Parents Raising Questions about Bilingual Children


Rita RosenbackBy Rita Rosenback

It is a big responsibility to raise a child and as parents we have all been in situations where we would have loved for someone to advise us on the best way forward. Adding one more language to the mix does not make the process any easier. Below are some of the common questions parents raising bilingual children have.

What is the best way to bring up a bilingual child?

Every family is different, so there isn’t one best way that would be the right one for all parents. The most popular approach is perhaps the ‘One parent, one language’ strategy (often referred to as OPOL), where the children learn one language from the mother and a different one from the father. However, especially for a migrant family, I find that the ‘Minority language at home’ strategy (ML@H) is probably the most effective one: both parents speak the family language and the child learns the majority language from the environment (TV, friends, other children) or by the latest at nursery or school. The third strategy is called ‘Time and place’ (T&P), which means that the parents use different languages depending on, for example, which day it is: one language is spoken during the week and another during the weekend. The easiest strategy to implement is the ‘Minority language at home’ and ‘Time and place’ probably requires the most commitment from the parents.

My husband and I are both bilingual and we switch between the two languages when we speak to each other and our baby daughter. Lately we are speaking more and more English at home. We want our daughter to become bilingual as well – will she automatically learn both languages?

Your daughter will of course learn English and, depending on how much you speak of your other language, also learn to at least understand that language. Whether or not she will speak it depends on if she feels a need to do so. If she regularly interacts with other speakers of the language who expect her to speak the language, then she may well grow up to be fluent on both languages. Research has however shown that in bilingual families where the parents readily switch to the majority language when speaking to their children, the children are more likely to stop speaking the minority language. Typically this happens when the children go to nursery or school and spend more time in a majority language environment.

I would like my son to learn my parents’ language, but I feel a bit rusty myself. Can I still do it?

Yes, you can. As long as you make sure that your son also interacts with other speakers of the language – which I presume he will do with your parents and other relatives – he will become fluent in it. Even if you were to use the odd incorrect phrase or word form and he may initially pick these up from you, he will correct himself when he hears the correct version from others. What you will find is that your own skills will improve alongside his and soon enough he might be using words you had forgotten.

Isn’t it confusing for a child hearing two languages at the same time growing up? Wouldn’t it be better to wait until the child knows one language properly first, then introduce the second one?

The answer to both questions is ‘No’. Children have an amazing capability of picking up languages at an early age. The earlier, the better is the mantra when it comes to bringing up bilingual children, so I wouldn’t recommend any family to wait with the second language. Another reason not to wait is that it is not easy to change a language pattern in a family once it has been established – I have had personal experience of this situation, so I know how hard it is!

We have just moved to the UK and we have been told by our son’s primary school teacher that we should stop speaking our language with him and only speak English. What to do?

Unfortunately, parents are still given this incorrect piece of advice. I can see the teacher’s point of view, especially if there are many children in the class with English as the second language, but changing the home language is not the way to support your son. The move has brought with it enough of changes in your life, so changing something so fundamental as the language you use with each other is not a good idea. Also, if you stop using your language with him, he may become what is called a ‘receptive bilingual’, which means that he understands but doesn’t speak the language. Research has shown that children with a solid knowledge in their home language more easily learn English, or any other language. What you can do to support your son’s English is to watch quality children’s programs in English together and let him play with English-speaking children in his free time.

My 4-year-old daughter is learning two languages: one at home and the other at nursery. She is now mixing the two – should we be worried?

No need to worry. Most bilingual children at some point mix their languages. She will soon learn to separate between the two and use the correct language with the right person. Grown-up bilinguals also mix their languages when they speak to other bilinguals who know the same set of languages. This is called ‘code-switching’ and has its own strict rules.

My husband does not understand my family’s language but I would like to teach it to our daughter. How can I go about this without him feeling left out?

First of all, discuss this with your husband – how does he feel about the situation? If you discuss and agree that you want your children to grow up learning both languages, then he may well be okay with not understanding everything. Also, children do not learn a language overnight, so he will have time to adjust to the situation, and initially he will understand most of what is said from the context anyway. Perhaps he could try to learn a bit of your language as well? If he is uncomfortable with the thought of now knowing what is said when he is present, I suggest that you translate whenever necessary. Don’t let the languages become a cause for disagreements in the family.

My parents-in-law do not agree with our decision to raise our son to speak my family’s language. I don’t want to offend them, but also don’t want to give up on my language – what to do?

It is your and your husband’s decision whether or not to bring up your son to speak both languages, no one else’s. What do you think may lay behind the parent-in-laws’ opinion? Are they perhaps worried that they won’t understand him? Explain to them that this is exactly what you want to avoid by choosing to pass on both languages – his maternal grandparents will be able to communicate with him in their native language. How would they feel if you did go for one language only, and the language you chose was not the language they speak? Whatever their concerns are, they will soon be forgotten when your son happily babbles away in both languages.