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This Is When You Should Give Up the Idea of Raising a Bilingual Child

March 23, 2016

This Is When You Should Give Up the Idea of Raising a Bilingual Child

The other day I received a message from a frustrated parent, on the verge of abandoning the bilingual journey, who explained:

“I’ve done my very best, but my child just won’t speak the minority language.”

In fact, I hear this claim now and again so it isn’t uncommon. But I think it’s worth keenly reflecting on this sentiment for a moment.

What “very best” really means

First, it’s crucial to make a clear distinction between what the parent thinks is his or her “very best” and what “very best” really means. While I certainly empathize with the frustration that lies behind this statement, the truth is, parents in this situation underestimate their “very best” because they lack awareness of the further efforts that could still be made. In other words, there is always more that a parent can do to nurture progress toward the goal of getting a child to use the minority language more actively or any other aim along the road to bilingual ability. The idea that we’ve done our “very best” but “failed” is not only a misconception, it’s badly counterproductive because this hasty conclusion can then undercut additional action: After all, if I’ve already done my “very best,” what more can I do?

Let me stress again: There is always more you can do to address the difficulties you face. You just have to find out, or figure out, which actions could potentially be most effective, and then keep trying…and trying….and trying…until you experience some productive developments and a greater degree of success.

If we simply sigh and say that we did our “very best,” which suggests that no further progress is even possible, we’re basically giving ourselves permission to stop trying, to give up. At the same time, this claim that we did our “very best,” while sincerely felt, also enables us to accept “failure” too easily: Hey, I did my best, but it was just too hard.

Well, here’s my dose of “tough love” for today:

No, you haven’t “done your best” yet—that’s a shortsighted view of the longer journey—because “doing your best” at raising a bilingual child means “doing your best for the full length of childhood.” “Doing your best” until age 3 or 5 or whenever frustration gets the better of you isn’t really “doing your best.” What you’ve actually done is what you’ve been capable of doing so far, up to that particular point in your child’s young life, and there’s always more that you can do. And, yes, I know it’s hard, I don’t discount that, but don’t dare make this the justification for giving up on your dreams because…

The only time you should give up the idea of raising a bilingual child is when it’s not truly important to you, when you honestly don’t feel that it’s worth the effort it demands, not because you mistakenly believe you’ve done your “very best” but “failed.”

The challenge is psychological

The reality is, the limits to your “very best” are completely elastic, and can always expand, if you have the desire and the willingness to keep going, keep learning, keep trying—whether it’s raising a bilingual child or any other larger aim in life. There are no real limits to our “very best” and we risk deceiving ourselves, and undermining our efforts and progress, if we claim that our “very best” has some kind of hard ceiling. It doesn’t, and never will. Of course, we can’t do everything, we do have a certain capacity within our daily lives and we must make choices, but that’s very different from the false belief that we’ve “failed” despite doing our “very best.”

When all is said and done, if you just keep going, day after day, you and your child will continue to make progress. As I stress in Have You Failed at Raising a Bilingual Child?, the very idea of “failing” at this quest is illogical because the only way you could truly claim such a thing is if your child made no progress at all despite your persistent daily efforts throughout the years of childhood. I have yet to encounter one person, from anywhere in the world, who has told me that they made continuous efforts for all those years but “failed.” Different degrees of success are only natural, depending on a range of factors, but rest assured that there is always a payoff to perseverance.

So, in many cases, the larger challenge to success at raising bilingual children is purely psychological: Frustrated and alone, parents feel discouraged and defeated and their efforts falter in the face of difficulty, when merely plodding on with playful, resourceful persistence, day by day, would gradually and naturally produce a positive outcome.

Look, I know this is a lot easier to write about than it is to live out, but you need never feel alone with your frustrations, a guarantee I first made in You Are Not Alone. That’s why this blog is here, and that’s why I and hundreds of other parents have banded together for mutual support at my forum, The Bilingual Zoo.

If you want to raise a bilingual child—if you really want to raise a bilingual child—you surely can. But you must be willing, now and forever and no matter what difficulties may arise, to continue giving your “very best” to this aim, day after day, year after year, without pause, without end..and with all the wild, playful joy that you and your family can possibly feel.

How about you? What are your thoughts or feelings after reading this post?

1 Kelly March 24, 2016 at 4:04 am

Exposing my kids to Japanese is too important to me to give up, but I do get frustrated and wonder sometimes if I *should* give up. I’ve spoken to my boys (now 4 and almost 6) mostly in Japanese (albeit broken Japanese, since I’m not fluent) since birth, and the most they can do is count to twenty and say a couple things like “I love you” and “good night” in Japanese. They don’t even seem able to say the names of most colors or animals, even though I’ve taught them over and over again since they were babies. They can’t answer any questions in Japanese – sometimes they’ll understand the question, but they answer in English and tell me they don’t know how to say the words in Japanese, even though I’ve modeled for them countless times. So yeah, I’m ready to give up sometimes… :( If I don’t practice with them, though, my own Japanese will never get better…

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2 Adam March 24, 2016 at 6:27 am

Kelly, I hear your frustration. While your children’s progress to this point in the minority language feels disappointing compared to your hopes, let me stress that all the exposure you’ve provided so far does matter, and will continue to matter, to the aim of advancing their knowledge of Japanese. Ending your efforts, and this exposure—when the goal is still important to you—would not only halt further progress, it would leave you with lingering regret.

I don’t know the details of your situation, so it’s hard to offer specific advice, but I would encourage you to either scale up your actions or scale back your expectations as it sounds like there’s a mismatch between the level of the actions being made and the level of the results expected. I don’t say that to “criticize” your efforts, but only to point out that, as a general rule, “The more efforts that are made, and the more those efforts are effective for the particular circumstances, the more progress will be produced.”

Despite the current frustration you feel, at ages 6 and 4, your continuing persistence could well be rewarded at 12 and 10 (let’s say) when a breakthrough is experienced and their passive ability becomes more active. This is certainly possible—and many parents have experienced this same sort of later-blooming success—but only perseverance over the years can nurture that potential outcome.

In terms of your daily efforts, you might reflect and recharge by considering the 10 challenges I offer at The Bilingual Zoo. Are you taking full advantage of these ideas?

Take a Challenge

Kelly, stay strong! I’m cheering for you from here in Hiroshima! (Bring your boys for a big dose of Japanese anytime!) :mrgreen:

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3 Kelly March 28, 2016 at 10:59 am

Thanks for the encouragement. I think I need to scale back my expectations, as my own Japanese isn’t strong enough to personally do much more than I’m doing. I will, however, try to set up some play dates with kids from my younger son’s Japanese school. (My older son is not interested in going to the school.) We plan to take the boys to Japan in 2017, so hopefully, that will pique their interest in the language some more.

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4 Adam March 28, 2016 at 2:19 pm

Kelly, yes, your visit to Japan could be an important breakthrough. For inspiration, see the series of guest posts that other parents have written about their trips to the target language country, called “Bilingual Travelers.” You’ll quickly find them within the Guest Posts.

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5 GoktimusPrime March 31, 2016 at 9:59 pm

Hi Kelly,

Please don’t give up. I’m also a non-native speaker of Japanese and I speak to my daughter in Japanese (now almost 7), so I know that it can be challenging. If she tries to speak to me in English, I don’t respond until she speaks to me in Japanese. I will either ignore her or explicitly tell her to say it again in Japanese. If she doesn’t know the word, then she’ll say it in English, but I’ll say it in Japanese and then she’ll step back and try it again.

“Strawberries o tabetai.” (I want to eat ‘strawberries’)
“Naani o tabetai?” (_What_ do you want to eat?)
“Strawberries.”
“Dou iu imi, sore?” (What does that mean?)
“Ichigo. Ichigo o tabetai.” (Strawberries. I want to eat strawberries.)

Here is a video of my daughter switching between English, Japanese and Chinese (my wife speaks to her in Chinese).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BidSFwvDFCU

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6 Nadya March 24, 2016 at 10:39 am

My little guy is only 21 months old but I have given up already. We live in English speaking country and all our friends speak English. I have no friends here who teach their kids minority language, so they all speak English.

My family is back in my home country, and our relationship is very hard. So I find that it was extremely hard for me to keep myself motivated to keep talking to my son in minority language. Plus we will be homeschooling and I will be the one teaching, so I will be using majority language. That seemed intimidating as well. We might teach minority language as a second language later on, but definitely off the path of trying to raise a bilingual child. He still likes to watch some movies in minority language – they are on the shelf with the others and he gets to choose a movie…

Feel like I did wrong by my son, but the frustration was getting the best of me.

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7 Adam March 24, 2016 at 5:15 pm

Nadya, there’s absolutely no shame in “postponing” a stronger commitment to the bilingual aim if overcoming the large challenges of your situation feels too difficult at this time. But, remember, your efforts needn’t be “all or nothing”—I would encourage you to continue using your native language in fun, playful ways. Even if you now hold no expectations about his development in this language, which takes off the pressure to “succeed,” such experiences can add up over time and not only nurture a certain amount of passive ability but also a positive attitude toward the language. And since we don’t know what the future will bring, this passive ability and positive attitude could end up paving the way for greater interest and progress in the years ahead.

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8 Gabriela April 3, 2016 at 11:51 pm

Nadya, my son is also 21 months old, and I’m his only source of the minority language (ml), and it’s not my native language either so I have no family sources at all. I understand it gets hard at times, but I always think of the big picture, why it’s important for me that he speaks both English (ml) and Spanish (ML). As Adam suggested, maybe if you use ml for fun stuff it will be less hard on you.

My son’s only few words are in English so far, but next year he’ll start kindergarten so I’m trying to build a strong foundation in the ml before Spanish takes over…I see it coming so I’m getting ready for it!

Having a toddler is so much fun! Bringing him up in a second language just make it more fun for me. Sometimes I think that if I was doing this “monolingually” it wouldn’t be as fun.

I hope you can stop by the forum and take a challenge, or read other people’s experiences to get inspired. That always helps me out. I hope you jump back on the road real soon. We are here with you!

Big hug from Argentina.

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9 Leanne March 24, 2016 at 1:11 pm

Great post, Adam. My struggle is the question of how much is enough? I’ve heard 30% of waking hours, which is really hard to achieve, so I’ve been aiming for 20 hours a week of exposure (what my kids would get in immersion in our local school), but we’re not there yet. I keep trying to squeeze in more hours with music in the car, etc on top of the formal lessons, talking and other learning we do – we homeschool. I just can’t seem to fit in more than 15-17 hours a week of language exposure, including a few hours a week of target language TV. They are basically fluent with broken but improving grammar and a somewhat simplistic vocabulary at ages 10 and 8. I’m happy with their progress – I just don’t want to shortchange them if I cut myself some slack and say we are good with this time commitment and stop pushing for more. Target language is my second language as well, so even though I am fully bilingual myself, it takes more energy than just speaking English all the time. I’m exhausted!

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10 Adam March 24, 2016 at 4:46 pm

Leanne, I think it’s true that a useful aim for minority language exposure is roughly 25 hours a week…but, as you describe, achieving this aim can be quite challenging, particularly when we’re the main (even sole) source of language exposure. Beyond this broad benchmark, there isn’t really an answer to the question of “how much enough.” Ultimately, we all must arrive at our own satisfactory answer to this question, based on our particular hopes, circumstances, energy level, etc. (To make this even trickier, our answer to “how much is enough” will likely evolve over time.)

I think the main yardstick (as I suggested to Kelly) is this: Are we mostly satisfied with the amount and pace of progress being made? If so, then our efforts are “enough” (though it’s true that we could promote even stronger progress if we’re willing and able to give even more to this aim). But if not, we essentially have two options: Amplify our efforts, or lower our expectations.

As for making greater efforts, when parents feel that they’re already doing their honest best—and yet want to provide their children with more language exposure—it then becomes vital to be as creative and resourceful as possible so that other sources of input beyond the parent can be added to the regular routine.

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11 Ana Paula Mumy March 26, 2016 at 1:50 am

Adam – thank you for sharing your wisdom and encouragement, and for clearly defining positive efforts and realistic expectations.

When my first child began to get older and was introduced to more and more English in our largely monolingual town, she began to seemingly “lose” some of her language skills in our home language, and she began to favor English because the ratio of English speakers in her life was much higher.

At one point I panicked and felt defeated as I thought about all the very intentional and concrete ways I had fostered our home language. I asked myself, “Have all of my efforts been in vain?” For many parents, that’s when it’s easy to throw in the towel and say “I’m done…this is too hard! This is not the rewarding experience I thought it would be!” But if you force yourself to pause, to rethink, to refresh and KEEP GOING, you will surely see little evidences of fruit if you don’t give up. I was thinking of some yucca plants that can take years and years (sometimes up to 20 years!) to bloom. Some of our kids might be quick blooming…but some of our kids might be yuccas, and that’s okay!

If you’d like to read more on my experience, you can access a brief article I wrote entitled, “Will All of My Efforts As a Bilingual Parent Be in Vain?…Don’t Lose Heart!” available at http://thespeechstop.com/index.php?page=may-i

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12 Adam March 26, 2016 at 5:33 am

Ana Paula, thanks so much for sharing your experience and perspective (I love that metaphor of the yucca plants!). Your article, too, is excellent, and I encourage others to click over to Ana Paula’s site to access the wealth of articles she offers on that page (just scroll down for all the links).

Right here at Bilingual Monkeys, you can also read Ana Paula’s popular guest posts…

Speech-Language Pathologist Tells All About Bilingualism, Speech, and Language Delays

Battling the Majority Language Giant (While Feeling Like a Minority Language Gnome)

Thanks again for all your terrific work, Ana Paula!

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13 Jason Tremere March 28, 2016 at 2:01 am

What are your thoughts on raising bilingual children with Autism Spectrum Disorder? We live in an officially bilingual English/French city, I’m unilingual English and my wife is bilingual (raised French). Our 6 year old is in a French school and HATES French. Won’t even watch his favorite cartoons in French. He has a strong preference for English and a speech pathologist recommended switching to English school. After spotting other developmental issues, we had a psychologist assessment both in office and school. Diagnosis was mild ASD and ADHD with recommendation to switch to English school. So we are restarting Grade 1 in September I’m English. I think we are doing the right thing, but wonder… Did we give up too easily?

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14 Adam March 28, 2016 at 5:11 am

Jason, as I don’t know the full details of the situation, I can’t really comment specifically, but perhaps this is a case of “postponing” heavier efforts in French until the timing feels more right, not giving it up entirely. For the time being, French could be scaled back to part-time, playful activities with the intent of inspiring more positive feelings toward this language. A change in attitude could then pave the way for stronger progress in the future.

Based on the experiences of other families, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (depending on the particular condition, of course) clearly have the capacity for developing two or more languages. For much more food for thought in this area, and further contact information, please let me refer you to these posts:

Interview with a Father Raising a Bilingual Child with Autism, Part 1

Interview with a Father Raising a Bilingual Child with Autism, Part 2

Can Children with Special Needs Be Bilingual?

I hope this is at least a little helpful, Jason. I wish you and your family all the best.

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15 Jason March 28, 2016 at 10:00 am

Thank you for that Adam. I have just started going through the first post and I see many direct parallels to the challenge we are facing. I have only recently stumbled on your site and really found it helpful. I’m not sure I would have found this post from 3 years ago, but it is giving me lots of food for thought. Wishing your family all the best too. I really appreciate what you are doing here and how responsive you are to everyone who reaches out.

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16 Adam March 28, 2016 at 10:20 am

Jason, you’re very welcome. Feel free to reach out directly to Eugene Ryan, the author of those posts. He’s a good guy and I’m sure he would be glad to respond.

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17 Jason Tremere April 4, 2016 at 6:16 pm

Thanks Adam, I have joined his Facebook Group ‘Bilingual Children with Developmental Differences’ and a speech & language therapist/researcher there sent me a 25-page e-book she wrote and Eugene did respond agreeing with her comments. Glad to have the support.

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18 Adam April 4, 2016 at 9:00 pm

Jason, thanks for the update! I’m happy to hear about these fruitful connections!

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19 NJC July 23, 2016 at 4:32 pm

I was born and grew up in England to a German mother and English father (not able to speak German). My mother consistently spoke German to me from a young age and apparently my first words were German. However, despite understanding when she spoke to me I always replied in English. I was ashamed that what I would say would be full of mistakes, and didn’t want to be corrected. Only when we were in Germany on holiday did I feel comfortable speaking German. Today I am the same. I very much orientate myself to my linguistic surroundings and I think this is natural.

The point I want to make in response to this article is to ask parents to try and put themselves in the shoes of their children and what it might feel like for them: I remember vividly the feelings pressure being put on me to speak the minority language. I live today with the feeling that I consistently disappointed my mother by refusing to speak German with her. So please don’t forget the psychology that lies behind bringing up a child bilingually.

But what I also want to do, is reassure parents that the more exposure you give your child, the more they will learn, even if they don’t speak. Do NOT underestimate the “sponge-like” nature of children. I now live in Germany and speak fluently. As a result of my own experience of growing up bilingually, I now praise my children whenever they say anything in English (their minority language) but NEVER force them to speak it – I simply can’t bear the thought of putting the pressure on them that I felt as a child.

Note: I am simply offering my experience here as food for thought. Each bilingual family is, of course, different and should try to find the best way that suits them!

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20 Adam July 24, 2016 at 6:15 am

NJC, thank you for your comment. Your points are well taken. I certainly agree that we should avoid efforts that amount to “forcing” children to speak a certain language. As you yourself experienced, this can be counterproductive for both language development and the child’s emotional needs.

This is why, rather than pressure, I champion playfulness. In my experience, and the experience of other families bears this out as well, being very playful in our efforts can actually satisfy both of these important aims: it can indirectly encourage greater use of the target language while fueling joy for both child and parent.

For more on this way of thinking, please see…

Be Very Serious. Be Very Playful. The Bilingual Journey Demands Both.

I Do Not Teach Children. I Give Them Joy.

VIDEO: With Bilingual Kids, There’s a Madness to My Method

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21 Sophie December 6, 2016 at 12:35 am

My son is 2y 7m and I only speak minority language to him, no matter where we are – I just don’t speak English, that’s it. However, now more and more he prefers to reply in English and now tells me “Mummy, speak English”. I am getting a bit lost what to do as I know it is not because he can’t express himself in minority language. He just doesn’t want to. :(

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22 Adam December 6, 2016 at 8:03 am

Sophie, without knowing the full details of your situation, it’s hard for me to offer specific suggestions. However, I would encourage you to see this post, which I think can help address the kind of difficulty you’re describing…

7 Steps to Get Your Bilingual Child Using the Minority Language More Actively

After you read this, feel free to make another comment below the article there, sharing more details about your particular circumstances and the problem itself. With more information, I’ll be better able to offer helpful advice.

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