Ask François Grosjean: What are the golden rules that bilingual families should follow?

by Corey · 2 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 sixth 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.

Are there specific golden rules that every bilingual family should follow when raising children in more than one language?

Every bilingual family is different from the other and so it is difficult to establish the same rules for everyone. I would personally insist on a number of things.

First, one should encourage parents to clearly understand the factors that help children acquire a language in addition to the first language. The need factor is crucial; without it, a child may simply not acquire a language. But other factors such as the amount and type of input, the role of the family, the role of the school and the community, and attitudes towards the language, the culture, and bilingualism are also critical.

The second point is that children should be put regularly in monolingual situations if at all possible, that is situations where only one of the two languages can be used (I have already mentioned this point previously). In families bringing up bilingual children, there are adults who are also bilingual and who therefore call upon bilingual communication phenomena such as code-switching and borrowing. This is quite natural and does not need to be changed. But children must also be put in situations where only one language can be used so that they learn, little by little, how to navigate between the monolingual mode of communication and the bilingual mode.

The third point is that  parents must receive support from others in their venture to make their children bilingual. In turn, they must be very supportive of their children’s language knowledge and use. When the children are a bit older, parents should to talk to them about bilingualism as well as biculturalism (if several cultures are involved).

I personally remember that as an adolescent, I missed having parents who could explain to me what I was going through linguistically and culturally. I would have liked to understand why I didn’t know one language as well as the other, why I was making interferences, why I had difficulties translating, and so on. There is now sufficient literature on bilingualism to inform parents what it means to live with two or more languages.

Finally, the bilingualism of children should be a source of joy, both for parents and children, even if there are occasional moments of difficulties (e.g. the first days in a school that uses the child’s weaker language; instances where the child is teased or embarrassed, etc.). If there comes a time where the moments of hardship outweigh the moments of happiness, then it is important that parents take some action such as readjusting the importance, and the role, of the child’s languages.

Relevant chapters in Bilingual: Life and Reality which addresses this question: chapters 14, 16 & 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?
  5. The fifth in the series is Ask François Grosjean: Is It OK for Parents to Raise Bilingual Children in a Non-Native Language?

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:

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Maria H July 5, 2010 at 10:11 pm

Great question Corey! I think #3 and #4 are the ones I most welcome reading because I think they are so important and yet I don’t see them talked about very often. Great to get this info out.


2 Corey July 11, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Thanks for your comment, Maria! Yes, it is so, so true what you say. We think that it is always all about the language but really it comes down to making it fun and enjoyable for our kids and also US! Finding the continual motivation and inspiration is so very important. So happy to read your comment!


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