Who Says You Can’t Raise Your Children Bilingually?

by Corey · 28 comments

Multilingual Children You Can Do It!

By Corey Heller

You can raise your children bilingually.

Let me repeat…

You can raise your children bilingually.

I know this comes as a surprise to many people, especially those who feel they couldn’t master another language if their life depended upon it, let alone share the language with their children.  But not only can you learn another language well enough, you can bring your children into your bilingual family fold as well!  And if you already know a language fairly well, then what are you waiting for? 

I’m not saying that your children will necessarily be able to attend universities in France or China or Senegal.  Your child may not wake up in the morning chatting away in Urdu or Swahili.  But what I am saying is that you can include language as an integral part of raising your child.  You can raise your child bilingually.  Don’t worry about the final outcome right now!

Misconceptions Be Gone!

Here is a list of some common misconceptions that often hold us back:

1. The “All or Nothing” belief.
Who said that if you are raising your child bilingually that you have to speak a second language every moment of every day?  Don’t fall into that belief trap.  You can raise your child bilingually with as much language exposure as you want. Let yourself be empowered by this! In fact, studies show that even a small but consistent amount of language exposure has benefits (which is my #1 reason for why we should introduce languages to our children at an early age: We’ll have even more time to expose them to it!).

2. The fluency belief.
Yes, I know that belief – the one where I feel that my language fluency just isn’t good enough to speak it with my children.  You are thinking, “How can I expose my children to such rusty Tagalog?” or “I haven’t spoken Arabic in years!”  My answer to this is: no problem! So your accent isn’t very good and you can’t remember much vocabulary?  Then work on improving this.  In fact, you just might find that reviving your language can be one of the most exciting things you can do to revive you!  Make this exciting and fun and a worthy challenge!  Use it to connect with your children!

3. People are going to laugh at me.
Yep, they might.  They might even criticize you.  They might even put down your language abilities.  But what does that have to do with you and your children and the gift of bilingualism which you have to share?  If you are making language fun and exciting for yourself and your children, then your doubting friends, family, acquaintances and passers-by on the street can learn a lot from you.  Just have a rote answer ready to respond to these naysayers and make sure to say it with that confidence and joy which I know you have in you. Give it some time and before you know it, others will be following your lead!

4. I can’t do this forever.
Maybe, maybe not.  No one is saying that you have to do this forever.  Take it one day, one week, one month, one year at a time.  That is what my husband and I do with bilingual homeschooling (and we are now in our fourth year).  Just take it slow and easy and with a patient mind.  Find the motivation you need by coming up with a general plan.  Set some realistic goals: three nights a week I will read my child a bedtime story in Indonesian, or every Tuesday and Thursday I will spend from 9:00 in the morning to noon speaking Japanese with my children.  Do this for a few months and then add or subtract as best fits your needs.  I’ll bet you will be adding and not subtracting to your plan!

Does the word “raising” stress you out?

When people ask if you are “raising your child bilingually” do you hesitate and become tongue-tied?  Is that term simply too big and heavy for you to take on?  Then use whatever term you want to use: “teaching your children another language,” “introducing your children to languages,” etc.

But before you start to downplay that you are “raising your children bilingually,” consider what, exactly, the term “raising” means…

We often say that we are “raising our children to be kind individuals” but that doesn’t mean we spend every waking moment pounding that concept into their little heads.  We also say that we are “raising our children to be active and healthy” because we feed them well and make sure they get fresh air and physical movement every day. But we do also let them sit on the sofa, eating snacks and vegging-out in front of a DVD, more than we’d like to admit.

Raising our children includes many different components, all of which come together to form a unique and lovely tapestry of our individual lives.  Making bilingualism part of this living and raising and growing is an active, evolving process.

You have permission to answer questions from others about bilingual parenting with confidence and joy (and then read #1 above again, just as an added boost).  I’m not saying that you should lie to others and tell them that you only speak your second language 24/7.  Be honest and envelop others into the fold of your wonderful bilingual parenting experience.

This won’t always be easy but until you jump in and give it a try you will never know what joy is awaiting you!  Language can transform your life in many positive ways.

Are you ready?  Go for it today!

What are your experiences in raising your child bilingually?  Are you still hesitating?  Why?  Or if you have already started, what language do you speak with your children?  What is your language plan?  How often do you speak this language with your children?

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.

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Susan May 26, 2010 at 10:52 pm

People never laugh at me. Everyone tells me how wonderful it is that I am giving my children the gift to speak another language. Native speakers are thrilled that I am so interested in their language, and monolinguals wish they had my language skills. Do I make mistakes since Spanish is not my native language? Yes, but listen to reporters on the news. They make mistakes too, and they are speaking their native language, not to mention they are paid professionals. My husband and I are using the OPOL method. I only speak to the children in Spanish and he speaks to them in German. My plan is to provide as much input in Spanish as possible and when they are a little older, we hope to attend classes in Spanish speaking countries and in Germany.


2 Corey May 29, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Susan, what a great experience you and your family are having with multilingualism! So wonderful! I love the idea of aiming for classes in other countries. I know quite a few families who actually put their kids into the local school when they are visiting family during the school year. They say their experiences have been good. I wonder about the social integration but it sounds like it works well.


3 Annika January 31, 2012 at 1:33 am

We’ve done this a couple of times at the end of the school year. The Finnish school finishes earlier (first weekend of June) than the French school so our oldest daughter has had time to spend 2 weeks at the local school in her grandparent’s village. The reason we did this was for her to meet (in a natural way) other kids of her age that live in the same village so that she would have friends when we go there. We were a bit concerned the first time (the grandparents were actually quite sceptical), but everything went really well. Just before the holidays they did not do extensive studying any more and could spend time getting to know our daughter in class and she made some great friends


4 Sarah May 27, 2010 at 10:33 pm

That’s great. How is it working out for you? How old are your kids? Do they respond in German and Spanish?
I have 2 kids, 6 and 2 and I have not really gotten into speaking other languages with them. We translate a few words here and there, but never really converse in the other languages. But I need to change that.


5 Susan May 27, 2010 at 11:32 pm

Our kids are 10 months and 2 and a 1/2. The two year old is very verbal and always uses Spanish with me and German with dad. His English is weak, but that will change once he starts school. I am amazed at how well it is going.


6 Corey May 29, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Sarah – do you feel that you have a good “language plan” in place? It helps to decide who will speak which languages when so that you don’t have to think about it. This doesn’t mean you have to speak the languages all the time. You can add that answer into the “when” question. Here is a useful article to start with (or to come back to over and over again over the years):


7 Jolanda July 27, 2010 at 8:37 pm

Oh gosh … I always thought my English wasn’t good enough. And that I would learn my kids the English language the wrong way. I am from the Netherlands and we learn several languages at school (English, French, German and of course Dutch), but I was never confident in speaking (still not enough :-)).
Last year we moved to from Europe to the US, btw my boys are now 15 and 13 and the eldest has had 3 yeard of English lessons at school, and they speak English fluently. They teach me instead, isn’t that amazing 🙂


8 Corey July 30, 2010 at 10:37 pm

Thank you for this comment, Jolanda! Isn’t it crazy how much we worry about things that later aren’t a problem at all!? When it comes to multilingualism we often feel like we are going to mess up everything (our kids, our families, ourselves) if we aren’t very, very, VERY careful. In the end, it is pretty much like any other decision we make in life: a lot of following our instinct and hoping for the best.

So delighted to hear about your kids language now! And what fun to have them being able to give the language back to you! I love it!


9 Jeanne March 20, 2011 at 11:29 am

I was doing non-native German with my younger children, but a real lack of support and energy have led to not really doing it anymore. My Spanish is about the same level as my German, and some of my children want to learn Spanish, so I also have trouble figuring out which language to do, what to do when, how to do it all, and then I don’t do anything (or very little!).


10 Kilmaire March 20, 2011 at 8:21 pm

I live in Toronto, Canada and French is not my native language. My grandmothe was French and my mother used to speak French when I was little but I was never really good at it. Since I given birth to my children I always wanted my kids to be fluent in French. So I insisted on putting them in a French (100%) school. I could have put them in a French Immersion (50% English & 50% French) school but opted not to do so. We were interviewed by the school board of why we want to put our kids in a Frnch school with my limited French, but we insisted and they accepted our kids to the school. It has been only their 2nd year (senior kindergarten) in school but my kids are fluent in French, I only let them read in French, always turn the French channels on TV whenever they watch, put on French music at home and in the car and buy French books. Eventhough my husband doesn’t speak a word of French, he’s very happy with our choice to educate our children in French. I try to speak French to them and when I made mistakes, my kids would correct me everytime. I am taking some class to improve my French and keep up with my kids.
I agree with one of the comment of giving my kids the gift of a second language. It will be with them forever and they will be officially bilingual when they graduated from the French high school. Not to mention that French and English are the (2) official languages here in Canada.


11 Maggie January 31, 2012 at 6:13 am

This is a really late reply, but it’s awesome what you are doing! I also grew up in Toronto, and my dad is francophone Belgian. When I was a baby and toddler, he spoke with me in French only, but because my parents decided to send me to English school, he pretty much gave up; the French devolved and I forgot everything I knew. He kicked himself for it later (as did I when I was working for the federal government with my weak French skills). I did end up with a great French accent though (while my brother, according to my dad, “speaks French like an anglo”).


12 Jolanda March 20, 2011 at 8:49 pm

Kilmaire, isn’t it great that you are learning from your kids now …
Corey, yes I’m very pleased they give it back to me … still learning, it’s a life’s process 😀

Bilingual education is indeed a wonderful gift to our kids. I am very happy that my boys speak several languages. Very handy when on vacation (in Europe and of course Canada). And I hope they will be in advantage when applying for a job when they’re grown up.


13 Tanya March 21, 2011 at 4:03 pm

Good to hear it is woking for some people. We’ve been doing one papernt one language since she was born (me – Russian and my husband – English and we live in an English -speaking country). I have always been very dedicated with her learning Russian. I’ve made books for her in Russian, downloaded resources from the web, nursery rhymes, videos, cartoons, songs, grandparents on Skype twice a week. We even go to Russian playgroup every Saturday.

Now our daughter is 2 years and 2 months old and has significant speech delay (her other health and development is fine). Speech therapy is only awailable in English, so I’m thinking of giving up Russian for a timebeing (although this idea is heartbreaking) as 2 languages seem too hard for her. She’s started her daycare 2 months ago and started saying some English words, but no Russian words so far. If I give it up now, what what be the right time to start again? Has anyone had a similar situation?

I’ve heard it is possible to raise kids bilingually, however my friends’s children only would speak Russian if both parents are Russian or Russian Grandma is living with them or visiting often.


14 Jolanda March 21, 2011 at 7:23 pm

Tanya, there is a good possibility that your daughter is absorbing every word she hears in both English and Russian. You think she’s behind but maybe you’re wrong. My sister (we are Dutch) is married to an Irish man and tried to raise her children bilangual. Her eldest daughter did not speak for a long time …. and my sister’s husband wanted her to stop speaking Dutch to her because he thought it would confuse her. By the time she finally started speaking she spoke so many words after each ohter and so very fast … it still amazes me. My sister dis stop speaking Dutch to her … so her Dutch is very low and my mother can’t speak English so having a conversation was difficult. No my niece is almost 13 years old, she loves to speak Dutch though it is not as fluent as her English. What I want to say, please don’t give up too soon.
You never know what’s going on in her little head. You can try to figure out whether she understands the words you say to her by watching her actions.
Good luck, I hope it will work out for you and your family.


15 Yama Stanikzai March 22, 2011 at 2:53 am

i`m agree with you that is right


16 kilmaire March 22, 2011 at 11:07 am

I agree with you also Yolanda, my children are twins, and they were somehow delayed in speaking, but it is normal for twins or bilingual babies, and my kids are in both categories, first they have their own baby language between themselves and they are also absorbing the other languages. My pediatrician said not to worry about it. He was right, as soon as they said their first word, it never stop coming:):)

I have a French teach who happens to be a linguist at the University of Toronto, she said kids can aborb 3 different languages without affecting/ confusing them. And the best age to introduce different language is between birth up to 5 years old.

So Tanya, don’t give up too soon, I am pretty sure your daughter is going to be fine. What make you think that she is delayed? Have you ever talked to her pediatrician? Maybe you should talk to the pediatrician before stop speaking Russian to your daughter.

Good Luck.


17 Tanya March 23, 2011 at 7:56 am

Thank you for your posts, Jolanda & Kilmaire. I’ve decided to keep trying. Actually, I’ve just booked flights to Russia to visit my family. So, definitely doesn’t make sense to give up now. Luckily, I have a lot of support here ( from my friends, doctors and this great Multilingual Living website). My husband doesn’t mind me continuing either. My daughter definitely has speech delay – she’s been seen by 2 speech pathologists who both agreed on that. She says only a handfull of words (20 may be) and she uses the same word for a lot of things, some words she said before we never heard again, some words she just makes up and they are neither English, nor Russian. Her peers already capable of holding a conversation! She understands both Russian & English quite well, so since that is the case they both told me it is OK to continue with Russian. We haven’t taken her to paediatrician yet, but our family doctor has checked her and told me to just wait as “this is very common with bilingual kids”. He has 3 bilingual children himself! I don’t think bilingualism causes speech delay, as I see a few of those kids around my daughter’s age and most would either mix English & Russian or just speak English. I attended “Help Toddlers to Talk” workshop and out of 10 kids with delays there were only 3 bilinguals. My problem now is more of a practical approach – how do we do speech therapy? Speech pathologist recommended us to attend a special playgroup, but it is in English! My husband doesn’t have time and he can’t even do special assignments with her at home – my man is too busy working! So in order for therapy to work I’d need to start speaking in English to her, which goes contrary to what speech pathologists recommended to me – stick to Russian only. My inlaws also want teach her Spanish (their language) but waiting for her to start talking in English first. I’m getting very confused!


18 Dani March 31, 2011 at 1:56 am

Hi Tanya, I´d also suggest you to keep on speaking Russian and go ahead with your bilingual plan. Some kids just sart speaking later than others, and if your little girl does have speech delay, as you say it´s probably nothing to do with the fact that she is hearing 2codes. I´m sure she will be fine if you give her time. I recommend you the book “The Bilingual Edge” (check in Amazon.com) as it´s very usefull, practical and it goes through all your worries, giving you facts and advice based on experiences. Here is what I do when I feel down about this whole thing, or I think of giving up: 1) I look at my 11months little boy and I picture him in many situations of his future life, when the second language is going to be clearly a benefit, or just means more chances for him. In the end, better opportunities is what we all want for our kids (he´ll be able to study in other countries, better job opportunities, flirt with a wider range of people!! I wish I had had that…)
2) I re-read the book I told you, and check in the internet for websites like this (which I love).
Think about it. I live in Spain and I´m Spanish. I´ve got fluent (or something) at 23! The thought here is “2 languages? no one can live at that speed!!!” And yet I go against the mainstream, study my list of new words/expressions of the week and integrate them to start using them with my “pequeñito”. You are native so you have all that work done. I say Go Tanya Go!


19 Mer May 18, 2011 at 3:58 am

Este artículo me ha gustado mucho, y perdonad que no escriba en inglés, pero no me veo capaz de hacerlo. Quisiera decirle al autor que me he sentido muy identificada con todo lo que ha expuesto y que ahora me siento más orgullosa y más capaz de seguir adelante en mi difícil tarea de hablar inglés a mi hijo. Gracias. Thanks!


20 EVA May 22, 2011 at 7:47 am

I loved the article either.. I have a daugther of 10 months old and I decided to speak to her in English since she was 7. Every day I learn how to feel more and more comfortable with other language (english) that is not my mother tongue (spanish). Some days I am not able to find the word I need at the right moment, but doesn´t it happen even in your own language? As far as I am able to overcome my own limits, doubts, and lack of self confident, I will be able to give her the best gift I could ever give to anybody: my daily effort, discipline, willpower…that only show one thing MY DEEP LOVE FOR HER.


21 Bridgette January 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm

What a motivating article! My son is now 3 months old and up until I read this I thought that I couldn’t raise him bilingually (English/Spanish) for all of the reasons listed above but mostly because I don’t feel fluent enough to speak to him in Spanish (my 2nd language). The funny contradiction here is that I am a bilingual teacher in a local Spanish/English elementary school. I’m currently working on my Master’s Degree in bilingual education. I teach for 7 hours a day in Spanish and for some reason I still thought I wasn’t fluent enough to teach him anything. I guess I just got so caught up on speaking perfectly with no errors that I overlooked the beauty of multilingualism and the benefits of teaching him what I know. Thanks to this article, I’m now working on coming up with a plan to teach him Spanish; I plan to start tomorrow =)


22 Virginia January 31, 2012 at 5:05 am

Hi, my name is Virginia and I was born and live in Argentina, though I have traveled and lived in English speaking countries for years. I am an English/Spanish translator and I love both languages. I have two children, who are 8 and 5, and though I do not speak English to them all the time I usually sing to them, or say short sentences or explain things to them in English every day. We also read books in Spanish and English and have a wonderful Pingu video to teach English that my children love to watch again every now and then. That is to say, I do not sit and teach them English for an hour every day, but I try to expose them to the language as often as I can (when I was pregnant I dreamed of speaking to them only in English-it just didn’t happen). But the thing is, right now I am just happy to “get their ears used to the language” and I trust that with that and the English they learn at school it will become increasingly familiar to them. This site is very encouraging to me! Thank you all for sharing your experiences and keep up the good work!!


23 Maggie January 31, 2012 at 6:22 am

This is a really encouraging article! I am a native English speaker and I already speak several languages (with varying levels of fluency), and I’ve recently started learning Mandarin. My husband is ethnically Chinese, and I hope to raise our future kids with some Mandarin so that they can communicate with family members and also have a connection to their heritage. Sometimes it’s discouraging, as I wonder how I can learn enough Mandarin within a couple of years to be able to talk to my kids, but this is a good reminder that even if I just learn enough to give them a basis, that is worth it.


24 HayKeen February 15, 2012 at 2:39 pm

I am American and my husband is Armenian. We have a 2.5 year old who we are raising bilingually. I lived for 4 years in Armenia so I am a fluent speaker and so we both speak with her in Armenian (most of the time) at home. We speak a mix of English and Armenian with her when around other English-only speakers. Her English lagged a bit behind her Armenian for awhile until we started letting her watch TV (we wanted to wait until around 2).

Our plan is to continue Armenian at home and English around English-only speakers. Hopefully my in-laws will be coming to live with us this year and I’m hoping this will provide a motivation for my daughter to continue speaking Armenian as she gets older, enters school and is surrounded by peers speaking mostly English. We also have an Armenian community in our city so I hope to plug into that more as we are able.


25 Viv May 12, 2013 at 11:40 pm

We are raising our son in English, German and Mandarin. We also notice that he doesn’t have that many expressive words although his passive language in all three languages is perfectly fine. He is now 2 and just started forming actual words (besides Mama and Papa) a month or two ago. In fact, of all 26 letters in the alphabet, he can manage only slightly half, so when he wants to say “milk” or German “Milch” — he instead says “Mi” as he cannot make the “L”, “K” or “CH” sounds. He names the picture of a duck as “Ya” (Mandarin) but does not use the English or German; similarly, he says the English word “apple”, but is unable to say “ping guo”. I am trying to be optimistic here, with the theory that he is just beginning to develop he speech ability and will catch up eventually. My mother has asked me to take him to a speech therapist to check if he has delay, but Im, resisting it and giving him some more time. Still, one cannot help but worry!


26 Mer May 13, 2013 at 11:49 pm

Hi Viv! If your son is just 2, there is no delay in his speaking. My son didn’t start to speak spanish fluidlly till he started at school when he was closed to be 3. Now he speaks spanish the same as others of his age (3 years and 8 months old), and he is starting to build his own english sentences (his second language). My son began to speak in the same way that yours: the easy one, and that is so clever. He knew car and ‘coche’ but he prefered to say car instead of ‘coche’ because it was easier. And when he was able to say ‘coche’ the first time, he looked at me quite surprised and proud and told me ‘Mami, ¡coche!’ triying to tell me that now he was older. It was a great moment for both.
Congratulations for trying!


27 Viv May 14, 2013 at 12:20 am

Thanks Mer, for the encouragement. It’s been so hard to get feedback because the kids around us that I observe are all monolingual and I’ve been trying to find parents with similar experiences with their multilingual kids at this stage of speech development. I agree that choosing the “easy” word over the harder one makes so much more sense to a child. May I ask if your son started out as a chatty or noisy baby (babbled a lot before age 1) or was he less vocal as an infant? I don’t know if this is a relevant correlation, Julien never said much till he was 15 months although by all counts, he is as active and playful as any other boy.


28 Mer May 14, 2013 at 1:08 am

Hi Viv! Such an amazing coincidence, my son is named Julian! 😀
No, he wasn’t a chatty or noisy baby. I have a niece four months younger than him and she was able to speak fluidly sooner (Even she stopped using nappies five months before than Julian). Everyone in the family talked about that delay, but I didn’t care about that.
And now I can see the difference with my daughter who is 9 months old: she usually sings (I mean, she waves her hands at the same time she spends quite time talking loud) or ‘read’ (she likes handling books and pointing to the pictures meanwhile making sounds).
Also I have a five years old nephew that never said anything before almost three, and he is monolingual.
To sum up, each child is different! Each family is different! What is not different is that Mothers always try to do their best, and they ususally achieve it!
I live in Spain and I would like to meet up bilinguals families, in order to share our livings, worries… and try to improve my family’s english.


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