Recently, I’ve gotten several messages related to this question, so I thought I would try sharing my thoughts on the subject and open up the discussion to all of you, through your comments. (If you missed the lively discussion in connection with What Language Should I Speak in Public with My Bilingual Child?, I highly recommend a good look at that page.)
For me, there’s a short answer and a long answer here.
The short answer is…
No, it’s certainly never too late. Your child has the potential to become bilingual at any age.
The long answer is…well, the long answer is a lot more involved.
The “easiest” way
First of all, I should emphasize that the “easiest” way to foster bilingualism is generally by providing ample exposure to the two languages from birth and permitting the inherent power of the child’s brain to naturally turn that exposure into a firm foundation for bilingual ability.
Recent research in The Journal of Neuroscience, as reported by the BBC, seems to reaffirm that the brain has a special window for language development “before the age of four.” If this is roughly the case—and I believe it is—by aligning with nature and being proactive during the child’s earliest years, nature itself will back your efforts and fuel your child’s bilingual growth.
At the same time, let me stress that this “window” certainly doesn’t slam shut after the age of four. A child can become bilingual at any age, but I do suspect that the window is widest during the early years, then closes incrementally as time passes.
The point is, the same efforts will likely yield a more productive result if undertaken while the child is younger, as opposed to older. In fact, I would even argue that it can ultimately take greater efforts at a later age than it would have otherwise if those efforts had begun from birth. This is why starting early is “easier”: working with nature is the “Zen approach” to bilingual parenting.
Let me add that starting early is also a form of “preventive medicine” (as I discuss in What Frustrates Me About Raising Bilingual Children), because the often difficult challenges and choices of fostering bilingualism in later years can then be avoided.
Four basic options
If your child is a bit older, though, and you wish to begin or boost bilingualism, what can you do?
If you haven’t already read What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language, I encourage you to view that post. It discusses, in detail, the two key factors of need and exposure—your child must have some organic need to use the target language as well as sufficient meaningful exposure to that language. It also attempts to provide possible remedies.
Expanding on that post, let me now suggest four basic options for promoting an older child’s bilingual development.
1. Relocate to a new country or region
I’m not kidding. In fact, I heard from a family the other day who have done just that. They were in England, but their concern over their children’s development in French led them to decide to move to a French-speaking part of Switzerland. And the results, in the year since their relocation, have been impressive, with very solid gains in the children’s French.
I realize, of course, that this more dramatic option isn’t possible for everyone, but if it’s feasible—and if the bilingual goal is deeply important to you—then such a move could make all the difference in your child’s language development.
2. Send your child to a minority language school
Again, this option may not be available to you, because of cost or location, but schooling in the minority language is a highly effective way of increasing both need and exposure, and elevating a child’s language level.
Over the years I’ve worked with many bilingual children who attend Hiroshima International School—first as a teacher and now as a private tutor—and the success rate, in terms of their eventual bilingual proficiency (though naturally at varying levels), is 100%.
3. Change your work situation
More than a few parents have changed their work situation so they could increase the amount of time—and the amount of exposure to the minority language—that they give their children.
In my case, the newspaper company I work for downsized my position into a work-from-home role when my kids were smaller, saving me from having to make this decision myself. But the truth is, I would have eventually headed in this direction, anyway, because my work hours there, and my bilingual goal for my children, just didn’t match. The fact that I work from home, and can spend chunks of time with my children each day, is a huge blessing when it comes to supporting their minority language.
4. Pursue a major “intervention”
This final option involves rethinking and remaking your life as a family. In order to foster active bilingual ability, the child’s need for the minority language, and exposure to that language, must become among your highest priorities. There has to be a rock-solid commitment to your bilingual goal, which translates into conscious, proactive efforts to reshape your daily lifestyle and home environment.
The actual changes required will naturally depend on the particular circumstances and greater aims of each family, but these actions could include such things as: spending more time with the child, reading and interacting; building up your home library; establishing a homework routine; hiring babysitters or tutors; enrolling in lessons or clubs; and arranging trips abroad. (Again, see What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language, as well as 96 Things You Can Do Today to Boost Your Child’s Bilingual Ability.)
It’s always possible
Beginning or boosting bilingualism, after the majority language has gotten a large head start, can be a significant challenge, demanding considerable sacrifice and effort from the family, but it’s always, always possible.
It’s true, of course, that some families must contend with more difficult circumstances than others, but gradual progress can be made even in the toughest situation if there is one thing: undying determination to address the obstacles to the best of your ability.
Thanks for the post Adam. I’ve met a few people through my website recently who for one reason or another didn’t expose their child to Czech from birth and now regret it. They feel awful when they go back home and their kids can’t communicate with the other members of the family. That’s when they start to wonder if something can be done. Your point 4 is always my advice – I’m glad I haven’t been telling them rubbish 🙂 It’s just common sense, I guess.
Jana, yes, I’m afraid the regret you describe is all too common for many parents. This is why I persistently advocate starting strong, right from birth, if fostering bilingual ability is an important goal for the future. As I stress in Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child…
Hi I am Jun from Korea.
I am a father of 3 and trying to raise my kids bilingual. This is a great resource for me.
Is it possible to interview you for 20 mins.? I just started podcast and it would be honor that if you join as a guest.
Jun, welcome! I’m glad Bilingual Monkeys will be useful to your efforts at home. Best of luck with your bilingual journey, and with your fun-looking site! (Your kids are very cute!)
About an interview, could you please contact me directly, by email, with further details? Thanks!
I’m a mother of 4 boys, aged 15, 13, 6 & 4. I am raising my children to be bilingual in my mother tongue, Finnish, whilst my husband is speaking to the boys in English. We lived in the UK until 2 years ago and because of misguided advice by an English speech therapist, I stopped speaking to my older boys in Finnish when they were 4 & 2. It’s a decision I’ve regretted since and when my younger sons were born, I was determined to speak only in Finnish. And I did. 2 years ago we made a decision to move to Finland and since then, 3/4 boys are now bilingual in Finnish and English. Unfortunately my oldest has learning difficulties, so his learning is slow. But my now 13y boy didn’t speak any Finnish before coming here, and in a year, he was integrated into a mainstream Finnish school. So learning at an older age is possible. My younger ones were in more advantaged position having always heard me speak to them in Finnish and being very young when we came here.
I love your articles and find inspiration from them! Thank you!
Johanna, thank you for your comment and your kind words. I’m sorry about the early difficulty on your journey, but it sounds like you’ve gone on to achieve considerable success. Good for you! I think your example can serve as an inspiration to others.
By the way, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but I wrote a post about my mother because her family is Finnish and, in fact, she grew up speaking both Finnish and English—and then lost much of her Finnish ability as she grew older. Growing up in the United States, I never learned more than a few “bad words” of Finnish myself!
“I Spoke Both Finnish and English”: I Interview My Mother on Her Bilingual Childhood
Interesting post! I am certainly one of those parents feeling guilty. Now my daughter will soon turn 11yrs and I realize it may be too late. I started speaking the minority language to her almost a year ago but with many problems all caused by my lack of time and her not willing to speak another language. Unfortunately I spend 13 hours a day far from home and when I get home we are all too tired to speak the minority language. So my efforts are all concentrated on holidays. We have improved but…we worked so hard and did not go that far.
Your points from 1 to 3 are just not applicable to me unfortunately. I do not even have access to bilingual school from where we are. That leaves me down to number 4. The problem I am facing, besides the lack of time due to my work and my daughter’s school and activities, is that the only exposure to the minority language she has is with me. Luckily this summer for the first time they made an English camp and she really enjoyed it. The problem is that with small kids you can start with games, songs, lullaby, but with an 11yrs old it is more difficult. I find it hard to find something she will enjoy and at the same time she understands. I am a bit demotivated…but not ready to give up.
Raffaela, I understand your feelings, but I think it’s important that you first draw a distinction between the two general types of bilingual development. Yes, it’s “too late” to achieve simultaneous bilingualism (where the two languages are acquired from birth or early on), but it certainly isn’t “too late” for your daughter to learn a second language through the process of successive (or sequential) bilingualism (where the second language is gained after the first language has already been acquired).
At the same time, your aims and expectations must match the amount of exposure your daughter receives in the minority language. In other words, hoping that she will make the sort of progress you’d prefer (and feeling guilty that this isn’t being achieved), when her exposure to the minority language is insufficient, is unrealistic and self-defeating.
If you’re unable to reshape your circumstances to increase this exposure, then maybe the best you can do, at this point, would be: 1) resetting your aims and expectations to the achievable goal of successive bilingualism, which could be realized as she gets older and studies English in school; and 2) supporting this process by providing as much enjoyable language exposure as possible so she will come to have positive feelings toward English and will be motivated to study hard as a teenager and beyond. (See 96 Things You Can Do Today to Boost Your Child’s Bilingual Ability for ideas.)
Raffaela, your dream of fostering bilingual ability in your daughter is still very possible—it just needs to be viewed realistically, and without regret, so you can move forward from here as positively and proactively as you’re able.
Adam, thanks for your comment. And thank you for the ideas/thoughts you share with us in Bilingual Monkeys. My daughter was bilingual till the age of 3, then due to a set of circumstances (my going back to a full time job, her going to Italian schools, etc.) I stopped speaking English to her. And this is where we are now. I understand that in our case it will never be a real bilingualism, but hopefully something more than a second language, I am aiming for fluency. Too much…you think?? Now that there is not school we are really working hard on it. In September I am planning to take her to London…maybe she will fall in love with the language. Any suggestions??
Raffaela, you have the right spirit and you’re making the right efforts. (Spending time in London together will be wonderful for her, I’m sure. Have fun!) I wouldn’t worry, though, about labels like “real bilingualism.” Just keep going, day by day, and know that all the progress she makes in her English ability will indeed be “real.” All the best to you and your daughter!
🙂 thanks. I will keep you updated.
What would be your thoughts on me switching to English now that we are here in Finland? I do speak English with my husband and both my older boys. It feels natural. But I’ve noticed lately that I keep mixing Finnish with English with my little ones. They speak Finnish now (they are in the nursery every day for 6-8h) fluently, but I worry about them not using English that much and getting a (horrid Finnish) accent, plus from my point, I’ve started losing my fluency rapidly, only having my family to talk to in the evenings after work.
Do you think it would be a bad idea to switch my language now to the minority language or is it just better to continue with Finnish. Or should I just carry on with my mixed language?
Any advice from anyone, in similar situation or just opinions/thoughts are appreciated!
Johanna, if you feel that the balance between the two languages has now shifted, and that your two younger boys (and you, too!) would benefit more if you spoke English to them, then this could be an effective change. At the same time, you’ll naturally want to consider their feelings by discussing such a change with them and easing into it gradually, perhaps, while monitoring their reaction. After all, if they’re accustomed to communicating with you in Finnish, then the switch to English could be an emotional shock to the relationship. So, yes, it might now make sense to establish English as the “home language” for all, but be sure to handle the switch sensitively. Good luck!
My 27-month-old has been exposed to the minority language (Portuguese) around 12 hours a week (nursery rhymes, tv shows, books, skype with my parents back in Brazil). However, I would only speak English to her since birth. Her dad can only speak English, so I believe that is why I just decided to use English. I started speaking Portuguese only to her this week and even though she replies in English, she seems to understand pretty much everything I say. If I stick to speaking my mother tongue only (Portuguese), do you believe she will eventually switch her replies to Portuguese? Or is it too late?
Fabiana, it’s difficult to predict what exactly will happen—a lot depends on the child’s personality and other factors which I don’t know in detail—but I can tell you that you will certainly raise the odds of getting her to use Portuguese with you if you’re persistent about using it with her and if you continue to seek out additional opportunities to expose her to Portuguese. In particular, if you can create opportunities which will activate her need to use the language (caregivers who don’t speak English, or can pretend that they don’t; trips to Brazil; etc.), this will help advance your efforts significantly and will hopefully lead to her using Portuguese more actively with you, too.
A couple of strategies you might try would be the “rule” where it’s fine for her to respond to you in English, but when she has a request (when she wants something), her first attempt must be in Portuguese. And, for a more playful approach (though this might work better when she’s a bit older), you could encourage her use of Portuguese with the activity described in A Sneaky Way to Get Bilingual Kids to Use the Minority Language.
Finally, for further perspective, and inspiration, I recommend reading the post Have You Failed at Raising a Bilingual Child?
Fabiana, best of luck! Be as proactive as possible (while staying playful and patient), and I expect you’ll see positive progress over time.
Hi, I’m considering moving my eight-year-old daughter from an English-speaking school to a Gaelic-speaking school. We lived in Spain until she was 3 and she spoke mainly Spanish and has retained a lot of it as she went to daycare from age 6 months. When we returned to Ireland (age 3), she started mainstream English school but I really want her to be bilingual but I’m not sure if age 8 is too late. What are your thoughts from your experience?
Briege, as a teacher at Hiroshima International School, I worked with many children who came to my classroom without any ability in the school’s language (English), but steadily acquired it as time went by. It’s true, this transition is generally easier when the child is younger, but age 8 is still fairly young so, as long as you and your daughter are prepared to be persistent and patient with her acquisition of Gaelic, then I expect she can successfully become bilingual over the next few years. I wish you both all the best!
Hi, let me start off by telling you how much I love your website. I have a son who just turned 4 in January. His father and I both are first generation Mexican-Americans that speak both English and Spanish fluently.
Through the years many of our family members learned English well but speak mostly Spanish. My issue is this, my son understands everything in Spanish but responds in English or sometimes Spanglish (one word or 2 in Spanish and the rest in English) I’m having trouble with him speaking Spanish. It doesn’t help when I have to remind family to stop talking to him in English.
I recently started watching more TV in Spanish, listening to music in Spanish and reading books in Spanish. I’m looking for an activity to put him in also. I’m terrified that he will forget the little Spanish he knows when he starts Pre-K this August. Its only 3 hours a day but still.
Please any tips??
Thank you so much
Karina, I’m happy to hear you’re enjoying my site and I hope it will continue to be a source of support to you on your bilingual journey. I also invite you to join me and many other parents at The Bilingual Zoo, a great community for “keepers” of bilingual kids.
First off, it isn’t clear to me how you and your husband have been using the two languages with your son. If you’re both bilingual, and yet your son’s ability in Spanish is more passive than active, I suspect Spanish hasn’t been used consistently with him. If that’s the case, my best suggestion would be to move toward emphasizing Spanish as the family’s main means of communication. Doing this retroactively is now more difficult, I’m afraid, because instead of “conditioning” your son to use Spanish with you (as would have happened if you and your husband had persistently pursued the “minority language at home” approach from the start), he has learned that he can communicate with you in English. At this point, he feels no organic need to use Spanish with you, and along with exposure, need is one of the two “core conditions” for fostering active language ability.
Please take a close look at the post What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language for much more on exposure and need. Especially with schooling in English on the horizon, activating his passive ability in Spanish could become even more challenging. I don’t know where you live, but I would encourage you to be as proactive and resourceful as possible about not only reshaping the circumstances of your home environment, but seeking more opportunities for your son to experience monolingual Spanish settings and situations outside the home, too. (They don’t actually need to be monolingual, but your son must assume they are so he doesn’t quickly rely on using English.)
I can’t predict, of course, how his Spanish will develop from here, but I can tell you that you’ll surely achieve greater success if you make Spanish the highest priority you can, and put as much effort and resources toward this goal as possible, day after day.
Karina, you do it! And I’m cheering for you!
For those who are worried it might be too late, I offer this encouragement: my mother grew up not speaking English, and only learning some in school. But due to family circumstances, she began using it daily since the ripe old age of 30, and she is now comfortably fluent, to the point where English is the heart language she uses with my siblings and I.
Thank you for adding this dose of encouragement!
First of all, I want you to know that your book Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability is so empowering and it is helping me to have hope again that my daughter will one day speak with me in my native language, Brazilian Portuguese.
We live in the United States. My husband is from California and doesn’t speak any Portuguese. I spoke only in Portuguese with my daughter until she was 2 years old, when she started talking. At that point, she started to be very resistant to my speaking Portuguese to her, she would cry and be very upset. My husband was afraid that I would limit her ability to develop her mother language skills by speaking to her in Portuguese. Sadly I started to speak to her in English only.
Recently I have made a decision to teach her Portuguese no matter how difficult my journey will be. I want her to be able to go to Brazil and communicate with my family and friends.
We have a formal daily homework every single day for about one hour. It involves games, music, dancing, reading and writing, pronunciation, flash cards. I feel in my heart that the only way for my daughter to learn and speak my language is for me to speak to her in Portuguese only all the time. The problem is that her vocabulary is not big enough for her to understand me. She is so resistant, she cries and says that she can’t understand me at all.
I would love to have your advice here. My family is coming to visit us in 3 months and I want my daughter to be able to speak Portuguese at least a little bit with my family.
Thank you so much for your help.
Priscila, I feel for your frustration and empathize with your deep desire that your daughter learn your native language. I’m really glad to hear that my book has been a source of encouragement and I want you to know that you can count on my support moving forward.
It’s not clear to me how old your daughter is now, or what her Portuguese level is like at this point, but I think your daily homework routine is a productive way of providing regular language exposure and advancing her ability. While it’s important to be firm about maintaining such routines, I encourage you to make this time together as fun and playful as possible, with resources and activities that she finds appealing, in order to sustain her engagement and nurture her positive feelings for Portuguese.
At the same time, the more you can use Portuguese with her in your daily interactions, while controlling the complexity of the language so it will be (mostly) comprehensible for her current level, the more this will fortify her input and her progress. In this connection, you might look at a guest post that has been popular among parents facing similar circumstances: If At First You Don’t Succeed, You May Be the Minority Language Parent
I also suggest that you connect with a couple of Portuguese speakers I know, mothers in the U.S. like yourself who are raising their children with Portuguese as the minority language. I think speaking to these two women would be very informative and inspiring. Just email me directly about this and I can help put you in contact with them. They’re both very nice and very helpful.
At the same time, I warmly invite you to join me and hundreds of other parents at The Bilingual Zoo, my lively forum for “keepers” of bilingual kids. It’s a really supportive community and such boards as Track Your Progress and Take a Challenge could help empower your efforts and your daughter’s progress.
Actually, one of the challenges there is Travel to Your Minority Language Community. I know you mentioned that your family will be visiting in a few months, but I’m wondering how often you’re able to take your daughter to Brazil? Combined with your efforts at home, regular trips to Brazil, for as long as realistically possible, could make a profound difference to her language (and cultural) development.
Priscila, I hope these initial thoughts are helpful. I look forward to hearing from you by email.
A very sore subject for me. I am half English/half Spanish and grew up speaking both from babyhood. Spanish enriched my life. When I had my own child, my English-speaking partner and I communicated in English, although I did try to teach my baby Spanish I was floored by exhaustion, depression, then long hours when I found employment. I always seemed to revert back to English. Then my daughter started to get angry when I spoke to her in Spanish as she couldn’t understand what I was doing. It was not enjoyable for either of us. She is 11 now and I get repeated judgemental comments and astonished questioning from bilingual families. Yes, I KNOW the disadvantages of what has happened and don’t need anyone to point it out. I would say to your readers: please, please do not be judgemental and negative about families who did not turn out successfully bilingual. Believe me, at least one of the parents is feeling the pain of the failure and I was even in tears today after another such encounter yesterday with a ‘friend’ whose daughter speaks two and a half languages. We have no schools nearby and I am continuously trying to rectify the situation (we have always had books, music, and repeated attempts at home lessons). Best wishes to second generation parents who are struggling! And thank you for this website.
Ana, thank you for posting this heartfelt comment. I sympathize with your feelings, often an unspoken pain for many parents, and I hope this response will be of some encouragement to you and to others in a similar situation.
First, while I understand your frustration over the past, I urge you to let go of what has been and now focus more fully on what still can be. Although your daughter did not become a simultaneous bilingual from an early age—developing both English and Spanish at the same time—it’s still very possible for her to become a sequential bilingual, adding ability in Spanish to her ability in English over the months and years ahead. The fact is, she’s still only 11 and the world is full of people who became bilingual at that age and well beyond it. So it’s important to recognize (as I stress in Have You Failed at Raising a Bilingual Child?) that the only way to really “fail” at raising a bilingual child is to give up entirely. As long as you persist, as proactively (and playfully!) as you’re able, you and your daughter (who I suspect already has some level of Spanish ability) will surely continue to make steady progress and gradually experience growing success on this renewed path of sequential bilingualism.
Toward that end, I think my forum, with its hundreds of friendly, supportive members of all types of family backgrounds (including backgrounds like yours) could be a really strong source of encouragement. The Bilingual Zoo is free and you’re warmly invited to join us. Boards like Take a Challenge and Track Your Progress might be very helpful for fortifying your daily efforts and strengthening your long-term progress.
Ana, I hope this initial response is helpful to you and I hope my work can continue to be a source of support for greater success and joy on your bilingual journey. I’m cheering for you!
I am American (main caregiver) and my husband is Mexican. My almost 4 year old son understands Spanish but will not speak it except for a few words. We live in the US but I am in Mexico right now for the entire summer. I enrolled my son in preschool here and I will let you know how it goes. ha ha It isn’t a bilingual school and have asked his teacher not to speak English to him. I am creating his need! Thank you.
Laura, this sounds like an ideal opportunity to help activate your son’s passive ability in Spanish! Yes, the more you can immerse him in settings and situations where he must use Spanish to communicate with other children and adults, the more success you’ll likely experience. At first, of course, he may resist, but by the end of the summer, I expect your little boy will be chattering away in Spanish quite happily! Your next challenge will then be maintaining this positive momentum once you return to the U.S. But first things first, and I look forward to hearing how things go in Mexico!
Hello, thank you for your article and reassuring me that I didn’t fail my kids. I am German, my husband Scottish, but we met in Sweden. My sons are 2 and 4 and both were born in Sweden. We then decided to move to Scotland because we missed family around us. My now 4yo speaks perfectly English and understands German but doesn’t reply in German at all. I blame myself for it because I started reading books in English to him too and exposed him very little to my language apart from me talking to him. Even my parents speak English.
We now will move back to Sweden and he will be exposed to a third language. And I am so scared what will happen language wise. He will go to a Swedish-English nursery but I’m sure it will affect his German even more. Since we’re planning to stay for longer of course I want him to learn Swedish…in Stockholm is a German nursery and school but so far from our work and home that it will be almost impossible to get him there. What are your thoughts on my situation? I started the rule: only German books and when screen time then in German.
Katharina, I understand your concerns. Your circumstances sound challenging, but your children are still small and if you can commit to being as proactive as possible from day to day, to provide them with exposure to German, then you can certainly experience a lot of satisfying progress over the months and years ahead. (I also encourage you to make return visits to Germany as often as you realistically can.)
I also recommend that you join me and hundreds of other parents, just like you, at my forum, The Bilingual Zoo. (It’s free.) It’s a really lively, really supportive community and it could be an empowering source of ongoing support for your bilingual (multilingual) journey.
Hope to see you there! Stay strong! And stay (playfully) persistent!