How Many Steps is the Bilingual Journey?

My Best Tips for Raising Bilingual Kids

January 7, 2013

My Best Tips for Raising Bilingual Kids

1. Start early
If you’re proactive from the start, you’ll stand a much better chance of nurturing a good balance in the child’s bilingual ability. From birth to age 6 or 7 is a critical time for two reasons: 1) this is the period young brains are most primed for language acquisition, and 2) if the child attends elementary school in the majority language, it grows more difficult to “rebalance” the two languages after that. In other words, the investment of time and energy up front will make it easier to foster the balance you seek, and then maintain that balance throughout childhood. Playing “catch up” with the minority language is much harder! (See Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child.)

2. Prioritize it
Making this a priority goes hand in hand with being proactive. If the development of your child’s minority language isn’t one of your family’s highest priorities, chances are the majority language will quickly come to be dominant and the minority language will be relegated to a more passive role. Don’t underestimate how quickly this can happen once the child enters the world and spends the bulk of his hours bathed in the language of the wider community. Make the minority language a priority from the get-go and you’ll strengthen the odds of achieving long-term success. (See What Language Should I Speak in Public with My Bilingual Child? for my thoughts—and many comments from others—on a parent’s use of the minority language and majority language.)

3. Don’t leave it to chance
Don’t let the whims of circumstance determine the outcome. You have to actively shape the situation, on an ongoing basis, so your child will receive sufficient input in the minority language to counterbalance the weight of exposure coming from the language of your community. Some take a more laissez-faire approach, saying that the minority language can be picked up later, when the child is older. That may be true, to some extent, but it disregards the natural desire of many parents to interact with their children in their mother tongue throughout the childhood years. (See Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me for my personal thoughts on this point.)

4. Set a goal
Set a clear goal for your child’s ability in the minority language. Will you be content with oral fluency, and less concerned with reading and writing? Or is literacy important to you, too, and you’d like to see her read and write at the level of a monolingual child? Whatever your goal is, articulate it, and make sure that your efforts match the goal you seek. Good reading and writing ability are attainable, but this goal will require a diligent commitment from both you and your child.

5. Get informed
By informing yourself on the subject of children and bilingualism, you’ll be better able to promote the development of your child’s language proficiency. Turn to helpful books, online resources, and other parents to broaden your knowledge and ideas. Seek out associations on bilingualism or parenting in your region for further support and comradery. (Join me and others around the world at The Bilingual Zoo, a warm, lively forum for “keepers” of bilingual kids!)

6. Ignore the naysayers
Some people, even those who are otherwise well-educated, may warn that your child will become “confused” or suffer other hardships when learning two languages at once. Don’t let such comments deter you. At the same time, take people’s prescriptions with a grain of salt. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to families raising bilingual children. In my case, I’m eager to hear about others’ successful experiences—because maybe I can adopt or adapt those strategies for my own family—but only I can really decide what’s appropriate for my particular situation. (See When You Feel a Lack of Support for Your Bilingual Journey from the People Around You for further advice.)

7. Keep the “core conditions” in mind
The two “core conditions” for successfully fostering language acquisition and active use are exposure and need: the child must receive sufficient exposure to the target language and feel an organic need to use it. If one or both conditions are lacking, the more likely outcome is “passive ability” in that language. In other words, the child understands much of what is heard, but tends to rely on the majority language to communicate. Of course, this passive ability can be later activated, but again, progress requires satisfying these two “core conditions.” At heart, success on the bilingual journey is always tied to exposure and need. (For much more on this key concept, see What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language and Why Raising a Bilingual Child is Very, Very Simple—and Very, Very Difficult.)

8. Adopt a strategy
How will you use the two languages within your family? Two common strategies are the “one person, one language” approach (where each parent speaks his or her mother tongue) and the “minority language at home” approach (where both parents use the minority language at home and the majority language is acquired from the community). Whatever strategy you choose, the important thing is making sure that the child has a natural need to use the minority language and receives sufficient daily input in that language. The family should then stick consistently to its strategy, unless a change in circumstance warrants a change in approach. (See What’s the Best Language Strategy for Raising Bilingual Children? for more on this central question.)

9. Decide on schooling
The language strategy you choose to adopt may also depend on the schooling decisions you pursue. Will your child attend school in the majority language? The minority language? Some combination of the two? Maybe homeschooling? Whatever you decide, look broadly at your child’s language exposure and seek to maintain an effective balance between the two languages. For the minority language, a good target would be 25 hours of exposure per week. (That’s roughly 30% of the child’s waking hours, depending on routine. Anything less than 20 hours a week could be a cause for concern.) Conversely, if your child attends school in the minority language, you may need to shore up certain aspects of the majority language—particularly reading and writing—with additional support. (See How Many Hours Per Week Is Your Child Exposed to the Minority Language? and Why I Don’t Want My Kids to Do Well in School.)

10. Seize each day
A child’s bilingual development is a long-term process, but it’s a process that can only be advanced bit by bit, day by day, through regular habits and routines. Thus, the idea of “seizing each day”—taking action day in and day out—is at the very heart of this challenge. Strive to be mindful of your long-range goal and commit to doing your honest best, each day, to move forward another few small steps. Remember that the majority language will continue its relentless development, so you must be as consistent as you can, as persistent as possible, when it comes to providing minority language support. (For inspiration in this vein, see 8 Meditations on Time and the Art of Raising a Bilingual Child and A Friend of Mine Died.)

11. Practice “preventive medicine”
One of the keys to minimizing difficulties on the bilingual journey is “preventive medicine.” In other words, our aim is to prevent larger difficulties from even arising at all by making effective efforts beforehand. For example, by being proactive, and providing the child with strong exposure to the minority language during the first few formative years, active ability in the language can be fostered and the problem of activating passive ability later on is avoided. By thinking ahead, and taking appropriate action, the journey can proceed more smoothly, more successfully. (For more on “preventive medicine,” see What Frustrates Me About Raising Bilingual Children.)

12. Stay patient
Language development is an incremental process over time. This is true, of course, for a child’s progress at any age, but the first couple of years—eagerly awaiting the child’s first words—can be a special test of patience, particularly for new parents. It isn’t uncommon for new parents to wonder if their child will ever start speaking. But when there’s sufficient exposure to the language, and a genuine need to use it—and no other developmental concerns are present—then the child will inevitably speak when the time is right. The same is true for language development throughout childhood: given adequate exposure and need, gradual progress is guaranteed. (For a helpful metaphor of this process of early language acquisition, see Important Thoughts on Babies and Hammers.)

13. Make it fun
There’s no getting around the fact that raising a bilingual child is a lot of hard work for everyone involved, so it’s vital to make the experience enjoyable, too—to whatever degree you can. It’s an odd balance, but I think it’s important to be both very serious and very playful at the same time: serious about the process and yet playful when it comes to carrying that process out. Half of this is simply attitude, but the other half involves implementing activities (books, stories, riddles, games, etc.) that can nurture language development in a lighthearted way. (See Be Very Serious. Be Very Playful. The Bilingual Journey Demands Both. and Thought Experiment: What Will Your Children Remember Most About You?)

14. Talk, talk, talk to your child
Research has shown a correlation between the volume of speech spoken by parents to their children in the earliest years and the child’s language ability at a later age. In other words, the sheer quantity of speech directed at the child by the parents and caregivers from birth to age 3 has a tremendous impact on language development. (Of course, the quality of that speech is important, too!) Although I don’t recommend talking a poor baby’s ears off—infants need quiet time, too, for their brains to consolidate each day’s new discoveries—I do advise parents of the minority language to be proactive in interacting with their children. (See The Most Powerful Thing of All in Nurturing Language Development for more on this research and my thoughts on the subject.)

15. Clone yourself
When your children are small, and are especially in need of exposure in the minority language, it can be frustrating when you serve as the main source of that exposure yet are unable to spend as much time with them as you’d like, due to work or other factors. One way to address this lack of input—and, again, have fun in the process—is to create videos of yourself reading picture books, telling stories, singing songs, and talking to your children. I did this when my kids were younger and asked my wife to play these videos every day for about 30 minutes. The videos captivated them (and amazed them when I happened to be in the same room!), while adding many hours of targeted language exposure over those years. (See The Busy Parent’s Guide to Cloning Yourself for all the details.)

16. Read aloud every day
Reading aloud to your child in the minority language, for at least 15 minutes each day, is a vital practice when it comes to nurturing good bilingual ability. It may seem too simple, but reading aloud regularly has an enormous impact on a child’s language development as well as his interest in books and literacy. If you don’t read aloud—preferably from day one and continuing for as long as you possibly can—it will be far more difficult for your child to develop strong proficiency in the minority language. (For more on this important subject, see The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child and Recommended Resources: Good Books on Reading Aloud.)

17. Turn to chapter books
As soon as your children reach a suitable age and language level, I highly recommend reading aloud chapter books that come in a series to help get them hooked on books. Do this daily and chapter books will quickly cast a spell and whet their appetite for literacy. And if reading regularly in person is difficult, try “cloning yourself” on video and have your spouse play a chapter or two each day. (See How to Get Your Child Hooked on Books for a list of good series in English.)

18. Build a home library
You can’t read aloud to your child regularly if you don’t have suitable books in the minority language, including chapter books that come in series of 5 or 15 or even 25+ books. The costs can add up quickly, I know, but in the long run, books are a small investment, really, when the eventual payoff in good language ability is so great. Cut back in other areas of your budget, if you must, but don’t scrimp when it comes to putting children’s books in your home. (See How Many Books Do You Have In Your Home? for research which stresses the importance of a good home library.)

19. Give books as gifts
By making a practice of giving books in the minority language as gifts for birthdays, Christmas, and other special occasions—and encouraging family and friends to do the same for your kids—you achieve three important things: 1) You help foster their love of books and literacy; 2) You convey the idea that books are special and valued by their loved ones (including Santa); and 3) You continue growing your home library, which should be an ongoing effort.

20. Visit the public library
This will naturally depend on your location and target language, but perhaps the public library in your area has a selection of picture books that you can access for free—it can’t hurt to investigate. Here in Hiroshima, the children’s library has a fairly large collection of books in such languages as English, Chinese, Korean, French, German, and Russian. Maybe your local library has books in minority languages, too, or would be willing to acquire some.

21. Use comic books
One of my “secret weapons” for promoting literacy in the minority language, with both my students and my own children, is the use of comic books. Research shows that comic books have effectively fueled literacy development and a love of reading for many, many people (including me!), thereby fostering the competence and confidence to then read “real books,” too. And because bilingual children may not be eager to read in the minority language during their limited free time, the powerful appeal of comic books can help motivate them and advance their literacy development. (See How Comic Books Can Give Your Kids Bilingual Super Powers and Recommended Resources: Captivating Comic Books for English Learners.)

22. Subscribe to magazines
Children’s magazines are another useful resource that should not be overlooked. Subscriptions to colorful, kid-friendly magazines are generally quite reasonably-priced, even with the additional fee for international mailing. We’ve had subscriptions to a number of children’s magazines over the years, and my kids are always excited when a new issue arrives. To help boost exposure and interest in the minority language, I highly recommend a steady stream of magazines. (For more on magazine subscriptions, and good children’s magazines in English, see Recommended Resources: The Magic of Magazine Subscriptions.)

23. Employ “captive reading”
To encourage literacy development and reading practice in the target language, you can take advantage of the phenomenon I call “captive reading”: the natural tendency to read any words that fall under our gaze. Put posters of the writing system and common words on the wall; label things in the house; include notes in your child’s lunchbox; put up a small whiteboard in the bathroom and write little messages and riddles on it; later on, post short stories in the bathroom, too, like my versions of well-known fairy tales and fables. (For a full look at this highly effective strategy, see What Is Captive Reading and How Will It Help My Bilingual Child? and If This Isn’t a Big Part of Your Strategy for Raising Bilingual Kids, It Really Should Be.)

24. Write “serial stories”
Another version of “captive reading” makes use of “serial stories.” These are particularly fun and motivating for children who already have some reading ability in the minority language. In my case, I write one page every other day or so (with a cliffhanger ending) for a running storyline that features my own children as the main characters. I then post them, page by page, on the inside of the bathroom door. (The older pages are transferred to the wall.) The roughly ten-part stories are very silly—I’m basically just typing out what pops into my head—but my kids find them funny and are continually pestering me to produce the next installment. (For helpful instructions and downloads, see Turn Your Kids into Eager Readers with This Fun, Simple Strategy and My Favorite Way to Get a Bilingual Child Reading More in the Minority Language.)

25. Use background music
Making use of music in the minority language is an easy and effective way to consistently add to the language exposure your child receives. This is no substitute for your active involvement, of course, but background music can be one more beneficial component of your overall efforts. Just put a CD player and suitable CDs in the child’s main play space and play this music regularly. If your kids are anything like mine, they’ll probably soon start singing along! (See How the Power of Music Nurtures Bilingual Ability for more on this idea. And for recommended children’s music, in English, see Great Music for Kids (and Parents, too!).)

26. Play games together
Games in the minority language—like board games, card games, word games, and storytelling games—are another resource to gather for your home. Children love to play games, and there are no doubt good games available in your target language that would be fun to play and effective in promoting language exposure. (You can also consider games published in other languages, yet don’t rely on reading, since these can be played in any language as long as you know the rules!) For a more harmonious home, I would recommend balancing the usual “competitive games” (which can leave kids in tears) with “cooperative games” (where the players work as a team).

27. Make your home “language-rich”
Beyond books, music, and games, make your home as rich in exposure to the minority language as you can. At the same time, try to inhibit, to whatever degree makes sense for your family, the prevailing influence of the majority language. For example, when it comes to electronic toys, a device in the minority language would probably be a more productive choice than a gadget in the majority language. In the same way, emphasize TV shows and DVDs in the minority language, too. (For more on obtaining suitable resources, see Are You Accidentally Hindering Your Child’s Bilingual Progress? and There Are More Resources in Your Minority Language Than You Think.)

28. Fuel natural passions
Make an effort to fuel your child’s passions via resources and opportunities in the minority language. If your son loves super heroes, or your daughter loves horses, seek out suitable books or DVDs on these subjects in the target language. In this way you’ll be nurturing their natural passions and language ability at the same time. Depending on where you live, you might also have access to opportunities in the minority language—like classes, clubs, or other activities—that connect to a child’s special interests. (For more on this topic, see Fuel Your Child’s Passions and Proficiency in the Minority Language and POW! How Super Heroes Strengthened My Son’s Bilingual Ability.)

29. Engage in storytelling
Tell your children true stories from your childhood—kids love to hear about the (mis)adventures of their parents when they were young. You can also invent fantastical “made-up memories” from your past or your children’s early years. (Kids like telling “made-up memories,” too.) The point is, storytelling—whether fact or fiction—can help expand and enrich the conversations you have with your children, and are especially suited for mealtimes. (See Strange-But-True Tales: Baby Chicks in the Bathtub and Using Made-Up Memories to Engage Bilingual Kids.)

30. Make use of “mystery”
What if I knocked on your door unannounced and you found me with a big box in my arms? “It’s for you!” I say. On one hand, yes, you might be terrified, but wouldn’t you also be curious to know what’s inside? Human beings, by nature, are curious creatures, and the keen curiosity of children can be used to your advantage in promoting the minority language. Be sneaky and look for opportunities where “mystery” can be made a part of your efforts: encourage use of the minority language by taking “mystery trips” and exploring the potential of boxes, bags, and envelopes. (See A Sneaky Way to Get Bilingual Kids to Use the Minority Language for more details.)

31. Take advantage of images
Images are all around us—photos and illustrations from the Internet, books, magazines, newspapers, posters, billboards, art exhibitions, etc.—and such images can be consciously used to stimulate, and stretch, the minority language each day. Make a regular habit of asking your children this simple, open-ended question when you come across an interesting image: What do you see? Then follow up with other questions that will naturally follow. These interactions can add up over time and contribute very positively to language development. (For more on this subject, and a lot of fun links to images online, see How Images Will Stimulate Your Child’s Bilingual Development and Recommended Resources: The Extraordinary

32. Give written homework
If fostering good reading and writing ability in the minority language is important to you, it’s best to establish a habit of homework early. If you begin giving small daily doses of homework at the age of 3 or 4—starting, for example, with simple dot-to-dot books or other light activity books—this can set a positive pattern for the rest of their childhood. Make daily homework like teeth-brushing—an expected habit—and it can be maintained far more easily than if you try to impose it later on. As with children’s literature, you must make efforts to seek out suitable materials on a regular basis. (See Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 1 and Secrets of a Successful Homework Routine, Part 2 for a detailed look at the activities and resources I use at home.)

33. Reach out to grandparents
Many families with bilingual children live far away from grandparents. In my case, I try to bridge this distance and strengthen ties between my kids and my parents in these three ways: 1) I share photos and video clips online to bring the two generations closer; 2) I arrange video chats so they can communicate with one another; and 3) I facilitate a letter exchange by post. These efforts not only help nurture the loving bond between them, they give a regular boost to my children’s language ability. (For much more, see 3 Good Ways to Boost a Bilingual Child’s Language Ability and Loving Bond with Grandparents and A Powerful Twist on the Use of Skype to Promote the Minority Language.)

34. Find a pen-pal
In addition to grandparents, maintain pen-pal relationships with other children. Over the past several years my daughter has been exchanging letters with a girl in the United States. They write to each other (with some prodding from the parents) about every other month and send gifts for birthdays and for Christmas. Hopefully, we can maintain this connection for some time to come, but even so, the experience has already benefited her growing writing ability and her grasp of the value of her language skill. (See Are Your Bilingual Kids Writing Letters in the Minority Language? for more on our experience and helpful tips.)

35. Deepen that feeling of value
To deepen a child’s feeling for the value of his minority language—thus positively impacting his attitude and motivation—that value must be experienced directly through interactions with other speakers of the language. Locally, you could pursue play dates with other children, get-togethers with family or friends (in person or via online chats), and homestay guests who speak the target language. Of course, if you have the opportunity, taking trips to places where the minority language is actually the majority language—even placing the child in a school setting in such locations for a period of time—could be ideal, both for grasping the value of the language and gaining stronger overall proficiency. (See Getting a Bilingual Child to Feel the Value of the Minority Language.)

36. Use the language to help others
As important as it is to deepen the child’s feeling for the value of his language skill through interactions with other speakers of the language, I have found an additional way of promoting this sense of value that may be even more powerful: create opportunities where the child can help others by using his minority language ability. For instance, my kids and I sometimes volunteer to help people who are learners of the minority language. Through these experiences, they’ve come to realize that their language ability is not only useful to themselves, it’s helpful to others, and this seems to be an even deeper, richer source of motivation. (For the full story, see A Powerful Way to Inspire a Positive Attitude in Your Bilingual Child and The Power of Using the Minority Language to Help Others.)

37. Use “carrots” and “sticks”
There are various views when it comes to giving rewards, but I’ve found that a reasonable use of “carrots” has provided an effective framework for nudging my children to read books and do daily homework. In our case, when they finish reading a book, they earn a little prize—something that genuinely excites them. My son, for instance, likes plastic Pokemon characters and this small reward has heightened his enthusiasm for reading. As for daily homework, it may sound funny, but they’re quite content with a piece of (sugarless) gum after their tasks are complete. And the only “stick” I seem to need (at least so far) is the reminder that they can watch no TV until all their work is finished. (See Why I’m Like This Rumbling Volcano (And Why You Should Be, Too) for more on maintaining firm expectations.)

38. Make a “to-do list”
To give my kids structure, and keep them on task, I make a “to-do list” (with check boxes!) for them to follow on weekends and during breaks from school. Without this list, it’s much easier for us to “forget” the tasks for their homework routine that day, and the other chores we expect of them. It takes a bit of time for me to write up these lists each morning (one per child), but it makes the day far more productive and helps minimize the need to continually remind them about the things we’d like them to do. The lists, written in the minority language, even provide some input for literacy development! (And when they’re older, maybe I’ll try having them write the lists themselves.) (See How to Get Your Kids to Do Exactly What You Want.)

39. Get creative
Our mission, essentially, is to match our efforts to the ever-evolving needs of our circumstances. As our children grow, and our circumstances change, we must respond to those changes with new solutions so that our children’s bilingual development can continue its strong, steady course. To meet this challenge effectively each time, creative thinking is vital. The wider our minds can imagine and create—seeking unconventional solutions, too—the better we’ll be at providing suitable, ongoing support. (For more on this subject—and a surprising story from my own childhood—see Creative Solutions to Challenges Raising Bilingual Children. You’ll also find a range of creative ways to promote the minority language on the Creative Ideas page.)

40. Watch out for the “second stage”
It’s not unusual for parents to be surprised, and dismayed, by the sharp evolution that takes place in their children’s bilingual development when starting school in the majority language. This sudden spike in exposure to the majority language in the “second stage”—after the early years of the “first stage” were relatively smooth and successful—can produce new challenges in the bilingual journey. Parents may need to address this change in circumstance, and growing dominance of the majority language, by finding ways to deliver greater support for the minority language. (See Do Your Bilingual Children Go to School in the Majority Language? and Watch Out for the Tough “Second Stage” of Bilingual Development.)

41. Sustain a strong spirit
The challenge of raising a bilingual child is a marathon, not a sprint, and reaching the farther goal requires all the desire and determination, all the energy and endurance, demanded of long-distance running. And, like running, where getting from start to finish involves putting one foot after the other, over and over and over again, supporting the long-term language development of a bilingual child is a process that can only be addressed in small, persistent steps, day after day after day. When it comes to raising bilingual children, make no mistake: As important as suitable strategies and techniques are to this quest, they’re ultimately secondary to your desire and determination, your energy and endurance. All the good ideas in the world will be for naught if they’re not firmly grounded in these underlying qualities of spirit. (For much more on the subject of spirit, see Instant Inspiration for Parents Raising Bilingual Kids.)

42. Persevere, no matter what
If raising a bilingual child is truly important to you, you must address the difficulties as they arise and press on—you must persevere. This is a long, tough journey for everyone—and for parents with especially challenging circumstances, it’s very tough indeed—but the only way to realize your greater aim is to keep going, step by step, day after day. Not only is it vital to fix your goal in mind, you should also be keenly aware of the fact that your child wants to be bilingual, too. Oh, he may not consciously hold this wish yet, but you can bet that when he’s older, he’ll be very glad that you didn’t give up. (See The One Thing You Absolutely, Positively Must Have to Raise a Bilingual Child and Your Child Wants to Be Bilingual!)

43. Give time and attention
Our children will be little only once, and even then, for barely a blink. Whatever your circumstances, do all that you can to give time and attention to your kids while they’re small. Not only do they need the language support that you can provide, they need, above all, your love. It isn’t always easy to stop in the middle of something when your child interrupts, or answer yet another curious question without irritation, but it’s worth making the effort—every time—in order to promote your child’s bilingual ability and deepen the bond between you as parent and child. Remember this quote from Crystal DeLarm Clymer: When your child is talking, turn off the world. (See Are You Making the Moments with Your Kids Count? and My Son Disappears, I Lose My Mind, and the World is Beautiful.)

44. Keep a journal
This last tip isn’t strictly about bilingual development, but I think it’s worth sharing. If you aren’t keeping a journal on your kids, you might want to start. It’s a small investment of your time, really—just make a short entry in a notebook or text file every few weeks—but for your children, these observations of their language milestones, their early traits and interests, and their notable activities and experiences will one day be a priceless peek into the childhood that they will have largely forgotten. (See Why Keeping a Journal on Your Kids is So Valuable.)

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P.S. A very different list of tips can be found at the satirical post How to Fail Miserably at Raising a Bilingual Child.

How about you? Have another idea to add to this list of tips for raising bilingual kids?

Bilingual Style

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 Diana January 8, 2013 at 10:31 am

These are all great tips!! So happy to have discovered your site!!


2 Adam January 8, 2013 at 10:33 am

Thank you, Diana! I’m glad you’re here! :mrgreen:


3 Amanda @MissPandaChinese January 8, 2013 at 5:03 pm

What a wonderful list of tips! We are an OPOL family and we use various strategies with our kids. Being consistent and having fun are crucial. Thank you for sharing your experience.


4 Adam January 8, 2013 at 5:14 pm

Amanda, I appreciate your kind comment! And I absolutely agree that “being consistent and having fun are crucial” in this quest to raise bilingual kids. I wish you and your family all the best!


5 Annika January 10, 2013 at 12:29 am

Great!! Just shared this on my FB page. Keep up the good work!!


6 Adam January 10, 2013 at 9:16 am

Thanks so much for sharing this post, Annika! :mrgreen:


7 Joselyn January 13, 2013 at 1:47 am

Thanks for all these great tips! I’m a mother of two bilingual (Russian/Spanish) children of 10 and 1,5 years. I’ve used most of the strategies you mentioned, but haven’t been consistent with all of them. I’ve never heard about “Cloning yourself”. It should be very useful for parents who can’t spend much time with kids! Also, with “the captive reading” you reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to do for my daughter – writing “Good morning” notes, as sometimes she wakes up earlier than myself!


8 Adam January 13, 2013 at 7:49 am

Joselyn, hello! Thank you for your comment! Yes, I found cloning myself a fun and effective way to increase the amount of exposure in the minority language. As for writing notes, this is something I’m hoping to do even more frequently this year by slipping “secret” messages into my children’s school bags.


9 Sunocean18 January 14, 2013 at 6:49 am

Thanks for all the great tips! We practice the minority language at home, and my favorite tip that you provided was “giving books as gifts.” My husband and I started doing that as soon as my boys were born, and on Christmas and birthdays they always receive a book and they both love it. At first, it does feel a little weird taking a book as a gift to other people, but I think it’s important to promote literacy to other children. Kids only need so many toys, so a book is always great and something different. We started reading to our boys from day 1, and they both prefer to be read to than to play with toys when they really need stimulation. Great advice on your part.


10 Adam January 14, 2013 at 3:01 pm

Thank you for sharing your experience! Giving books not only to our own kids, but other children as well, is a wonderful way to promote a wider love of literacy. And there are so many terrific books out there—with a little bit of digging, it’s always possible to find the “right” book for every child. Thanks again for your wise perspective!


11 gerry March 25, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Hi, my kids are 8 and 5 but refuse to speak in English. We live in France, my wife is French and I’m Irish. I only speak English at home and the kids understand perfectly what I say but reply to me only in french or if i insist in english but like a foreigner. Any tips would be helpful


12 Adam March 30, 2013 at 11:57 am

Gerry, thanks for reaching out. This is an important issue for many parents, so I’ve responded in a full post. Please see What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language. I hope this article is helpful to you!


13 Jana March 31, 2013 at 8:00 am

Hi, just wanted to say thanks for this great website! I live in the UK and have two bilingual kids (Czech and English). When my eldest was born, in 2000, there weren’t that many resources on the web so I had to follow my “gut feeling” and ignore those “naysayers”, as you call them :-) I think one becomes very resourceful when it comes to bringing their kids up bilingually. I would agree with all your points and add one more. I think it’s also important to expose your children to different registers and dialects. I used to take on different personas in role play and use language and words that I wouldn’t use normally: posh people, well-educated people, not-so-well-educated people, drunks, nuns, policemen, people from the north/south etc. Whatever took my fancy :-) And that involved some rude words too. I knew no other Czech people in the UK then so it was hard work but it’s paid off as both my children (now 10 and 12) are totally bilingual. It’s not over yet, though, and I would say it becomes harder as they get older… Thanks again for your posts.


14 Adam March 31, 2013 at 11:08 am

Jana, thanks for your kind comment. Your suggestion about expanding the range of the target language is great, and it sounds like it could also be really fun, in a “theatrical” sort of way. Because of my background in theater, this idea really appeals to me and I plan to pursue it with my kids. So thanks for the inspiration!

By the way, I lived in the Czech Republic from 1992 to 1994. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching English at the University of West Bohemia in Plzen. At the time, my Czech was pretty good (though I could never figure out all those word endings!), but I’m afraid I’ve forgotten most of it over the years. Anyway, I loved my time in the Czech Republic and I miss it a lot! (Please send me some smažený sýr!)


15 Jana April 1, 2013 at 6:17 am

How interesting! Those word endings are impossible unless you’re Czech :-) My kids get it wrong occasionally but not often enough to make me worry about it. Smažák, yummy, it’s quite easy to make, you know. Have a go :-)


16 Maria May 6, 2013 at 7:06 pm

Hi there,

Congratulations for the very good site and the subject about tips for raising bilingual kids. I have a question about starting to teach kids to reading in the minority language. I am Brazilian, my daughter speaks Portuguese very well, we live in New Zealand and she speaks English very well as well, but this year she started school and she is learning to read in English. Can I teach her to read in Portuguese in the same time or can confuse her at this stage? She is just 5 years old, should I wait to do that?

Thanks very much!


17 Adam May 7, 2013 at 9:05 am

Maria, welcome! I’m happy to hear you’re finding my site useful. As for your question, because I don’t have a background in Portuguese, I’m not sure I can respond specifically to your situation. However, I think it’s often a good idea to move early, yet gently, when it comes to literacy in the minority language. In other words, if you’ve been reading aloud to your daughter daily in Portuguese—and now she’s learning to read in English in school—I expect that she will naturally begin to read Portuguese picture books, too. In your case, since the writing system is largely the same with these two languages (I think!), I’m not sure you really need to “teach” her to read in Portuguese. If you simply provide enough exposure to children’s books in Portuguese, I’m guessing her reading ability in both languages will grow alongside one another. Best of luck!

For an overview of my thoughts on reading, please see my PDF “report” The Power of Reading in Raising a Bilingual Child.


18 The Language Bear June 5, 2013 at 10:36 am

Great tips, thank you! Fueling natural passions I believe is paramount to successful learning.


19 Adam June 7, 2013 at 10:09 pm

Yes, if we make a point of matching our methods and materials to our children’s passions, we’ll definitely make better progress on this bilingual journey.


20 Fernando June 12, 2013 at 12:19 am


Those tips are great and made me think a lot about the challenges I’ll face. My biggest concern is that both the mother and I are moving to Switzerland, which is country we do not speak the language.

So our (minority) language would be Portuguese whereas the community (majority) language would be swiss-german. We both speak English however this is somewhere in the middle.

Is there anything we could do to faciliate the child learning swiss-german? My biggest fear is the child going to school and not understanding a single word the teacher says.



21 Adam June 22, 2013 at 6:02 am

Fernando, I understand your concern. When I was a teacher at Hiroshima International School, I often worked with new students who spoke no English (the main language of the school) when they first arrived. There’s no getting around the fact that the children, and their parents, faced some challenges in this situation, but in time—usually in a year or two—the children became able to communicate reasonably well in English and make growing progress academically as well. So try to take a longer view of the situation. You don’t mention how old your child is (younger children can make the transition more smoothly), or how long you plan to be in Switzerland (a longer stay will naturally give the new language more time to develop), but I expect, with the school’s support, that everything will work out fine for your family. Best wishes to you all!


22 Cecille June 27, 2013 at 12:57 am

This is a good read not just for parents raising bilingual kids but teachers as well. A parent of a bilingual child and fellow ELL teacher, I believe that #10 is particularly important (and challenging!) especially if you want kids to be interested. An engaged child wants to learn more. I find that musical activities are powerful and helpful tools to use at home and in the classrooms. Thanks for sharing your tips :)


23 Adam June 27, 2013 at 10:14 am

Cecille, thanks for your kind comment. Yes, much of what I’ve learned as a teacher I make use of with my own children. I’m not always successful at “making it fun,” of course, but I do try. After all, if this isn’t generally fun for the parent (or teacher), too, it becomes that much harder to maintain our daily motivation and effort.


24 Tatiana Marza July 4, 2013 at 1:20 am

Adam, thank you for your long list of tips:)

In our family I speak Romanian to our 2,5 years old son and my husband Greek. Currently our toddler began to reply to me only in Greek and I got worried. I’ll try some of your tips to improve the situation.

I began to talk to him in Romanian since birth because I wanted to talk to somebody in my mother language. Then, I began to keep a journal (in Romanian) about his activities and first things he has done (first word, last breastfeeding etc.). It was selfish again, just to make him later learn the language so he could read about himself.

And the last thing. In Greece, there always has been a negative reaction when I was speaking Romanian outside the house. So, for quite a long time, I used to speak to my son in Greek when we were playing in a park, for example. It was wrong of course, but very hard for me to pass over this kind of frustration. The child feels and understands more than we can imagine and my switch to another language was making him act strange (false laugh, for example).

Now, we are asked by other kids in what language the conversation is held and often they try to learn some words in Romanian.


25 Adam July 4, 2013 at 8:01 am

Tatiana, thank you for your comment. Yes, supporting the minority language is a big challenge, but keep up your good efforts at using Romanian with your son and you will both be happy with the future results. (And one day he will read your journal in Romanian! :mrgreen: )

Also, I’m glad to hear that the situation with using Romanian outside the house is becoming more positive. It’s true, some people may react negatively, and that’s uncomfortable, but your son’s bilingual ability is ultimately far more important to your life than the feelings of a few strangers.

I’m cheering for you, Tatiana! Stay strong!


26 Tatiana Marza July 16, 2013 at 4:30 pm

Adam, in less than two weeks we are having amazing results! It’s incredible how quick the situation changed.

First of all, I ceased to reply to my son when he was talking to me in Greek and he understood that with me the conversations are going to be held only in Romanian.

Second, reading books in the morning while we are having breakfast wasn’t a pleasant experience for me. I needed 10 minutes to eat without disturbance…you know, the feeling of permanent interfering. After reading your tips, telling stories in Romanian became such a great experience. I have a goal now and we are having so much fun. It’s not a burden anymore!!!

As a result, my son switches languages immediately and even during his sleep he is able to talk to me in Romanian.

I am so grateful to you for your tips. Thank you very much, Adam!


27 Adam July 16, 2013 at 5:04 pm

I’m really happy to hear this, Tatiana! Good for you—and for your son, too! You’re moving in a very positive direction now. Keep up your efforts at speaking to him in Romanian, telling stories in Romanian, reading books in Romanian, singing songs in Romanian, and any other types of exposure to Romanian you can include in your daily routine. And, yes, try to make all this as fun and playful for both you and your son as possible! (A big part of success at the bilingual journey is simply attitude, I think.)

Thanks so much for following up on your situation, Tatiana. You made my day and I look forward to hearing more good news from you as time passes.


28 Jennifer July 20, 2013 at 2:01 am

Thank you so much for this great post!

My daughter is almost 10 months and I’ve only been speaking German with her (I’m the only one who can speak German) while everyone else speaks English. I’m worried about the amount of German exposure she gets – I work part time so most of the day is English. I want her to know enough to be able to communicate with my family that still lives in Germany.

I will have to get some German videos and songs that I can give to my caregivers (which luckily happen to be my in-laws) to expose her even more. I hope that she will be able to speak German, but this is something that really worries me. :(


29 Adam July 20, 2013 at 10:27 am

Jennifer, I understand your concern, which is shared by many new parents. I would encourage you to look at these two posts, if you haven’t already seen them—they try to address this concern directly…

Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child

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

The positive side to your situation is that your daughter is still less than a year old. If you do your very best to nurture her German during the first few years of her life, I expect you’ll gradually see good progress.

I look forward to hearing happy news from you, Jennifer! Please keep me posted as time goes by!


30 Tatiana Marza August 8, 2013 at 11:35 pm

Jennifer, hello! I am not an expert at all and I can only tell you my side of story. Yes, it’s quite difficult to raise a bilingual child and being alarmed is something normal. As Adam noted, your daughter is still 10 months old, so you have “plenty of room” for setting the rules of a bilingual atmosphere. Your situation is similar to mine. I got worried when my son was 2.5 years old. I suppose when the time spent together is turned into a funny and a qualitative one, the hard part just vanishes. In my case, the big difference was telling stories in the morning at breakfast time (Adam’s tip), (beside the evening stories, of course) and making clear to my child that with me the conversations are going to be held in my native language only. In less than two weeks I could see a huge difference. And please, note that in my case only I speak Romanian, whilst my toddler is totally exposed to Greek language. So, do not be worried. You just have to persist on your decision. You may feel alone, but you aren’t. We are all here to help each other and Adam is making a great job by writing all these interesting articles. Good luck and try to have fun, in spite of the tiredness and the exhaustion a parent may feel.


31 Adam August 9, 2013 at 6:28 am

Tatiana, thanks so much for adding this warm and wise perspective! :mrgreen:


32 Sandra August 31, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Hi Adam,
Wow, lot of good ideas on how to raise bilingual children. My son is now 20mths and has been attending bilingual daycare (German-English) here in Sydney. His language has come a far way since he started at 13mths. He has a really good mix of German (my native language) and English. I am sure glad I found this daycare, as it adds to the hours he’s exposed to German. Not sure, what I will do once he has to go to school. Int’l schools are pretty expensive….
I like the pen-pal idea, as I have a few friends back home in Germany with kids in the same age, so that would be something we can encourage.
I’ll keep my eyes out for more interesting ideas on raising bilingual monkeys.


33 Adam August 31, 2013 at 7:57 pm

Sandra, thanks! A strong start is especially important for the minority language to keep pace with the majority language, and it sounds like you and your son are doing really well. Keep up the good efforts in German each day and make adjustments, as needed, to continue meeting the needs of your evolving circumstances. Best of luck on your bilingual journey!


34 Liz September 21, 2013 at 11:56 pm

Hello Adam.
Thank you so much for creating this great site and sharing your advice. I also live in Japan (Osaka pref), with my Japanese husband and our 7 month old daughter. We are using the OPOL strategy and have been reading in both languages to her for a couple of months. I’m hoping she will pick up both languages equally, as she is in contact with Japanese from her dad after he finishes work, from her family, and from the wider community every time we go out, but she is also at home with me speaking English to her most of the day. Challenging times ahead! I will be checking in to this site often!


35 Adam September 22, 2013 at 6:46 am

Liz, thank you for the kind feedback. I’m really glad to know my site is helpful to you and your family.

It sounds like you’re off to a great start. If your daughter goes on to attend Japanese schools, Japanese won’t be an issue at all. The challenge, of course, will be nurturing her English to higher levels of proficiency, particularly her reading and writing ability. For an overview of my own efforts to support the literacy development of my kids, see The Power of Reading in Raising a Bilingual Child.

Also, if you haven’t already subscribed to my (free) weekly newsletter, you may find that useful, too.

Liz, best wishes to you and your husband! I look forward to hearing good news from you as time goes by!


36 Adriana Zoder October 15, 2013 at 11:32 pm

My husband speaks only English so we adopted the OPOL approach by default. I spoke to my children in Romanian from birth, but they still ended up speaking to me in English. They are now 3 and 5. Three is a critical age. Each of them asked me to speak to them in English once they turned three. I declined respectfully. I stuck to my Romanian and I can see my five-year-old is over the hill. He now responds to me in Romanian almost 50% of the time, especially when it’s a shorter answer. Of course, since I started them in French and Spanish last year, we get a whole different monkey on our hands, a multilingual one. :)


37 Adam October 16, 2013 at 8:23 am

Adriana, thanks for sharing your experience. It’s great that you stood firm at that critical point in your son’s bilingual development. In the end, such stands for the minority language can make all the difference between achieving long-term success and abandoning this journey too early due to frustration or disappointment. Good for you, and for your kids.

And best of luck with your excellent blog! My son loves Lego, too!


38 Tatiana October 18, 2013 at 8:12 pm

Dear Adriana,
I am so glad to find someone else who speaks Romanian. Would you like to share some of your techniques with me? Except of talking to my son in Romanian and reading books, of course, I try to watch movies with him and sing songs, although is still difficult to find something for a 2,5 years old toddler. I am stuck with old movies, such as “Ion Creanga – amintiri din copilarie”, “Veronica”, “Maria Mirabela”. Do you have anything else on your list, more “up to date”? Thank you.

P.S. Adam, I hope you don’t mind me asking Adriana a personal question, but I do not have her email. Thank you.


39 Tatiana October 18, 2013 at 8:21 pm

Dear Adam,
a question about the second child.
Let’s say that the second child is born and time comes when it will talk. Which language should be better for the conversation between the 1st and 2nd child? Of course, I would like them to use the minor language. Should I insist, at least when I will be around? It is inevitable that they will talk in Greek, not in Romanian, but I was wondering what you did in this case? Thank you very much.


40 Adam October 19, 2013 at 8:53 am

Tatiana, thank you for your question—it’s a good one. Language use between siblings is difficult to control, but if the children’s two languages are roughly balanced—which means that the majority language isn’t a strong preference—they will probably switch, quite naturally, to the minority language when the minority language parent interacts with them.

In my family, for example, my children might be playing together in Japanese, but if I come into the room and speak to them, they’ll immediately switch to English and then continue playing together in English after I leave the room. (This is why I often purposely “trigger” this shift from Japanese to English by saying something in English when I hear them chattering away in Japanese—I’m trying to get them speaking as much English as possible.)

In my case, then, I don’t really have to be firm with my kids about speaking English together because they’ll do this naturally in my presence or in the presence of other English speakers. In other cases, though, when children tend to rely more on their majority language, the minority language parent may need to actively encourage the use of that language.

The best way, though, to get siblings to use the minority language a fair amount of the time is to work hard to foster strong minority language ability in the first child. If the first child actively uses the minority language, then this older sibling will naturally use it with the younger sibling, thus setting a productive pattern for ongoing interaction in the target language as the children grow.

At the same time, if the children attend school in the majority language, they will likely come to use the majority language more for their own communication. This is true of my children as well, and it’s one of the reasons I continue to be so proactive about prompting their use of the minority language whenever I can!


41 Penny Saraswati Emerton October 21, 2013 at 11:43 am

I am a mother with a year old daughter. My husband is Australian and now he still lives there and I am an Indonesian, and I am still living here, in my country. My daughter is staying with me here. I want Crystal (my daughter’s name) speaks in both English and Indonesian fluently. I asked everyone in my family who can speaks English to speak in English with Crystal and the rest of the family who can’t speak English, then they can speak Indonesian to her. To be honest, I only learn how to speak in English through movies, songs and books. But so proud to myself (don’t want to be arrogant), when people tell me that I speak a very good English. But, still, English isn’t my first language. I am bit worry that Crystal won’t be able to speak English as good as I wish because mostly people here speak Indonesian to her. Her first word was: “eat” but in Indonesian and second one was: “no” and it’s also in Indonesian. Reading your blog has inspired me. But if you have some suggestions for me, please feel free to let me know.
Hope you have a great day!


42 Adam October 23, 2013 at 6:46 am

Penny, welcome! I’m glad my site has given you some inspiration for your bilingual journey. It sounds like you’re very committed to your daughter’s language development, and that’s a vital ingredient for success.

Your circumstances aren’t quite clear to me (Will your daughter’s father not be present in her life? What language(s) are you speaking to her?), but I can encourage you, in general, to continue trying hard to ensure that your daughter has a real need to use English and sufficient exposure to it. For much more on these two key factors, please see What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language.

Another article that may be helpful to you is How Many Hours Per Week Is Your Child Exposed to the Minority Language?

Penny, best wishes to you and Crystal!


43 Alana October 28, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Hi Adam

We are a fully English speaking family about to embark on a new life in Munich. My partner has been working there and after 18 months it has proved to be a longer term opportunity. My 13 year old daughter and I have visited a few times in that period. She has also been learning German at school for the last 2 years, and in the last couple of months more intensively with a tutor. My partner is learning a lot through living and working there, and I know very little of the language. So you can imagine the challenges we now face. My daughter is embracing the language, but at the same time (being older) she realises what she has to do to settle into it, which is a daunting task. With the least knowledge of the language between all of us, I am really keen to support my daughter and make this the most enjoyable and interesting learning experience I can possibly make it, whilst also learning myself.

It has been so refreshing to find a site, that not only gives you something very practical and useful, but also approaches this area with so much positivity. It is more challenging when people or other sites spend so much time focused on the problem, which is not why you reached out to them in the first place. We already know how difficult it is and will be. In our position we want support or guidance, to nurture the enthusiasm that we are feeling at the heart of our decision to pursue this new adventure for our family. You have given that here & I wanted to thank you for it. Will look forward to delving further into your site and putting into practice the ideas you have provided.


44 Adam October 28, 2013 at 2:33 pm

Alana, this sounds like a terrific opportunity for your family. Yes, it will be challenging, but hugely enriching just the same. I wish you all the very best and I look forward to hearing good news as time passes.

I’m grateful, too, for your kind feedback. I hope my site can continue to be a source of support. Some of the posts here may not necessarily apply to your situation, but I think other articles could be of benefit for the challenges ahead, such as…

49 Inspiring Quotes for Parents Raising Bilingual Children

The One Thing You Absolutely, Positively Must Have to Raise a Bilingual Child

Venomous Snakes and the Bilingual Child


45 jack November 9, 2013 at 6:56 am

Thanks for the tips. I need to follow some of these guides…although it’s difficult being the speaker of the lesser language. But I now realise it will require more effort on my behalf.


46 Adam November 9, 2013 at 11:25 am

Jack, I’m glad these tips offered some good food for thought. It’s true, supporting the minority language is a tough role, and takes determination and effort, but you can do it! Keep doing your best, day by day!


47 yannick December 19, 2013 at 3:03 am

Your blog is amazing, I’m a French guy who live in Brazil and searching for experiences like that for many time, and didn’t found in those languages French or Portuguese…

I’ve 3 kids so it’s quite more work but actually I was looking for someone the older has 5 and were living here for 7 months, his mother is Brazilian and talk to them in Portuguese since before their birth, but even like that at start he didn’t manage to speak any word in his mother’s language when he was understanding perfectly, so I was a little anxious…

But after 4 month he was speaking better than I and so naturally so I was proud, nowadays I’m anxious because he don’t speak anymore in French with me and your posts help me to figure why…

My middle age daughter is 3 so she begin to speak and speak with me in French, and I only speak with them in French…

I was so anxious about the ability to speak Portuguese that forgot to bring material in French language from France like books, I brought DVD but most of them unless cartoons aren’t for their age…

I will continue to read you and your sharing, I just wonder how did you manage to learn this things?

à bientôt


48 Adam December 19, 2013 at 4:02 pm

Yannick, welcome! Thank you for your kind words, and I hope you continue to find my site helpful for your efforts at home. Definitely build up a home library of children’s books in French and read to your kids every day. It’s a vital part of promoting the development of the minority language.

My knowledge of this field comes from three areas: I’m a longtime teacher of bilingual children, at an international school and through private tutoring; I have two bilingual children of my own; and I’m a compulsive reader on the subject. I have a great passion for it!

I look forward to “seeing” you at Bilingual Monkeys! Best wishes to you and your family!


49 Jason January 11, 2014 at 9:10 pm

My wife and are planning on having a child soon and we want our child to be bilingual. She is from Colombia and I’m from the USA. We also live in the US. I’m not fluent in Spanish yet I’m learning but my wife speaks excellent English. So should I focus on English and her in Spanish if our child attends an English speaking school or should I speak Spanish to our child as well I wonder.


50 Adam January 12, 2014 at 2:05 pm

Jason, thanks for your question. To a large extent, I think the answer depends on how proficient and comfortable you would be using Spanish by the time the child is born. If both you and your wife speak Spanish, this would naturally boost the child’s exposure to the minority language and help fuel a good head start in Spanish before the heavy influence of English schooling and the wider environment take hold.

At the same time, speaking Spanish—a second language to you—may entail some sacrifice personally, in terms of your interaction with the child, and this is a factor you should also weigh. (See Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me for more on this issue.)

A possible compromise might be to emphasize Spanish in your communication early on, until the child develops a firm foundation in Spanish, and then use more English once schooling starts. Meanwhile, your wife should be very consistent, and persistent, about using only Spanish.


51 Maria January 12, 2014 at 6:58 am

Thank you, this is a very interesting article. I don’t have kids yet, but I’m planning, and I wanted to raise them bilingual (Russian and English). I’m Russian, and I’m quite fluent in English, but still it’s no mother tongue for me. I was wondering whether I will miss out on something if I talk to my kids in English and not in Russian. I mean I can’t always express myself as good in English. Is it possible to raise a bilingual child if you are not a native speaker?


52 Adam January 12, 2014 at 2:21 pm

Maria, many people successfully raise bilingual children in a non-native language, so it’s certainly possible for you, too.

But like Jason (in the comment right above), it’s also important to consider how you might feel not using your mother tongue with your own children. I don’t know the details of your situation, so I hesitate to offer further advice, but it sounds like you’ll have to make certain sacrifices (as we all do, in our own individual ways!) in order to ensure that your children receive sufficient exposure in English and feel a genuine need to use the language with you. (For much more on this key issue of need and exposure, see What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language.)


53 Tamsin Alonzo January 19, 2014 at 6:53 am

Hi there.

I am so glad to have found your blog—you have already answered a lot of the questions I had as well as suggesting things I hadn’t thought of so thank you very much!

I am a native English speaker and my husband is Italian and we live in the UK. We have a six week old baby boy who we aim to bring up bilingual. We are (kind of) a OPOL household but I am a bit concerned about how much Italian he will soak up as my husband works long hours and so there are days when he won’t have any contact with the child at all. I do feel its important for me to communicate mostly in English with him however I do mix both languages (especially when my husband is not at home) even though my Italian isn’t fluent so he has some Italian spoken to him every day. With me speaking both languages to the child will he still be able to differentiate between them or will this cause confusion? Would you suggest we speak only Italian at home?

I would love to hear your thoughts of our situation—any advice would be appreciated.

Kind regards, Tamsin


54 Adam January 20, 2014 at 8:15 am

Tamsin, welcome! I’m glad you’re finding this site helpful to you.

I agree that it’s important to take steps to provide your son with more exposure in Italian. If you feel comfortable using Italian with him, then probably the most effective way of handling the two languages would be to separate them by place: at home, use Italian; outside the home, use English. By being as consistent as you can about this, it will be easier for your son to differentiate when to use each language with you. I think you’d have less success, in this regard, if you speak both languages without distinct “domains” of use.

Pursuing the strategy of using only Italian at home (the “minority-language-at-home” approach), you and your husband would surely raise the odds that your son will develop a solid foundation in Italian before the heavy influence of English schooling is felt. Since your husband is unable to provide the necessary exposure (though definitely incorporate the idea of “cloning” him as I describe in The Busy Parent’s Guide to Cloning Yourself), you’ll need to be proactive in supporting the minority language, if fostering active ability in Italian is an important goal.

All the best to you and your family!


55 Tamsin January 21, 2014 at 6:22 am

Thank you for your advice. I will keep looking to your blog for tips and support – sounds like I’m going to need it.
Many thanks again. Best, Tamsin


56 Jing Wang February 27, 2014 at 6:59 pm

I am a mum to a 6 yrs old. I am raising my child Chinese and English bilingual in England. I also run Mandarin classes to teach local kids Chinese. Your tips are great.
I have shared it on our FB page so other mums can get the benefits.
Thank you and keep going!


57 Adam February 28, 2014 at 9:06 am

Jing, welcome! I’m glad you found these tips useful and I thank you for sharing them with other parents.

Best wishes for your success, from Japan to England!


58 Anna March 4, 2014 at 6:06 am

Hi Adam,

Living in UK.
Mum (non British, minority language).
Dad (British, majority language).
Thinking of using OPOL method.
Dad – no problem, doesn’t speak minority language (his job is easier…making my job far more difficult…)
I spend most of the time with our baby, talk minority language at home obviously. Feel a bit awkwardly trying to speak minority language outside the house, e.g. walking with British friend or being at mums & bums meetings (usually 4, 5 mums and babies). Is there a way of overcoming this situation? Maybe if they knew what I’m trying to achieve? Any tips?

(Funny or awkward: peekaboo in minority language is cuckoo (a ku ku)…hmmmmm)



59 Adam March 4, 2014 at 12:57 pm

Anna, this is a challenge affecting many parents, and I devote a whole post to it here…

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

If you read both the article, and the many comments below it, I think this will provide some good food for thought for your own situation.

Basically, I would advise being cautious about how freely you use the majority language around your child during the first few formative years, when you’re seeking to establish a firm foundation in the minority language and “condition” the child to communicate with you in this language. I realize it’s a tricky issue, but liberal use of the majority language by the minority language parent can undermine the need the child feels to use that language. After all, from the child’s point of view, there isn’t a real need to use the second language if it’s clear that the parent also has fluency in the first language and is often willing to use it.


60 Atieh June 28, 2014 at 8:05 pm

Hi. I am Persian and we live in Iran. My husband is Persian too. My daughter is 14 months old. Until now we spoke just in Persian. Can I start second language? Can I speak in 2 language with her? Please advise me.


61 Adam June 30, 2014 at 9:46 am

Atieh, I don’t know your situation in detail, so my response can’t really be specific to your circumstances. However, it’s certainly possible for you to begin nurturing your daughter’s development in a second language. I would only advise that you establish a distinct “domain” for using this new language. For example, while most of the time you will continue communicating to her in Persian (I imagine), you could implement one hour each morning to interact in the new language: reading books, singing songs, playing games, etc. And to mark the start and end of this period, so your daughter can come to quickly distinguish the two languages, you could use a “cue,” like playing/singing the same song in the second language each time.

The amount of time you devote to the new language is up to you, though you should probably be sensitive to your daughter’s feelings—since your relationship has already been established in Persian—and gradually ease into the use of a different language alongside Persian. And, again, you should implement some way of creating a distinct “domain” for the use of this language. I don’t recommend using two languages without some form of clear, thoughtful structure to help your daughter distinguish “Persian time” and “second language time.”


62 Lana August 14, 2014 at 7:38 pm

Hi Adam,

I’m so glad I have found this website, it is so helpful and the tips you provided here are just great!

I was wondering if you could try and help me to make a wise choice for our multilingual family. We are trying to raise a multilingual child (our son is 13 month old now). I am Russian, my husband is Italian and we live in London and speak to each other in English. At the moment 90% of all time my son is exposed to Russian language and currently it is the only language he understands, 5% to English and 5% to Italian. Unfortunately I don’t think that we can intensify the exposure to Italian in the next couple of years due to my husband’s new business and him being extremely busy at work.

Having studied loads of books and online resources on how to raise a bilingual child I am very consistent and persistent about speaking exclusively Russian with my child. I’m now back to work from maternity (in the office 4 days a week) and we have a Russian speaking nanny twice a week. Unfortunately we were unable to find an Italian speaking nanny that would suit us and the options we are currently considering are: 1) either send him to an English child-minder twice a week or 2) send him to Chinese-speaking childminder (nursery).

I am not worried for him to learn English as am almost sure he will pick up the language when will go to nursery/pre-school at 3 y.o. My question is 1) do you think it is worth sending him to Chinese-speaking childcare twice a week, will 20 hours exposure per week be sufficient for him to learn the language considering none in our family speak Chinese (but I know it would be so beneficial for him in future to understand this language). Or should we just send him to English childminder and introduce Italian language later on (perhaps when he is 3-4 y.o)? Thank you very much in advance for your answer.


63 Adam August 15, 2014 at 10:29 am

Lana, welcome to Bilingual Monkeys! I think you’d find my forum, The Bilingual Zoo, helpful, too. It’s a warm, supportive community and membership is free. In fact, there are a number of members with Russian as a minority language.

First, let me applaud you for being very conscious and proactive about your son’s exposure to Russian. It sounds like you’re off to a promising start with your early efforts.

I agree, acquiring English won’t be a problem for him as time goes by and he enters a majority language school.

The larger challenge to your journey, really, is maintaining sufficient exposure to Russian as he gets older, and, more importantly at the moment, somehow increasing his exposure to Italian.

To be honest, I don’t think either option you describe—English-speaking or Chinese-speaking childcare—would be the best option for your situation.

Because English will eventually grow dominant, it’s actually to your advantage that this language has somewhat limited exposure in the first few years so that your minority languages can gain a head start. Adding English exposure now would undercut this advantage.

As for Chinese, the development made by your son in this language would need to be maintained somehow, beyond the early childcare setting, in order for it to progress further—otherwise, his ability will be largely lost. Unless you’re willing and able to make a longer-term commitment to Chinese, I’m not sure how much benefit would be gained from this option.

The language that really needs more attention is Italian—your husband’s mother tongue—and though you haven’t yet found a suitable Italian speaker to look after your son, I would make every effort to locate someone before moving forward with one of the other two options. Ideally, in this way, you will increase your son’s exposure to Italian so he then receives a good amount of input in both of his parents’ native languages.

At the same time, despite your husband’s demanding schedule, I would encourage him to add to the language exposure your son receives by reading to him in Italian, whenever possible (see The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child) and creating videos of himself that can be played for your son during his absence (see The Busy Parent’s Guide to Cloning Yourself).

Of course, your son could acquire Italian at a later age, but I think you would raise the odds of success significantly by investing more time and resources in nurturing his Italian now, through these early formative years.

Lana, I wish you and your family all the best! Let us know what happens!


64 Lana August 16, 2014 at 8:58 am

Hi Adam, thank you so much for your advice. Without it I would have most likely chosen the wrong approach and sent Leo (my son) to English daycare which would have reduced his chances of successful acquisition of Russian and almost excluded possibility to learn Italian (at least at this early age).

I had a serious conversation with my husband and we agreed to work out a plan (schedule) for him in order to spend minimum 20 hours per week (including ‘cloning technique’) with his son speaking exclusively Italian. And this task will be put ahead of his job and will always be a priority for our family (I’ll make sure it will!). We have also renewed our search for Italian nanny/childcare and ready to travel further from home in order to expose Leo to Italian speakers. Honestly – thank you SO much!! Your advice gave me so much inspiration and desire to do my best and help my husband to teach our son his mother tongue.

Best wishes, Lana


65 Adam August 17, 2014 at 6:29 am

Lana, you’re very welcome. I’m really glad to hear that you had a constructive conversation with your husband about supporting little Leo’s Italian side. I think the whole family (including, of course, family members back in Italy) will be very happy if Leo can develop active ability in Italian from early on, alongside his ability in Russian and (eventually) English. So I empathize with your challenges, and the investment of time, energy, and resources that this goal requires, but I’m sure it will all pay off in stronger trilingual success as time goes by. (Taking regular trips to Italy and Russia, if this is possible, would also act as big “booster shots” for your two minority languages, and enrich his cultural heritage, too.)

I’m cheering for your family, Lana! I look forward to hearing good news from you in the future! :mrgreen:


66 Kinga September 5, 2014 at 1:08 pm

Very interesting article, thank you. I’m looking for some tips to promote a language that neither parent speaks (3rd language). So far I’ve been doing the immersion thing only. So far with good results – although I can’t take credit for it – but I wonder how long that approach is good for. Here is my daughter after just over a year of attending Chinese kindergarten:


67 Adam September 6, 2014 at 6:59 am

Cute video! Your daughter is doing very well! Of course, as non-native parents of the target language, your challenge will be sustaining her exposure to this language over time. If you can continue to arrange settings and situations where she’s able to regularly interact with Chinese speakers, then her language ability will grow to higher levels…otherwise, it will atrophy. Since she’s clearly off to a strong start, and proficiency in Chinese could be a very useful skill for the future, I would encourage you to make proactive efforts to continue nurturing her oral ability. (Reading and writing in Chinese will be an even larger challenge, but could be pursued when she’s a bit older, with the support of a tutor.) Best of luck!


68 Katherine September 22, 2014 at 6:26 am

Thanks for these tips, Adam. It has always been my dream to raise bilingual kids. What I wonder is if it’s possible with this life setup: I’m American, fairly fluent in French (did a MA in the language and briefly lived in France), now living in Ireland with my Irish husband. He doesn’t speak any French. Is it feasible to raise my children to be bilingual in French and English from infancy? Given I’m not a native French speaker, I do fear this isn’t terribly realistic. I would appreciate your thoughts.


69 Adam September 22, 2014 at 8:00 am

Katherine, there’s no reason why you can’t. It all depends on your commitment and your level of effort. There are many, many parents in similar circumstances who are successfully doing what you describe. Some of them can be found at my forum, The Bilingual Zoo, and you’d be welcome to join us. (Membership is free.)

I’m not suggesting it would be easy, but if you make it the highest priority you can (your success will likely be in proportion to the height of this priority in your lifestyle), you’ll no doubt achieve considerable success over the years. (The fact that France is pretty close to Ireland is a huge plus for you, too! You could make regular family trips!)

And even if you choose to pursue this path more modestly, you’ll still be giving your children a very helpful head start for future success in French and other foreign languages. In other words, some level of success is basically guaranteed. (See Have You Failed at Raising a Bilingual Child? for some further perspective on “success” and “failure.”)


70 Alicja October 21, 2014 at 6:40 am

I love your tips! Thank you for sharing them!


71 Sandro December 4, 2014 at 1:48 pm

Thanks for sharing this great work.

My simple feedback:
This is the best list of tips on how to raise a bilingual child I found so far.

I’ve subscribed to the newsletter.


72 Adam December 4, 2014 at 1:59 pm

Thank you, Sandro. I look forward to keeping in touch through my newsletter. You might also be interested in joining me at The Bilingual Zoo, my forum for “keepers” of bilingual kids. It’s a warm, lively community and membership is free. Just follow that link and click on “Register” at the upper right of the homepage.


73 Lea Marten January 19, 2015 at 1:20 am

I have a daughter and we live in Canada. I am Finnish descent and my husband is Estonian descent. Our daughter speaks English, Finnish and Estonian. I have used common sense to teach her my mother tongue and seeing this site basically doing what you suggest. CDs in the car with Finnish languages and she listens for a while (she is now 16) and then asks if she can listen to her music and I tell her fine, however she listened 10-15 minutes in Finnish. Very proud now that I was able to teach these languages for my daughter. Mind you I’m also lucky to live in a city that has Finnish and Estonian school, the school is once a week in the evening. It helps.


74 Adam January 19, 2015 at 8:01 am

Lea, I’m glad to hear you’ve had good success in handing down your heritage languages to your daughter. It sounds like you’ve made a lot of proactive efforts over the years, and the fact that you’ve had access to some schooling in the minority languages has been a helpful source of support.

On a different note, I’m Finnish myself on my mother’s side of the family—though I grew up in the U.S. and have no ability in Finnish (other than a few swear words!). My mother, though, was bilingual in Finnish and English when she was a child. If you’re curious to read about her experience, see…

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


75 Susan January 19, 2015 at 8:20 pm

Thanks for the tips, Adam.
Have you considered using mobile games for learning languages?
This one is about musical instruments, but it might as well help a kid learn some new words in Spanish.


76 Adam January 20, 2015 at 5:48 am

Susan, thanks, this is a great suggestion…and reveals my lack of experience with apps! The truth is, we don’t have a mobile device yet so this option hasn’t been part of my thinking. However, we plan to finally get a device this year so I’ll be back to update these tips once I’ve had a little experience with it! :mrgreen:


77 Clifton Landruth February 4, 2015 at 8:09 pm

Possibly you’ve read through books, which others have not read and possibly few other individuals have actually heard of, what’s important, is that you have entered them and come from that experience enriched for it. Growing as you become emboldened by the experience of sharing in a different mindset for a while, that’s the authentic strength of a great book!


78 Trisha February 18, 2015 at 2:48 pm

I somehow landed on this website while I was doing my homework. I live in Canada, however I am of Vietnamese descent. I was born in Canada, so I naturally learned English. As a child though, I was raised to speak, read and write Vietnamese pretty fluently. Although I haven’t exactly mastered the language, I can understand the language really well. Since I spent most of my time with my grandparents when I was younger (and they speak Vietnamese rather than English), they spoke to me in Vietnamese, and I eventually caught on. I don’t know of any techniques, they didn’t really have one, other than the fact that they used it often. I found this really effective though. By the time I went to school, I was also enrolled into an extracurricular school that taught Vietnamese, so I got to practice and learn even more. Other than that, there isn’t any other method that I used to learn and perfect the language. (I am actually only 13 and I know the language really well.)


79 Adam February 19, 2015 at 8:09 am

Trisha, thank you for your comment. I’m really glad to hear that your family has been able to hand down their mother tongue to you. This can be a big challenge in situations like yours, but fortunately you were able to spend a lot of time with your grandparents when you were younger. They may not have had a conscious “method” in mind, but the fact that they used Vietnamese with you, and weren’t fluent in English, provided the important two “core conditions” for you to acquire Vietnamese: you received sufficient exposure to the language and you felt a natural need to use it. With this foundation, your additional schooling in Vietnamese could then advance your ability to even higher levels.

So, it’s true, a conscious and proactive approach isn’t always necessary to successfully nurture a child’s minority language, but for many families, this won’t happen unless they make deliberate efforts to meet those crucial two conditions for language acquisition: exposure and need.

Trisha, keep going with your Vietnamese! I predict your bilingual ability will be a valuable part of your life in the future, too!


80 Annie Schmit February 21, 2015 at 12:57 am

My boyfriend and I are French (but I’m bilingual, I learned it a while ago).

My first instinct is watching TV in French, which I try to work on… I try to put English cartoons for my 6 months baby. Do you think by just watching TV and listening to English songs/radio it would still help to develop the “English side” of my son?


81 Adam February 21, 2015 at 11:30 am

Annie, activities like these can certainly be helpful, to supplement your overall efforts, but a diet of only passive activities will likely lead only to passive ability in the target language, at best. If your aim is active ability, then the main sources of language exposure must be interactive. I would encourage you to take a close look at the posts I’ve listed on the resource page for new parents. All the best to you and your family!


82 Amanda Sagen March 11, 2015 at 5:44 am

Fantastic words of wisdom! I have a soon to be 12-year-old daughter who learnt to speak in Norwegian within a couple of months of starting nursery at 4 years old (we didn’t know this as she would only speak in English when we picked her up!). We’ve lived in Norway (hubby is Norwegian) for several years now and while I’m more than capable of speaking it I prefer to stay with my native tongue (always felt silly talking in Norwegian with hubby as met him speaking English). I speak English to his son who learnt English quickly as I didn’t know Norwegian when we moved here. (English is the language the kids learn at school from the first year.) However, I speak Norwegian to his daughter as I had learned enough by the time she started spending significant time at our house. We now have a daughter together who is 15 months old and I only speak English with her as we want her to be able to speak both languages from the get go. She gets exposure to Norwegian from hubby and his kids when they’re here and English from both me and my daughter (eldest daughter speaks to me in English and the rest of the family here in Norwegian). My baby girl spends most of her time with me at the moment but will be starting nursery at the end of this year so I’m wondering if she will have had enough exposure to English by then? My first had 4 years!

I’ll be rereading your tips and see if there’s anything else I can do to bump up her learning that I don’t already do. :)


83 Adam March 11, 2015 at 11:10 am

Amanda, it sounds like you’re off to a strong start with your younger daughter, and with the support system you have in place, I expect her English ability will develop well alongside her Norwegian. Just make sure that you and your older daughter remain consistent about using English with her and that you continue providing her with as much exposure to English as possible.

I would also encourage you to join us at The Bilingual Zoo, a warm, lively community for “keepers” of bilingual kids where you’ll find many other parents from around the world who are facing similar challenges.


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