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Raising bilingual children

I came across an article for how to raise bilingual children. I'm sure there is more than one way, but I was curious about your thoughts on this article's suggestions.

1./There is an important association: one parent, one language.

2./Talk constantly, describe what you do, what is happening around you, comment on there actions and name their feelings.

3./ Sing!

4./ Use creative grammar!

5./ Read a lot of books. Every day

6./ As soon as they start talking, respond to their requests and questions only if expressed in your language.

7./ Make them repeat after you and give them ready to use phrases.

8./ Establish a clear rule on watching children’s show at home: only in the language that needs improvement.

9./ Let your child listen to real conversations.

10./ Engage in as many social situations possible.

Read the full article

September 17, 2015



I've heard the one parent, one language thing a lot, and I'm sure it's what works best for some children, but the rationale for it is supposed to be "so that the child doesn't get confused," and all I can say is, when I was growing up with bilingual family members and was myself bilingual, I was never remotely "confused." Mom spoke English, understood Spanish. Dad was monolingual (English only). Tía spoke English and Spanish. So did tío, so did cousins. Abuela spoke only Spanish. I could tell you this, in English or Spanish, pretty much from the time I could speak.... it was just how my family was. I don't recall ever "accidentally" trying to have a conversation with my dad in Spanish or my abuela in English... it didn't happen... and with everyone else, I just used whatever language came to mind or was most appropriate.

I'd be willing to give the "one parent, one language" thing a try with my own kids, but I don't think language confusion is as big of a thing as the people who study it seem to believe it is. Sure, I occasionally said "azul" when I meant blue and vice versa, but it wasn't because I was confused about which language was which, or which one to use... where a monolingual English speaker might say, "Oh gosh, what's that color... the color of the sky, and the water, and.... blue! Man, I don't know why I couldn't think of that," Someone who knows many languages might instead say "Oh gosh, what's that color... the color of the sky, and the water, and... it's azul in Spanish, gorm in Irish, argh, what's the English word - blue! Man, I don't know why I couldn't think of that."

In neither case is the person confused about the word they need... it's just that multilingual people have other, equivalent words to plug into that gap when their memory fails.


From what I've heard confusion isn't a big issue-- they might mix up some vocabulary when they're very young, but it sorts itself out. The biggest concern I know of is when the parents each have a different native language, in which case keeping them separate would prevent the child from learning anything incorrectly.


Actually, I think the article linked in the original post provides the best reason for the "one parent, one language" theory, and for some reason I'd never heard this reason before reading that post.... "one parent, one language" provides incentive for the child to use both languages. That, I agree with completely - I lost my Spanish when I moved away from my Spanish speaking relatives and simply didn't have anyone to speak it with anymore. (Pre-internet days, when long-distance phone calls were very expensive.) My written Spanish stayed pretty passable because I wrote letters to them - but my spoken Spanish, not so much! So I can get behind the idea that if you converse with one parent in language A and one in language B, both A and B are being used regularly and you're more likely to keep both languages in good working shape.

The thing is, though, one could accomplish the same thing by dividing up the languages almost any other way - ask any child who speaks Spanish or French with family and English at school (or vice versa). Or you could speak language A with your child/children in the morning and language B in the evening. When I was quite small, I had a friend who spoke English (native), Spanish (heritage speaker), Hebrew and Japanese. How did he learn the second two? Six hours of Japanese school on Saturdays, six hours of Hebrew school on Sundays. Not how I'd raise my five year old, but he did fine, and learned all four to an astonishing degree of fluency by the time we were around ten.

So, it seems to me, as a non-expert but one who was bilingual and am now not functionally so, that the issue is much more "use it or lose it" than "one parent must always speak one language to the child because if they dare to speak multiple languages to the child, bad things will happen," which is how the "one parent, one language" argument is often presented.

Of course, as FazendaLondrina points out, every child is different, so I don't doubt that some children would be confused by one parent speaking more than one language to them, and that some children might indeed learn things incorrectly as a result... but given the very large number of multilingual children on the planet who manage just fine, I strongly suspect that in most cases, it's "opportunity to use all languages (more or less) equally" that makes the real difference.


Mm, I could see that too. My mom grew up hearing her parents speak Swiss German, but for a long time they didn't even know that she could understand them, so she never learned to speak it well. Use it or lose it is definitely true for everyone and all languages, but I also kind of doubt that it's the most common problem with anyone that might care to read an article on how to raise bilingual children :D I've also heard of dividing it up by time rather than parent like you mentioned, which (as someone who has virtually no personal experience with this kind of thing!) I think seems like a great idea, and maybe better socially (again, no personal experience). And of course, everyone is different.

Sometimes I interpret for the deaf son of a couple friends of mine, and just in the last month it's amazing how much his siblings have picked up (from home, not me). I was floored recently when their daughter came up to me and started a conversation completely silently-- that used to be impossible! Their rule has always been, "You can talk, but you have to sign," but recently the mom said something about setting aside a "signing hour;" that might have something to do with it :)


This is really interesting! My parents are bilingual but never did this with me...I wish they did.


Go! You are doing it yourself :)


One thing I would say is don't make it stressful for the child. The child needs to enjoy learning the language. If you force them to speak in a language they don't prefer, they will resent it and may drop it as soon as they can.

Word games are fun. My daughter made a connection between the sound of Schaf (sheep) and Saft (juice). One day she said "Orangenschaf" instead of Orangensaft (orange juice). I looked at her and said "Orange sheep?). She replied "Ja, aber nur die Fuße." (Yes, but only the feet.) She was 4 at the time and was just beginning to learn German.

Reading is also very important. It builds the vocabulary faster than just talking and exposes you to the structure of the language. I have been reading to my daughter for at least 30 minutes every day since she was born. She has been able to read since the age of 3. She is now 6 and can read both English and German. I still read with her every night and she corrects my German pronunciation when I make a mistake.


I have four bilingual children. In my experience: - a child will usually speak/understand the language of their main carer. - a child will usually speak the language that is spoken at home or between the parents. So if the main carer speaks a different language than the one they speak at home, it will be less likely for the child to speak that language in response to questions, even when they fully understand it. As soon as they come across a family member that only speaks that language they will start speaking it without a problem. This will be especially noticable if the language spoken at home is the same as the language spoken at school/or in the country they live in and different from the language of their main carer. - IT FULLY DEPENDS ON THE CHILD!

So many people came to us with the right and wrong way to raise bilingual children, I was told never to switch or to have one parent one language. The problem with that, is that my husband and I speak English to each other. Portuguese will never be our natural exchange, I doubt this would ever change. For him to switch to Portuguese each time he spoke to the children was very hard. When you have one toddler or even one child you can be much clearer on the one language, one parent rule and not beat yourself up when you slip up. But try adding a school aged child to the mix! Things get a lot more complicated when you add three more children to the mix!. When you have other people in your house, or when your children bring friends home it can get even more difficult to speak in your own language.

I think the article is great and it is a great example of how to get children to speak generally. But I am very reluctant to believe the idea that switching languages confuses children. I think all children learn in their own way, at their own pace and no two children will produce the same results, but they are natural language sponges and they will naturally learn what they are exposed to. There are so many more factors than simply a right way. When I say it depends on the child, it really does. My nearly three year old and my nine year old can switch between English and Portuguese at the drop of a hat. I have never heard my five year old speaking Portuguese because he simply will not do it in front of us, ever. My 12 year old is some where between the two.


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Berlitz From above: Berlitz was born in New York City. He was the grandson of Maximilien (Maximilian) Berlitz, who founded the Berlitz Language Schools. As a child, Charles was raised in a household in which (by his father's orders) every relative and servant spoke to Charles in a different language: he reached adolescence speaking eight languages fluently. In adulthood, he recalled having had the childhood delusion that every human being spoke a different language, and wondering why he did not have his own language like everyone else in his household. His father spoke to him in German, his grandfather in Russian, his nanny in Spanish.


I think that a kid might dislike some of these suggestions... such as restricting the shows that they can watch to certain languages, but otherwise, many of these are good ideas.

My kids are both at the moment monoglots, but they are being exposed to various languages and can recognize basic words in several languages. A few weeks ago, my daughter and I had a conversation in six languages (English, German, Spanish, Russian, French, and ASL). It was basically us saying "yes" "no" "yes" "no" back and forth, but it's a start.

My kids both use Duolingo. My boy is learning Spanish, my girl is learning French. I'm learning French so I can speak to her (my husband knows some French as well). I am farther along the tree than her, as I've been using this break between finishing the German tree and the arrival of Russian to work on French.

I often speak to them in a foreign language. Sometimes it's the language they're studying, sometimes it's not. Sometimes I'll use two languages in the same sentence (when my daughter goes to bed I remind her to "feed le poisson").

If we're here on Duolingo, there's always something that we can do to bring more usage of foreign languages into our children's lives. Not only is it good for them, it's good practice for us.


Before my best friend moved out of state, we used to meet several times a week and converse in a mixture of English, Japanese, and Spanish. Not worrying that I had to produce a specific language ended up really helping me advance. I think it's wonderful that you've been making language learning a connecting point for the whole family.


My best friend in junior high had the same first-year French class that I did, and when she came over I used to have such exciting events planned: we would sit in my room and describe the posters on my wall in French, then sing the French song we had learned that week, then make flash cards and go over vocab. Seriously, I was always "let's do French!" and she was always "let's go downtown and shop for shoes!", but she was a good sport about it and she actually still speaks to me now, 40 years later (and, she has admitted that she's a bit jealous that I stuck with French and got pretty good at it).


I truly envy the luck some kids have. My neighbor's kids speak 4 languages (7 and 9. Their mother is Polish, their father is French, yet when they are together they speak English, and because they go to a Dutch school, they speak Duch as well. It's quite amazing to see how easily they switch. One day, I walking in on the big one talking to his mother in Polish, but as soon as his father arrived, she instinctly switched to English. Then, she dropped the ball she was holding and turned to her brother and asked him in Dutch to go pick it up. Truly astonishing.


I know one kid (six years old) who has learned English from game related youtube videos. It's a bit scary… I thought it's actually impossible.


My one daughter is learning Japanese from manga and games. She's also learning Esperanto from Duolingo and since she hasn't quite got the Japanese grammar yet, admits to using Esperanto grammar on her Japanese.

I understand that this is much better than attempting to apply English Grammar to Japanese.


Oh gosh that would be confusing. I don't think Japanese and Esperanto grammar are alike at all. Japanese grammar really is not that hard so I would suggest studying it when you can. The important thing is just know the basic particles and that the word order is Subject + Object + Verb. So the verb always comes last, you will get it if you just use phrases as well. But I don't think splicing languages up like that is normally a good idea when you are just beginning o_o but that might just be me.


I understand, and when she can find something to help her learn Japanese grammar better she leaps on it. But when one is learning a language as she is, one takes what help one can. And, since Esperanto grammar does allow for subject/object/verb sentences, she could have chosen worse.

Much worse.


http://www.guidetojapanese.org/learn/ Tae Kim's Grammar guide. Completely free online resource, extremely thorough and good for beginners. It can teach her everything she needs to know lol


I'll show this to her tonight.


Genki I and II are great for teaching and learning grammar. And there is a teacher's edition to fill in the answers for the non-audio parts I believe. (The 2012 version is better than the 2009 version, I've used both.) They are kinda spendy though. I would call around to used book stores and see what they have.

The grammar is essential. Without it, she won't really be speaking Japanese, she'll be babbling vocabulary words that those who speak Japanese won't be able to piece together. So, I can't stress it enough that grammar is necessary.


Oh and the parents speak Finnish at home, but their English is good, too.


Haha, this is exactly how I was raised!! XD


This one is the so-called OPOL strategy (one person/parent, one language), but there are others like ML@H (minority language at home). This one is commonly used when one of the languages spoken by one of the parents is also the language of the community, so the other language is clearly in a disadvantage position and thus it has to be enhanced creating an environment at home. It is called minority language in the terms that is so in the community. I strongly recommend the book "Multilingües des del bressol" - in Catalan (I think there is a Spanish version called "Multilingües desde la cuna") from Anna Solé Mena. Now I am starting to read "7 steps to raising a bilingual child" from Naomi Steiner.


Thanks for the information!


My kids will have some fun, I'm Croatian maried with Brazilian girl :)


I want to come to your house for dinner sometime. :D


That's really interesting even though I must say I don't agree with everything :-)


My favorite points: 5 - books, 9 and 10 - real-world situations. Of course, comics help :) If someone need help starting even on nursery level https://www.thelearninglab.com.sg/blog/2019/08/why-keep-an-english-journal/


Raising bilingual children is pretty common today Chinese/ English for example. We learn Italian also :)


I think the best way to be bilingual, is to have two different background. For exemple living in Germany but speaking english at home. But if you live in a english country and you want your kids to be bilingual, I think putting them in a school (x language) where everything is taught in x language (let's say spanish) then it is a really good idea


I quite agree with the immersion school based on personal experience--I would consider myself fairly fluent in Spanish after going to a half-day immersion school since first grade (I am now in 12th). Although it is of course disorienting at first; I joined midyear and all my classmates had a year and a half of Spanish so everyone except me understood all the incomprehensible gibberish the teachers were constantly spouting (until I started understanding, a few months later). Most of the people who were there since kindergarten say they don't really remember not understanding two languages.


I don't have kids, but if I did I'd definitely have wanted to raise them bilingual. Such a great gift!


I could see where "one parent, one language" is emphasizing that at least one parent speak as much of the non-geopolitically dominant language as possible but, on the flipside, I certainly don't think there is anything wrong with both parents engaging in the non dominant language. I am fluent in Spanish, but I am not a native speaker. My wife took two semesters in college, and has finished the Spanish tree here on DL, but doesn't use it very much. I try to speak as much as possible in Spanish to my 20 month old (I wasn't doing as well at that age with my now 4 year old, so I kinda gave up on him, I feel like I'm doing much better with the 20-month old), but my wife will say things to him in Spanish on occasion as well, and I say every little bit helps, given that pretty much the only time he hears Spanish is when I'm speaking to him. I speak to his brother and his mother in English.

At this point, though, there are a decent number of phrases that he seems to understand. He'll generally respond in English and I'll parrot back to him what he said in Spanish. something like -him "box!" -me "sí, una -caja-", but not in a "no that's wrong" kind of way, so much as "yes, I acknowledge what you said, and providing a different way to say it". Of course there are those few golden moments when I've realized that I've taught him a Spanish word that he doesn't know in English, thus giving that word more clout in his mind. Sadly, there aren't many of those, I was living away from them for 2.5 months over the summer and he did a -lot- of language development during that time :-/.

I'm pretty good with 2 and 4. I'll say the same thing with a couple different syntactic styles "quieres ayuda? quieres que yo te ayude?" "okay, yo te ayudo".


That looks a bit too strict. >_> Both my parents speak the same language and well, so do I. But I still speak 2 and a half languages and so do they. This post seems to say that your parents have to speak different languages to have bilingual kids. Is that so? [Or maybe I interpreted it wrong.]


There seems to be some debate as to why the article would give that advice. Here is a different take on it. If that doesn't load, it's Seanchai35's comment above. :)

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