What Is the Best Language Approach for Bilingual Parents to Use with Their Children?

by Madalena · 3 comments

Dear Madalena,

My husband and I both speak English but I am bilingual and speak German as well.  I would like to teach my son German, he is 19 months old.  What is the best way for me to do this? 

I have been thinking of speaking German with him every morning and then English in the afternoon after his nap.  Will this confuse him? 

I would appreciate your feedback.


Dear Esther,

The best way for you to teach German to your son is simply to use German with him whenever you feel like using German with him. You don’t need to worry about setting up a schedule for speaking your languages with your child.

You can of course do this, if you so wish, but you may well find yourself speaking English (or German) at the “wrong” time of day, checking your watch before talking to your child in order to find out which language is due at the time, or worrying that you’re not being a good parent because you’re not following a “rule” – a rule that you imposed on yourself.

Language learning comes through use that makes sense, and the only rule is that uses of language be natural. If both your languages come naturally to you, they will come naturally to your child too.

You ask whether your son will be confused, hearing two languages from you: if multilingualism were confusing, we would have to conclude that the majority of the world’s population, which consists of multilinguals, is confused. Using several languages to children does not confuse them: it simply shows them what being multilingual is all about.

Do feel free to contact me privately, if you wish to discuss these matters in greater detail.


Madalena Cruz-Ferreira, PhD, University of Manchester, UK, is a multilingual parent, educator and scholar, and the author of Multilinguals are...?, a book on myths and misconceptions about multilingualism. Her blog Being Multilingual deals with multilingualism at home, in school and in clinic. Her contact, and details on her work, are at: beingmultilingual.com.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Antonia May 6, 2011 at 2:20 am

“Just do it!”
Also, try to find a German speaking playgroup near you or set one up yourself. This will give you the opportunity to speak German with other adults and your son to hear it from other people and their children some of whom, at this age, may speak more German than English.
Good luck!


2 Kathy May 13, 2011 at 12:00 pm

Hi Madalena and all:

I’ve commented bofore on this forum; I’m a bilingual speech-language pathologist from Seattle, Washington raising two bilingual- Spanish/English- children (14 yrs and 4 yrs old).

Although I agree with Madalena that any and all language input is good for kids and not even remotely confusing, I do think it’s important for multilingual parents to ask themselves what their desired language outcome is for their child or children. Do you just want them to be able to carry on a basic conversation with monolingual grandma? Do you want them to read, write, and speak with native-like fluency? Somewhere in between? I say this because – and this is somewhat common sense – what you put IN to family multilingualism is what you will get OUT of it. If your child gets lots of high quality language input across rich and varied contexts, they will have a better ability to speak and understand the language. This is mostly about matching expectations with outcomes. As long as parents have done some thinking about this, it should be a positive experience, I think.
My second point is more controversial. I think Madalena and I will probably disagree about this. (That’s all right, though. How boring would life be if we agreed on everything?) I feel that brain research – not necessarily exclusively in the language area – suggests that a child’s brain is exquisitely primed to detect patterns; patterns of all types. Therefore, in my opinion, by creating a clear language pattern within the home, we piggyback on what the child’s brain is already primed to do. It may not be absolutely necessary to do this, but it is my personal opinion that doing so has three distinct advantages: it creates predicatability and stability for the child, which is a condition that children generally thrive on; it increases their ability to be good code switchers as they grow older; and -personal opinion alert!- I think it helps them learn the language better. I would note that, because a child’s brain is so skilled in pattern detection, there is almost no limit to how complex or varied that pattern can be. I just think a child’s brain benefits from having some pattern to connect with the use of the various languages.
There is one pattern that I have a personal bias against. (I seem to be getting more controversial as I go along!) I will preface my bias by saying that I have not seen any specific data to support this bias but….I do have a rationale for it that is based in general language learning research. So here it goes: I am not a big fan of extensive mixing of languages within a single sentence. I do understand that we all are missing vocabulary now and again – I completely could not remember how to say ‘turnip’ in Spanish the other day! – and I’m not trying to say it’s the end of the world if we occasionally mix languages within a sentence. However, my reading of research on maturational language learning limits suggests that after a certain age we are just not as skilled at absorbing the syntax ( sentence word order), phonology (sound system) and morphology (changes within a word, like suffixes and prefixes) as when we are younger. By contrast, our ability to learn vocabulary (new words) seems to remain open for life. As regards syntax, phonology and morphology, there are very few (any?) languages where these features are identical. So how will a child learn to put words in the right order or correctly make word changes (like verb conjugations) if all/most utterances they hear and produce contain a random mix of two or more languages?

I suppose I end up somewhat where I began: it’s about family expectations. In the US, where I live, there is a large community of “Spanglish” speakers. These folks mix languages in exactly the manner I don’t prefer: within sentences and at the whim of the speaker. In communities where everyone speaks Spanglish, this works out fine. However it can be limiting if they go to a Spanish-speaking country; many of them cannot communicate well with monolingual Spanish speakers. So, if a family doesn’t have the expectation that their children will be able to communicate with monolingual Spanish speakers, that’s ok. For me, I really want my children to be able to travel to Colombia (my home country) or the Dominican Republic (where I’ve spent time) and be able to speak to and understand the people there.

Wow! Sorry for the long post. Let’s keep talking…

Kathy Krikorian


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