The #1 Language Ingredient For Raising Multilingual Children

by Corey · 17 comments

As parents of multilingual children, we are often plagued by a myriad of concerns, especially when it comes to our multilingual children speaking.  We wonder if our children’s speech delay has anything to do with us raising them multilingually.  We worry about our multilingual children mixing their languages.  We fret when our children all of a sudden decide to stop speaking our language.  Each of these concerns is valid and something we need to work through for ourselves so that we can stay on track with confidence!

Yet with all of this worry around our children’s speech, we often forget the most important element in raising multilingual children.  We take for granted the one ingredient which has probably the most impact on whether or not our children will become multilingual!

What is this magical element? Drum roll please…

This magical element is: Listening.

As most of us have experienced, it is very difficult to learn a language if we never hear it spoken.  As a case in point: I studied Ancient History in college (I wanted to be a Mediterranean Archaeologist).  A large part of my four years of study was spent dedicated to learning Ancient Greek and Latin (languages which I truly enjoyed learning).  Five days a week I had classes in those languages and hours of homework each night.  On top of that, I was practicing reading French and Italian, as we were expected to be able to read research materials in those languages.  After a few years of this, I finally proclaimed myself a language-learning failure when I just couldn’t seem to retain vocabulary in any of those languages.  Then I met my German husband-to-be and after spending a year in Germany, I was attending classes at his university in German!

You already know what the magic elixir was: Listening!

I was surrounded by German-speakers day in and day out.  Their words were penetrating me and I was soaking it all up like a sponge.  I remember falling asleep at night with specific sentence constructs rolling around in my head (Es gibt viele Gründe dafür… that one rolled around in my head for weeks!).  Listening and retaining, listening and retaining.

Television shows were in German, the radio was in German (even many of the songs), books were in German, signs were in German.  Everywhere I looked or listened, it was German and all of that went into me day after day, week after week, month after month.

Multilingual children need to hear their second language spoken often, even if you don’t hear them using the language themselves.  They need to hear it spoken in context and they need to hear it spoken by as many people as possible.  You need to be this language gateway by speaking it yourself, putting on music in the language, finding DVDs and online videos in the language and surrounding your child with books in the language.

So if today you find that you are fretting over something in particular about your multilingual parenting journey, stop and take a deep breath.  All you have to do today is to speak your language.  That’s it!  If you do that, you will have covered the most important ingredient of all! Just start babbling away – even if it is about the weather or the cake you are baking or how fascinating the vacuum is when it sucks up those fur balls.  Isn’t that great!?  We don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about whether we are talking about the right things with our multilingual children and we definitely don’t need to think about teaching our children grammar or sentence structures!  Not today.  Today you just talk and surround your child’s world with your language.  We can make it more structured if and when we want to, but save that for another day.

Here are some additional ideas to get your multilingual child listening:

1. Play CDs of music or speaking at bedtime in your language.
These can be really enjoyable for children as they drift off to sleep –  and what a great way to help them take in language in a relaxed environment!  These may be CDs that you only play at bedtime so that your children look forward to them or ones that are their favorites that they listen to all the time.  Make sure they aren’t scary!

2. Fill your home with children’s DVDs in your language.
If the majority of what you have at home are DVDs in your language, then the chances are high that your child will want to watch one of them.  Your child doesn’t need to have mastered the language to watch them.  The pictures help children understand the vocabulary together with what it means.

3. Record yourself reading a book, telling a story or singing songs in your language.
My mother did this in English for my children before she passed away.  She recorded herself on CDs reading a bunch of the Boxcar Children books out loud and then sent them to my kids.  You can do this as well and have these CDs on hand when you aren’t around – for example, when a babysitter takes care of your kids or you are driving in the car and don’t feel like chatting.

4. Invite friends over who speak the language or hire a nanny.
Make sure it is understood that your friends or the nanny are to speak a lot with your child.  Their task will be to engage as much as possible with your child, speaking and interacting, not just being a silent observer.  Someone who just comes to watch your child but who speaks very little won’t be very helpful for providing your child with listening opportunities!

5. Spend time in an international district in your city or visit a community center/church/cultural event.
We often forget that in many large cities, there are areas where our languages are spoken!  In Seattle where I live, we have a large International District where many Asian languages are spoken!  It would be a shame for families raising their children in any of those languages to pass up the opportunity to hear the language spoken in their own city by people doing every-day tasks.  People who are church-goers might find a church where the service is in their language.  Sometimes community centers have gatherings for people who speak another language.  It is particularly beneficial if your child can be around people of different ages who all speak the language!

6. And the most important of all: reading out loud.
Read, read, read out loud.  This is a fabulous way to introduce vocabulary, sentence structures, grammar, context, everything all in one finely mastered package.  You don’t even have to think about the words you are reading as they have already been chosen for you!  When your children are young, focus on books with more pictures (for the context) and as your children get older, choose books with less pictures (let them envision the pictures in their own minds).

Whether your children are speaking your language or not, if you keep speaking with them, they are continuing to take in all that you have to offer in your language.  Visit a country where your language is spoken and you will see how much your children have picked up from you!

One additional key to listening: repetition. Have you noticed that children often want to hear the same story over and over and over again?  This is how our children become comfortable with their world and with this comfort comes a sense of mastery over their languages.  How can they learn the words if they don’t hear them over and over again in contexts that they understand and embrace?  Instead of hoping that the book goes missing so that you won’t have to read it for the 100th time, encourage this repetition and know that you are doing a wonderful, wonderful thing!

Postscript – Aug. 26, 2010: For more information on the value of surrounding ourselves and our children with a language (as well as some great tips), read Susanna Zaraysky’s book Language is Music.  Here is a great interview with her on CBS news where she explains more about her approach to language learning (and how she has come to speak 7!).

Do you feel that your children have enough listening in their lives?  What things do you do to make sure your child has enough listening opportunities?  Help me add to the list above with your tips and suggestions!  Or share what isn’t working when it comes to listening!

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 15, 14 and 12, in German and English.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Oliver May 25, 2010 at 12:51 am

Reading/talking to children is extremely important if you want to give them an easier time later on learning a new language later on. Read to them (or hire a nanny) even if the children do not understand the things read to them. I heard that reading to them on a daily basis can do miracles. They will get used to the sound of the language and will later have an easier time learning the language. It’s not about learning the meaning of the words at this stage, it’s about learning how the language sounds. Somehow the language becomes “imprinted” (but this may not be the correct term to use). This should happen still at an early age – there is a critical time period in the life of a young child, where this happens. Maybe some of the linguistic experts can comment on this in more detail.


2 Kirsten May 25, 2010 at 10:22 am

Thanks, Corey for this perfectly-timed post. My 6 yr old son has been doing more and more code-switching with lots of English creeping into his Italian (our non-native, minority language “@ home” with me) and it has been making me feel a little panicked. Yesterday, he got the first issue of a new Italian kids magazine in the mail so we read that at bedtime and just today I made a point of taking some Italian books to read on our streetcar ride to school. In our busy lives it has been so easy to forget the power of, and to set aside the time for, more reading out loud–in Italian– especially this first grade year when there has been such an emphasis on learning to read in English.
Interestingly, for learning to read in English, the advice of both one of our English teachers and our Head of School (who has taught English) was simply “Read, read, read and read some more.” Our Head also suggested focusing on books with topics of particular interest to our son, reading them and also just leaving them around for him to pick up and you know what? It worked! Graphic novels and comics were a HUGE hit in this regard.


3 Susan May 25, 2010 at 9:12 pm

Another great resource are podcasts and computer games, all of which you can find for free on-line. Also, check out Disney’s Club Penguin which can be played in multiple languages.


4 Barbara May 25, 2010 at 9:27 pm

A good resource for foreign language CDs can be iTunes. For example iTunes has a German store (there are more country-specific stores), where you can not only find German pop music but also tons of children’s stories and music often for just a few Euros. I could find all my favorite stories from my childhood (Astrid Lindgren, Ottfried Preussler, Michael Ende). We also found websites that work as web-based Video recorders where you can record and download the complete German TV program (we use We download tons of children’s shows and movies and our kids actually watch more German TV than American. I’m sure that other countries have similar websites. As Susan said you can of course also find podcasts on TV channel websites or on youtube. Aren’t we lucky to raise multilingual children in the Internet age!


5 Corey May 25, 2010 at 10:04 pm

Thank you everyone for the comments! The suggestions are FABULOUS! Yes, we are so, so lucky to live in this age of technology at our fingertips (even though sometimes it drives me crazy).


6 Shanna May 26, 2010 at 11:18 am

Thanks for the wonderful article and comments everyone. We are raising our daughter with English and French, but my husband who is the trilingual one is obviously working most of the day and he doesn’t get to spend a ton of time speaking French to her. We allow her to watch DVDs in French and I’m trying to find a childcare helper who is a Francophone. I will be looking into the other sites mentioned. Because my French is limited I have a hard time searching the web trying to find resources. Thanks again!


7 Corey May 29, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Shanna, are you the one who started the fabulous French Resources discussion on the Multilingual Living facebook page? What a GREAT way to find out resources! I am very impressed with your initiative. Here is the link for others wondering:


8 Margareta May 31, 2010 at 4:33 am

Great article! Recently I discovered the importance of listening to a language too.
I have a nearly 3 year old daughter who is growing up with Slovak and English as her two first languages. People always make comments about her skill to speak so well in both languages, and especially our minority language, Slovak, since the opportunities of input are just so limited. I always wondered how did we achieve this? Then I started analyzing some family videos for my research, and all of a sudden it was clear to me – in all the videos, I just talk and talk all the time! I didn’t realize just how much language she listened to every day until I watched our videos.
We talk about everything as we go, describe things around us, talk about things and activities we do, we talk about our day at bedtime…
We also read books in both languages every day, but when we talk about the books afterwards, it’s always in Slovak, we listen to Slovak music (both children music and popular) and watch DVDs. And we often just make up our own stories, my daughter will ask me to tell her a story at least 2-3 times a day, often when driving in the car to keep her happy. I let her choose what she would like to hear a story about, and then we just have fun making it up! And as she is getting older, she is able to help with the stories too.


9 Corey June 5, 2010 at 12:33 am

Thank you for your comment, Margareta! You are so right about the babbling away with our kids! I noticed that with a lot of my Latina friends – their kids started speaking early (not all but many) and then were little chatter boxes. It cracked me up because I’m definitely not as chatty as them (nor are my kids when we are in public, at least). So great to hear from others about this. Thank you for sharing!


10 Kimberly de Berzunza July 7, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Our big struggle is not with the minority language or even the L3 at this point, but the L4, Mandarin, which none of us speak. We send our child to class and do our best to make him do the homework, which includes listening to a CD of the lessons, but our ability to support this endeavor is very limited. We can’t really afford a regular tutor or anything of that nature. I’d appreciated any ideas on fun, kid-friendly Mandarin resources… deeper than Ni Hao Kai-Lan, but friendlier than the Rosetta Stone demo cd we have…


11 Corey November 19, 2010 at 10:20 pm

Thank you for your comment, Kimberly! That is a hard situation. I would say that you are doing exactly what you should be doing and that your son will use Chinese as much as he needs to – as Madalena and Prof. Grosjean have emphasized in their posts and books. I’m sure if your son were spending more time with native Mandarin speakers then he would have the “need” to use it more. The most important is that he is using it when he can and is enjoying the experience of being able to speak 4 languages. So exciting!


12 tetsu October 2, 2010 at 12:24 am

How amazing these ideas. Many of which my parents used on me! So I know first-hand how effective these ideas are! Great stuff!


13 Corey November 19, 2010 at 10:21 pm

So nice to have your feedback, Tetsu! For those of us who grew up in monolingual households and are raising children multilingually, we can always use the encouragement from those who grew up with more than one language! Thank you!


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