Raising Bilingual and Multilingual Children

We all know how challenging it can be to learn a new language as an adult, so having your children grow up bilingual or even trilingual can be a wonderful gift that will enrich your kids for a lifetime.

It can be daunting raising your kids in a multi-language household though. You probably know families where the children may understand a language, but can’t speak or write it. Perhaps you know adults who slightly resent their parents for letting them “give up” with a language they could have learnt in their childhood and who now wish they could speak it. We also don’t want to put too much pressure on our children, however, so what’s the right approach?

Have you ever met a multi-lingual adult who resents their parents gifting them additional languages? I haven’t!

My children are trilingual, speaking German, Spanish and English. I’m very proud, but also slightly jealous of them and while I am reasonably proficient in German and Spanish, these will always be foreign languages for me (unless I can find a way to invest significantly more time into them on the side of my work life). Even simple activities, like ordering coffee, or food in a restaurant, are just ever so slightly harder than they would be for me in English. My kids, on the other hand, will not have this issue and they’ll have access to German and Spanish culture in a much deeper way than I will likely ever achieve. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has been a very satisfying journey seeing my children easily switching between these languages when visiting family and starting to use words and expressions exceeding my own language skills.

I’d like to share some of my own experiences, perhaps they are helpful:

Establish clear language contexts

For a child living in an environment where multiple languages could be spoken, it’s a great idea to establish some ground rules to help them get a feeling for when each language is appropriate. I like to call these language contexts.

A language context can be a person or a place and should be associated with a single language.

For example, Kindergarden is one context and for us it’s clearly German. Our children will speak German and only German in Kindergarden or school.

My wife is Spanish, so she has a Spanish context and I have an English context as that’s my native language. This means that our home environment doesn’t have a fixed context, because we associate the language to the person instead, meaning that Spanish and English are often to be heard, but we don’t speak German at home at all.

Visiting grandparents (“Abuela y Abuelo” in Spain, of “Grandma and Grandpa” in the UK) also have clearly defined contexts, except the context of speaking to each parent in the right language wins in terms of priorities here.

This approach helps our kids understand when to speak which language and also helps them feel comfortable speaking the respective language in each environment. Strangely, our daughter doesn’t really respond to a teacher who sometimes speaks to her in Spanish, instead she chooses to respond in German as it feels strange for her to speak Spanish in her German language context.

Only talk to your child in a single language

If you, as a parent, can speak multiple languages, this can actually be a disadvantage for your child’s language learning journey. Giving your child multiple choices for which language to speak (and be understood) means that if a word is not known in language A, they can still get their point across in language B. This means the path of least resistance is to switch between the languages using words and vocabulary in either language where they know it best. Children will always choose the path of least resistance.

While it may sound cool to have your child switching back and forth between languages like this, in fact they are not being encouraged to fill in the holes in their vocabulary and to build those mental pathways. They can side-step the learning process simply by switching to the other language.

While it may sound cool to have your child switching back and forth between languages, in fact they are not being encouraged to fill in the holes in their vocabulary.

As mentioned earlier, it’s good to establish a clear language context for your child, but as that context can also be a person, you can have certainly have different family members speaking different languages.

Until children have developed their language skills to a sufficient level, they will frequently be grasping for words and stretching their brains to think: “how do you say X again?”. Trying hard to remember words is an important part of building those mental pathways that enable fluency. Words come to mind easily if you bring them to mind frequently.

Speak in your mother tongue

This is a long term project. As you’re going to be speaking a single language with your child or children for many years you want to have a natural and comfortable way to communicate with them.

Also, let’s face it, your language skills in your native language are going to be much stronger and you’ll be a much better teacher, being able to expose your child to a much richer vocabulary or nuanced use of the language. Generally speaking if you’ve learned a foreign language as an adult, you’re probably going to struggle to be a perfect example of the language and they’ll learn your mistakes. Personally, I don’t want my children learning German grammar from me, given how many mistakes I make (I’d rather leave this to the German natives).

This advice probably does not apply if you are completely fluent in several languages and it’s effortless to use either. In this case you could speak either, but the advice to stick to a single language probably still applies (at least in the beginning).

Pretend to not understand if your child responds in a different language

When my daughter asked me for a glass of “Wasser” (water in German) it seemed ridiculous to me to shrug my shoulders in an expression of incomprehension. Ridiculous to me, given the similarity of the words, however not ridiculous to her as instead of seeing through the act, she thought about it for a second, then promptly switched to use the English word. Mission accomplished!

I’ve often thought that parents who really don’t understand any other language than their own are in some way at an advantage here. They really won’t understand and the child will have a very clear language context to associate with the parent. Reacting and responding appropriately when the “wrong” language is being used is not encouraging your child to stick to one language.

Be flexible when talking with your partner, family members, or with others

When talking to your significant other, or other family members, it may not always be possible to speak in the same language you’ve chosen to speak with to your child.

Spouses, parents, friends may not even understand the chosen language, so using it in these situations would clearly be inappropriate. It’s ok, but when you turn to talk to your child, switch back into the chosen language to talk to them individually.

This situation can be a bit challenging if you’re also maintaining the pretence to your child that you cannot speak another language. Your child may be surprised to hear you’re talking a particular language and may even realise for the first time that they could communicate with you in a different language.

For me, this situation occurred when our daughter had a friend over who did not speak English. I was talking to them both in German as a group. My daughter looked at me with narrow eyes and said “But Dad, you can speak German!”, to which I responded, “Yes, but not very well”.

Encourage family members and friends to talk to your child in their native language

My wife and I have had the very unusual experience of having family members attempting to speak to our children in broken English or Spanish, when our children understand perfectly well that person’s native language. We wonder why this happens and why it continues even after we ask them to speak their native language!

Oftentimes family members can find bi-lingual children fascinating and they’re keen to hear them speak another language. If family members or friends also can speak another language they’re often tempted to speak to the child in their second language. It can be fun for them to try our their language skills and to interact with the child.

This may feel like a fun game for the family member, but for the child it can break the rules of establishing clear language contexts (see above) and can confuse them as well as exposing them to poor pronunciation and errors. Is the adult planning on speaking to the child in their second language for the long haul?

Now that our children are older we usually let a few sentences slide, but we gently remind family members that our kids don’t get much exposure to these languages under normal day to day life for us and that they could be giving our children a great chance to speak with a native speaker.

Enjoy movies and TV in different languages

We’re taught that TV and media are bad for kids, but depending on how you use it, it can be a really valuable tool for increasing language exposure for your children. As a student of language it’s important to speak a language with different people. Different people have different accents, use different words and expressions, so limiting your language exposure to a single person will also limit your ability to learn.

Prefer to watch TV with your children so you can interact with your kids at the same time, explain things and, well, just to give them some mummy and daddy time!

Choose programs which are age appropriate. Watching more mature themed programs is clearly problematic, but apart from this consider the language in use. Children need simple language if they are to understand and enjoy the program.

Also, consider switching on subtitles to give your child’s reading a boost. Reading sometimes lags in bi-lingual kids in one of their languages, so once they start to be able to read having subtitles can help them see how words are written and has been shown to increase literacy.

Be consistent and trust the process

Learning a language is a long term endeavour and it pays to be patient. Kids develop different attributes at different rates; some developing fine granular motor skills earlier or perhaps starting to speak earlier on. It’s difficult and often unhelpful to compare children too much as they’re all different.

Multi-lingual kids have their work cut out for them and, as you can imagine, it can take a bit longer for them to build the vocabulary, or learn to pronounce words correctly or to learn grammar rules as they have double (or triple) the amount of work as children who are not being raised in a multi lingual environment. Even before a child begins speaking, they need a large passive vocabulary (that’s words that they can understand but don’t use yet) before they will fully understand what is being said to them. Don’t mistake this for your child being slow, or “not listening”, their little brains are working hard, so be understanding and trust that they’ll get there in the end.

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