Ask François Grosjean: What is the best method for helping children become bilingual?

by Corey · 4 comments

Bilingual_CoverWhile Prof. Emeritus François Grosjean was working on his wonderful book Bilingual: Life and Reality, he asked me to send him a list of questions that I felt weighed the heaviest on the minds of parents raising multilingual children.  It is my honor to present both my questions and Prof. Grosjean’s answers here at Multilingual Living over the course of the next few weeks.

This the second of the 11 Q & A, which originally appeared in The Bilingual Family Newsletter, one of my favorite publications for families raising children in more than one language (in addition to my own Multilingual Living Magazine, of course)!  After each of of Prof. Grosjean’s answers you will find a list of the specific chapters from Bilingual: Life and Reality in which he addresses each question.

What is the best method for helping children become bilingual (e.g. one parent one language, the minority language at home, etc.)?

The strategy that I favor, and that I recommend to parents who wish to bring up their children with two languages, is to use one language in the home, usually the minority language, and the other language outside the home (I call this the “home – outside the home” strategy).

This does mean that one of the parents has to speak his or her second (or third) language to the child so that everyone is using just one language at home. In addition, the language will need to be reinforced by people other than the parents (e.g. family members, friends, etc.) so as to give it a strong base.

As for the outside language, usually the majority and hence the school language, it will have no problem finding its place. The strategy has a clear advantage in that the weaker language (the home language) will receive much more input than if only one parent uses it as in the one parent – one language strategy.

In addition, things will be clear in the child’s mind: at home, language X is spoken, and outside the home, it is language Y.

Relevant chapter in Bilingual: Life and Reality which addresses this question: chapter 17.

Past Ask François Grosjean Q&A in the series:

The first in the series is Ask François Grosjean: Are My Bilingual Children Getting Enough Exposure?

François Grosjean, the author of Bilingual: Life and Reality, received his degrees up to the Doctorat d'Etat from the University of Paris, France. He started his academic career at the University of Paris 8 and then left for the United-States in 1974 where he taught and did research in psycholinguistics at Northeastern University, Boston. While at Northeastern he was also a Research Affiliate at the Speech Communication Laboratory at MIT. In 1987, he was appointed professor at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, where he founded the Language and Speech Processing Laboratory. He has lectured occasionally at the Universities of Basel, Zurich and Oxford. In 1998, he cofounded Bilingualism: Language and Cognition (Cambridge University Press). Visit his website at: and his Psychology Today blog, Life as a bilingual, at:

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Andrew July 14, 2010 at 11:36 pm

So we have been working with this approach but find it difficult when guests come who only speak the majority language. At first we would switch when talking to the children vs with guests but many monolingual guests would find that uncomfortable. Over time we would speak the majority language more at home when guests were around, but this ends up breaking the rule and once the majority language has “invaded the home” it is hard to get back on track.

Any advice?


2 Corey July 17, 2010 at 11:39 pm

Thank you for your comment, Andrew! As I am an advocate for “language living vs language learning” – which means that we create the rules that feel most comfortable and work best for us and our family. No one can tell us what will work best for us. However, our children, friends and family will notice when we are doing something that is uncomfortable. Many people will tell you that you MUST stick to one language 100% of the time without exceptions, otherwise your children will never become bilingual. Don’t listen to them. It is impossible to predict whether following the “rules” will have the outcome that we want or whether it will cause more problems down the line. Plus, your children hear you speaking the majority language in other situations, I’m sure.

Yes, it is hard to bet back on track but definitely worth it. Talk with your kids and tell them why you switch to the other language when certain people are around and that after those people are gone, it will be time to switch back. You can tell your kids that it is out of generosity to your guests that you switch to the other language. You don’t have to switch over 100% if you don’t want to – you can decide how you want to approach it. Here is an article I wrote about when my mother would come to visit and how the kids and I would switch to English to accommodate her:

Give yourself permission to create your own family rules and try them out. Just giving ourselves this freedom can be very rewarding.


3 Amy July 16, 2010 at 10:15 am

Thanks very much for this informative post. I have been working hard to speak Spanish, my husband’s native language but a second language for me, at home so that my son (2 years old) gets as much exposure as possible when he is outside of day care and our English speaking community. We speak Spanish at home about 90% of the time, but books, movies, etc are mostly in English. Our son’s Spanish comprehension is perfect, but he already prefers to speak in English, even with us at home. When he speaks to us in English, we try to repeat what he said in Spanish, but we don’t tell him not to speak in English. It’s hard to find additional outside exposure to Spanish. Any suggestions on how to keep it up, as I already feel the Spanish giving way to English!


4 Corey July 17, 2010 at 11:49 pm

Thank you for sharing your experiences, Amy. I know what you are talking about and it can feel so frustrating. It is very normal that your son prefers to speak in English – being that most of your environment is in English, it makes sense that he’d gravitate to that. So first of all, don’t worry! The fact that your son understands you shows that he is taking it all in. If he were to go to a country where only Spanish was spoken, you’d realize how much he knows.

I would recommend that you try to up the amount of Spanish language exposure via books and DVDs, if possible. If your library has them, get a few each week and read them over and over again – the fact that they will be new ones each week will hopefully encourage your son to want to check them out.

The next option would be to see if you can find others with whom to meet and speak Spanish. There is something magical for kids when they hear other adults and kids speaking the language. It probably won’t have any immediate effect but over time it might.

It really all comes down to need. If your son feels he needs to use Spanish in a given situation, then he will. Check out different activities on Multilingual Living ( find games that can only be played in Spanish, hunt down resources that your son can only interact with if it is in Spanish, etc. You can even make speaking Spanish at home a game by “pretending” to not hear him if he speaks English and being silly and listening when he speaks Spanish (but make sure he see it as a game!!).

Finally, he is only 2 years old. Give it some time (for yourself and him) and look toward the future. The more fun you can make it for him and yourself, the better the outcome overall.


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