Struggling to Raise a Bilingual Child in a Non-Native Language

by Madalena · 2 comments

Dear Madalena,

Our language strategy has been that my Arabic husband I (American) try to use Arabic as much as possible with our daughter, which means my husband uses it all the time, and I use it maybe 40% of the time.

Our biggest challenges are that I am not fluent in Arabic. I am at home with my daughter the most and my English-speaking mother stays with us for part of the year.

I have been working hard to increase my fluency in Arabic, but now that my daughter is reaching the verbal explosion phase – in which she picks up many new words every day – I can’t keep up with her in Arabic and am speaking more and more English. (We recently were able to spend a month in Lebanon with my husband’s family, which definitely boosted her language skills in general.)

It breaks my heart to hear her Arabic sentences being replaced by English ones. Every time I find I need to say something but have to say it in English, I feel like a failure. Every time my mom teaches her English words, I feel grief for my daughter’s Arabic. I know it’s not rational – I know that my daughter needs to learn, and I can’t teach her all the Arabic she needs. I can’t live my whole life in Arabic.

My own language-learning enthusiasm has been blunted by the reality that becoming fluent is not something I am likely to achieve unless we move to Lebanon. I have spent hours and hours on a nightly basis trying to improve and, frankly, am just burnt out. I have made every effort to find language partners and Lebanese Arabic-speaking friends in the US, but it hasn’t worked.

So, I feel like a failure. Sometimes I want to give up and just use English. But other time I don’t want to give up. Do you know any bicultural families in our situation where the primary caretaker is not fluent in the target language? Is this a common challenge? Or do you have any extra words of encouragement or wisdom?

Thank you for sharing your wisdom,

Dear Laurel,

I experienced the same situation that you report, with my own children, with the differences that we lived in a third country where none of the parents’ languages (Portuguese and Swedish) were used, and that I didn’t use Swedish, my husband’s language, with my children. Their Swedish appeared to freeze, as it were, and/or regress, just like you say of your girl’s Arabic, and it improved remarkably when we spent time in Sweden or with Swedish-speaking relatives and friends, also as you notice about your girl’s Arabic. This went on for several years, you can read my own reports about what happened in my book Three is a Crowd?, parts of which are available online.

What you’re experiencing is natural, and proves two things: that languages wax and wane according to the use that we make of them, and that they remain active, ready to bloom when the need to (re-)use them arises. You don’t say which language(s) you and your husband use together, but one way we found might increase our children’s exposure to Swedish was for us parents to use this language with each other when the children were around.

You don’t need to become fluent in Arabic so that your daughter becomes fluent in Arabic. Your daughter needs parenting from you, in whatever language, not language lessons, or signs of dismay from you that you can’t support one of her languages. You and your daughter have different needs for Arabic, so you and her will naturally use it in different ways, now and in future.

And to reassure you further: my children, now adults, are fully fluent in Swedish (and two other languages), and became so when they themselves found their own needs to use this language. The same will happen to your daughter’s Arabic.

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:

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Annamari @MommyPlaysEnglish November 12, 2011 at 3:05 pm

Laurel, how about reading some children’s books, singing songs together, watching cartoons? These won’t require much preparation from you, and though they don’t provide the same input as communication, they can still give you an opportunity to use the language with your daughter. Don’t give up, take it easy a little and you’ll see it’s worth! 🙂 (Even if you can strengthen only the basics of the language, think of what you have already achieved.)


2 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:10 pm

What a great response, Annamari! Thank you for taking the time to offer your encouragement and support to Laurel!


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