Top 10 Ways We Sabotage Our Children’s Bilingualism

by Corey · 9 comments

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: Leonid Mamchenkov

As parents of bilingual children, we talk about our children’s language skills a lot. We examine vocabulary and grammar, syntax and pronunciation. We worry about speech impediments and language delays. We tell others that  our children can speak the community language perfectly but secretly wonder if they are falling behind other monolingual children their age. In short, we examine our children and our bilingual parenting through a tiny magnifying glass.

Unfortunately, by focusing on every little detail in such critical focus, we often unwittingly sabotage our children’s bilingualism. We forget view things from a distance to remind ourselves of the big, big, BIG picture.

One way to get an idea of where we are at with our children’s bilingualism is to pay attention to the thoughts that go through our heads. When things get hard, do we put ourselves down: “This is all my fault. I’m horrible at this.” Or do we give ourselves a lift: “Ok, things are tough right now. Let me take some time to get back on track.” Most of us start with the first thoughts (negative) and then work toward the second ones (positive).

Read this list of top 10 things to find out how you might be unwittingly sabotaging your children’s bilingualism:

1. Critical: “I never do things right!” How critical are we of ourselves, our spouse and our children? Too much criticizing can destroy any well-established set of plans. Even if we can’t stop noticing things that aren’t working well, we don’t always need to say something about them (and we certainly should not be dwelling on them!). Pick a few high priority issues, let everyone know that those are the ones that are most important to you, and then let the rest take their course.

2. Comparison: “Why aren’t my bilingual children as skilled as Johnny down the street?” We know that every person is unique yet we still compare our bilingual children to others that we know or hear about. It is important to focus on the positive elements of our children’s bilingualism and let go of those nasty thoughts that discourage us. Of course, if your child is displaying signs of a speech impediment or other medical issues, then it is important to have your child seen by an expert.

3. Perfection: “This isn’t done well enough, that isn’t perfect, this other thing is annoying me!” Do little things get under your skin when they aren’t done perfectly? Is the way your child says a certain word or letter frustrated you to no end? You are expecting something that is impossible: absolute perfection. When we let the little things bother us to the point of distraction, we are losing our hold on our bilingual parenting journey. Our children make mistakes. We make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. Our job is to be able to handle imperfections in our bilingual family’s journey without losing our cool.

4. Worry: “I am so concerned that I am missing something important!” There is no way to know what is going to happen in 2, 5 or 10 years from now. Worrying about it will get us nowhere. Do what you can now while keeping your eye on the big picture. Be aware of the fact that things may not turn out as we hope and remember that this is simply how life works. Worrying too much about our children’s bilingualism takes away from doing what you can now.

5. Assumptions: “I am 100% sure that if I do this then that will happen!” We create both positive and negative assumptions all of the time: “If I speak to my child in my language at home then he will be able to go to college in this language!” Or “If my spouse doesn’t read to our daughter every night in his language, she will never become bilingual.” Nothing is cut in stone when it comes to bilingual children. Yes, if our children don’t get enough language exposure and opportunities to use their language, then it will be very hard for them to pick up the language. However, this doesn’t mean that 100%, definitively, without a doubt our bilingual efforts will end. Assumptions take away our ability to think clearly so don’t let yourself get trapped by these.

6. Rigid: “This is the way we do things, period. No discussion, ever.” Raising bilingual children means being able to change our plans along the way as our family’s needs change. Changing all the time isn’t good either (see #9 below). When we are too rigid, it means that we have lost sight of the big picture. We need to be able to give and take with our children without giving in when it matters the most. Each family needs to perfect this on their own. No one else can tell us when we are being too rigid. We need to figure it out through trial and error. We know we are being too rigid when we are spending more time arguing with defiant children than working together with them to work out a plan.

7. Confused: “I have no idea what I am doing at all.” Do you know why you are raising your children bilingually? Do you know what your overall goal is? Is our main hope that our children will be able to communicate with the grandparents back home? Or will your family be moving back to your home country and you want to make sure your children are prepared to enter school when they arrive? Each family has a different set of goals. It is important that we are aware of what we hope for our bilingual children and family. We may not meet these goals (something for which we need to be prepared) but we should at least have a general idea of what our hopes and dreams are when it comes to raising our children bilingually.

8. Worn out: “I’ve had enough of this bilingual parenting stuff.” If raising our children bilingually feels like walking daily on hot coals or through debilitating quicksand, then we need to step back a bit and see how we can make things at least a little more enjoyable. No one says that your children have to speak your language. However, at the very least, you should be finding ways to keep yourself motivated and inspired. It all starts with us. If we are excited by our multilingualism, then we can help bring our children along by creating situations and environments where speaking our language is meaningful. This might mean playing games in our language or reading to our children out loud from books in our language. Find out what excites you and even if your children don’t want to speak your language, they will benefit from you speaking it around and to them!

9. Unsure: “I’m not really sure if I want to raise my children bilingually.” It isn’t essential that we feel 100% determination in our bilingual parenting efforts but the chances are slim to none that we will stick with it if we can’t really even decide. Making a clear choice can help us take our bilingual parenting seriously and will get others on board with our efforts. Sometimes all it takes is saying, “I am raising my children bilingually!” and meaning it.

10. Lonely: “I am all alone in my bilingual parenting efforts.” If you are feeling alone in raising your children bilingually, then you really need to find others to connect with. Best are other families who are also raising children bilingually in our language. However, even if they don’t speak our language, someone who can help keep us motivated is essential in our bilingual parenting path. Even if we don’t meet eye-to-eye on everything, having other bilingual families to connect with will gives us and our children the chance to feel that bilingualism is a natural and integral part of life.

Our children follow our lead. If we aren’t able to see both the trees in front of us (daily inspiration) as well as the path through the forest ahead (long-term goals), then how can our children find the motivation to stick with their own bilingualism? We need to be both a guide and a follower all at once when it comes to bilingual parenting.

The key to not sabotaging our children’s bilingualism is to listen to the thoughts that go through our heads when things are going well (does this give us a lift or do we become arrogant and self-centered) as well as when things are not going well (do we give ourselves encouragement or put ourselves down). It may feel difficult but finding ways to resolve discouraging thoughts in our heads (without becoming arrogant) will keep us on the right path.

Even if our children don’t seem particularly interested in their bilingualism right now, down the road they will thank us for having found a way through the jungle of bilingual parenting.

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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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Felipe December 26, 2011 at 6:08 pm

Hi Corey
I appreciate this article. I’m a Language teacher (Spanish) from Seattle and I will be a dad for the first time next April. Me and my wife have brought the same questions several times, Why do we want our child to be bilingual?, the answers are many. We want him to be able to communicate with my family in South America. Also we both speak English and Spanish but have made an agreement to speak only Spanish at home. We believe that children develop their brains very early in life and introduce several languages before they are 1 year old is essential for their understanding of that language later in life.
Thanks for giving us a reminder of the things we tend to do but no longer needed.
Take care


2 Corey January 4, 2012 at 12:31 am

Thank you so much for your comment, Felipe (as well as your lovely email… I will be responding soon)! Congratulations on your April arrival! So exciting! What you and your wife are planning is perfect, and for all of the right reasons. When it comes down to it, the language supports our hearts. I don’t think it is sustainable when it is solely for the list of practical reasons that people like to talk about.

Thank you for everything that you are doing with your music and teaching! I hope everyone will check out your work and music at ! Lovely, lovely!


3 Barbara Mascareno (@spanish4kiddos) December 27, 2011 at 10:05 am

As a bilingual educator and mom, there’s always the uncertainty that students don’t learn enough or is it appropriate for my kiddo. But one thing is for certain, that I made the right decision to teach not only the Spanish language to my kiddo but the culture and traditions that I grew up with and pass it along to my kiddo. I love all your points presented in your article, which are so very true for many bilingual parents on the journey to teach children another language.


4 Corey January 4, 2012 at 12:38 am

You are so right, Barbara, there is always uncertainty but it is all worth it. I sometimes wonder if anything has complete certainty so we might as well go with the flow. Culture and traditions are really what it is all about, isn’t it? The language is the key to that but it isn’t the end… it is just the beginning… the source! Thank you for reminding us of this – it is so important!


5 maria pons January 16, 2012 at 11:28 am

I decided 34 years ago that m y children would grow up polyglots, multilingual, mehrsprachig whatever you whish to call it…Back then there was not much information or visible research…I knew that I would never speak a foreign language to my kids since I could onlly express my true feelings in my mother language. I then moved from Germany (where stuborn Germans could not accept my language policy) to South Africa, where everyone was flabagasted that I refused to speak English to my children. Anyway my kids are now quadrilingual adults…Oh! as for my language policy then: With me the mother they had always to speak my mother language:PORTUGUESE, to their friends, teachers, etc outside our house they could choose themselves! Of course they suffered a bit especially while attending the local Geran school who insisted that they had to do German as motherlanguage, which was very unfair! So perservere, stick to one person one language, do not confuse the kid by ixing languages, etc. Oh no I did not and still do mind when people get annoyed that they can not understand me when I am speaking a language they do not grasp! Just think of Switzerland (4 official languages), South Africa 11 offical languages, Spain 4 official languages. etc…Besides the fact that NOW it has been scientifically proved that ultilinguis develops the brain in kids…So keep the faith…The rewards will be visible later!


6 Cordelia Newlin de Rojas December 12, 2012 at 5:24 am

Uh, Oh 7 out of ten apply in my case. Why do we do this to ourselves? What drives me the craziest is being faced with a barrage of :you MUST do it this way e.g OPOL or you MUST do minority at home or you MUST pretend to not understand, etc. Sorry but my kid hears me speak English to her father. If I try to pull the last one on her, she raises her little four-year-old eyebrows saying I am not buying that. Not entirely sure what to make of the fact I am doing such a good job of sabotaging. And in fact I could add a few more of my own… 🙁


7 Sarita May 15, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Don’t sweat it! We live in Spain, I have always spoken English with my 6 year old son, my husband speaks Spanish, he goes to school in Spanish, I often speak Spanish to him when we are in public or to help with homework, etc. and I personally don’t agree with strict OPOL as it seems artificial to me. I have NEVER had any of the concerns above, and it seems to be working! He is happy speaking either language, and has had no delays at all, or confusion. (Maybe we’re just lucky?) I respect everyone’s views, but I do think it’s possible to make it all harder than it actually is, just go with the flow!


8 Lovinglanguage January 11, 2013 at 4:31 pm

Good words about why *anything* doesn’t get done. I love this! Rules for life.


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