Growing Up Bilingual: Adolescence and Fitting In

by contributor · 4 comments

The author (back row, far left) with her husband and children.

By Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert

Being bilingual and a teenager can be challenging, for both parents and children. Adolescence is a period of change, all about finding an identity and fitting in with a group of friends. How do teenagers juggle speaking two languages and belonging to two nationalities or cultures?

We know a great deal about how very young and primary age children acquire and use two languages in daily life. Although there are several studies done on the formal comparative school results of bilingual teenagers, often monolingual children learning a second language, very little research exists relating to pre-teens (age ten to thirteen) or teenagers.  Language use in a bilingual home, between parents and their children, or with friends, remains a mystery.

Here are some of my experiences as a parent of three English/French children, aged 13, 11 and 7, and comments from discussions with parents of pre-teen/teenage bilingual children from a Bilingual Support Group I run in France.


At home the hormones and growth spurts can create a tense atmosphere when your child grows to nearly adult height and wants to be treated as an independent person, but still acts like a two-year-old with tantrums and bad moods. The typical teenager is not very chatty at home, unless he or she wants something, and often answers with a grunt or a growl!  Language use can plummet to a limited conversation involving ‘Yes/No/OK/I’ m hungry/thirsty’ or the famous ‘Leave me alone!’

I did a post on my blog a few months ago about how my 13-year-old son, Marc, was using a vocabulary of about 10 words. How was I, as the sole English speaker in the family, supposed to pass on my language if we don’t talk anymore?

It can feel frustrating to be excluded, after all those years of chatting about the world, pointing out interesting things and telling bedtime stories. We are suddenly locked out of the bedroom, asked not to talk in front of their friends, and either ignored or laughed at when we try to discuss current music or fashion.

The good news is that the lack of communication is a temporary stage and teenagers still need to talk to their parents, it’s just when they want, not always when we want to. Often my son will start to chat at ten or eleven at night (I am sleepy, but he has teenager jet-lag and isn’t tired until midnight). Otherwise, he seems to like talking in the car when I drop him off for sports practice.


Teenagers rate their peers higher than their parents. In fact, they’d much rather talk to a friend than their parents or sibling. Consequently, the majority of their daily language use is between friends, at school or via social networking sites like Facebook.

At school the clan mentality is strong and teenagers want to fit in with the group. The country or school language, often referred to as the ‘majority’ language, can swiftly override a parental or ‘minority’ language.

Stephen Caldas, author of Raising Bilingual-Biliterate Children in Monolingual Cultures, encapsulates the trials and tribulations of bilingual teenage life. American academic, Stephen, and his French-Canadian wife, Suzanne, started studying their twin daughters and son from age nine onwards. He perfectly describes the frustration of seeing all the good work going to ruin as first his son, John, and then Valerie and Stephanie simply stopped using French when they started American High School. It’s just not cool.

Curiously, when the family decamped for its annual vacation in Quebec the kids swapped back to perfect French instantly. Stephen described this as a ‘parallel universe’ where each language is activated when needed, proving that all is not lost and that bilingual teenagers use languages in a practical sense.

Social Networking

Adolescents love to create their own slang or swearwords. This can come as a shock to parents in a bilingual family who may not understand the swearing or slang and feel excluded.

Trying to ban or limit slang/swearwords that you don’t understand is a challenge. This is especially hard for parents who have moved to another country where the child attends school in a second language and they find that their child has learnt a lot more of the local language than they expected…

Computer use is high in this age group and academic researchers at a recent conference I attended predicted bilingual teenagers chatting via webcams and finding wonderful ways to keep the minority language alive. This is a great step from traditional Saturday schools or parents teaching languages at home.

Unfortunately, bilingual teens prefer the language of the group and go to great lengths to stick with the majority language; quite happily dropping the minority language along the way. Accessing your teenager’s  Facebook account to see what your child is talking about is not always easy when you don’t understand, as British mother, Claire, mother of a fourteen-year-old daughter, living in France says;

‘We let Megan register for Facebook in English hoping she would use more English and improve her spelling, but when she ‘chats’ with her friends she always does it in French and writes things like MDR or A+, which I don’t understand!’ (My daughter tells me, confidentially, that MDR means mort de rire literally ‘dying of laughing’ or ‘so funny’, and A+ is short for à plus or ‘see you later!’)

Some parents have encouraged teenagers to use the minority language online, especially with a language which needs extra support. Your teenager may be interested to chat online in a minority language, but only if the person he or she is talking to has similar interests. Some parents reported sharing computer games in a minority language as a way to use more of their language in an informal way.

Identity issues

Bilingual teenagers with parents from two different countries, or from families who have immigrated to another country with a different language, can find themselves torn between the two cultures. They are in a period of change and asking questions about their identity.  If they are in a perfectly balanced bilingual or International school where being bilingual is normal, or living in a country where bilingualism is valued, this can be less of a problem.

For children in a monolingual school where bilingual children are seen as ‘different’( or worse, ‘weird’) they can be tempted to drop one language/culture as a quick fix to be part of the peer group. No one likes to be different and parents can be an embarrassment at this age. So having a parent speaking a strange language in front of their friends or not understanding the teachers can be fatal to their confidence.

In general, the country where they live influences identity, and a teenager can even go as far as to refuse to accept he or she has two nationalities, which can lead to a temporary refusal to use one language too. Parents also report teenagers as being very narrow-minded and often seeing their minority or family language as ‘worthless’ or ‘pointless’, especially if not many people around them speak it. Other children can go the other way, seeing the language or culture of the minority language as superior to the one they live in, praising the sport or music highly, and telling everyone they are from that country.

Bilingual teenagers need to ‘find’ themselves and move from childhood to maturity, while still keeping their two (or more) languages/cultures alive and active. How we, as parents or teachers, encourage them is not always easy and it can be frustrating to see all our efforts to sustain family bilingualism ignored. But, in the long run we will have an interesting adult to talk too and share our language and culture.

Further Information:

Stephen J. Caldas
Raising Bilingual-Biliterate Children in Monolingual Cultures
Multilingual Matters (2006)
Life with three bilingual pre-teens/teenagers

Judith Rich Harris
The Nurture Assumption

W.W. Norton & Co. (1998)
Good book on teenagers and fitting in with the peer group.

Ten Little Words

Suzanne’s Blog: Notes from the OPOL Family

Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert is British and married to a Frenchman. The family lives in France with their three more-or-less bilingual children. Suzanne has a Masters in Education and teaches English as a second language. She independently researches family bilingualism and multilingualism. Suzanne is the author of Language Strategies for Bilingual Families - the one parent-one language approach and Bilingual Siblings: Language Use in Families. (Multilingual Matters, 2004). Suzanne is on the Editorial board of The Bilingual Family Newsletter and writes a quarterly column: Notes from the OPOL Family about life with two languages and cultures.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Kate December 6, 2010 at 6:54 pm

Thank you so much for this post! While it outlines the challenges of dealing with teenagers and bi/multilingualism, it also offers hope and encouragement! My own son is only 1 year old, but as a teacher at a German Saturday school, I interact with teens in this circumstance on a weekly basis. So I often thing about the future and wonder how it will be for us. Will my son continue speaking German? Will he ever begin to learn his father’s language of Dutch? Time will tell! But I’ll remain hopeful!


2 Andrew December 8, 2010 at 6:16 pm

“Curiously, when the family decamped for its annual vacation in Quebec the kids swapped back to perfect French instantly. Stephen described this as a ‘parallel universe’ where each language is activated when needed, proving that all is not lost and that bilingual teenagers use languages in a practical sense.”

Well, this is people in general who do this, Tim Ferriss has talked about this before–it’s quite easy to “reactivate” a language that you learned to fluency but haven’t used in years, not that big of a deal, really. The human brain doesn’t get enough credit sometime. This isn’t something specific to bilingually-raised teens, anyone can do it.



3 Ute March 20, 2013 at 7:39 am

I can tell you from my own experience as a multilingual child and now adult (in her fourties…) that this is really only a phase. Like the code-switching fase(s) every bi- or multilingual has. I had several phases where I just didn’t want to talk German. I still did understand everything but the other languages were dominant in my life (French and Italian) for several reasons. When I was 13-15 it was because of my friends, mainly Italian, French and Dutch, and when I was in my twenties, because my collegues and my research field were French, Italian, Spanish. That doesn’t mean that I did “forget” my German. My German had a “revival” in my Thirties and that’s fine. So: it’s all about the need to talk the language, the personal preference we have for whatever reason. – I see that you published this post in 2010 already, I guess the situation has changed? I would be very interested in knowing more about your experience with it.


4 Lara May 9, 2016 at 8:55 pm

It is true, at least I have seen it time and again during these last 20 years working with heritage speakers, that the greater language home language loss happen during their teen years… Teens just want to fit in, don’t want to be viewed as being ‘different’ or ‘weird’… We all have work to do for bilingualism to become simply the norm!


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