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The Top 5 Regrets of Parents Who Have Had Difficulty Raising Bilingual Kids

September 9, 2015

Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent eight years caring for people who were dying. As she talked intimately with these people about their lives, during their last weeks on earth, she saw common themes emerge when they revealed their regrets. She eventually put her observations into a book called The Top Five Regrets of the Dying.

According to Ware (in an infographic from, these are the biggest regrets of those facing the end of their lives…

The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying

Observations from Bronnie Ware

This whole idea had me reflecting on my own life, as well as considering the regrets of parents who have had difficulty raising bilingual kids. But before I turn to these different regrets, I think hearing some of Bronnie Ware’s observations would be instructive and inspiring for our own lives.

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

WARE: “This was the most common regret of all. When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honored even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

It is very important to try and honor at least some of your dreams along the way. From the moment that you lose your health, it is too late. Health brings a freedom very few realize, until they no longer have it.”

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.

WARE: “By simplifying your lifestyle and making conscious choices along the way, it is possible to not need the income that you think you do. And by creating more space in your life, you become happier and more open to new opportunities, ones more suited to your new lifestyle.”

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

WARE: “Many people suppressed their feelings in order to keep peace with others. As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming. Many developed illnesses relating to the bitterness and resentment they carried as a result.”

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

WARE: “Often they would not truly realize the full benefits of old friends until their dying weeks and it was not always possible to track them down. Many had become so caught up in their own lives that they had let golden friendships slip by over the years. There were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. It all comes down to love and relationships, in the end. That is all that remains in the final weeks, love and relationships.”

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

WARE: “This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realize until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content. When deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.”

Top 5 regrets of parents raising bilingual kids

In the nearly 20 years I’ve worked with bilingual children and families, I’ve noticed certain patterns of regret in parents that have struggled to achieve their aim of raising a bilingual child. Of course, these observations are based only on my personal experience, but they may offer some useful food for thought when it comes to taking effective action.

1. I wish I hadn’t underestimated the amount of effort that was needed to raise a bilingual child.

I hear this regret too often, and it pains me every time since a little more awareness could have made such a tremendous difference. Essentially, some parents assume that their children will simply “pick up” the minority language, like the average monolingual child…but, to their dismay, the early results don’t match their expectations. At that point, typically around preschool age, the child’s majority language has already grown dominant and the family then faces the larger challenge of strengthening a weaker minority language that the child may resist using. As I stress in Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child, conscious and proactive efforts, from early on, can prevent such problems from arising and have a huge impact on longer-term success.

2. I wish I had spent more time with my kids and given them more exposure to the target language.

This regret is often voiced by a busy parent who’s the primary source of exposure to the minority language. In many cases, it follows on the heels of the first regret: because the amount of effort needed was underestimated, the parent didn’t feel a stronger sense of urgency for spending more time with the children. The result is not only a regret over language development, but a regret over the parent-child bond itself: the truth is, as I explain in This Might Be the Very Best Thing About Raising Bilingual Kids (And It’s Probably Not What You Expect), the need to provide children with effective language exposure helps increase the quantity and quality of time minority language parents spend with their kids.

3. I wish I had used the target language more consistently with my kids.

When the minority language isn’t used consistently—and the majority language is used openly and liberally—this can undermine not only the child’s exposure to the target language, but the child’s perceived need to use that language actively. Oftentimes, this use of the majority language isn’t a conscious choice—it just seems to follow from the family’s circumstances and settle into a pattern, despite being counterproductive to the larger bilingual aim. At other times, a parent (often a new parent) is eager to serve as a “bilingual model” for the child. While this is ultimately a positive intention, attempting this too soon, before the child has become “conditioned” to actively communicate in the minority language, can backfire: it isn’t unusual to hear regrets over the practical consequences to their children’s language development from parents who sought this abstract goal from birth.

4. I wish I had tried harder to get resources in the target language.

As I stress Do You Really Have Enough Resources in the Minority Language? (Hint: The Answer is Always “No.”), parents must recognize the overarching importance of having abundant resources (especially books) to continually stir the interest and interaction of parent and child, and commit to actively and perpetually pursuing new resources, in line with the child’s evolving age, language level, and interests. In my coaching work with parents, one of the first things I want to know is: What sort of resources does the family currently have in the minority language? And how committed are they to seeking out suitable resources on an ongoing basis? From these facts alone, I can often judge the current state and future potential of that family’s bilingual journey. Remember, resources are the wood needed to fuel the fire of language development: in general, less wood produces a smaller fire; more wood produces a bigger fire.

5. I wish I had read more to my kids.

I know I’ve become a terrible nag on this subject, but there’s simply no substitute for reading aloud to your children in the minority language every day, for at least 15 minutes, throughout childhood. Overwhelming research and experience shows that reading aloud to children has a tremendously positive impact on their language and literacy development. In my view, reading aloud in the minority language should serve as the very bedrock of every family’s daily efforts to raise a bilingual child, without exception. Parents that don’t read aloud to their kids consistently are shortchanging their own efforts and their children’s progress. If you’re not yet persuaded of the towering importance of reading aloud and a healthy home library to a successful bilingual journey, see The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child and How Many Books Do You Have In Your Home?.

There’s good news, too

Now I know dwelling on such regrets can be depressing, and this post isn’t intended to be merely a consideration of “cautionary tales.” (And I know there are exceptions, where parents didn’t do some of these things and yet still achieved success on their terms. However, I wouldn’t advise the average parent to hope that they will be an exception, too. To my mind, it’s always best to err on the side of effort and exposure.)

In fact, here’s the good news: You’re not dying! Even if you feel some regret over your bilingual journey to date, you still have a chance to try again, try harder, and make better progress from this day forward. I understand the disappointment and frustration that can result from unfulfilled hopes, but it’s not too late—it’s never too late—to take more effective action and advance your children’s language development, day by day, through the remaining years of childhood. (For further encouragement, see Is It Too Late for My Child to Become Bilingual? and Have You Failed at Raising a Bilingual Child?)

Note: I was inspired to write this post after visiting the blog of a close friend, Josh Selig, the founder of Little Airplane and the creator of many marvelous TV shows for kids. I learned about Bronnie Ware’s work with the dying after reading a post on this theme at Josh’s blog.

How about you? Any regrets over your bilingual journey (or your life in general)? What sort of action will you now take to address those regrets?

1 Jana September 10, 2015 at 3:09 am

Really enjoyed this one, Adam, thanks! That book sounds interesting, too! Keep up the good work! 😉


2 Adam September 10, 2015 at 5:52 am

Thanks a lot, Jana! I’m always grateful for the positive feedback—it helps keep me going! :mrgreen:


3 Nath September 15, 2015 at 5:36 pm

Fantastic! I am going to pass it on to the parents of the bilingual children I teach. Thanks once more Adam!


4 Adam September 15, 2015 at 7:03 pm

Nathalie, I hope the parents you work with will find this post helpful. All the best to you!


5 Dina October 5, 2015 at 9:41 pm

Great post! I teach bilingual young children and would like to know how can their parents help if they don’t know the language, especially with reading them stories.


6 Adam October 6, 2015 at 6:18 am

Dina, if parents don’t already know the language themselves, there are basically two options for offering their children support (which could be pursued together or separately):

1. Learn the language alongside their children

2. Seek help from others who speak the language

At the same time, though this depends heavily on the details of your situation, it may be that the parents don’t really need to support the language in question: for example, if the parents are Spanish speakers in the United States, and the child attends an English-speaking preschool, the better approach might be for the parents to simply use Spanish in the home and allow English to be acquired from the school and the community. In such cases, if a parent gives too much support to the majority language themselves, they could inadvertently undermine the child’s development in the minority language.


7 Dina October 6, 2015 at 9:44 pm

Hi Adam,
Thanks for your reply. It’s the other way around. They are Egyptian students at a British school, with Egyptian parents. The only English they’re getting is at school.


8 Adam October 7, 2015 at 10:21 am

Dina, it sounds like the same kind of scenario, with the majority language at school and the minority language at home. Of course, I understand the teachers’ and parents’ desire to have these children acquire a good command of English as quickly as possible, but I would also be wary of achieving this at the expense of the family’s heritage language. It’s a tricky balance, but since English will inevitably be gained through schooling and society (particularly if the kids are still relatively small), I would recommend that the parents put more emphasis, actually, on maintaining the minority language. Otherwise, the eventual outcome may be that English grows dominant and the heritage language turns more passive.


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