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Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child

February 5, 2013

WARNING: BEWARE OF DASHED DREAMS

I’ve written a lot of articles on the subject of raising bilingual children, but for new parents, this may be my most important post yet.

First, though, let me say that this warning won’t necessarily apply to everyone—after all, the makeup, and circumstances, of every family are uniquely different. Those fortunate to have a fair amount of exposure to the minority language in their setting, such as situations where the child has access to schooling in that language, will probably not share this concern to the same extent. Also, parents who plan to introduce a second language when the child is older—cases of “successive bilingualism,” in other words—are pursuing a different sort of path.

This message, then, is directed to parents much like myself:

You dream of bringing up your children in both languages simultaneously, from birth—“simultaneous bilingualism”—so you can hand down your language heritage from the earliest age and communicate with them in your mother tongue throughout their childhood. (See Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me.)

At the same time, your setting itself offers limited exposure to the minority language and your children will likely attend a local school and be educated in the majority language. This means that, essentially, you are the main source of exposure to the minority language—and, to make this even more challenging, you might not be the main caregiver.

If you’re a new parent, and this sounds at all familiar, I urge you to heed the warning that follows and share it far and wide with other parents.

Hit the ground running

First and foremost: Do not assume this will be easy. If you suppose that your child will simply “pick up” the minority language from you, this could be a fatal mistake.

While no one has ever died of a failed attempt at bilingualism, it’s certainly true that the dreams of many parents have been dashed because they realized too late that raising a bilingual child demands a lot more time, energy, and expense than they originally imagined.

The truth is, if you want your children to gain their two languages simultaneously, and yet their exposure to the minority language rests mainly on your small shoulders, you must hit the ground running. The bilingual journey is a marathon, it’s true—and you can’t burn yourself out early on—but if you begin too slowly from the starting line, you’ll fall behind fast.

The first few years of a child’s life, when so much language development is brewing inside that little brain, are absolutely crucial when it comes to your success. If the odds are against you, in terms of your circumstances, you must shift them in your favor by being proactive and doing everything in your power so that, from day one, your child is exposed to the minority language for at least 25 hours a week. (See How Many Hours Per Week Is Your Child Exposed to the Minority Language?)

The scale of your dream

The hard reality is this: If there isn’t sufficient exposure in the minority language, its development will rapidly fall behind the relentless progress of the majority language. Then, before you know it, the child is three or four and the majority language is already much stronger and has become the child’s main means of communication. You abruptly realize that your aim of simultaneous bilingualism, where the child communicates with roughly equal ease in both languages, isn’t taking shape as you had hoped.

At that point, you’re forced to play “catch up” with the minority language, which requires even greater effort—and may not be possible if you’re unable to make significant changes to your lifestyle in order to rebalance the child’s language exposure. To avoid this predicament—and the dashed dream that could follow—it’s far better to start strong and make steady efforts so that the minority language can “keep pace” with the majority language.

Again, this warning will not apply to all. And there’s nothing wrong, of course, with resetting your expectations when you find that your original goal is beyond your capacity. After all, passive ability in the minority language can always be “activated” at a later stage.

But if it’s important to you—truly important to you—that your child acquire both languages simultaneously so that you can communicate in your mother tongue for the life of your relationship, then you must be mindful of the actual size of this challenge and make certain that your efforts match the scale of your dream.

P.S. Also see “I Want to Be Bilingual”: Letter from a Newborn Baby.

How about you? Are your children acquiring their languages simultaneously? What other advice could you offer new parents with this same desire?

Maximize Your Child's Bilingual Ability

1 Corinne Wilhelm February 11, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Hi, playing catch up or striking the balance when one of the key players is away or working late for a period of time can in part be balanced by
a) media
b) childcare/babysitting
in your target language, this has seriously been our life saver. I don’t mean that you have to employ an au pair, what you can do is find out if a native speaker is happy to babysit, play or visit. I did this when we were back in the UK for a year and my son’s German was simply not getting enough attention. A wonderful local au pair, that was happy to get out of her ‘always on duty’ home came round an hour before my son got home from playgroup and chatted and vegged on the sofa, then played with him when he got in so that I could get the dinner on. Keep it simple. This little arrangement worked well for all of us and we are still friends now.

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2 Adam February 13, 2013 at 10:32 am

Corinne, I did something similar when my daughter was smaller. There’s a university up the road from us with a handful of exchange students from abroad and I was able to hire (for a modest amount) a young woman from the United States to play with her for a couple of hours a week. This option obviously depends on your setting, but you won’t know if there are speakers of your target language around, like international students, unless you actively look!

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3 Annabelle May 16, 2013 at 4:17 pm

Does it really matter if the minority language stays a minority language? One can never be a perfect 50-50 bilingual. Languages have their purposes. And a seed will be planted anyway. If the child later needs that minority language for something else, then the seed can be reactivated with little water and nutrients.

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4 Adam May 16, 2013 at 5:14 pm

Annabelle, I guess it depends on the family’s aim. You’re right, of course, that a child’s two languages can never be perfectly balanced, but my own goal, as I suggest in the article, is for my kids to have “roughly equal ease” in both languages throughout childhood. It’s fine if other families have a different goal for their different circumstances, and are comfortable with less active ability in the minority language. And it’s certainly true that, whatever the level of that ability, it can always grow stronger at an older age.

In my case, though, and for parents with a similar aim, one key motivation is being able to communicate with our kids (and for our kids to be able to communicate with family members who don’t speak the majority language) in our mother tongue for the life of our relationship. So I don’t disagree at all—I just think the level of drive required depends on the level of the greater goal. (And all this can get even trickier, as you know, when there are more than two languages involved!)

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5 Magsy June 3, 2013 at 9:30 pm

Great article! I can say that persistence pays off. My daughter is just over 3 and surprisingly her minority language is far better developed than English. I live in UK, speak English to my partner, but only minority language to my daughter and have been since she was born. She often goes abroad for about 2,3 weeks so she also “lives” the culture. She will start her nursery this September, so I know the majority language (English) will level up, if not become dominant. I’m, however, determined not to allow it, my goal is simultaneous bilingualism and therefore from the age of 5 I’m considering homeschooling to keep the lingual equality… Although her father isn’t…he wants her to be English and to speak English predominantly… Will see later. Thanks for great article and tip. Blessings

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6 Adam June 4, 2013 at 5:41 am

Magsy, yes, that’s exactly right: persistence pays off. Although our circumstances are obviously different, my children’s minority language (English) was also stronger than the majority language (Japanese) in their early years. And like you, I was concerned that the majority language would “overpower” the minority language once they began their schooling. Fortunately, though, that hasn’t been the case. Yes, it’s true that their Japanese has developed quickly, but the two languages are still balanced well. So if your daughter has a firm foundation in the minority language, and you’re able to continue communicating with her in that language and making active efforts each day to support her minority side, then maintaining a good balance in her bilingual ability is possible. I understand your concerns, though, so depending on the state of this balance when she turns 5, homeschooling could be a favorable option for a while to help “shore up” her minority language.

I wish you and your family all the best! It sounds like you’re off to a very good start!

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7 Ale March 6, 2014 at 12:34 pm

Hi everyone, it is true that it pays off all the efforts. At home we do keep both languages but I noticed that majority (English) takes over the little one, now 10. Mostly because I am so busy and tired that there is little time to spend talking and reading together. (Things I did with my older child, now 15.)

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8 Adam March 6, 2014 at 2:16 pm

Ale, yes, as tough as it is, if we don’t maintain our efforts to provide daily exposure to our children in the minority language, the majority language can quickly grow dominant. If it’s possible for you to reshape your lifestyle so you can again give more time to your kids, I’m sure the situation will improve. I send you strength and perseverance! (And take a quick look at The One Thing You Absolutely, Positively Must Have to Raise a Bilingual Child.)

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9 Yana January 19, 2014 at 2:58 am

Hi Magsy,

I am pregnant with my first child; the dad is British and we live in the UK, but I would like the little one to have a good command of my mother tongue because not everyone in my family speaks English fluently.

You say that your girl’s minority language is better developed than English and what I would like to ask is how she communicates with her dad and his side of the family… Has that ever been an issue (in terms of sheer practicality, rather than family politics)? Do you still speak to her in your mother tongue when he is around or do you switch to English?

Thanks!

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10 Raira June 24, 2013 at 1:50 pm

This is so true! I now accept the fact that the non-native speaker of the minority language like me is more tough and challenging than those like you, Adam! So right now, at least I’m determined to continue to give what I can just give! The family settings or circumstance also is a very influential factor to make raising a bilingual child became a success or a failure!

Lucky are those parents who are native speakers of the minority language too because they know how to maneuver this journey much better! I know you get me, Adam! I envy those like you! The knowledge to the language, time and effort/consistency are the keys to this, I think! And unfortunately, I am already lacking the first key. Even though, I’ll just do what I can do for my child because I would be happy too see the results of my efforts by even just teaching the very basics. At least I tried!

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11 Adam June 24, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Raira, it’s true that this challenge is bigger for you, because of your circumstances, but I admire your positive spirit and I think your efforts will have a very beneficial impact on your son’s language development. He’s very lucky to have you as his mother!

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12 Magda February 18, 2014 at 6:35 pm

So glad I found this!!!
You know there are exceptions to the rule so here’s what’s happening in my case.
I would be forever GRATEFUL for your opinion!
Since day 1, my little kid has been exposed to the minority language 100% through us, the parents. No schooling, no nothing, except the occasional friend (mostly of the minority language).
Our kid didn’t speak however till she was about 3. And she was and still is very confused. At the age of 3 (I was hoping that she would have picked up the minority language but she didn’t) she went to school where the majority language is spoken.
Now she understands both languages but she will only speak the majority language with occasional detours in the minority language for some specific words like “milk”, “skirt”, “shopping”.
Her dad, in order to help her communicate with the kids at school incorporated the majority language into his speech like 95% and sometimes all the time (just with her, not with me).
What am I supposed to do to ensure that she becomes fully and correctly bilingual? School isn’t available and it’s up to us to teach her to write too.
I look forward to hearing from you.

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13 Adam February 18, 2014 at 10:15 pm

Magda, if your daughter didn’t begin speaking until she was three, then I strongly suspect that she was experiencing some type of delay or disorder in her language development. Did you have her examined by a speech-language pathologist at some point? If so, what was the response?

I’m glad to hear that she is now able to communicate in the majority language, and has passive ability in the minority language as well, but to activate this passive ability, you will likely need to strengthen her need to use the language and the amount of exposure she receives. Please take a close look at What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language and consider how you might address this lack of need and exposure.

I wish you and your family all the best, Magda!

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14 Hairy February 28, 2014 at 10:21 pm

I am about to finish my bachelors degree around the same time my child is due. I lived in Moscow for part of my life, where I met my wife, and we’re both American. Neither of us speak another language fluently but I have always been aware of my faint Russian heritage.

Since then I have wanted to start learning Russian with the intent on not just surviving a few years in the country, but to rather become fluent enough to develop meaningful dialogue. I will be starting this process, ideally, immediately after I receive my degree. At the same time I feel that it will be extremely important to the development of our child if they grow up at least having exposure to two languages and ideally, as they grow older, become fluent in Russian. Obviously I’ll be starting Russian around the same time she will be learning about the world around her and hope that this will give me time to also develop my skills in learning Russian.

Do you have any advice at all on how to proceed? My wife and I have talked about it and I have stated my desire to do this and she agrees 100% but her having no desire to learn Russian, how could this affect everything? I anticipate the venture to end in failure to some extent but hope that our daughter will at least receive something in the end.

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15 Adam March 1, 2014 at 7:25 am

Hairy, welcome. Your path may be different from other couples who are already capable in the minority language, but you could certainly still have a great deal of success over time, if you make Russian a priority in your life and you persist at it, day after day. How much success remains to be seen, but there’s no chance of “failure,” unless you judge the results based on unrealistic expectations or you abandon your efforts prematurely. (You’ll just have to be willing to take on the bulk of these efforts, if your wife isn’t motivated to the same degree.)

If I were you, I would probably make English the main family language, but at the same time, I would be very diligent about learning Russian and incorporate as much Russian as possible into my lifestyle, through daily read-aloud sessions (starting at birth and continuing through childhood), music, video, games, etc. As your child grows, and you become more fluent, you could also create a “Russian Time” each day where Russian becomes the language of that defined period of activity. Meanwhile, it would be helpful to reach out to native speakers of Russian as friends, tutors, babysitters, and homestay visitors, and make trips to Russia from time to time, if this is feasible.

Basically, if the Russian language and culture are made a central (and fun!) part of your family’s life, then I expect this will have a very positive impact on the child and nurture not only language development but lifelong enthusiasm for all things Russian. And in any language, that would spell “success.”

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16 Alice March 4, 2014 at 12:46 am

Hi Adam,
My husband is Mexican and completely fluent in Spanish and English, and I am American and completely fluent in English and somewhat fluent in Spanish. We live in the U.S and our first child is due in about a month.
This is our plan: I will speak to the kids in English at home during the day (this will be much easier for me since it is my native language). When Dad comes home we will switch to Spanish. I feel that this way he will not be the only one responsible for teaching the kids Spanish, it will expose them to more of the minority language than if only Dad spoke it with them, and it will also help me improve my second language. I believe this will also make our trips to Mexico easier, since the kids will be used to me speaking in Spanish. So, during the day I will only speak and read to them in English and when Dad comes home we will only speak and read to them in Spanish.
Is this a good strategy? Or will it be too confusing for our kids if I am switching languages?

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17 Adam March 4, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Alice, first, a big congratulations to you and your husband on the impending arrival of your first child!

You’ve clearly given this good thought, which I applaud, and your idea sounds like a strategy worth pursuing to help shore up the minority language and improve your own Spanish at the same time.

I wonder, though, if you could create some type of small “ritual” for switching languages so that the child is given a clear cue at those times that Mommy is changing from one language to the other? When a parent uses two languages, it often involves the distinction between “in the home” and “outside the home” and these clear-cut domains of use can aid the child in distinguishing when to use each one. In your case, though, these domains are related more to time, not location. So perhaps you could devise some special words—or even a little song—that you direct toward the child at these moments, to help with this process of differentiating the two languages.

All the best, Alice!

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18 Alice March 6, 2014 at 1:20 am

We will do that. Thanks for the advice!

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19 Tatyana March 6, 2014 at 12:48 am

Hi Alice.
I’ve actually seen a situation almost identical to yours. The father spoke Spanish and Russian and the mother spoke only Russian. When the dad was with his son he’d speak Spanish and switch to Russian as soon as the mom was around. Last I saw the child he was 3 and fully bilingual. So this method most definitely can work.

Like Adam mentioned a child might need some sort of indication that a language switch is about to happen. I think something as simple as “Papa is home” might be sufficient. In our house a parent coming home is a very important event and can serve as a ritual in its own right.

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20 Adam March 6, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Tatyana, thanks for adding these helpful thoughts!

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21 Alice November 8, 2015 at 2:06 pm

Our daughter is now 18 months old, and we have done a good job sticking to our original plan. She doesn’t speak much yet, but she understands both languages pretty well.

Tatyana, we have found that Dad getting home from work is a pretty big event and makes for a clean transition to Spanish.

Thanks for helping us figure out a plan that has helped us teach our child two languages. It is so gratifying!

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22 Adam November 8, 2015 at 5:52 pm

Alice, thanks for the update! I’m happy to hear that things are going well for you and your daughter. Keep up your good efforts, day by day, and I expect you’ll continue to see strong progress!

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23 Diana August 11, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Hi! I’m glad to have come across your site. I’m a mother of a 29 month old girl and have been teaching her 4 languages.

It’s simple. I talk to her in 4 languages and read to her in all of those languages (a lot…I put my best effort and money here) and get some help from the medias.

I am the sole provider of all these languages. And my daughter speaks in all 4 languages and communicates with me in all 4 (actually 5…but I stopped actively reading or speaking in one language except exposing her to some listening and watching materials…still she understands and speak that language. But I don’t dare to say I teach and she speaks that language since all I do is just providing some media material.)

Have you heard about or seen such a case?

I read some bilingual books and a trilingual book but I could not find the case in a book that one mother caters multiple languages to her kids. There is a multilingual community in Korea which is leaded by a mom (and also a professional on the early language learning subject) who also raised her daughter this way. Well, the girl is fluent in 5 to 6 languages now without having lived abroad.

I absolutely agree on your posts here since I have been reading and studying on the subject, too.

I just wanted to know if you are familiar with such a case (like me or the above-mentioned mom).

I am also considering homeschooling, too. Not only because of the minority languages but because of the terrible school conditions here, but surely I will count those languages when I make up my mind at the end.

If you know the case, could you give me some advice?

Thanks for making such a wonderful place and sharing your ideas online.

Wish your best ^^

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24 Adam August 11, 2014 at 6:11 pm

Diana, I don’t know the details of your situation (where you live, your majority language, your minority languages, how you organize your use of the languages, etc.), but I should be honest to say that I think you’ll find it difficult to maintain, and advance, your daughter’s active ability in all four languages as she grows older. Practically speaking, it’s hard enough maintaining sufficient exposure for one or two minority languages to foster a high degree of fluency. For one parent to provide adequate exposure in multiple languages, without considerable support from others, well, I don’t think there are enough hours in the day to do this very successfully. To a limited degree of proficiency, perhaps, but it would have to be a very unique case for a child to achieve native-like fluency in four or more languages from one parent alone.

As for the mother in Korea, I don’t know the details, but again, I suspect that the reality of the girl’s “fluency” in all these languages is at a fairly limited level. It would be interesting to learn more about the family’s circumstances and assess the girl’s true language ability.

So, frankly speaking, I think you would probably achieve greater success over the long term by focusing on one or two minority languages, rather than four. Once these minority languages have a firm and active foundation, you could then perhaps introduce additional languages. But trying to nurture four languages from the start, well, I think you may be spreading yourself, and your daughter’s language development, too thin. Like many other things in life, sometimes “less is more.”

Diana, I wish you and your daughter all the best.

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25 Diana August 11, 2014 at 7:28 pm

Thanks for the reply. I expected that answer actually. To be honest with you, I don’t expect the equal competencies in those languages. To the most I expect two native-like fluency, say, in Korean and English. And for the other languages, well, I want her to be able to communicate in them at ease, and to be able to read. When someone says he is fluent in one language that wouldn’t mean he is native-like in that language. Likewise I would say I’m fluent in English but I wouldn’t say I’m like native. So the Spanish and the French for me as well.

There are multilinguals as long as you don’t expect them to have the equal competencies in those languages.

And as you said, those first 3 years of children are so critical in language learning. And also they have unbelievable capacity for that.

When I mentioned that my daughter speaks 4 languages, I didn’t mean she can say few words in multiple languages. She can construct full sentences by herself in all 4, and is in the phase of making generalization for each of the language. Like ‘I maked the cookies.’

And when she listens to the books (she loves books…I have to read to her 2-3 hours a day) those books are honestly beyond the average-native level. Mostly 1 year ahead of the age…Korean and English up to 2 years.

I understand your concern quite well. And I also understand that I chose a hard way. But hopefully I can come back next year (or every year and report you the positive progress…?

Again, thanks for the reply.. ^^

All the best.

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26 Diana August 11, 2014 at 8:32 pm

Ah, and for your information, that Korean girl I mentioned before, her mother speaks Korean, English and German but she didn’t taught her daughter German.

The girl has the native proficiency in Japanese and she won the Chinese and English speaking contest in Korea. And she is accepted by a French school (she had a exam for that) so she will be studying in France soon. She speaks Spanish, too. but I thinks that’s her weakest language so far.

So in average, that’s not bad at all, is it? ^^

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27 Adam August 11, 2014 at 8:59 pm

Well, again, it’s hard for me to comment on this girl’s situation without knowing many more important details about her (including her age) and the circumstances of her upbringing.

In general, though, I would say that we should be cautious about using exceptional cases as models for our own ambitions, especially when we don’t know the essential factors which led to that success.

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28 Diana August 12, 2014 at 1:10 am

She is around 16, I guess. And actually the mother is a famous interpreter, English teacher, writer and lecturer in Korea. Her books about teaching English to their own kids were published in Korea as well as in China. And she is opening her global multilingual education website this year.

Adam. I don’t mean to argue with you. I love your site and writings. But can I ask you a question? Why don’t you teach your children Chinese?

In Korea, it’s very common for the kids to learn English and Chinese from the young age. Actually we Koreans need those languages to survive (to get a job or to get a promotion, to be precise) and in 10 years it will be even more relevant to us being able to speak Chinese. Not for only Koreans, but most of the people around the world, I’m sure.

And what if your kids go to America later? Don’t they need to speak Spanish as well? Can you honestly say your children won’t need those languages?

If these are the things they must learn to speak, why would you wait? You know very well the younger they absorb the better when it comes to the language learning. You don’t have to equally balance all these languages. Just give one minority language fun, enjoyable 20 min of exposure. Don’t you think it will make a difference in 10 years time? The kids may not acquire native-like proficiency in that language. But when they really need that language they can have a jump start. Or along the way they may find that language so attractive they might develop so much more than we expected.

So instead of perfectly equally balanced 2 languages why don’t you go for 2 native languages and 2 more languages they can communicate when you know it’s possible and important for your kids’ life?

I didn’t say it would be easy. But these days..with all these wonderful programs (like Little Pim and Lingo for a starter…) and endless Youtube’s multilingual videos…and with the fact that unlike the past, now you can easily purchase those foreign books online and offline. It’s not a impossible thing, really.

Before you say it’s unlikely to happen, give it a thought, please.

And good luck to you… ^^

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29 Adam August 13, 2014 at 9:46 am

Diana, I appreciate your enthusiasm for language learning, and I’m grateful for the chance to reflect on my children’s upbringing through our exchange, but the issue, I think, is more nuanced than this perspective, which (no offense intended) is naturally limited to the early stage of your bilingual journey.

First, it’s important to point out that my children do not “need” Chinese, Spanish, or any other language besides their main mother tongue, Japanese. We live in Japan, and I expect my children will continue to live here. Ability in additional languages (particularly English) certainly has value, yes, but that’s different from saying these languages are “needed.” It’s a key distinction because more language ability does not necessarily equal a better, happier life. Generally speaking, I would agree that bilingual or multilingual ability can potentially raise the odds of living a happier life, but the truth is, there are still plenty of monolingual people who have led happy lives, and plenty of bilingual or multilingual people who have not.

It could even be argued that “pushing” children to learn beyond a comfortable limit—even if they do become highly skilled in languages or in anything else—is ultimately counterproductive because it undermines their enjoyment of life. I know this is a significant concern in a number of countries, including Korea.

In other words, this is about quality of life, too, not just about language learning, and “success” is measured in an effective balance between the two.

In addition, every family faces certain practical considerations in how they use their limited time and resources. To date, I’ve chosen to invest my time and resources in English because this is my mother tongue and because I believe it’s the most widely useful second language for their future. It doesn’t mean I won’t pursue additional language learning opportunities for them as we move forward, but to me, nurturing native-level ability in English (in all skill areas, which isn’t easy) has been the highest priority. If I had taken away from the finite time and resources I’ve spent on English by also promoting Chinese, for instance, it would inevitably have diluted my efforts, and my children’s progress. (To this point, we’re not able, financially, to hire others as caregivers or tutors to nurture additional languages. If this were possible, I would consider it.)

So, again, “more languages” isn’t necessarily “better,” and, in fact, may not only make it more difficult for the child to achieve higher-level ability in any of them, it could even detract from the child’s quality of life. The important considerations, to my mind, are the timing of the language learning (maybe it would be more effective, over the long term, for the child to acquire a strong second language early on and then learn additional languages later in childhood), the time and resources available to the family, and the child’s enjoyment of the process. Because every family is naturally different, their choices will be different, too, and I respect that, but all parents would be wise to reflect carefully on these key considerations.

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30 Raffaela P. August 12, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Wow… Diane now you got me depressed with all these languages…and very impressed!!! My situation is more like Raira’s…and I am struggling with only one minority language…

Although I am fluent also in French, speaking French to my daughter would not make me feel comfortable. For me teaching English to my daughter is not only teaching a second language but also giving her a part of my heritage.

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31 Madhura August 12, 2014 at 5:21 pm

Hi Adam!

I am Indian and multilingual. In India we have a national language (Hindi) and all education and profession is in English. Plus we have a variety of native languages out of which me and my family (my parents side) speaks one.

I have a 18 month old daughter and have been facing problems teaching her to talk. My parents are her primary caregivers and talk to her in our native language. My husband talks to her in English and Hindi both and I end up talking to her in all 3 languages.

Besides this, she hears another native language which her au pair speaks.

Could this be the reason why she has not started speaking any coherent words yet? My husband is insisting that we speak to her in one language only but I want her to learn her mother tongue and the national language as well.

Confused what is right for her. Could you give me some advice?

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32 Adam August 13, 2014 at 10:40 am

Madhura, I understand your concern, but I don’t think it’s necessary to limit her early exposure to only one language. In fact, based on the circumstances you describe, I’m not sure this is possible, from a practical point of view.

It may be helpful, though, if you and your husband are more consistent in your use of language. Since English will be acquired at school, I’m not sure you need to use this language now. Perhaps your husband could speak only Hindi to your daughter, while you use only your native language—and Hindi becomes the shared language when you and your husband communicate.

In this way, your daughter’s language exposure will become more focused, with your parents and you using your native language, your husband using Hindi, and your au pair using the other native language. (If your au pair knows Hindi, too, perhaps this would be a better choice than this second native language, but I can’t really judge that.)

By being a bit more conscious and strategic about her language exposure, I think your daughter will benefit and should begin speaking your native language, and Hindi, before too long. (Her actual development, though, depends on the quantity and the quality of the exposure she receives.)

Patience is important, too (see Important Thoughts on Babies and Hammers), but if you don’t see progress over the next few months, then you may want to speak with a speech-language professional (see the Hanen Centre website for useful information), preferably someone who has experience working with multilingual families.

Best wishes to you and your family, Madhura!

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33 MK January 16, 2015 at 8:00 pm

Hi Adam

Just stumbled upon your site as I was reading on how to raise bilingual children. I can’t thank you enough for your posts on this subject.

I am a mother of two, trying my best and more to raise bilingual children in England. Both I and my husband talk the same mother tongue.

I was feeling particularly down today as my younger daughter just refused to use the minority language this morning and almost always talks in English.

Your point about the need and necessity is very valid and is one of the most important point on bilingualism, in my experience. My elder daughter is 4 and can easily swap between English and her minority language, the journey hasn’t been easy. But she got to the point where she is confident in both eventually. And the main strategy was the need and necessity.

As I found it quite difficult to get hold of videos or nursery rhymes in my mother tongue, I used to read out the story in the English books in my mother tongue, if that makes sense (this doesn’t work now as my elder daughter now insist that I read the book properly – I don’t get time to read to them individually.)

Now my younger daughter completely resists and refuses using the minority language, as I haven’t had a chance to devote the same sort of time and energy for language skills as I devoted for her sister. She is now two and in my mind, I have exactly one year to work on this (as I think her speech will be established by 3), before English takes over.

Another difference is my elder one always had great concentration, so she would patiently watch the lip and tongue movements and try to repeat, whereas my younger one is always on the go and can’t be stopped even for a short while.

I am quite confident that I can work on my elder daughter’s minority language skills, but frankly, intimidated by how quickly the younger one is picking up English and not the minority language.

As you have two children, have you ever come across the same situation, especially with your younger child? Can you suggest some strategies to deal with this situation?

Last, but never the least, I can relate very well with your post about why you want your children to learn English. It made my eyes well up. Thank you so much.

Cheers,
M

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34 Adam January 17, 2015 at 6:08 am

Thank you for reaching out, M. Our circumstances may be different, but I empathize with the difficulties and frustrations of handing down the mother tongue. It isn’t easy maintaining support for the minority language, in the face of so much majority language exposure, but we can only continue to try, to do our best day by day, knowing that the efforts we sustain will very definitely make a significant difference over time.

So I would first point you to these two posts to help fortify your resolve…

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

Have You Failed at Raising a Bilingual Child?

As for addressing the two “core conditions” of exposure and need, to strengthen the progress of both your daughters, please see…

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

Finally, for additional support, I would encourage you to join our warm, lively community at The Bilingual Zoo—composed of many, many parents just like you—as well as subscribe to my free weekly newsletter, which can serve as a kind of “coach” to keep your level of motivation high, week after week.

I send best wishes from Hiroshima! It may be true that our influence is greatest during the first formative years—so we should certainly do what we can to take advantage of that fact—but it’s also true that we can continue to have a positive influence on our children’s language acquisition throughout childhood. In other words, there’s no “deadline” for bilingualism so just keep going with as much persistence (and playfulness) as you can manage! :mrgreen:

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35 Anett May 27, 2015 at 4:23 am

Hi Adam,

I am so happy to find your website. I have a 22 month old baby girl and I am trying to raise her to become bilingual. We live in Hungary and I am the sole source of the minority language. I speak and read to her in English from day one and since I am a stay at home mom the “project” was working out like a charm. Her minority language was far stronger than the majority language…and then two months ago she started to speak Hungarian and nothing else. I communicate with her in English, read stories to her in English and expose her to English media as before and she clearly understands everything, but she only communicates (all her answers are) in Hungarian. And when I try to pressure her to talk back to me in English (I act like I don’t understand her) she just looks back at me with such a blank expression that I am about to give up. For example we had a favorite picture book and she recognised and knew the images in English, but now all her answers are in Hungarian. I have no idea how to continue from this point; we worked (my baby and me) so hard on this and I know she understands me, I just don’t know how to get her talking. I know that she evidently realised that besides me nobody will have a conversation with her in English and she doesn’t have really “use” for it yet (beside watching Blue’s Clues, Super Simple Songs and Mickey Mouse, and she is not exposed to Hungarian media at all).

Would you please give me some ideas?

Thank you in advance,

Anett

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36 Adam May 27, 2015 at 8:05 am

Anett, I feel your frustration, but please take a big breath: you’re still in the early stages of your journey and my sense is that you’ll experience a lot of success over the larger arc of your daughter’s bilingual development. So keep moving forward, day by day, with as much persistence and playfulness as you can muster.

Because she’s still only 22 months, how much English was she really speaking before she began speaking more Hungarian? How much exposure does she receive to Hungarian? Do you use Hungarian openly in her presence? How do you communicate with your husband? Does he have some English ability? These questions, and more, need to be fully understood, and considered, before the situation can be effectively addressed.

However, I would encourage you to move your concern over to The Bilingual Zoo, my forum. It’s far more efficient to interact there, and you’ll have the advantage of receiving input from many other experienced parents, too. To become a member, just register for an account, complete your “Profile” (follow my instructions in the “welcome message” you’ll receive), and then introduce yourself (at the “Introduce Yourself” board). And please describe the circumstances in full detail, including the questions I raised above. (Membership in this community is free, though an annual contribution, to help support the site, is encouraged.)

Anett, I look forward to seeing you at The Bilingual Zoo!

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37 Dominika July 16, 2015 at 10:18 pm

Hello,

I’m from Poland living in the USA, I have two daughters 2.5 and 6 months, my husband doesn’t speak Polish but only English.

I talk to my children only in my native language from birth of my daughters and despite all my efforts my 2.5 year old won’t speak it to me. She understands fully and puts a few Polish words here and there, but in general she won’t! I’ve been trying so hard to get the Polish influence but I guess it’s not enough. I read to them every day a lot, sing songs, play Polish songs in the car. I can’t seem to find any kids her age or a little older that would speak minority language. There is also no possibility of school either. Is it too late now for her to speak it? I should add she is absolutely advanced in speech. Please help! It is my life goal to have all my children speaking in Polish. :(

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38 Adam July 17, 2015 at 5:26 pm

Dominika, I feel your frustration, but it’s still early so please hang in there! It’s definitely not “too late” for your daughter to speak Polish more actively! In fact, it’s never really “too late” to strengthen and activate a child’s passive knowledge of the minority language.

I encourage you to read these posts closely and consider ways you might be even more proactive, despite the challenges of your situation…

Is It Too Late for My Child to Become Bilingual?

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

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

Dominika, keep in mind that the key to fostering active ability in the minority language is the combination of exposure and need: the child must receive sufficient exposure in the target language and feel a real need to use it. While you may be providing a good amount of exposure (a useful benchmark for most parents is about 25 hours a week), I suspect she doesn’t really feel the need to communicate with you in Polish because she’s well aware that you are proficient in English, too. So, while you should probably seek to strengthen the amount of exposure she receives, the larger issue could be the lack of need she feels. Hopefully, the posts above will offer helpful hints for ways to address this challenge. Again, because your circumstances are working against you, you will need to be especially creative and resourceful.

Take a big breath and keep going, day by day! Your persistent efforts will pay off over time! :mrgreen:

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39 Martina August 24, 2015 at 6:45 am

Hi Adam!
Thank you so much for your wonderful blog. Reading through it has been really helpful already.

I think I’m one of those parents that thought bilingualism would be something that my kids would just pick up from me. Unfortunately, I’ve come to the realisation that that might not be the case.

I’m German and live in the UK with my English husband (who doesn’t speak German) and my two kids 1 and 3 years old. My 3 year old has made me realise that I must try harder to teach them German as I feel he understands pretty much everything I say but doesn’t speak German to his grandparents even after spending two weeks back home.

If I’m alone with the kids (I’m the main caregiver) I always speak German with them but my problem is that all our friends speak English and as soon as my husband is home we also speak English. I know my son doesn’t see the need to speak in German to me as he always sees me communicating in English and I know I can do more to expose him to my language. But I find it difficult to understand how to manage the speaking of the minority and majority language. I cannot avoid speaking English with my husband and friends when they are around. I do try to use German every time I address them directly. Help please, as I want to make sure my son speaks German with me and I still hope I can turn it around and also try harder with my younger son.

Thank you

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40 Adam August 24, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Martina, thank you for the positive feedback. I hope my work will continue to be helpful to your efforts at home.

I understand you can’t avoid using English in these circumstances, but as a first step in putting the odds of success more in your favor, I would encourage you to be as proactive as you can about emphasizing your use of German with the children and “de-emphasizing” your use of English around them, to whatever degree is realistic. The more you’re able to do this now, during their first few formative years, the more they’ll feel a need to use German with you as they become more communicative. (See the post What Language Should I Speak in Public with My Bilingual Child? and the thread Embarrassment over speaking a “foreign language” in public at The Bilingual Zoo.)

At the same time, as you mentioned, you should make more active efforts to provide them with exposure to German, including, if at all possible, “monolingual” settings and situations. For instance, if it’s difficult to get them using German with you, could you find another German speaker in your area (like an international student) to serve as a regular babysitter or playmate for your kids? If you instruct this person never to use English in your children’s presence, then they will assume he or she is monolingual and I suspect they will eventually communicate with this person in German. (Of course, the ideal version of this idea would be a German-speaking au pair.) Once the children are using German with others, this could bleed over to your communication with them, too.

Meanwhile, as you do your best each day to bathe them in German (definitely read aloud to them every day and build up your collection of children’s books and other resources), I would try to take full advantage of the fact that Germany is fairly close to England and make regular trips home a high priority. I know of several other German parents in a similar situation who travel to Germany pretty frequently because of the powerful impact this immersion of language and culture has on their children’s development. I don’t know your circumstances in much detail, but again, it would be worth making this the highest priority you can. (See Bilingual Travelers: Sweet Exposure to Language and Culture in Germany.)

Martina, your children are still small so you certainly can “turn this around” and experience stronger success moving forward. However, it sounds like more conscious and proactive efforts are needed on a daily basis. For further ideas and inspiration, please continue reading through my blog and my forum, perhaps starting with The Essentials page at this site.

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41 Yasmin February 18, 2016 at 3:33 pm

So with my soon to be 5-year-old daughter here is the situation. When she was born all she spoke was Spanish up until she turned 3. That’s when she began to go to school and well you can guess what happened. She stopped speaking Spanish over all! I’m a 1st generation born here in the United States and growing up the rule at home was strictly Spanish and outside just English. Being bilingual has so many benefits and I’m trying for her not to miss out. Yet despite my efforts both her dad and my mom speak to her mainly English! I don’t want her to lose great opportunities in the future but it seems like I’m losing this huge battle! It’s utterly frustrating since the Hispanic culture is so rich with heritage! Any suggestions?

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42 Adam February 19, 2016 at 6:04 am

Yasmin, I feel your frustration. Have you already had a “family meeting” about this important issue with your husband and your mother? If not, I would suggest starting there, and trying to win their support and commitment for making Spanish the home language. This would certainly be the most effective way to address the problem and ensure that your daughter experiences sufficient exposure and need to continue using Spanish actively.

And if your daughter doesn’t respond in Spanish right away (because she’s gotten accustomed to communicating in English with family members), everyone must still persist, patiently and playfully, in using Spanish with her and not simply switching to English. The more your family speaks Spanish on a consistent basis, the more I expect your daughter will gradually resume speaking Spanish more, too. (At the same time, I would encourage you to proactively increase your books and other resources in Spanish, and perhaps put up signs around the house as reminders for your husband and mother to speak only Spanish at home.)

Yasmin, I send my best bilingual wishes to you and your family!

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43 Enrica July 30, 2016 at 8:55 pm

My son is 3,5 yrs old. We are Italians and since he was born we have only been speaking Italian to him. However, his speaking came out quite late and at that time he was already attending a nursery 5 days a week.

Since then his English is coming out fluently but his Italian is very poor. We keep speaking only Italian to him and he keeps answering only in English. I asked him once why he did not want to speak Italian to me and he said: mummy, I can’t!

What am I doing wrong? What sort of approach will be better?

Sometimes I think I should be strict and ignore him if he doesn’t speak Italian. However, I don’t want to make him frustrated.

Any advice?

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44 Adam July 31, 2016 at 6:40 am

Enrica, I understand your concern and I hope I can be of some support. It’s difficult to offer specific advice, though, without knowing the full details of your situation.

Unless there are other issues involved, I suspect that, in fact, what prevents your son from speaking Italian with you isn’t so much his lack of language ability, but his lack of need. The two “core conditions” for fostering active language use are exposure and need, and since it sounds like you’ve given him plenty of exposure to Italian over the past three and a half years, the problem lies in his not feeling a genuine need to speak Italian with you since, after all, he knows you speak English, too, and this has become his more active language because of school.

How does he react in situations where other people (like perhaps grandparents) only speak Italian? Those are the types of situations you need to arrange for him to experience, because then he would be “forced” to use his Italian ability, which I’m sure is just waiting to be activated.

For much more, please see these posts (and the comments below them)…

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

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

A Sneaky Way to Get Bilingual Kids to Use the Minority Language

Enrica, for further support, you would also be welcome to join me and hundreds of other parents at The Bilingual Zoo, my friendly forum for “keepers” of bilingual kids.

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45 Andrew August 17, 2016 at 2:00 am

Hi Adam, I found your website to be a source of inspiration. This is my story: My son is 18 months old. My native language is Hungarian, but I live in an English speaking country. My goal is to teach my son Hungarian, while he also learns English. I am very dedicated to this goal and I invest basically all my free time to make this happen. I only talk to him in Hungarian but my wife and I speak English to each other. My wife speaks to him in English and occasionally she speaks to him in Filipino, which is her native language, though it is heavily mixed with English. My son goes to an English speaking daycare 4 days a week, he spends Fridays with me only and in the weekends we are all together. I spend significantly more time with him as my wife is busy with her work and studies, which gives me hope that my son will learn Hungarian. Based on my calculation, his exposure to Hungarian is around 40-45%, while most is to English and a little exposure Filipino. So far he doesn’t speak more than a handful of words, but he can clearly understand some Hungarian and also some English. He follows basic instructions in Hungarian and can imitate many animal sounds upon request. I do not believe that my son will be able to learn Filipino, because his exposure to it is very limited, and there is no organic need for him to speak it. I have to admit, sometimes it even bothers me that she introduces this language, because I think it unnecessarily complicates his language acquisition. Do you think it hinders his bilingual abilities, that a third language is introduced, although to a very limited extent?

My other concern is that I am essentially his only source for Hungarian. I have many books and I also found a great deal of useful content on youtube. We also spend about an hour every weekend to talk to my parents on Skype to show him that I’m not the only person to speak Hungarian. Yet everyday, when I speak to my wife in English in front of him, I feel like I’m somewhat degrading his organic need to learn Hungarian.

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46 Adam August 17, 2016 at 6:54 am

Andrew, I’m glad to hear my work can be a source of support to your bilingual aim. You would be welcome to join me and hundreds of other parents, too, at my lively forum, The Bilingual Zoo.

First, let me say that I applaud your proactive efforts and I suspect you’ll experience a lot of success over the months and years ahead. Just keep up your playful persistence, day by day.

As for your wife’s use of Filipino, I wouldn’t let this worry you. It doesn’t sound like it will have any significant impact on your son’s acquisition of English and Hungarian, and it’s only natural that, emotionally, your wife would want to communicate with him, at least a bit, in her mother tongue. And if some seeds in Filipino are planted early, they may take root and grow to become a larger part of his life in the future.

And I understand your concern about speaking English in front of your son, that this could potentially undermine his need to use Hungarian with you once he begins speaking more actively. It’s a tricky challenge and I address it in detail in my book. Here’s an excerpt (from pages 118-120) that I hope will be useful food for thought…

“Strategic emphasis”

When the majority language parent doesn’t have ability in the minority language, the default language for communication between the couple is typically the majority language. (Keiko doesn’t speak English well, but her passive ability has enabled me to use the minority language in our communication.)

As I’ve mentioned, this liberal use of the majority language doesn’t necessarily mean that the child won’t develop active ability in the minority language—again, so much depends on a family’s particular circumstances. But I think it’s fair to say that, broadly speaking, when the minority language parent is regularly using the majority language in front of the child during the early, formative years, this will raise the risk of the minority language turning more passive.

So, what to do?

First of all, I think it’s important to stress that every family should not only choose a strategy that will effectively meet their particular set of circumstances, they must carry out that strategy in a way they find realistic and comfortable. For instance, I tend to be rather “extreme” in my approaches, and this is how I would first try the following approach, but I would also adjust the level of “austerity,” as needed, to suit our actual experience.

Let’s call this approach “strategic emphasis”—essentially, an expanded version of how I handled use of the majority language with others during my own children’s earliest years…

1. I would remind myself and my partner that the first few years are crucial, when it comes to “conditioning” the child to use the minority language with the minority language parent, and that we should do everything within our power to nurture that outcome. Once use of the minority tongue takes hold, at around age 3 or 4, it might then be possible, depending on our circumstances at that point, to gradually ease the restrictions of this initial approach.

2. I would be consciously proactive about limiting my use of the majority language in front of the child, to whatever reasonable extent I could. At mealtimes, for instance, my wife and I would each speak to our baby or toddler in our native languages, but make an effort to avoid lengthy exchanges between the two of us in the majority language. Lengthy exchanges in the majority language would take place at other times, when the child is out of earshot. (I realize this isn’t “natural,” but if the higher priority is the child’s language development, then such temporary conditions could well increase the odds of success.)

3. I would also use two very different tones in speaking the two languages. When communicating with the child in the minority language, I would seek to leave a deeper impression by using strong, clear infant-directed speech; when speaking the majority language with my wife, or in front of the child, I would adopt a softer adult voice.

This sort of “strategic emphasis” is a continuum, of course—it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. In my case, I would start at the extreme—because I believe that could have the most beneficial impact—and then I would scale it back to the highest degree of restriction that’s realistic for our lifestyle.

Andrew, I send my best bilingual wishes to you and your family! And I look forward to hearing good news from you as time goes by! :mrgreen:

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47 Tania Markopoulou October 5, 2016 at 7:43 pm

Hi Adam! What an amazing site!!! We have 11 month old twins and I would really like for them to be bilingual (Greek/English). We live in Greece but we are both fluent in English, I have studied English since I was a child, obtained two university degrees and worked in the UK for 8 years. Although I have been reading books and singing songs to them in English since birth I have just started OPOL and I worry whether this change will confuse them. I would really appreciate your opinion on our situation!

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48 Adam October 7, 2016 at 8:34 am

Tania, I hope my work can be a helpful source of support to your success! I just responded to your introduction at The Bilingual Zoo, so please take a peek at my thoughts there!

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