they give their children.

In my case, the newspaper company I work for downsized my position into a work-from-home role when my kids were smaller, saving me from having to make this decision myself. But the truth is, I would have eventually headed in this direction, anyway, because my work hours there, and my bilingual goal for my children, just didn’t match. The fact that I work from home, and can spend chunks of time with my children each day, is a huge blessing when it comes to supporting their minority language.

4. Pursue a major “intervention”
This final option involves rethinking and remaking your life as a family. In order to foster active bilingual ability, the child’s need for the minority language, and exposure to that language, must become among your highest priorities. There has to be a rock-solid commitment to your bilingual goal, which translates into conscious, proactive efforts to reshape your daily lifestyle and home environment.

The actual changes required will naturally depend on the particular circumstances and greater aims of each family, but these actions could include such things as: spending more time with the child, reading and interacting; building up your home library; establishing a homework routine; hiring babysitters or tutors; enrolling in lessons or clubs; and arranging trips abroad. (Again, see What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language, as well as 96 Things You Can Do Today to Boost Your Child’s Bilingual Ability.)

It’s always possible

Beginning or boosting bilingualism, after the majority language has gotten a large head start, can be a significant challenge, demanding considerable sacrifice and effort from the family, but it’s always, always possible.

It’s true, of course, that some families must contend with more difficult circumstances than others, but gradual progress can be made even in the toughest situation if there is one thing: undying determination to address the obstacles to the best of your ability.

How about you? What are your thoughts, or experiences, when it comes to fostering bilingualism at a later age?

See value in this post? Please share it with the universe! (There may be aliens raising bilingual kids, too, you never know.) Then add your thoughts below. Thanks!

1 Jana October 25, 2013 at 4:14 am

Thanks for the post Adam. I’ve met a few people through my website recently who for one reason or another didn’t expose their child to Czech from birth and now regret it. They feel awful when they go back home and their kids can’t communicate with the other members of the family. That’s when they start to wonder if something can be done. Your point 4 is always my advice – I’m glad I haven’t been telling them rubbish :-) It’s just common sense, I guess.

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2 Adam October 25, 2013 at 6:54 am

Jana, yes, I’m afraid the regret you describe is all too common for many parents. This is why I persistently advocate starting strong, right from birth, if fostering bilingual ability is an important goal for the future. As I stress in Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child

The dreams of many parents have been dashed because they realized too late that raising a bilingual child demands a lot more time, energy, and expense than they originally imagined.

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3 Jun Han October 29, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Hi I am Jun from Korea.

I am a father of 3 and trying to raise my kids bilingual. This is a great resource for me.

Is it possible to interview you for 20 mins.? I just started podcast and it would be honor that if you join as a guest.

Thank you.

Cheers,

Jun Han

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4 Adam October 29, 2013 at 5:00 pm

Jun, welcome! I’m glad Bilingual Monkeys will be useful to your efforts at home. Best of luck with your bilingual journey, and with your fun-looking site! (Your kids are very cute!)

About an interview, could you please contact me directly, by email, with further details? Thanks!

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5 Johanna July 13, 2014 at 8:05 am

I’m a mother of 4 boys, aged 15, 13, 6 & 4. I am raising my children to be bilingual in my mother tongue, Finnish, whilst my husband is speaking to the boys in English. We lived in the UK until 2 years ago and because of misguided advice by an English speech therapist, I stopped speaking to my older boys in Finnish when they were 4 & 2. It’s a decision I’ve regretted since and when my younger sons were born, I was determined to speak only in Finnish. And I did. 2 years ago we made a decision to move to Finland and since then, 3/4 boys are now bilingual in Finnish and English. Unfortunately my oldest has learning difficulties, so his learning is slow. But my now 13y boy didn’t speak any Finnish before coming here, and in a year, he was integrated into a mainstream Finnish school. So learning at an older age is possible. My younger ones were in more advantaged position having always heard me speak to them in Finnish and being very young when we came here.

I love your articles and find inspiration from them! Thank you!

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6 Adam July 13, 2014 at 11:03 am

Johanna, thank you for your comment and your kind words. I’m sorry about the early difficulty on your journey, but it sounds like you’ve gone on to achieve considerable success. Good for you! I think your example can serve as an inspiration to others.

By the way, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but I wrote a post about my mother because her family is Finnish and, in fact, she grew up speaking both Finnish and English—and then lost much of her Finnish ability as she grew older. Growing up in the United States, I never learned more than a few “bad words” of Finnish myself!

“I Spoke Both Finnish and English”: I Interview My Mother on Her Bilingual Childhood

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7 Raffaela July 13, 2014 at 9:12 pm

Interesting post! I am certainly one of those parents feeling guilty. Now my daughter will soon turn 11yrs and I realize it may be too late. I started speaking the minority language to her almost a year ago but with many problems all caused by my lack of time and her not willing to speak another language. Unfortunately I spend 13 hours a day far from home and when I get home we are all too tired to speak the minority language. So my efforts are all concentrated on holidays. We have improved but…we worked so hard and did not go that far.

Your points from 1 to 3 are just not applicable to me unfortunately. I do not even have access to bilingual school from where we are. That leaves me down to number 4. The problem I am facing, besides the lack of time due to my work and my daughter’s school and activities, is that the only exposure to the minority language she has is with me. Luckily this summer for the first time they made an English camp and she really enjoyed it. The problem is that with small kids you can start with games, songs, lullaby, but with an 11yrs old it is more difficult. I find it hard to find something she will enjoy and at the same time she understands. I am a bit demotivated…but not ready to give up.

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8 Adam July 14, 2014 at 8:46 am

Raffaela, I understand your feelings, but I think it’s important that you first draw a distinction between the two general types of bilingual development. Yes, it’s “too late” to achieve simultaneous bilingualism (where the two languages are acquired from birth or early on), but it certainly isn’t “too late” for your daughter to learn a second language through the process of successive (or sequential) bilingualism (where the second language is gained after the first language has already been acquired).

At the same time, your aims and expectations must match the amount of exposure your daughter receives in the minority language. In other words, hoping that she will make the sort of progress you’d prefer (and feeling guilty that this isn’t being achieved), when her exposure to the minority language is insufficient, is unrealistic and self-defeating.

If you’re unable to reshape your circumstances to increase this exposure, then maybe the best you can do, at this point, would be: 1) resetting your aims and expectations to the achievable goal of successive bilingualism, which could be realized as she gets older and studies English in school; and 2) supporting this process by providing as much enjoyable language exposure as possible so she will come to have positive feelings toward English and will be motivated to study hard as a teenager and beyond. (See 96 Things You Can Do Today to Boost Your Child’s Bilingual Ability for ideas.)

Raffaela, your dream of fostering bilingual ability in your daughter is still very possible—it just needs to be viewed realistically, and without regret, so you can move forward from here as positively and proactively as you’re able.

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9 Raffaela July 15, 2014 at 5:15 pm

Adam, thanks for your comment. And thank you for the ideas/thoughts you share with us in Bilingual Monkeys. My daughter was bilingual till the age of 3, then due to a set of circumstances (my going back to a full time job, her going to Italian schools, etc.) I stopped speaking English to her. And this is where we are now. I understand that in our case it will never be a real bilingualism, but hopefully something more than a second language, I am aiming for fluency. Too much…you think?? Now that there is not school we are really working hard on it. In September I am planning to take her to London…maybe she will fall in love with the language. Any suggestions??

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10 Adam July 16, 2014 at 5:36 am

Raffaela, you have the right spirit and you’re making the right efforts. (Spending time in London together will be wonderful for her, I’m sure. Have fun!) I wouldn’t worry, though, about labels like “real bilingualism.” Just keep going, day by day, and know that all the progress she makes in her English ability will indeed be “real.” All the best to you and your daughter!

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11 Raffaela July 16, 2014 at 3:37 pm

:) thanks. I will keep you updated.

12 Johanna July 15, 2014 at 8:03 am

What would be your thoughts on me switching to English now that we are here in Finland? I do speak English with my husband and both my older boys. It feels natural. But I’ve noticed lately that I keep mixing Finnish with English with my little ones. They speak Finnish now (they are in the nursery every day for 6-8h) fluently, but I worry about them not using English that much and getting a (horrid Finnish) accent, plus from my point, I’ve started losing my fluency rapidly, only having my family to talk to in the evenings after work.

Do you think it would be a bad idea to switch my language now to the minority language or is it just better to continue with Finnish. Or should I just carry on with my mixed language?

Any advice from anyone, in similar situation or just opinions/thoughts are appreciated!

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13 Adam July 15, 2014 at 11:31 am

Johanna, if you feel that the balance between the two languages has now shifted, and that your two younger boys (and you, too!) would benefit more if you spoke English to them, then this could be an effective change. At the same time, you’ll naturally want to consider their feelings by discussing such a change with them and easing into it gradually, perhaps, while monitoring their reaction. After all, if they’re accustomed to communicating with you in Finnish, then the switch to English could be an emotional shock to the relationship. So, yes, it might now make sense to establish English as the “home language” for all, but be sure to handle the switch sensitively. Good luck!

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14 Fabiana August 18, 2014 at 8:10 am

Hi Adam.
My 27-month-old has been exposed to the minority language (Portuguese) around 12 hours a week (nursery rhymes, tv shows, books, skype with my parents back in Brazil). However, I would only speak English to her since birth. Her dad can only speak English, so I believe that is why I just decided to use English. I started speaking Portuguese only to her this week and even though she replies in English, she seems to understand pretty much everything I say. If I stick to speaking my mother tongue only (Portuguese), do you believe she will eventually switch her replies to Portuguese? Or is it too late?

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15 Adam August 18, 2014 at 10:00 am

Fabiana, it’s difficult to predict what exactly will happen—a lot depends on the child’s personality and other factors which I don’t know in detail—but I can tell you that you will certainly raise the odds of getting her to use Portuguese with you if you’re persistent about using it with her and if you continue to seek out additional opportunities to expose her to Portuguese. In particular, if you can create opportunities which will activate her need to use the language (caregivers who don’t speak English, or can pretend that they don’t; trips to Brazil; etc.), this will help advance your efforts significantly and will hopefully lead to her using Portuguese more actively with you, too.

A couple of strategies you might try would be the “rule” where it’s fine for her to respond to you in English, but when she has a request (when she wants something), her first attempt must be in Portuguese. And, for a more playful approach (though this might work better when she’s a bit older), you could encourage her use of Portuguese with the activity described in A Sneaky Way to Get Bilingual Kids to Use the Minority Language.

Finally, for further perspective, and inspiration, I recommend reading the post Have You Failed at Raising a Bilingual Child?

Fabiana, best of luck! Be as proactive as possible (while staying playful and patient), and I expect you’ll see positive progress over time. :mrgreen:

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