Ask François Grosjean: Is It OK for Parents to Raise Bilingual Children in a Non-Native Language?

by Corey · 5 comments

While 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 fifth 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 our 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.

Is it all right to raise a child in a non-native language, even if parents don’t speak the language absolutely perfectly (but well enough) and they don’t have a perfect native accent?

The really important factor in children acquiring two (or more) languages, and then maintaining them, is the need they have for those languages: to communicate with parents and family members, to take part in daycare or school activities, to interact with people in their community, etc. If parents can create the need for more than one language, and other factors are favorable, then children will become bilingual.

Among the other factors, we find the amount of language input and the type of input, both mentioned in the question above. Two points are important.

First, not knowing a language perfectly well and having an accent in it is not a reason for not speaking that language to a child. After all, in families who adopt the “one language in the home, the other outside the home” strategy, there is often one parent who is not a native speaker of the home language. Note also that many families who have changed linguistic regions or countries, and have to help their children who are schooled in another language, often do not themselves have perfect knowledge of the outside language.

The second point is that it is very important for children to receive as much exposure as possible to each language. Thus, the parents who don’t know a language well, but who are using it with their child, will want to find ways of increasing the child’s exposure to that language. Sometimes this is easy (e.g. it is the language of the community and/or the school) but sometimes it is more difficult.

In my new book, I relate how a family developed various stratagems to increase their children’s natural exposure to their weaker language.

Relevant chapters in Bilingual: Life and Reality which addresses this question: chapters 14 & 17.

Past Ask François Grosjean Q&A in the series:

  1. The first in the series is Ask François Grosjean: Are My Bilingual Children Getting Enough Exposure?
  2. The second in the series is Ask François Grosjean: What is the best method for helping children become bilingual?
  3. The third in the series is Ask François Grosjean: Can I Change From One Language Or Method To Another?
  4. The fourth in the series is Ask François Grosjean: What Does Research Say About the Benefits of Multilingualism?

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:

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sarah June 29, 2010 at 2:50 pm

“If parents can create the need for more than one language….”

“Find ways of increasing the child’s exposure to that [non-native] language….”

Yes! That’s why raising my son with non-native French in northern Colorado is so darn hard. I better buy his book ASAP 🙂


2 Corey June 29, 2010 at 4:22 pm

Oh Sarah, you are a beacon to all of us non-native speaking parents! Knowing there are others out there like you doing what they do is such an inspiration to me personally. Keep up the fabulous work!

Yes, Grosjean’s book is a great encouragement. He is so very wise and knows what he is talking about personally. And to top it off, he is a kind, generous person.


3 Antonina August 2, 2010 at 10:21 pm

I am Italian, so is the rest of my family. We live in Northern Italy. We were born here and raised here. I am the only one who knows English well enough and loves that language so much to decide to speak to our children (3 1/2 and 5 1/2) exclusively in English, since they were born, despite not being native. It hasn’t always been easy: at first I was shy and ashamed. I didn’t want other people to hear me because of my accent and my mistakes, and because I didn’t want to look like a show-off. However, I got over it and got to the point of finding myself starting sentences in English even to Italian children who don’t know a word of English, as if English were the language I was supposed to speak to all the children I was with. I know other parents who have been trying to raise their children bilingually. The difference is they are all native speakers of the minority language. And what amazes everybody is that while their children understand the minority language perfectly but don’t speak it (except for a sentence here and there and only if they have to), my children speak fluent English. My problem? I FEEL SOOOOO ALONE! Looking for other children who can speak English like mine is like looking for a needle in a haystack: all I find is Italian parents who would like their children to learn English from mine, and, whenever I have been so lucky as to get in contact with some native English parents who’ve been trying to raise their children bilingually, I have clearly aroused their envy and I have very soon been avoided because my children were more fluent than theirs. Hey, I don’t mean to say my chindren are geniuses! I have just been lucky, or maybe it’s just that we got good results because I have been persistent and have always avoided mixing Italian and English when talking to them. I know my limits, so I have been looking for support, but hardly anyone can understand my situation here. My oldest child has recently begun to speak both in English and in Italian to me too (but I only reply in English to her). I expected that to happen sooner or later: after all, all of her schoolmates and friends speak Italian, and the main language at pre-school is Italian, and she has clearly been doing that because she wants to be like her peers. She’ll begin primary school in September. It’s going to be 99% in Italian (at least there was a native-speaking English teacher in pre-school)… we’ll see how things will go. I just hope I’ll somehow manage to keep the English language part of our family environment till our children become teenagers: I hope by then they’ll have come to realize how useful English is.
Good luck everybody!


4 Corey August 16, 2010 at 10:56 pm

Thank you so much for your comment, Antonia!!! I can imagine how you feel and why it must feel so lonely. Know that Prof. Grosjean read your comment – I hope that his comments in the final Q&A post are a source of encouragement and support!

It is very difficult in particular when envy from others is involved. It is enough to make us want to stop! All we can do is to stay focused on our languages and find others who are supportive and encouraging. Just as we do not give credence to those who put us down about other aspects of our lives, we need to try not to be influenced by others who put down our language choices. Plus, if you were to quit and others who are envious were to start speaking English with their children, then what would be the point, right?

I know that none of this can replace the struggle it can be to raise our children in a non-native language but I hope that this website, the facebook page and the tweets with encouragement and research articles that I send out are helpful and keep your spirits lifted! In the end, it is all about staying motivated and inspired. The magic of inspiration is that it can keep us going even when things get tough. It is the most important!

Good luck to you and all of us who may be struggling with anything in our multilingual lives!


5 Fiona Macleod-Green May 16, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Our family lives in Australia. We speak and read to our daughter in Japanese, English, and some Gaelic at home. The comments from other people about the languages so far have been mostly positive, and slightly envious. When I hear any comments that are negative, not fully informed or just made out of fear, I thank people for their concern, and remind them our child is growing up in a global environment, and the raising of our child remains the responsibility of us, her parents. 😀 Our daughter responds to us more quickly when we speak in Japanese or Gaelic, because that is what she is used to hearing at home from people who love her. When people speak to her in Japanese or Gaelic, she assumes someone who is friends with her parents. Good luck to the parents who are giving their child the positive gift of language and through that, a wider community!


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