Raising Bilingual Children: Tips for When the Home Language Differs From the Community Language

by expert · 29 comments

raising bilingual children: Tips for When the Home Language Differs from the Community Language

By Ana Paula G. Mumy, MS, CCC-SLP
Photo credit: istockphoto

Be Intentional

  • Realize that everyday activities such as mealtimes, getting dressed, bath time, and playtime are all opportunities for talking, teaching, and providing quality language exposure. Be intentional about ongoing verbal interactions about things, routines and events in your child’s life.
  • Arrange for varied opportunities for your child to have diverse contexts for engaging in the minority language such as book sharing and reading experiences, singing, educational videos, children’s shows, play groups, family visits and trips. It is important for your child to have access to other speakers of the minority language as much as possible.
  • When your child uses incorrect words or grammar, simply model the correct vocabulary and/or sentence structure in response to the child’s utterance.
  • When appropriate, expand your child’s utterances by first affirming what he/she said and then by adding to what was said if the vocabulary or grammar usage was lacking.

  • Even if your child is tending to speak more in the majority language, continue speaking to him/her in the minority language. When appropriate, recast the utterance, or present it in a different or changed structure while maintaining its meaning. For example, if your child utters a phrase or sentence partly or entirely in the majority language, recast the utterance in the minority language, modeling correct usage where any vocabulary or grammatical gaps were noted.
  • Instill in your child a sense of pride and “need” for the minority language by keeping it relevant and constant in his/her everyday life. Children will inevitably discard a language they do not feel they need.
  • Consider teaching your child to read and write in the minority language. The more competencies your child develops in the minority language, the more internally relevant and important that language will become.

Be Consistent

  • If you are the primary source of language input for your child in the minority language, consistently speak to your child in that language whether at home or out in the community.
  • Though code mixing, or alternating between two languages while speaking, is completely normal and appropriate for bilinguals, in order to clearly draw a line between the two languages in your child’s linguistic environment, limit code mixing as much as possible at least at the beginning stages.

Be Persistent

  • Don’t lose heart or give up even if your child’s language proficiency or skills seem to fluctuate over time in his/her two languages. Some fluctuation is normal as children learn to navigate between both languages.
  • Don’t allow for interruptions or long periods of little or no exposure to the minority language.
  • When it seems hard and laborious, remember the long-term benefits and rewards you are bestowing upon your child by raising him/her to be bilingual.
  • Relatives, friends, and community members may misunderstand or even disagree with your decision to raise your child bilingually for various reasons. If you can, kindly educate them about your decision, but if not, politely stand your ground based on what’s best for your child. Your dedication, consistency and persistence will pay off in the end!

“The bilingualism of children should be a source of joy, both for parents and children, even if there are occasional moments of difficulties.”  — François Grosjean

Ana Paula G. Mumy is a mother of two bilingual children and a trilingual speech-language pathologist, the author of various multilingual leveled storybooks and instructional therapy materials for speech/language intervention, as well as the co-author of her latest eSongbook which features children’s songs for speech, language and hearing goals. She has provided school-based and pediatric home health care services for nearly 12 years and thoroughly enjoys providing resources for SLPs, educators and parents on her website The Speech Stop.

{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Daina May 24, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Thanks for the tips! These are good ones. I did not realize that at the age of TWO my child would want to speak the community language instead of my language with me. I thought I had a few more years before she protested… maybe until she went back to school?

As she was just starting to master both languages, I was able to make her “need” the minority language just by insisting she use it with me, and she responded well to that. (I don’t think every child does… but she did.) It was a tedious couple weeks, though, of “Hmm? The what? What did you say? Can you say it in (my language?)”

I was inspired by a wonderful blog post linked here during a carnival once, and it worked well for us. Now speaking our minority language together is so natural… she speaks to her dolls in the majority language (English) and then usually translates for me in my minority language (Latvian)! And my husband is the one having to model correct grammar, because her Latvian grammar is influencing her weaker English grammar… but I am sure that will change someday!


2 Ana Paula G. Mumy May 24, 2012 at 9:11 pm

Thank you, Daina, for showing us another example that persistence does work!


3 Alex June 2, 2012 at 8:27 am

I needed this! Sometimes I feel like giving up when I everyone is irritated . But no, it’s just a bump in the journey! It’s more about the trip then the destination right now. 🙂


4 Ana Paula G. Mumy June 2, 2012 at 10:07 am

I’m so glad this was helpful, Alex! I think sometimes it just helps knowing we’re not alone, that other families are experiencing similar challenges and frustrations. So what a blessing to have an online community like Multilingual Living to give us inspiration not to give up!!!


5 Jayan January 15, 2015 at 10:04 pm

Kudos! What a neat way of thknniig about it.


6 Ann June 8, 2012 at 11:17 am

Thanks so much for this, it reminded me that i have to keep persevering. But tell me, my eldest is 4 and speaks almost exclusively in his majority language (English), is it too late to start being more persistent about speaking the minority language (Danish)? I have noticed lately that, after I say something in Danish to him, he will speak back to me in English but with one or two words in Danish, which is an improvement. I am the first to admit that I have not at all been good about sticking to Danish, and sometimes I feel like I am the only foreigner who struggles to teach her children her own language. It doesn’t help that Danish language tools seem almost non-exsistent. Going through the lovely language websites you have linked to here I couldn’t find a single one offering anything in Danish. That ended up being a long comment but, as I said, I feel very alone in this predicament!


7 Daina June 8, 2012 at 12:02 pm

It is hard to feel alone! I will say that there are a lot of Latvian language resources out there, and there are fewer Latvian language speakers than there are Danish language speakers, so I am guessing there are a lot of neat things out there in Danish. That said, when you have a language that isn’t one of the big ones, the resources can be a lot harder to find!

Is there any kind of online community for Danish-speakers? Latvians have Latvians Online, which is partially in English but has led me to a lot of neat Latvian-language resources, since that’s obviously something a lot of Latvians are interested in. I’ve also found a lot of things either by chance searches (on Google or YouTube in Latvian) or through our local Latvian community… finding them really is the trick.


8 Ann June 8, 2012 at 12:35 pm

Thanks Daina! I think the Danish community where I live is very small, I never meet anyone who goes “oh I know another Danish person”. I’ve also never been a fan of huddling together with people from your home country just for he sake of it, you want to feel like you have something in common and that makes the pool of people even smaller. But I guess online is always an option. It just seems like most expats I meet cannot relate to my bilingual problems. Either, their expat is community is so big that they are always around people with the same language and even have schools specifically to teach expats kids their home language, or they are married to the same nationality and have strong ties to their home country or they just still find their mother tongue comes really naturally to them and find English quite hard still. I have to try so hard to speak Danish as I have hardly spoken it for 10 years. You should think that would mean I didn´t care about teaching my children Danish but I really do want them to learn and can´t help but taking in personally when my 4 year old says “I don´t like Danish”.


9 Ana Paula G. Mumy June 8, 2012 at 1:39 pm

Hi Ann – Resources in my home language (Brazilian Portuguese) are not readily available here in the U.S., but I have managed to find a few with some diligent searching. I also recruit my parents and siblings to bring me resources as they’re able when they travel to Brazil.

Here are a few suggestions for you: 1) If you’re serious about passing on Danish, you might try making some adjustments to your own language knowledge and use in Danish. For example, because I had been in the U.S. for 20 years before my first child was born, even though I still spoke Portuguese fluently, I had to relearn “baby talk” in a sense, and I read lots and lots of children’s books in Portuguese and translated some of my favorites in English, I relearned children’s songs and rhymes I grew up with, etc. so that my Portuguese language use would be appropriate for a child and also natural and effortless. 2) Create an environment where he feels he “needs” Danish, but one that is fun and motivating. For example, I make a point to have my daughter communicate with family members in Brazil via Skype so that she feels she needs Portuguese in order to relate with them…and she loves being on the computer! 3) It’s not too late to speak only Danish because he’s only 4 and this is still prime time for multi-language learning. You may have to speak Danish first, then immediate English translation for a while if his Danish comprehension is poor, but if you’re consistent, you’ll see his comprehension improving and you can gradually fade the English. 4) Speak in Danish even if he addresses you or responds to you in English. My daughter began Portuguese dominant, then I saw a sudden shift to English dominance/preference (my husband speaks only English and most friends/close-by family is English-speaking), but now at 3 1/2 yrs of age, I’m seeing the gradual reintegration of Portuguese use because I only speak to her in Portuguese regardless. I’ve also begun to praise her when she speaks to me in Portuguese (“I love it when you speak to mommy in Portuguese!”) and that positive reinforcement has made her want to speak more in Portuguese. 5) If you can find children’s books and educational and/or entertainment children’s videos in Danish, that has been a great source of motivation for my children. My daughter was thrilled when she heard “Cinderella” speaking in Portuguese for the first time…we just purchased the dubbed version.

So my take-home points, make Danish important and relevant in your everyday lives, activities, experiences, routines, and be consistent in all of your efforts. It’s challenging sometimes, but it will be worth it in the end. 🙂

If you’d like more specific strategies or information on simultaneous language development, I have written 2 articles (Convergence: When Two Languages Meet) detailing my daughter’s bilingual language development, and they’re available on my website: http://www.thespeechstop.com/sub.php?page=bilingualism.


10 Kasia Hill June 29, 2013 at 1:44 am

I found it relatively easy to speak and teach my first daughter my mother tongue, but since the second one has reached the age when she can talk it went downhill from then. The younger one is a lot less proficient in my language. I think its mainly because they speak English between each other. They spend more time playing independently now then when I had a bored 2 year old on her own. Any tips?


11 Catherine Lord June 29, 2013 at 4:50 am

Very good tips! I’m glad to see i was using some of them already! I’m a French speaker in a mainly English speaking environment, but thanks to minority rights in Canada, we have access to schooling in the minority language. One problem which I had not foreseen when I decided to send my children to a French speaking school, was the level of the majority language they use with their peers. Typically, on a play date with friends from school, my children will speak English, and then some mixture (what you call code mixing, I think). I used to panic when I overheard such conversations, but then I realised that they speak French very well with me and with other French speaking adults. They even modify their accent when speaking to Europeans or to Quebecers. In addition, they seem to clue in when a child is stronger in French and then use more French with him/her. If you have any tips regarding reinforcing their play environment in a positive and non-restrictive manner, I would appreciate it very much!

Generally, I find raising children bilingually is like having my own linguistic laboratory at home. They make four types of mistakes: those English children make (I buyed a candy at the store), those French kids make (je m’ai levé) plus the mistakes each group makes when learning the other group’s language (difficulty with pronouns, cognates, etc.). Since I am a language teacher, I find it quite interesting to always try to find the best word or the best expression for saying what they mean, and often include them in that quest. Correcting mistakes is devoid of emotional input, as it is a fact of life, and it happens in both languages. Now some rewards start showing, as they are 6 and 8 years old, when they correct each other in a very casual way: “Non, la librairie, c’est là où on achète les livres, et la bibliothèque, c’est là où on les emprunte!” (no, the bookstore is where you buy books, and the library is where you borrow them!).


12 Ana Paula G. Mumy June 29, 2013 at 7:44 am

Catherine – language use among siblings and peers is somewhat of a phenomenon in my eyes! It appears that with peers, the default language is usually the language of the majority even when they all speak the minority language. The only way I have found to encourage minority language use during play time is to participate and guide them in some planned play activities, especially if it’s a play group situation with other families. I allow them unstructured free play, of course, and their language of choice is usually not the minority language, but then during the structured guided play activities, I’m modeling the minority language and they’re encouraged and more prone to use it. Hope this helps!


13 Laura June 29, 2013 at 5:07 am

The same -the same!- case of Kasia Hill. Please, Diana, explain us how to do. Thanks a lot.


14 Ana Paula G. Mumy June 29, 2013 at 7:54 am

Kasia and Laura – Please see my response above to Catherine about language use among siblings and peers, but I would also add that the best way to encourage more minority language use is to find ways to increase motivation and opportunity for use of that language, which can be visiting relatives who speak the minority language, play groups with families who speak the minority language (including some guided play as explained above), etc. What I have found with my own children is, even though I solely speak Portuguese to them, I am only ONE person in their lives, so I alone am not enough motivation and opportunity for minority language use. I HAVE to find other ways to give them more varied exposure and opportunity!

My new book “Practical Bilingualism” – a simple yet practical guide for parents raising children bilingually – is almost ready for publication and it will be full of tips and suggestions covering multiple topics. 🙂


15 Isabella June 29, 2013 at 5:43 am

I have always spoken the mother tongue with my children, which is also the minority language (they are trilingual). The biggest challenge I face currently is helping with homework, for which I use the language of the homework (English). As the children are getting older and homework and school projects get more and more, I spend much more time talking in English – helping, discussing and revising their work. I have tried but it is impossible to do it in my language, as it turn out too confusing to all parts. Any tips?


16 Ana Paula G. Mumy June 29, 2013 at 8:00 am

Isabella – what I do with homework or even storybook reading (sometimes I get tired of translating every storybook! and I don’t have a large selection of books available in my minority language) is read the homework text, the reading passages, etc. in the majority language, but I make sure all discussion about the topic or homework activity, explanations of instructions, clarifications for questions they may have, etc. are all in the minority language. It takes some focus and practice, but once you grow accustomed, it should become second-nature to you.


17 Isabella June 29, 2013 at 1:07 pm

Thanks, Ana, I will give it a try!


18 Jjingo Caesar June 29, 2013 at 10:16 pm

It is a great idea, i think its the way to go. Thank you


19 hanaa June 30, 2013 at 3:25 am

I grew up speaking English at home and Italian outside, including school, and learned German from one side of the family, had no problems. So I thought that keeping English at home now with my kids in an Arabic background and teaching them Italian on the side would be just as easy. But now I find that my kids speak English and Italian, go to English school and can’t communicate with ease in Arabic. So, I’m having the opposite problem. Any suggestions?


20 Missy July 4, 2013 at 3:41 am

Thanks so much for these great tips! Indeed the small things we do to our kids in developing a new language. Patience is a virtue and looks like everything is all worth it once we see them improve. Will share these among my multilingual clients. Cheers.


21 Ana María July 7, 2013 at 3:07 pm

I’m so glad my friend sent me a link to this website!! I don’t feel so lonely after reading all the comments!
I have a question (tons of them), we speak 3 languages at home, my husband is German, I’m Colombian and my daughter was born here in the states. I always speak with her in Spanish, my husband in German and we (my husband and I ) communicate in English (it was the language we spoke when we met and even thou, I can speak German now, it feels funny to speak it with him).
Anyway, my daughter is 2 1/2 years, and she seems to understand perfectly very complex orders (go to your room and put your shoes on) but she says literally 7 words, mom and dad in Spanish, cheese in German, hi and bye in German, shoe in English and our dog’s name. Her pediatrician, freaked out when she was 1 1/2 years old cause she was not answering (very difficult year, with tons of ear infections, till surgery for tubes last December), so she was send to speech therapy and what not.

If I try to teach her words by pointing objects she screams and complains, runs away. Sometimes, she repeats the “word” using the same vowels but changing all the consonants.

I’m decided that she will speak the three languages as a native and she will write them too. Maybe because I can see how clever she is I’m not more worried, but I was wondering if you could give me some advice on what else to do.

If I try to read to her, she gets mad and takes the book away, her speech therapist tells me that she has the feeling she will speak when she wants. Other mothers with kids growing with 2 languages, have told me that their kids started to talk around 3 and in complete sentences…I’m not very stressed but a bit concerned, all the kids in her class are singing the ABCs…well, yes I think I’m stressed 🙁
What do you think?

Sorry for the novel, but thanks for your reply!


22 Kasia July 7, 2013 at 9:02 pm

Hi Ana Maria,

I’m not an expert, but both my kids were a bit delayed with languages to begin with, but now they speak 3 quite well ! I was also concerned as the local nurse told me there must be sth wrong with them since they didn’t speak enough words as stated in the chart. It’s very stressful to hear things like that. Don’t give up. By the way 2 year olds are very stubborn and any refusal seams like a norm to me (little taste of teenage years ahead). Good luck !!!!!


23 Ana Paula G. Mumy July 15, 2013 at 10:56 pm

I start this announcement by thanking Corey Heller for this WONDERFUL site that is truly a “light” for multilingual families, guiding and strengthening families in their multilingual (often complicated) lives!

As a result of my personal experiences and as a response to the dozens of questions I have received via this site and email, I am very excited to release “Practical Bilingualism: A Concise and Simple Guide for Parents Raising Bilingual Children”! This guide is written to be an easy read that is extremely practical, covering multiple topics and pressing issues. Available now at http://www.thespeechstop.com/sub.php?page=bilingualism.


24 Maria Noel Machin January 26, 2014 at 7:23 pm

Ana Paula,estou pesquisando sobre o tema do multilingualismo porque meu filho de tres anos nao esta falando quasse nada.
Eu falo com ele em español porque sou Uruguaia, o pai dele fala com ele em Inglés porque e americano e entre nos falamos português porque a gente morava no Brasil casamos lá e a gente acostumóu a se comunicar em português.
O problema e que estou comenzando a ficar bem preocupada porque o nosso filho quasse nao fala.
A gente agora mora nos Estados Unidos e o meu filho Kalú so fala expreçoes por exemplo Yeah! e mais alguns,nada em español e olha que eu falo MUITO com ele.
Sera possível que o Português que a gente fala esteja confundindo ele?
Eu acredito muito na inteligencia dele..ele e super esperto e a gente se comunica do mesmo jeito..mas para sentencias longas…ele nao entende que estou falando….ele entende quando eu digo Vamos Kali mas se eu falo …(Vamos kalu porque tu hermanita nos esta esperando en casa…) ele nao entende.
Tenho certeza que crecer numa familia que fala diariamente tres línguas vai ser super beneficioso no futuro..mas agora estou me sentindo agoniada porque são as palavras as que ajudam a criança a entender o mundo que os arrodeia…eu desejo muito que ele possa se comunicar conmigo e con os outros.
Espero nao ter sido muito extenso..e agradeço uma ajuda pra entender o que esta acontecendo na cabeza do meu filho.
Ele esta sendo evaluado em uma escola..e claro que os test mostram que ele esta muito atrasado em comparação com as crianças Monolingües…então e bem diferente o nosso caso como pra ser evaluado por pessoas com test para crianças monolingües.
Muito Obrigada pela atenção.


25 Ana Paula G. Mumy January 28, 2014 at 8:18 am

Maria – entre em contato comigo através do meu site, ok? Onde você mora agora?


26 Maria Noel Machin January 28, 2014 at 12:49 pm

Ana Paula,obrigada por responder,eu tentei mandar a mensagem pra seu web site mas não conseguí, fala Page Not Found.
A gente mora faz um ano e meio na california, espero ter a oportunidade de nos comunicar,so me diga como eu faço.
Meu e mail e sandalodeagua@gmail.com


27 Teresa Baker January 23, 2015 at 2:54 pm

This is all very good advice. My children are now grown, but for a long time I was the only one who spoke English to them. My husband is Portuguese and we live in Portugal, in the north with no other English people around.
I always spoke to my daughters in English, and we watched films/TV in English too. I have always worked full time, so they spent their days at school/ with Portuguese carers. They both speak English fluently (better than their teachers at school!) and the eldest refuses, even now, to speak to me in English.
When my second daughter was born, 5 years after the first, she started speaking Portuguese to her sister. I simply asked her to speak English to her, and she did.
My husband can speak English, and at first used to mix his languages with them, until I pointed out that, like that, there would be no between English and Portugese, So he chose to speak Portuguese to them.
They are truly bilingual!


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