Non-Native Speakers Can Raise Multilingual Children!

by Corey · 59 comments

By Corey Heller
Article first appeared in Multilingual Living Magazine.

Emma is French and lives in France with her Russian husband and two children.  “My husband and I both speak Russian to our daughters even though it isn’t my native language,” she says.  “Sometimes I wonder if it is the right thing to do because I feel my Russian language skills aren’t always good enough. But my husband and I agree that it is our only way to keep Russian an integral part of our family.  Sometimes I feel bad when I can’t remember a word in Russian, so I tell my kids that I am not sure what the word is and I say it in French.  Later we ask their father what it is in Russian or we look it up together.” 

Emma is one of many parents around the world who has taken the pluge to raise children in a non-native language.  As in her case, it most often stems from a strong desire to pass on a spouse’s (minority) language and culture to children, in order to ensure a continued connection with family abroad.

Some parents are taking this language plunge even though they and their spouses have no direct cultural connection to their non-native languages.  Bruce, an American who lives in the US with his American wife and young daughter, says, “I studied Spanish in school and spent a year abroad in Ecuador.  It just seemed like a waste not to share this language with my children.  My wife doesn’t know much Spanish, but she is very supportive and enjoys learning the language along with our daughter.  It is actually bringing us closer together as a family!”

Raising children in a non-native language can feel like a leap of faith at times – like cutting a path through uncharted territory with no map to guide us.  How should we go about it?  Are we doing it well enough?  Are our children even benefiting from what we are doing?  Could we be holding our children back linguistically by doing this?
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.  The good news is that it IS possible and IS definitely worth it!  The following tips can help to alleviate concerns that your children will end up the proverbial “scape-goats” of your attempts (which is the worry of every parent raising a child in a non-native language)!

  • Start by asking yourself what motivates you to raise your child in a non-native language. Your motivations may not be what you think they are (read The Multilingual Life of a Non-Native Speaker to learn more about this author’s motivations).  There are no right and wrong answers here.  This is about you understanding fully WHY you are doing what you are doing!
  • Have a plan of action in place. Have you and your spouse sat down together to discuss your reasons for raising your children in your non-native language?  Is this your spouse’s language, or is it a language which your spouse does not understand?  It is important for your nuclear family to be on the same page as you because YOU need all of the support and encouragement you can get!
  • Find personal accounts from other parents who are raising children in a non-native language (see tips later in this article).  These will help to boost your confidence.  And read up on the benefits of raising children multilingually – another way to help solidify your confidence.  However, remember that raising a child in a second language is no guarantee for later academic success, so if this is one of your motivations, make sure you understand the research.
  • It is important that we are honest about our language skills, especially if we are the only one in our household who speaks our non-native language.  Be realistic about your abilities to keep up with your children’s language needs and be painfully honest about your non-native language strengths and weaknesses.
  • Get support for areas where you need it. You don’t need to do this completely on your own!  Join a language playgroup, find other parents who are raising their children in the same language, start your own parent support group or join an online forum for families raising bilingual and multilingual children.  Take your children for a visit to a country where the language is spoken and let them be immersed in it.
  • Everything is on a continuum. What you do today will most likely change down the road – and this is to be expected. For example, as your children get older, you may start to use your native language more in order to discuss areas in which you feel limited by your non-native language. Let your children know this.  Tell them that you’d like to discuss the inner workings of the dishwasher in Spanish (rather than Chinese) because you have more vocabulary about such things in Spanish. In fact, this shows your children that languages ARE fluid and that you are a bilingual/multilingual who uses different languages in different situations.
  • Providing a rich language environment is the key to raising a child in a non-native language. Make sure you read to your child every day. Sing songs, recite poems, and discuss topics in which your child is interested. Make sure to keep up with your child’s language level so that you are continually stimulating her interests and helping to build her vocabulary.
  • It is to be expected that your child will most likely correct YOUR grammar or pronunciation at some point, especially after spending time with native speakers.  Don’t worry and try not to feel embarrassed!  In fact, this indicates that your child is picking up the nuances of the language and is feeling a personal association (and boldness) with it.
  • Have fun! You are raising your child in a second language because it is a wonderfully inspiring thing to do! Cover your bases and then sit back and have a delightful time in what you are helping to establish! Don’t ignore the possible issues but don’t let them hold you back from giving it your all.

Raising children in a non-native language takes courage and commitment.  It can also be one of the most rewarding experience of a lifetime. Your children may never thank you for the effort you are putting out right now, but the reward will come each time you hear them conversing comfortably with other speakers of your non-native language!  Try to laugh a lot through this process.  Highlight the successes along the way rather than dwelling on the setbacks.


Tips and Strategies:

Not all multilinguals are created equal!
Are you raising your children in your non-native language in the hopes that they will be smarter, better in school, and more able to grasp complex concepts?  If so, don’t assume this will happen by default.  Although earlier research, which indicated that bilinguals lagged behind monolinguals, has been disproved, this does not mean we can assume that our bi- and multilingual children will benefit without an effort on our part!  For our children to reap cognitive benefits from their additional language(s), it is important that we provide them with “linguistic-rich environments.”  This means we need to expose our children to diverse language stimuli: singing songs together, reading out loud, listening to and speaking with native speakers, as well as the many other ideas you will come up with!

Perfectly bilingual?
As parents raising our children in our non-native language, we should remember that perfect or “balanced” bilingualism or multilingualism is not a likely outcome from any family’s efforts!  As Colin Baker writes in A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide, “This idea of balanced bilinguals, perfectly balanced in both their languages, is one muddled myth that surrounds bilingualism.”  So, relax and enjoy!

It’s not all about the accent…
Many parents believe that they should not raise their children in a non-native language because they will pass on faulty pronounciation and/or incorrect grammar. This may happen. But what are the benefits of NOT raising them bilingually at all? It is worth the effort to continue what you are doing and in addition to find as much native-language exposure for your children as possible.


Support for families:

Bilingual Parenting in a Foreign Language
Check out the listing of Frequently Asked Questions, resources, feedback from parents and much more.
EDIT 04/24/2014: This is no longer live. However, one of the authors sent me the link to her blog in case you would like to learn more about her family’s approach: Enjoy!

BUC by Non-Native Speakers
Bernd Klein and his wife Karola, both native Germans, are raising their children in German and English using the OPOL method.

Bilingualisme (Non-Native French)
The founders of this website are raising their children in French even though both were raised as monolingual English speakers.  Wonderful tips, suggestions, advice and personal experiences.

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, in German and English.

{ 54 comments… read them below or add one }

1 The Globetrotter Parent (Caroline) May 13, 2010 at 10:20 pm

I would never try to communicate to my child in a language that was not my own unless the language happened to be my spouse’s mother tongue. In a situation where neither parent speaks the language like a native, I personally think that maintaining the household in a foreign language is a bad idea. The children will not learn to speak the language properly, will not have the proper accent or grammer, and also will lose out on getting some of extra vocab otherwise used by parents in dominant language used outside the home.

Plus it’s just unnatural.


2 Austin September 29, 2010 at 12:41 am

I’m sorry, but I just have to disagree with you.

Being a native speaker of the language doesn’t guarantee that one speaks it perfectly either. Often, people know the non-native languages they speak much better than their own native tongue because they have had to learn the grammar, not just the sounds. So, even if a non-native speaker hasn’t mastered all of the elements of a language, if they have mastered the elements which a young child will use (I want X. I feel X. I like X.) then they’ll be just as well off as any native speaker, in fact, arguably better.

Also, learning about the grammar of one’s own native tongue is easier when one can compare multiple systems of grammar against each other. I personally didn’t understand English grammar at all until I began studying Spanish, and now that I’ve learned German I can say that I’m much more proficient in English than I used to be, despite the fact that I haven’t studied English at all since high school!

Furthermore, no language is unnatural. It is our unique, flexible, and rich forms of communication that make us the human beings we are. Rejoice in that variety!


3 Brad Hodges June 5, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Err, let’s just hope she doesn’t learn your “grammer.” Franchement, n’importe quoi,,,


4 Christof Demont-Heinrich June 5, 2012 at 9:42 pm

I’ve spoken German only to my two daughters since birth here in the USA even though it is not a “native” language for me. My father, like too many other immigrants to other countries, did not speak German to his kids and I learned German mostly as a German major in college. My two daughters have native like German accents and, in fact, are German-dominant: They speak German, not English, to each other, even though my wife cannot speak German. Yes, we’ve had the help of German speaking nannies along the way and my children are in a German-language immersion program in school. However, we would never be where we are now if we’d followed your advice and stuck to what’s “natural”, meaning English monolingualism. By the way, what’s “natural” is a highly problematic notion. Human social life is hardly “natural”, but is in fact an artificial social construction that we build ourselves. In the case of socially enforced monolingualism, this un-natural social constructedness actually becomes a prison, often justified on the basis of false “natural-ness”.


5 Anne September 24, 2016 at 5:35 pm

Thank you. I enjoyed your response.


6 Jean December 21, 2012 at 4:45 am

The Globetrotter Parent (Caroline), if this is the way you feel then, of course, you should not attempt teaching/speaking to your child(ren) in a foreign/second language. You do not feel confident to do so, but it is possible for parents that are competent in multiple languages. I would add that you would need to feel competent in your own language to adapt your life to a multicultural – multilingual life style.


7 Elena May 14, 2010 at 3:50 am

My personal experience with raising a child in non-native language is nothing but positive. Our family resides in Japan. Both me and my husband are non-native English speakers but that’s the only language we can communicate. I do not speak Japanese and he does not speak my native tongue. Our boys (age 6 and 3) consider English as their first language although once they go to school Japanese will eventually become dominant. I also teach English and observing Japanese kids who at age 8 cannot repeat “What is your name” or count to ten made me appreciate our choice even more. Accent? Yes. Grammatical mistakes? Yes. Do I consider those to be valid reasons to deny a child the gift o being bilingual? Absolutely no! Our kids enjoy movies in English, they read in English, they communicate with their English peers without any trouble. The whole new world is opened for them. I had my doubts in the process but if someone asks now, I’d say go for it. All the best,
Elena in Saitama


8 James May 14, 2010 at 8:48 pm

I disagree ever so strongly with Caroline, as I am the product of a non-native speaker. I was brought up speaking French by my mother in an English-speaking country. My mother speaks fluent French albeit with a very slight English accent. I ended up living in France for over a decade to do further studies and then work. My French is native, native speakers have no idea I’m not French unless the topic of conversation moves that way.

All languages that we can give our children are a boon, no matter how’s it done.


9 Alice September 29, 2010 at 1:05 am

What an interesting discussion!

Just wanted to add that I am a “product of a non-native speaker”, too. My dad, a Korean, always spoke German with us (with an accent), yet all three of us ended up speaking “proper,” accent-AND dialect-free Hochdeutsch, what relief. 😉


10 Nina December 3, 2012 at 3:58 am

Great to hear that Alice. Were you though living in Germany or somewhere else while talking to your dad in German?
It would be very interesting to know personally. Pls repy directly to my private email. Thanks.


11 Corey May 15, 2010 at 1:32 am

What a great discussion! I hope others will weigh-in on this discussion with their opinions. With more and more families choosing to introduce a language into their homes, this is becoming a very hot topic for discussion!


12 Maria May 15, 2010 at 11:22 am

It is a blessing and an advantage for any child to learn a second language. In my case I was born in Chile so may native language is Spanish. I was raised by my grandparents. My grandfather was Austrian and my grandmother could speak French and English I was always exposed to languages and today I am a polyglot. It has given me wonderful opportunities as a professional and as a person I can easily relate to other cultures. It somehow makes you a more flexible and understanding person.


13 Allison Bay May 15, 2010 at 7:19 pm

I find it is hard to make one decision that this is right or wrong in ALL cases. The level of fluency can also play a huge roll. I’m raising my children in a language that is not my mother tongue but I have been speaking this language for many years and am often mistaken for a native speaker. Obviously speakers with near native fluency can really impart a sold sense of the language.


14 Susan May 15, 2010 at 11:07 pm

My husband and I are both raising our child in a language that is not our own and things are working out beautifully. I am a Spanish teacher and have lived in Spain. I am very fluent and am constantly reading in Spanish to expand my vocabulary. My son speaks Spanish very well.

My husband grew up speaking German with his mother who is German. His German is not as strong as his English, but he hopes to continue the language with our children. So far our son, does well in both languages.

It would be a pity to deny our sons the ease of learning a language when they are young just because we are not native speakers. They will learn our native language of English just by living in the U.S.

I think the accent issue is not all that important. I am a Pittsburgher living in California. All the time I am asked where I am from. Last weeked I was asked where I was from in Europe. I had no idea that my accent was so strong. What would people think of my cousin from Alabama. Accents exist even within our own country. Who cares what the accent is as long as we are making ourselves understood.


15 gweipo May 17, 2010 at 10:54 pm

We too have made a decision to give our children a 3rd language which is neither of ours, and in fact we both can barely speak it. Living in HK, our children have the unique opportunity of going to a Mandarin / English bilingual school.
At home, I speak English, my husband and I speak Dutch to each other and English to the children. At school they speak Chinese 70% of the time and 30% English.
I’m studying Chinese now to help support their learning.
It’s not always easy – particularly for my son, and we’ve de-emphasized Dutch on the basis that it’s an easy language to learn and they hear us speaking it, and can understand it reasonably well, and the demands of learning Chinese – including reading and writing are considerable.

They both can understand a lot of Dutch now, and my daughter can speak and read it reasonably (self taught) albeit with a very English accent. My son’s accent is better but he doesn’t speak as much.

I’ve often been close to giving up, but my husband luckily balances it out with belief that it can be done, we just need to be supportive.


16 Katie May 18, 2010 at 10:31 am

I couldn’t agree more with James and the others who support language learning no matter how it’s done. There are so many American households (like mine!) where heritage languages have been lost generations ago. This doesn’t mean that children in homes with parents who only speak English should be left behind.

We live in a global community! Let’s work to open windows for our children where the doors might have been closed in our own childhood.

In full disclosure, I felt so strongly about giving kids a bigger world than just English that I went to work for Early Advantage, the publishers of Muzzy, the BBC Language Course for Children. I feel really blessed to be a part of such a supportive team championing languages for all kids.

Despite the fact that I only speak a little Spanish that I learned in high school language classes, my two children are exploring three languages, and they love it. On any given day they might watch Muzzy in Spanish, French or Mandarin, be read a story in Spanish by me (imperfect pronunciation and all!) or participate in their once per week French lesson at school.

It’s not perfect, but it sure is wonderful to explore languages together as a family. As a result, our house is filled with a healthy enthusiasm for language learning and joyful bits of conversation in many languages. I wish that for everyone.

Let’s encourage parents to give their children a bigger world – no matter how a family gets there.


17 Chloe Green May 18, 2010 at 11:32 am

I want to ask advice about the issue of accent, which was mentioned in the comments to this post. Even though my husband speaks English to my kids with his native English accent, my kids (5 y.o.) have a Greek accent in English, which is the language I speak to them, native to me, and the langauge of the place we live in. Does anyone know if it is because they hear me speak to my husband in English with a Greek accent (and are thus copying me), or because they are still developing their language/tongues and are being influenced by the environment they live in (and thus they will eventually revert back to a natural English accent)?
Does anyone have any similar experiences?


18 Carissa December 18, 2012 at 5:13 am

i believe that the accent comes from your children speaking Greek. I say this because my son who is learning Spanish, speaks English with a Spanish accent. At home my husband and I speak English and neither of us have a Spanish accent. hence, English being my primary language.


19 Corey May 20, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Thank you EVERYONE for your fabulous comments! It is so amazing to read about the different experiences we are all having in raising our bilingual children! As a mom who is raising her children in a non-native language, I agree with everything which was said here, including Caroline’s very first comment. The existing research actually discourages us from raising our children in a non-native language but for a VERY DIFFERENT reason! Research against non-native language parenting was focused on families where parents were feeling the need to speak the community language at home (social pressure) rather than just speaking their own languages. An example: a family from Mexico comes to the U.S. and is pressured by society and even the government to always speak English at home with their children even though they are learning the language themselves. What families are doing nowadays is a totally different situation: we are trying to augment our children’s language landscape. We are making the effort to share something in addition, not override our personal desires to speak our language due to external pressures.
I will write a post about this down the road after I dig out the research.


20 Alex February 17, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Just sent you an e-mail before I saw your posting in the discussion. I think that’s right. The situation non-native speaking parents are raising their kids VOLUNTARILY in another language then their mother tongue does not seem to have been researched. Saunders is the only one mentioned always. Furthermore: The situation where people speak a different language at home than their own because they spent time abroad and like to stay connected to that time and want to share that with their kids is – as you state correctly – a new phenomenon in a globalized world where you travel to places in hours for which you needed weeks, sometimes months not even sixty years ago.


21 Corey May 20, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Chloe – GREAT question! Yes, accent is such an interesting topic. I’m not sure the exact answer to your question but I do know that your situation is not unique. Many of my friends have experienced the same thing. I’m not sure if it is because your children are used to speaking Greek a lot and thus when they speak English their mouths just aren’t used to forming the letters (that happens to me about spending a month in Germany visiting family!) or whether they are, as you said, copying what they hear around themselves (you but also others who speak English with a Greek accent). I’m going to pass your question on to Multilingual Living Magazine’s expert, Madalena Cruz-Ferreira and will add the answer as a separate post to this site. Thank you, thank you for sharing (and asking!).


22 Sarah May 27, 2010 at 9:44 pm

So, how do you do it?
I am Irish, living in the US, and can speak German and Italian. We have 2 kids, 6 and 2 and so far, we have done very little with other languages. We talk daily about how words translate into other languages, but we definitely don’t converse in the other languages. I guess I don’t feel comfortable enough with the other languages.
Summer break starts in 2 days and I want to start focusing on German with the kids. Where do I start?


23 Corey June 7, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Sarah, so sorry I didn’t see you comment until now! Yes, yes, yes! Use summer break to jump into some language exposure! Think about what is most enjoyable to you in terms of language and start there. Maybe revolve it around a theme: make it an Italian day where you make Italian food, read a book (can be in English!) about Italy, visit a local museum that has pictures by an Italian painter or two. You don’t need to speak Italian the whole time. Start with a few sentences in the morning that your child can learn and bridge out from there. Maybe you teach your child a few words for things like: hello, goodbye, food, eat, walk, drive, talk, listen. Then use the word in place of the English word. Once that starts to feel comfortable, then the next day add some more. You can do this in both German and Italian but it might be easier to start with one language until you feel comfortable. No need to to overdo it. Let me know how it goes!!


24 Fiona May 31, 2010 at 4:00 pm

I would rather my little boy had the opportunity to be a proficient “user” of French than have no knowledge of the language at all just because I’m not a native speaker. My little boy may speak French with a slight Scottish accent, but, well, so what? How many French (or Spanish or Italian… etc) native speakers speak English without a trace of their own beautiful accent? As for grammatical accuracy, even native speakers make mistakes…



25 Corey June 7, 2010 at 2:38 pm

Sounds like a great plan, Fiona! We aren’t talking about our children living in isolation where they only receive communication from us. Whatever we can offer in other languages is just one big gift which will go on giving in so many ways that we can’t even know today! Thank you for your comment!


26 Eibhlin June 7, 2010 at 11:33 am

I think it really depends on a huge variety of factors including your knowledge of the language you are intending to teach.

The first language a child learns is the one it builds its grammar foundations on for the other languages it will learn, it is the reference language. If your knowledge of the language you are teaching them as their mother tongue, including its structures and subtleties, is not very solid you may cause problems.

I have heard people around where we live speaking English that they were taught as their mother tongue by non-native parents, in some cases their sentence structure and vocabulary is very strange, in others one would be none the wiser that they are non-natives.

As with most things in life there is no one answer!


27 Corey June 7, 2010 at 3:19 pm

Thank you for your comment, Eibhlin! You make some very good points. I’m not sure I would completely agree that if the first language a child learns is not very solid that “you may cause problems.” The word “problems” is a very packed word. Our children are almost always surrounded by many people, not just us, and are hearing a massive amount of language. Our children’s language learning is part of a life-long process and will continue to grow and develop over time. In addition, I don’t think that most parents would choose to raise their children in a second language 100% of the time if their language was not adequate. Luckily we can make the decision of how much exposure and adjust along the way. 10% exposure to a language is still better than nothing!
Many would argue that it is better to at least know some English with strange sentence structure and vocabulary versus none at all. Which comes down to just as you said: there is no one answer. I totally agree!


28 Rivas October 15, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Dear all,
I need HELP!!!!
I have a 14-month old baby that is exposed to four languages and I am worried thought that it might end up being too much for him. Three of the languages come in very naturally. My wife is Italian so she speaks to Matías in Italian all the time so that he will eventually comunicate with his Italian family without any problems. She sings and reads stories in Italian too and we’ve got cartoons in that language, Cds, etc.
We live in a Basque comunity and both my mum and Matías’s nanny, as well as pretty much all the children around here, speak Basque so my son is pretty exposed to that one too, therefore I don’t think he’ll have any problems with it.
My father (Cuban) and my brother (Spanish) can’t speak Basque, so they use Spanish to comunicate with Matías and with me. And Spanish is also the language I use to talk to my wife. Apart from that, we’ve got plenty of films, radio, music and so on in Spanish.
So far so good. The problem comes in when I was highly criticised by a friend of mine, who lives in England and has bi-lingual kids, when I told her that I spoke English to my son. I always thought it’d be brilliant if he did not have to struggle they way his parents did to learn it so I started to speak to him in English since the very beginning. I was educated(university-wise) in Ireland, Scotland and England. I am very aware of my language limitations but I also think that over my years in Britain I mastered a very acceptable usage of the English language. Anyway, I was very happy with my life until this heavy criticism shook my confidence.
I’d be very greatful if you could tell me what you think about both teaching Matías Enslish and English being his fourth language.


29 Corey November 19, 2010 at 10:57 pm

Rivas, check out my reply to your comment at the bottom of this post:


30 Eileen February 27, 2011 at 10:36 am

Rivas, I think you should do it.
Do not let the critisism upset you. You are doing the right thing, which is why you felt happy with it from the beginning.
Matias may show some signs of “confusion” when he does speak, and his speech might be delayed (moreso than his peers) but all young children have these same problems in the beginning. Do NOT give up. This is normal, and he will thank you later in life.


31 Rivas March 16, 2011 at 7:14 am

Thank you Eileen for all your support. I recently took my family to Ireland, where I started my university studies some years ago, and I was delighted to see how well my son interacted with my friends in English… it was truly satisfying to see that things are working out fine. We still continue with our four-language routine and hope to do so in the future… I am struggling, though, to find literature that deals with the education and the bringing-up of children in 4 languages. Give us whatever title you might have in mind.


32 Kate February 16, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Thank you, thank you for this post! I am a non-native speaker of German. I have a PhD in German lit and teach German language at the college level and at a Saturday school. I consider myself to be fluent, though not without some issues (darn those noun genders!). I’m committed to speaking German with my son, who is now 15 months old. However, I can’t imagine not speaking English with him as well. My solution is to speak German with him part of each day – every afternoon, we switch to German for about 4 hours. I have German books and DVDs and have downloaded Kinderlieder from iTunes. I am very fortunate to have a best friend who is German, and her son is about the same age as my own. She’s using OPOL, so I learn a lot from her. My “baby/child” vocabulary was almost non-existent (it’s not something they teach in school!), so I have a lot to learn.
I’m wondering if anyone else is speaking part-time and having success with it?
Also, if there are any resources for learning the words and phrases I need to use with my child that I never learned in school or when studying abroad?
Thank you!!!


33 Corey March 2, 2011 at 12:41 am

I love your decision to use both languages with your son! So wonderful to give him both languages, and as you said, why should you have to choose? YOU are bilingual, so why not speak both with him! We get so caught up in “rules” that are written up in books or that others tell us that we forget that multilingual parenting is all about creativity – linguistic gymnastics. And that is what makes it so much more enjoyable! I am certain you are going to find your rhythm in what you are doing!


34 Eileen February 27, 2011 at 10:25 am

I strongly disagree with Caroline. By assuming that she will only be doing a disservice to her kids, she is also sadly unaware of the many benefits of learning multiple languages.
Caroline and those with her same mindset should really read more articles and books written by linguists.
Many people in the U.S. only speak English, but being monolingual is rare in comparison with the rest of the world.
It does not decrease a child’s intelligence, it does not confuse a child, and it does not promote poor grammar skills. The infant brain can distinguish between many different languages, even when the language is yet to be understood. This is something that the adult brain has lost the ability to do.
The infant and child brain is hard wired for language, and not just one! Please do more research on this, Caroline, so you can make a more informed opinion.


35 Corey March 2, 2011 at 12:44 am

Thank you for your comment, Eileen. Of course, if parents are unable to speak a language well, then it would be a bad idea if both of them only used that language with their children. That could be what Caroline is worried about. However, that having been said, I don’t think that most of us would WANT to speak to our children in a language that we felt so uncomfortable speaking – I’m sure that we would quickly realize that our relationship with our children was lacking!

I really like the list of reasons why raising our children in more than one language is such a wonderful thing to do, even if it isn’t our native language! It is so wonderful to have so much support here from people like you! Thank you for taking the time to comment!


36 Brooke March 4, 2011 at 9:38 am

My husband and I are native American English speakers and are fluent in German (both taken for native speakers although non-natives). We decided before having children that we would raise them bilingually. Our lives, relationships, even work and research is all German-English, so it made sense to involve our children in this world as well. We took our three children (ages 7, 5, and 2) to Germany and Austria recently and they were all taken for natives as well (even the early language of our 2 year old). As non-native speakers of German, we were definitely going against the grain in raising our children bilingually (especially given that both grandparents are monolingual) and it has taken a lot of effort to provide a language rich environment for our children to successfully acquire German in, but it has been a success and is a major part of our family culture. A unique situation as well is that our oldest son has a language disorder, of course not a result of raising him bilingually, but when he was diagnosed, we decided to continue raising him bilingually (were also advised by the clinicians we worked with to continue) because at the time his German was stronger than his English. Fortunately his language disorder is a normalizing disorder (will catch up to peer level in the next year or so), so at that time any disadvantages he has experienced will be more than compensated for by the fact that he is bilingual (and also literate in both languages).


37 Carl May 18, 2011 at 2:29 am

Is there research on this? I looked in the book section and saw books of general applicability (how to raise child binlingually, etc.). But can anyone recommend reading materials dedicated specifically to analysis of the effects, benefits, downsides to actually raising a child in (as opposed to just teaching the child) a language that is not native to either parent? In may case, my wife and I are interested in raising the child in French and English. Her French is fluent, but not native, and I am a native English speaker with decent French knowledge. Presumably she would speak only French with the child and I only English (i.e., OPOL), but we would speak English with each other. Would be grateful for any help you can provide. Thanks. – Carl


38 Carl May 18, 2011 at 2:46 am

Sorry, you can probably ignore the above question. Just noticed François Grosjean’s book on the site, which has this information. If anyone has any further reading recommendations, I would of course be interested. Thanks.


39 Rhiannon November 1, 2011 at 1:38 pm

My daughter is 4 years old and speaks fluent French, English and German as we live in Switzerland. My husband speaks only English with her and I speak only French with her despite being British. I studied French at university and went on to teach it to A-level standard in a UK high school. I believe that if I can teach other children to get to such a good standard of French that I should share the gift of languages with my daughter.

She copes no problem, switching easily from one language to another and translates for my husband who only speaks English. She does make grammatical errors in all 3 languages and doesn’t have an authentic accent in French, but she really enjoys being able to speak different languages. She started speaking later than some of her
monolingua peers but caught up with them a couple of months later.

I strongly believe that giving her this multilingual start in life is a wonderful asset and achievement. I regularly have to explain and justify to other people who think that it is strange that I am not speaking with her in my mother tongue, but at the end of the day, if she is fluent in 3 languages and happy with conversing with me in French, then that’s all that matters.

My only advice is to try to avoid switching from one language to another, be consistent with always speaking the same language and be proud of your little ones for being multilingual!


40 Flavio June 2, 2012 at 11:18 pm

Thank you for sharing your experiences. My wife and I are both Brazilian living in Brazil and just now when Daniel completed 1 y.o. I decided to speak only English to him. In this very beggining I am not so confortable or confident but I know it will come.
My wife will keep speaking Portuguese although she speaks some Engish and I will definitely use some help of internet videos and tv shows which can easily be watched in English.


41 Katie June 5, 2012 at 9:52 pm

I love that this is becoming a more widely-known phenomenon. I am the only Spanish-speaking person in my American (English-speaking) family. I learned it in school, ended up majoring in it, teaching it, and finally getting my M.Ed. with a concentration in Spanish. I decided to raise my children speaking Spanish. I worked very hard for 10 years (or more) learning the language. Why would I not just give my children that gift? It has been very difficult for myself at times, but I’ve just had to be more determined. I had to buy CDs of children’s songs and lullabyes in Spanish, purchase lots of Spanish and bilingual books to read to them, and we record shows in Spanish on our DVR. Sometimes it is difficult to think of the correct word or phrase, but I know that I’m doing the right thing for my children. It is especially difficult to remember to speak the language when everyone around us speaks English, but I persist. I have been told by native speakers that I speak very well and have no accent. I am definitely not perfect, and I do not know many phrases, etc. but like Austin said above (comment 2), I know some Spanish grammar better than native speakers. And they tell me this. I am so glad to see other adults who had similar experiences as children that are now bilingual or multilingual! It gives me hope for my own children.


42 Annika Bourgogne June 5, 2012 at 10:47 pm

Such a great post, thank you!

The other day I was talking with a friend of mine about an ebook I’m working on to provide ideas for bilingual families. My friend asked me if I was going to confirm in my book that parents should only speak their native languages to their children. I was so surprised that I didn’t have time to react before she continued and told me about a friend of hers, who had been married to an American and had two children. The dad now lived in the U.S, but the mom had started to speak English to the children. My friend was appalled by the fact that because of this the children might make mistakes in English! How did she miss the fact that the other option was that the children would not be able to communicate with their father who visits them in Finland about once a year. I for one applaud the efforts this mom, or anyone helping their children communicate better with more people, is making!


43 Sarah June 5, 2012 at 11:14 pm

You have no idea how happy this article makes me! I’m a native Spanish speaker but I live in the US since 2005. I’m majoring in French/Spanish in college. I have always planned to speak to my children in all 3 languages even though my French is not nearly as good as my other 2 languages. I have wondered if it would be harmful to speak to them in French since I’m not fluent… I guess it doesn’t matter for now since by the time I have children I will probably be better at it. Merci! This article only encouraged me in my decision to speak all 3 languages to my children (some day). 😀


44 Daniela September 26, 2012 at 7:34 am

I would like to ask for recommendation. I am not native speaker and I also never lived in English speaking country, but I had couple of years relationship with English speaking person, in the fact it is father of mine 9 month old daughter. Fortunately her father just before delivery left us and since that time he did not contact us and I was not able to reach him (well that is other story). I would like to learn my daughter English from many reasons. I don’t think it is necessary that she speaks like native speaker, but would be good if she speaks good one day.
Do you think is a good Idea to speak to my daughter English, even I am only parent. She has a grand mum, but she of course speak just Czech. How should I do that: speak both languages or just one, when both – when should I start? My English is good, but for sure much better is my speaking then writing or grammar. Since we live in Czech, I thought I will speak first Czech to her and later on when she master some Czech I would add English and of course I would try to find some English speaking nursery.
Thanks a lot for advise.


45 Rachael Clugston December 20, 2012 at 10:12 pm

From a different angle – If I moved back to Australia from Germany, with my three bilingual children, I think I would very carefully consider whether I want to change my relationship dynamic (primarily English) with the kids via language to German. I think although I am upper intermediate in fluency, that I would still stick to the language I do best – which is English. I would retain German cultural practises for sure, and encourage their continuity by finding German speaking community members, and possibly organise an international exchange if they wanted it, consider schooling options etc. What I read above in many responses is nevertheless a connection to native speakers in significant roles, it has got to be a negotiation between children and parents, no child deserves to be a linguistic experiment. I also think it is a fundamental right to have access to your mother tongue, and many cases above indicate the desire to maintain a family heritage, so a complex issue…


46 Rivas December 21, 2012 at 9:20 am

Dear Rachel,
I was reading through a few of the posts here and I thought your “linguistic experiment” comment was a little too unfair. We always experiment with languages in our lives. When you go to school (any kind of school) you are exposed to one, two, three or more languages and, unfortunately in many cases teachers are not really competent enough to deliver them. Is that bad? Well… I suppose the answer would be that it is a lot better than not knowing or not being exposed to any foreign languages at all.
You were also on about hypothetically changing your communication dynamics. That is entirely up to the individual and it must be very difficult for sure but language is NOT the only means of communication that we have. In fact, I know many people who speak the same language at home and clearly fail to communicate anything with one another… I don’t know if you see what I mean?
I would love to continue with this but I am supposed to be working… Keep me posted with your thoughts.


47 Jean December 21, 2012 at 5:09 am

I was happy to find this article. I am the single mother of a 12-year-old boy whom I have always raised on my own. He was born in France (were his father was raised by his Galician (North of Spain) family). When he was one-year-old we moved to Puerto Rico (where I am from – born, raised, and full blooded Puerto Rican) When he was 7 we moved to the US. Throughout all his life I have spoken to him in Spanish and French with almost no English spoken directly to him. Although, he listens to me speak English with other people. I have been a French/Spanish teacher for over ten years in Puerto Rico and the US. My son, at his young age, feels completely comfortable speaking French, Spanish and English. He has learning difficulties – close to dyslexia – that have nothing to do with his languages; nonetheless, he is in Advanced Reading, English and Social Studies in the public system. In our house we breathe languages. We love to play with words and imitate accents. We disagree, approve, relate, and generally communicate in Spanish and French. I call it speaking in Frañol or Frenish! It works for us and I am convinced that my son’s English language achievements are due to his French and Spanish knowledge. It works for us and we enjoy being with people who believe multilingualism is a style of life.


48 daniel December 21, 2012 at 4:05 pm

I (Spanish) am raising my boy in a non-native English and also documenting the experience in this blog. and after 2,5 years I can only see advantages. It requires effort, commitment and consistency but every little progress is more than enough to pay off. Do I make mistakes? Yes my dear but I wish I had grown up knowing English with some minor mistakes that with no English at all… it’s definitely the best investment one can make!


49 João December 28, 2012 at 12:18 pm

Hello, Rachel!
I’m brazilian and I like the English and German languages since a long time. From there, is there any possibility to download the subtitles of all your videos at Youtube or another place? I’m talking about that because I tried, but they’re impossible. Well, I think so and perhaps Youtube has any problem.

Which german sites do you visit to improve this language? I know some places with many podcasts and audios.

So, thanks a lot for your attention and have a fantastic New Year along with all your family.


50 Inglesa January 27, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Hi all,
This is a great thread and I’m so pleased to have found it. I have a 7 month old daughter and both myself and partner are English and speak English to her. I however spent a few years living in Argentina as well as studying Spanish at uni and so I would love my daughter to be able to understand and communicate as I do in Spanish which is not 100% perfect but I manage pretty well. I share all of the above concerns e.g. her inheriting the not so perfect pronunciation and accent, me not knowing the words for absolutely everything and I know my family and friends would find it weird if I spoke to her in Spanish. I don’t know what my point is really, I suppose I’m just looking for some encouragement from people who may empathise!


51 Rivas January 28, 2013 at 2:17 am

Hola Inglesa,
I cannot do anything but encourage you to go for it. We’ve done it with four languages and the results are astonishing. Our almost 4 year-old little boy speaks really good Basque, Italian and Spanish. His English, the language he does with me, is incredible for his age and we try to make the most out of every trip to Ireland or UK. Keep in mind the different windows of opportunity and learning stages.
Of course you’ll feel a little awkard and unconfortable when people find out you speak a non-native tongue to your baby but it is worth it 100%.
What we managed to create was a person and an evironment for each of the languages so that there is no mixing up. I only speak English, my wife only speaks Italian, my mum and her family only speak Basque and my Dad and brother only speak Spanish (to our son,that is..)
Let us know how you get on with this exciting chanllenge.


52 Daniel January 27, 2013 at 11:58 pm

Hi Inglesa, it´s as easy as it sounds and hard at the same time. The way I did it (although there are some others) is by talking to my boy in English everytime, everywhere, no matter what or who we are with. I just prepared myself mentally in the first months to get used to not using my mother tongue (Spanish). After the first months it all goes smoother. Taughest moments are when you get stuck or don´t know how to say something, but the good outcome is that you´ll learn like 20 to 30 words or expressions a week (just by checking things that you want to say) and your baby will most probably grow up speaking 2 languages in the most natural way. I say 100% go for it!!


53 Dolinda November 11, 2015 at 8:38 pm

I’m a Dutch native but have been in the US since I came to college at 17. My English is much better than my Dutch. I’ve chosen to actually speak French to my now 5 y/o as I love the language. It took a while to get into the groove for speaking French as it was a bit rusty when I started this and I’m not fluent (but have a very good accent). Around 16 months started doing it more and more. Some resistance around 3.5 y/o (yelling at me in French to stop speaking French….) but that seemd to change after we met a couple of romanian American kids. So in the last 2 years we have really switched over to exclusively speaking French to each other . We read a lot and she watches only french TV shows at home. We listen to French music. This fall I was lucky enough to find a french college student to come over and play with her once a week. We have a couple of French friends with kids even though they live 100 miles away. I have family in France and both they and my french friends here are very impressed with how well she speaks and with a native accent. I’m lucky that she is still very happy to speak french and in fact it is still her dominant and preferred language for the time being (I know people whose kid refuses to answer in their language despite the fact that is all they speak at home). Hoping to keep it up with continued exposure and eventually summer camps. We will see. But she will at least have a very good base as she is pretty much fluent at this point. And so far we have had nothing but positive comments (and everybody in her class thinks it is cool) which definitely helps. It has been and will continue to be a bit of an experiment. I have relearned a lot of French myself through reading to her and using Wordreference to look things up on the fly.
She gets Spanish at school and apparently has a pretty good accent with that as well which I’m sure was influenced by already speaking another language. I think it is never a waste to teach a kid another language even if they don’t become fluent. They have something to build on and realize that not everyone speaks English (at least here in the US). And accents aren’t that important really….French speakers in Africa speak French with a different accent but that doesn’t make them any less fluent. Within the U.S. There are lots of different dialects/accents and who is to decide which one is right or wrong. As long as you can communicate,


54 Sandra November 12, 2015 at 2:15 pm

Hi everyone,

I live in the UK and have 4 children. I speak spanish and my husband only english. When my oldest daughter was a baby I used to speak to her in spanish but as soon as she started nursery and she answered back in english I lost my motivation and spoke to her in english. This cycle has repeated with my other 3 children and I find it dificult to speak spanish to them now thay they are older. We recently went to visit my parents and unfirtunately the girls couldnt communicate with their grandparents.


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