Top 10 Things You Should NEVER Say to Your Bilingual Child

by Corey · 64 comments

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: Spirit-Fire

We have all done it. We have said things to our children that we later regretted. Maybe we yelled at them. Maybe we threatened. Maybe we bribed. Yes, we may have even grovelled a little bit (or a lot).

Being a parent means that we make mistakes, many mistakes. We aren’t perfect. Our children aren’t perfect. All we can do is to try our best to learn from our mistakes and to savor our successes.

Finding the balance between authority figure and partner in crime with our children can be very difficult, especially the older our children become. Should we be strict in a given situation? Or should we give in and let our child do what he or she wants?

When it comes to multilingualism, what is most important is that we try to make multilingualism in our lives as comfortable and normal as possible. We need to keep an eye on the long-term goals in the hopes that our strategies will help us to achieve them, rather than sabotage them.

Note that it isn’t always just the words we say that have an impact on our children. It can be that look in our eye, the tone we use or that special way that we let our children know that we are/aren’t happy with what they are doing. Be careful with how you use these things when it comes to your children’s bilingualism.

Here is a list of top 10 things to avoid saying to our bilingual children (or to someone else in front of them!), even if we don’t use the actual words below:

1.  “You aren’t even trying  to say that correctly!”   Young children almost always strive to please their parents, even if they don’t show it. Rarely do they purposely pronounce letters or words incorrectly on purpose, so getting frustrated with our child for making a linguistic mistake won’t get the results that we are looking for. In fact, it just might make our child never want to speak our language again. Instead, we should use encouraging words (even if we think our little one is just being lazy). We should find ways to help our child hear and mimic our sounds and words as much as possible. As always: if we suspect a speech or language disorder, we should contact a specialist!

2.  “How many times have I told you… !?”   Contrary to what many people say, children are not necessarily sponges when it comes to language. Sometimes children pick up words and phrases quickly, other times it is more laborious. Not surprisingly, children who are are given opportunities to be fully engaged with the language over a long period of time learn languages more quickly. If your child doesn’t seem to be picking up your language as quickly as you would like, then find ways to offer more natural language exposure in comfortable environments. Each of our children is a unique individual and will pick up language as quickly or slowly as is right for him/her.

3.  “Show your aunt/friend/teacher how well you can speak (language x)!”   Showing off our children’s language skills is a big no-no. It is one thing to reassure someone that our child can, in fact, speak a language (e.g. for school) but showing off to a family member, friend or stranger is never, ever a good idea. First of all, it makes our children feel like their language is something unnatural and an oddity. Secondly, it teaches our children that showing off is acceptable and encouraged. Asking our child if he or she would like to teach someone else how to say something in a second language is different. It is fun to share skills with one another!

4.  “I am going to get angry with you if you don’t speak (language x).”  Punishing a child for not speaking our language in any way, shape or form may have short-term results but it almost always backfires in the long run. Punishment is different than reminding your child about family rules that have been agreed upon. If we punish our children for not speaking to us in our language, we will be building resentment in our children. Our child might do what we want right now but only out of fear, not out of a sense of familial involvement. The most important element is to keep lines of communication and discussion open. The more our children resists speaking our language, the more understanding, empathetic and honest we need to be with ourselves and our children.

5.  “You have to work very, very hard if you want to be a bilingual/multilingual.”  Family bilingualism should feel as natural as possible for our young children. No one said that our children need to jump up every morning excited to speak our language. But making it feel like horrible drudgery is also not the answer. We should help our children feel that bilingualism is simply a part of our lives, just as are many things that our families do on a daily basis. Definitely feel free to pull out some workbooks with your older bilingual children but try to keep it as fun and enjoyable as possible.

6.  “You are better/smarter than others because you are bilingual/multilingual.”   Helping a child feel empowered by bilingualism is good. Encouraging a child to feel superior because of it is not. This is true for our children’s biculturalism as well!  We can help our children feel good about bilingualism by using positive examples and supportive discussion topics. Saying things like, “Isn’t it wonderful that you can speak Russian with your father and me?” is positive. Telling our children that they are smarter because they know Russian may actually cause them to feel extra pressure and start to think, “If I don’t get the highest marks in class, does that mean that I am letting my family down and am no longer truly bilingual?” No child should grow up feeling this kind of pressure (or sense of superiority) because of bilingualism or biculturalism!

7.  “You hurt me when you don’t speak (language x).”   Our children should not be made to feel guilty because of our feelings about their bilingualism. It is fine to let our children know how we feel about them speaking our language but we need to take full ownership of our feelings. Before we say anything to our children, we need to work through our hurt feelings. It can be helpful to start by sitting down with our spouse to share our feelings and brainstorming ideas. Once that has been done, coming together as a family is almost always beneficial. Discussing feelings, expectations and disappointments with our children is highly encouraged, as long as everyone gets the chance to have their say (children included) and everyone uses “I statements” when talking about how they feel.

8. “Look how well your brother/friend/other student speaks (language x).”   Comparing one child to another is never a good idea. It can create rifts between children which otherwise may never have come about and creates an unhealthy atmosphere for growth and development. Being that every child is different and unique in his and her own way, another child’s language competence or eagerness really has nothing to do with our child. Comparing and contrasting this way will only lead to a general sense of anxiety and resentment, especially down the road. Be careful that you don’t talk with others about your child’s language skills when he/she is in earshot!

9.  “I am disappointed in you when you don’t speak (language x).”   This is something we often say less with words and more with the way we act toward out children when they don’t speak our language. Our children should be able to know that without a doubt their worth in our eyes is not tied to their bilingualism. They should also know that their own self-worth as a human being has nothing to do with whether they are bilingual or not. If our children ever feel that they are only loved because they speak our language, then language will ultimately become a pivotal point of contention down the road. When our children test us by not using our language, they are doing so to see how we will react. Often it comes from a need to see whether they will still receive love or not, even if they don’t do what we want. We need to make sure that our children know that we love them fully and completely, even if we are upset about their language use.

10.  “I will reward you if you speak (language x).”   Even though rewards seem to work in the short-term, they often lose their appeal down the road. Ultimately, the only way to keep a child interested in rewards is to make the reward continually bigger and bigger. Children who only speak our language because they will receive a reward are being taught that using our language is actually just a means to getting a prize; the language itself is actually not important at all, the reward at the end is all that matters. It relegates our language to taking out the trash for the weekly allowance. Instead of offering rewards, we should find ways to make our language useful, interesting and meaningful. Playing games in the language, connecting with family or friends via Skype, and reading captivating books are great ways to get children interested in our language.

Even though many of us can identify with an item or two in this list that we have done over the years, it is never too late to change our ways! The thing to remember is that family always comes first. Bilingualism is important but only if it isn’t causing deep-rooted bitterness in our family. Our children need to know that language is something that they own and which is a part of them on their own terms. If our language feels like a set of heavy shackles, weighing our children down, then it will be no surprise when our children rebel.

The best is when we can make bilingualism in our homes more like a rose garden or a theme park or a swim on a hot summer’s day!

What things would you add to this top 10 list? What are things that you said to your children that you later regretted? Have you ever used rewards or punishments with your children when they didn’t speak your language?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 15, 14 and 12, in German and English.

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{ 60 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Live Language November 18, 2011 at 3:05 am

Encouraging a child is important in helping them in their language development. The more positive feedback they receive the more enjoyable it will be for them.


2 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:15 pm

So, so true! Thank you for this comment!


3 Allison Bay November 18, 2011 at 8:09 am

Ooops, totally guilty of #1 and #2. It can be frustrating to hear the same mistakes over and over again. Positive reinforcement is definitely a better way to go. Nice article, Corey. Thanks for posting.


4 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Thanks for sharing, Allison! It is so nice to hear from others who make these mistakes as well. I notice that when I am particularly worn out, I tend to sound harsher than I normally would. It is easy to forget how we sound on the other end.


5 Vernon November 18, 2011 at 9:14 am

This is totally awesome! I already heard about this in my psychology class before about your young offspring.

Yes, I will agree on the statement of Allison, positive reinforcement is a must so that the child will never be hurt to much.


6 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:19 pm

Thank you for commenting, Vernon! Yes, in the end, we can even scold our children with a calm, positive voice and attitude. It isn’t all about praise and letting our children do what they want. It is about letting them know that we do respect them as human beings, we understand what they are feeling and that nevertheless, there are things that are very important to us. No matter what words we are using, the tone we use and our attitude is what is remembered the most!


7 Ella Konopacki November 18, 2011 at 9:47 am

This was a very interesting article. Thankfully, I am not guilty of any of the things mentioned above with my son – yet. The reason for this is most likely that he is only two years old and in the process of discovering language. Right now he loves to talk German with everybody he meets, no matter if they understand or not. I think, however, it might be become helpful to keep the points above in mind for when he gets older.
I keep telling myself that it is all about communication and not about perfection. Surely enough, I hope my son is going to master both languages but I would be fooled to think that he’s going to feel the same way emotionally with both languages. Eventually, I assume his preference for one or the other lanaguage might change, too, according to his need to use it due to where we live etc.

(I am German and married to an American. We are living in in Seattle, WA)


8 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:22 pm

Greetings, Ella! Nice to “meet” another multilingual family here in Seattle! You are right on about things changing over time. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it gets harder and more difficult – just different. We never can know what might come along, so just as you said, being prepared is always the best course of action – I totally agree! Even when I feel that I am prepared, my kids bring on something new that I never expected!

Hope you are enjoying Seattle!


9 Ella konopacki February 18, 2015 at 12:33 pm

My son is 5 years old now and we had a second child in the meantime, who is 2.5 years old. Both of my sons speak German to me with some English words. I still keep this article in mind. I hardly ever correct their German or English directly. I might rephrase what they said, using the correct form in my answer. I’m convinced this is how it will stick eventually.

I would like to add one thing. I would recommend to not talk about the child having a strong or weak language in front of the child. I have done this before not thinking he was listening. Then he surprised me by telling somebody his German was better than his English. Needless to say, I stopped making comments like that.


10 Nayr November 19, 2011 at 5:44 am

Dear Corey

One of the things you say above is so true and probably underpins successful future bilinguals: bilingualism must come and, should be managed, as naturally as possible. It should be part of everyday life, with all the errors that bilinguals make, because our bilingual children, in the end, are only trying to communicate. One of the techniques I used with my son was to weave the “correction” into the conversation by repeating what he said in a the correct way: as if I was picking up what he said, or checking my understanding of the conversation, and then taking it forward. You don’t see immediate results, but it’s better than showing them up as inadequate bilinguals. What I’ve seen, as a teacher and then as a manager of a Bilingual Section, is that this attitude only has negative effects on children’s self-esteem and on their sense of self as speakers of different languages. I will definitely send out parents a link to the above – very useful.


11 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:25 pm

You are right on, Nayr, with your points about keeping bilingualism in our homes as natural as possible and to think about our children’s self esteem. We seem to think that as humans we can compartmentalize things into specific situations: “My parents are upset because of this one thing that I am doing simply because they want the best for me.” In reality we often generalize things when people (especially parents) put us down or are overly harsh with us: “My parents hate me. I can’t do anything right. I am a horrible person.”

The most important thing we can do with our children is to put ourselves into their shoes and think about how we’d feel in the same situation (or maybe even think about situations from our childhood). You are definitely correct on how important it is to think about this often.

Thank you for taking time to leave your comment!


12 Dawn November 19, 2011 at 8:42 am

This is a great reminder, because all of the above are so easy to fall into in the midst of day to day life. My desire to get my kids to grow up bilingual fell flat, but as they have aged it does amaze me when here and there they spout off a phrase and clearly understand…it makes me realize they were paying attention…even if not appearign to be active participants! (I’m still trying…but as they get older they do become a bit more resistant..always a challenge- in any number of languages!) Have a great weekend!


13 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:28 pm

Thank you for sharing your experiences, Dawn! It is so easy for others to judge, especially when their children are younger. As our children age, they start to want to make more and more decisions on their own (including about language) and it can be difficult in many ways. Just as you said: we must be able to focus on the positives that have come from raising our children bilingually! So much is going on passively. We want everything to appear before our eyes but most of what really matters is hidden deep inside our children’s brains (and just may come out when given new circumstances). What an amazing gift we will have given by sticking to our language, despite the difficulties and lack of discussion with our children.


14 Allison Bay November 20, 2011 at 9:04 pm

Thanks Dawn – the day to day life thing is so true. It can just get so frustrating when you’ve repeated a certain phrase for the 1000th time and they just keep saying it wrong over and over again even though they hear no one around them saying it the wrong way. Maybe it is just a mindset shift and I just need to let it all go. Repeating it correctly w/o drawing too much attention and not focusing on the “error” seems the best approach. Thanks to all for the suggestions and input.


15 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:31 pm

At least you are still sticking with it, Allison! Knowing how frustrating it can be (and knowing that you are a non-native speaker like me) makes me appreciate what you are doing even more! There are days when I want to throw in the towel (mainly because *I* am having a hard time sticking with German). My kids are outgrowing my language skills and it frustrates me to no end. They chatter away in English all day and hearing them make mistakes in German (like me) makes me even more frustrated – with all of us! Good to know that this is normal. 😉


16 Sanda November 25, 2011 at 2:41 am

My name is Sanda and I am guilty of probably most of the ten No-Nos at one point or another in life. Yes, it’s the daily grind and frustration that is the problem, as you all point out. I’m trying to be more relaxed about things now, but not too relaxed (because I have seen too many parents take the easy route of just replying to the child in English or whatever the dominant language was, and then they never reverted to the mothertongue again).


17 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:33 pm

You are exactly right, Sandra! Finding that middle ground is so hard, but is so necessary. If we come on too strong and demanding, our children will have good reason to reject our pressure on them. If we are too lax, then our children will realize that it isn’t important to us (so why should it be to them!). Finding the perfect balance is the golden key (and is different for each child and each family!). Thank you for reminding us of this!


18 Joe November 26, 2011 at 6:40 am

Corey, I enjoy your posts and regularly add them to fb, retweet, and share them with my friends & collegues, thanks! Joe


19 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:34 pm

Thank you for your comment, Joe! I will make sure to check out your Facebook page. Thank you for sharing!


20 Joe November 26, 2011 at 6:42 am
21 Belinda Choo November 29, 2011 at 7:33 pm

My husband is Cantonese while I’m Hakka (two distinct Chinese dialects) – we often get into disagreement into what language we should speak to our 20 month old toddler Clarissa. Eventually we settled for… English!


22 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:36 pm

LOL! That is often what happens, doesn’t it? Of course, you could do the One-Parent-One-Language approach, if you want: You speak one of your dialects and your husband speaks Cantonese. That would work!

Thank you for sharing your family’s experiences!


23 Sara December 1, 2011 at 6:14 am

I almost made the mistake to talk less and less english (our minority language) to my my girls, since my older one started pre-school and started using italian more and more. Don’t want to lose this battle, I have to keep up the good work, since I’m not sure we can afford the insane tuitions bilingual schools have. Speak, speak, play, read, and travel. I soooooo hope it works


24 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:38 pm

Tell me about it, Sara! It is tough to speak the non-community language (especially if it isn’t your native language!). You are exactly right about the things to focus on: speaking, playing, reading, traveling. It will work. It most likely won’t work exactly as we imagine it will work but that is ok. Something WILL work and it WILL be worth it! Kudos for you for sticking with it!


25 Liliana December 2, 2011 at 6:25 am

Great post! I am guilty of number #2, to the point that my daughter (5yo) has said that to me!
Thanks for all your great articles.
Liliana (from a Spanish, Nepali and English home)


26 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Thank you for your comment, Liliana! #2 is a hard one to notice that we are saying. We may not say exactly those words – sometimes it is in our attitude or tone of voice. The tone of voice basically says, “I am so tired out from having to do this same thing over and over again.” But knowing that we do it means that we can try to stop doing it or to turn it into a game with our children – let them point it out when we are doing it and we can all laugh about it. 😉


27 Nahid December 2, 2011 at 6:31 am

Great advise.

I have certainly used some of these examples such as “you are smarter than your american friends who only speak one language and you know two languages.” LOL


28 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:43 pm

LOL – yes, I know that one seems like such a fantastic motivator until down the road when it can backfire in our faces. I have heard many people tell me that they encourage their children this way. And I have heard many people tell me why they stopped saying it. 😉

Thank you for sharing and being so honest! It is wonderful to know that we are all human and do make mistakes without realizing it!


29 Erin December 2, 2011 at 10:28 am

What an interesting article! Growing up in an American-French household and living in Italy, my 6 year old daughter seems to have adopted Italian as her mother tongue. English was her strongest language until she started elementary school. She speaks Italian like a native, speaks French fluently with a small accent, however… she is unable to make coherent sentences in English. I admit that I am very frustrated. I keep trying to encourage her to speak in English but realized today that she has much difficulty. I explain how wonderful it is to know English, how important it is to speak it but nothing seems to work. She has become lazy to find the words and think through the sentence structure and so, therefore, speaks mainly Italian (and French with her father). I can’t help but feel hurt and upset by this since I have ALWAYS spoken to her in English. At this rate, she won’t be able to speak English at all in one year. What do you think/suggest?


30 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:46 pm

Thank you for your comment, Erin. Don’t give up hope. Most likely she doesn’t see the point in using English for whatever reason. It could be, just as you said, that it feels like more work to speak in English. Take note of how you and she interact when she is speaking English. Do you correct her while she is speaking? Does she feel like her English is being evaluated? Does she have friends who speak English or spend time with adults who speak English? There are just a few ideas for what might be going on. Talk privately with your spouse about what he thinks (and let him be 100% honest!) letting him know that it is making you feel bad and that you really want to help work something out.

Ultimately, what you need to do is to just stick with speaking English with your daughter. Let her know that this is what YOU do for YOU. When she knows that you want to speak English for yourself, she just might come around on her own. You never know!


31 Dustylou December 6, 2011 at 5:06 am

@Erin – I felt the same as you when my son was 6 and there was no doubt that French was his strongest language. Looking back, I can see that this feeling that my son was lazy was more about me than him. More about my sense of identity than his.
I think back to my own childhood and I’m sure that I knew nothing about sentence structure, grammatical concepts and rules such as the placement of subject / verb / object. I know that it can hurt to hear your child speaking another language as their “mother” language, especially if he or she spoke it well earlier or (like my son) was born in an English speaking country. Next time your child says something like ‘ I like the car red’, just take a deep breath and say, ‘oh yes, the red car is very pretty’ and keep doing the next time and the next time and the next time — without judging your child or yourself. Easier said than done, but that doesn’t make us lazy parents; just human.


32 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:50 pm

Wonderful encouragement, Dustylou! So nice to see others offering support and ideas to one another!


33 Lee December 14, 2011 at 3:22 am

I’ve been guilty of 2, 3, 4, and 8. Ugh!!! Totally ashamed. He’s grown up bilingual in English and Spanish but some learning challenges and his personality make-up have made this a harder road to travel than expected. He will rarely speak Spanish with us (we’re non-native speakers). There are moments of great frustration but this post really shamed me. Thanks for restoring some much needed perspective.


34 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:52 pm

No worries, Lee! Being that you are non-native speakers makes the whole thing so much more difficult and frustrating! Being a non-native speaker myself, I often find that when I am most frustrated with my children, it is because I feel that I have failed my children somehow (which is not true, but I feel it anyway). It is interesting to turn the tables this way when we are feeling something toward someone else… am I really upset with my children, or am I upset with myself for something related? I ask myself this all of the time and it is amazing what I come to realize!


35 Itziar December 14, 2011 at 5:21 am

I do not understand how come so many people seem to have problems with bilingualism. I was a bilingual child, being born in Barcelona. I grew up speaking both Spanish and Catalan at home, at school and with people in my town and I never experienced any of these problems you’re talking about. Now I am a conference interpreter and I speak quiet a few languages. My children are trilingual (my husband is Italian, so they speak Italian with him) and we never made questions about which language they should or should not speak. I think everything has always been very “natural” if I may say so.


36 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:54 pm

Thank you for this comment, Itziar. It sounds like you had the fabulous support of your community, something that makes such a BIG difference in our children feeling comfortable growing up bilingually. Studies have shown that the less community support, the harder it is for families not to feel that they should conform to the community language as much as possible.

But your comment reminds us how natural multilingualism IS in so many places in the world! When multilingualism is not seen as something different and strange, then it is no longer attacked as it is in many places.


37 Nayr December 16, 2011 at 4:32 am

Dear Itziar
So true! Growing up in a bi-or multilingual society makes a lot of the above redundant. I grew up in South Africa and by age 6 I already had 3 language in my life: Portuguese at home, English outside the home and Afrikaans was introduced as a second language in school. It was never an issue – it was so normal that we didn’t spend all our time talking about it, analysing it – we just got on with communicating in these languages depending on the context and the person you were speaking to. I was never told I was bi or multilingual – I really only realised this when I left SA and ended up teaching English literacy to bilingual children in Paris. The concept of bilingualism is such a big issue in Europe that you can’t escape it – it has also become an academic exercise in many cases as opposed to every day life. The best way to deal with bilngual children is to make it as natural as possible and when talking about their bilingualism it should always be in a positive sense and not negative.


38 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:56 pm

You are so right on here, Nayr! Thank you for your comment. It is so important for us to realize how much our community influences our feelings and experiences of multilingualism!


39 Erin December 21, 2011 at 9:45 am

Dear Itziar and Nayr,

The two of you are fortunate to have grown up in cultures where bilingualism was the norm; however, for many of us on this site, bilingualism is not the norm in our culture. And even if it is the norm for a few of us, there are still those who have a “colorful” mixture of languages – example: the European mother, the East Asian father, living in the USA. This is a made-up example, but I think you get the idea. So, for many of us, everything in our culture almost makes it harder for us to maintain (not to mention “advance”) our children’s bilingualism. It is much harder than some might think, depending on one’s country and/or social settings.

You have much to be thankful for that you were both able to grow up and to easily learn three languages! 🙂



40 Corey January 3, 2012 at 9:58 pm

You said it, Erin! To think about what we are missing being that we are raising our children in communities that aren’t multilingual (and thus supportive of it as simply a way of life)! Thank you for your comment!


41 Becky December 22, 2011 at 12:12 pm

Wonderful article. Yikes, I’ve definitely said some of these! Great reminder:).


42 Corey January 3, 2012 at 10:00 pm

LOL – it is so easy to say these things (or things similar), isn’t it? I often thing it comes from exhaustion or frustration with our efforts that brings about these comments. Luckily we can remind ourselves of all of the times that we were patient and supportive with out children!


43 BabelMum December 23, 2011 at 4:36 am

Great article Corey. I think the same approach could apply to parenting, unconditional parenting that is, cf Alfie Kohn’s books.


44 Corey January 3, 2012 at 10:03 pm

You are so right, BabelMum! My mom gave me many of Alfie Kohn’s books when my first child was young. There is much truth there. I think that natural consequences are important so that our children realize that some things depend on other things. But even that doesn’t need bribery or threats… the results are quickly realized by our children. Thank you for sharing this reminder!


45 Yuisa January 4, 2012 at 10:47 am

I don’t have children yet but I wan to and I want them to learn both Spanish (mine an my husband’s first language) and English (since we currently live in the U.S.).

Would it be healthy to correct their pronunciation? Would that discourage them? I would like them to speak the languages as perfect as possible.


46 Olya February 5, 2012 at 1:19 pm

So right. Hope to never make any of these mistakes. They look like the right way to encourage a child to rebel against the minority language. Our two-year-old learns Russian and English in Turkish Cyprus where Turkish is a dominant language, we are also moving to Ireland in 4 weeks, so she will probably learn Gaelic, so confusing that I am a bit nervous about all these language mix.


47 Sara February 6, 2012 at 12:13 am

@ Olya…Gaelic it’s not the everyday spoken language in Ireland, so I don’t think u should worry about that


48 Olya February 6, 2012 at 4:49 am

Thank you, I am just researching schooling in Ireland, it looks like children study it at schools.


49 Dianne Hays-Hatch September 12, 2012 at 8:26 am

I love your article and agree wholeheartedly. As a parent of five and now grandparent of fifteen, I believe that these “Don’t” rules should apply to child raising in general though and not just pertain to the multilingual. I know I, and my children, would have benefited from knowing this. Every parent/adult/educator could help every child by applying these guidelines. Thank you.


50 Christof Demont-Heinrich December 11, 2012 at 7:25 am

I generally agree with the 10 things you write — and thank you for writing the column. But I do think that some of them don’t sufficiently take into account the massive social forces outside the home that work against bilingualism/multilingualism, at least in places where monolingual ideology dominates the educational system, and pretty much all power domains (like in the USA). I consistently play up the fact to my two daughters that being bilingual in German and English is special, something that 99% of their peers (except those at the language immersion school they are enrolled in) do not have, and likely (and sadly) never will, that it is something special, and that, yes, it is something better than being monolingual. No, I do not say that they are smarter, just that living multilingualism on an everyday basis as they/we are doing, makes for a better world. I think that anyone who is investing a lot of time raising their children as multilingual kids ultimately believes multilingual living is better. And it’s simply disingenuous, misleading, and ultimately potentially destructive to multilingual living, which is so very difficult to carry out outside of the private home domain in places like the USA (unless you live in an immigrant enclave) to pretend that we don’t believe multilingual practice/living is better, though it might be more politically correct. We, and our kids, need to wear our multilingualism proudly — especially when so many people continue to see it as something to avoid, something dangerous, bad, backward, etc. and so many of our kids peers are pushing them to be “normal” monolinguals who speak and talk like “everyone” else does. In short, I believe we need to fight monolingual ideology directly and instill in our kids an understanding why we need to fight it, what’s at stake, and what there is to gain in breaking down monolingual ideology and thinking.


51 Nayr December 11, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Dear Christof

I like your multilingual militantism – if you don’t mind me calling it that. Bi- or mulitlingualism is the norm anyway in most parts of the world, yet it is the monolingual world that seems to have set the rules in place for what is acceptable or not.

However, I would be very careful about pushing bilingual children, growing up in a monolingual situation, too much, when they are so pressured to conform to their peers and so desperately need to belong and be like everyone else, esp. when they become teenagers. I have seen perfectly bilingual children refuse to speak one of their languages because it makes them ‘different’. Parents I have worked with have expressed this in quite painful terms, when their childrenn reject their heritage language: one of them, in tears, described it as ‘a kick in the gut’. That’s why I support the ‘natural’ apporach as far as possible – i.e. children are encouraged to see, and use, their bilingualism as something natural.

On the other hand, I am in favour of speaking to children about their bilingualism, their different languages and cultures, getting them to think about how it all comes together, talking about the similarities and differences, eliciting how they feel and what they like about their languages, and reflecting on how it enhances their life. Bilingualism needs to be a topic of conversation, and sometimes bilingual family jokes go along way to lighten the ‘burden’.

Hope this is not too long – I have been accused of ‘bilingualising’ my colleagues at work!


52 Christof Demont-Heinrich December 11, 2012 at 8:14 pm

I agree that peer pressure, especially in early teen years, can be a real challenge, even a deal-breaker, unfortunately, in terms of familial multilingualism. I’m thankful that we have a language immersion school, albeit a private one that’s not cheap, to which we can, and have been, sending our daughters for three years. While there is plenty of English there, there’s also plenty of multilingualism, and it’s completely “normal” there to be multingual, and to view multilingualism as something that is to be strived for. I’m 100 percent certain we would have seen my daughters stop speaking German to each other, maybe even to me (my wife is an English monolingual), had they been sent to a public monlingual English school in the U.S. Ultimately, I view the monolingual educational system as the single greates impediment to meaningful multilingualism for all in the U.S. In fact, frankly, I see assimliative, subtractive language learning in public education in the U.S. as the enemy — there’s my militantism showing again 😉


53 Anneke May 10, 2013 at 12:34 pm

I’m homeschooling my 4,5 yr old in large part because of my fear of English becoming the only language she’ll speak if I were to enter her into the US public school system. My US hubby has been learning Dutch all our married life so he’s conversationally strong enough for it to be the primary language in our American home. Hopefully my kids will learn to read and write both Dutch and English in the future. They have Dutch and US passports so then America and Europe would be open to them.


54 Jaya January 9, 2013 at 9:31 am

huh.. that is almost everything that every parent of multilingual children say.. and not all of them are bad.


55 Sara May 9, 2013 at 9:48 pm

Wow..I totally agree with it. I need to change some things.


56 Cheyenne Kozaily May 10, 2013 at 6:03 am

THANK YOU for this article, esp. the point about children NOT always being sponges. I am constantly working to dispel this myth with the families I work with.


57 Johnat May 17, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I like the ideas and suggestions for parents in this article, BUT if you don’t mind a bit of criticism, when do you think it’s appropriate to discipline children for not making an effort on their second (or third) language…? What is positive reinforcement, without a bit of negative reinforcement to counter it?

I have to admit…I immediately though ‘An American wrote this’ when you encouraged not yelling at children (in Latin cultures like France, this is more the way of things). The reason I say this, is because I seem to know many Americans who grow up being able to passively understand their parent’s language, but then however do not possess the ability to read/write it beyond a basic level, or speak it confidently. Unless they take lessons throughout their life to raise this level (which can be expensive), it seems to me it should ALSO be the parents job to make their children take it seriously, even discipline them for making repeated mistakes or being too lazy with it.

That may sound ‘mean’, but to me, it is mean NOT to do that, and let them get away with not speaking it as well as they are capable of. If that makes sense.


58 F88 November 1, 2016 at 8:59 am

I disagree. There are things where children need to be disciplined in (morals, respect to authority, being kind and genuine), but language is not one of them. The author did a great job highlighting these things and raises a valid point in making the experience as natural as possible. There’s nothing wrong with just passive understanding, they still know the language but may feel a little reluctant to speak, and that’s ok. However, keeping it natural where you continue to speak your language and not making it a huge issue can lead to surprises later, where if they are in a very positive environment, they will further go to active. My kids were like this, where they understood my language (Urdu) but didn’t speak at all. I do find this common during the younger years. However, when they got older, they got more into my culture and now are really is into it. They are now both are active speakers and speak to me, not superbly fluent, but can manage. Like the author said, I never criticized them, berated them if they spoke it wrong, but helped them express it correctly by repeating the right way. They both love speaking now. Daughter can even read and write a little as well. I don’t think forcing it into them is always the best approach. A positive, non judgmental environment always is a huge confidence and motivational booster. And if even they never speak it like some of my relative’s kids, it shouldn’t be a big hurdle. As long as they respect your culture, it’s all that matters.


59 Sandra ferro March 21, 2014 at 3:38 am

Love love your articules . Always a great tool to feel we are not alone to raising two boys trilingual .( japanese and English at school , Spanish at home )


60 Jeremy ginsburg February 18, 2015 at 6:48 am

Yup! Spot on!

I don’t have kids, but replace the word “kids” with “student” and the article still applies!!


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