Raising Bilingual Children: Will My Efforts Be in Vain?

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Raising Bilingual Children: Will My Efforts Be in Vain?

By Ana Paula Mumy, MS, CCC-SLP
Photo Credit: christine (cbszeto)

At about 30 weeks in my first pregnancy, I remember sitting at my laptop for hours listening to children’s songs and compiling lyrics for future reference.  It was a tedious exercise of play-stop-rewind-play-stop-rewind-play.

What in the world was I doing? 

I was relearning old childhood songs in Portuguese that had long faded from my memory.  I was only weeks away from giving birth to my long-awaited firstborn child, and I was determined that she would be bilingual.

A realization came to me though, that after living in the United States for more than 20 years, though I could still speak, read, and write in my first language fluently, I had forgotten popular rhymes and children’s songs I grew up with, I had lost “baby talk” in Portuguese, and I was rusty in many idiomatic expressions of everyday life and specialized jargon related to babies and baby routines. 

So in essence, I became a student of Portuguese again, but with a very specific purpose in mind, that relating to my baby in Portuguese would be a natural and constant practice in which I felt confident.  I also purchased every Portuguese or Portuguese/English children’s book that Amazon carried, along with a DVD series in Portuguese similar to Baby Einstein, in order to create more opportunities for engaging in Portuguese.


By the time my daughter was born, I felt fully ready to embark on the journey of bilingualism, and my American husband was fully behind me in the effort even at the expense of him not understanding.  Interestingly enough, she was born on the anniversary date of my family’s immigration to the United States!

I intentionally spoke only in Portuguese to my daughter from the moment she took her first breath, and my husband spoke primarily in English, using some learned Portuguese words here and there as he pleased.

Getting Comfortable

Early on though, speaking in Portuguese to her didn’t seem to be what I naturally “defaulted” to, but I continued anyway.  I realized that due to primary, secondary, and post-secondary schooling in English, English had really become my dominant language, so sticking with Portuguese was a conscious effort initially, an effort that eventually became effortless and natural with time and persistence.

I made sure that all of my interactions with her (i.e. talking, playing, reading, singing, eating, dressing, bathing, etc.) were in Portuguese because I was her only source of Portuguese since she had limited opportunity to be around Portuguese-speaking relatives and because we lived in a fairly monolingual community.

At the beginning of her language development, she showed fairly equal understanding of both languages and she spoke more Portuguese words than English words…I was thrilled!

Gradually though, I saw a shift to English preference and dominance, where she would choose English even when I was strictly speaking to her in Portuguese.

I was crushed and confused!  Would all of my efforts be in vain?  What had I done wrong?

Three Tips

As I continued in Portuguese, however, I consciously did three things…

I attempted to increase her opportunities for Portuguese interaction and to create and maintain a greater “need” for Portuguese in her environment.  I also began to give her positive verbal reinforcement for speaking to me in Portuguese, statements (in Portuguese) as simple as “I love it when you speak to mommy in Portuguese!”

Not surprisingly, I began to see the reintegration of her Portuguese use.  I realized that the fluctuation over time in children is normal as they navigate through the languages in their environment.  My job was to keep the language input constant and to maintain a need for Portuguese in her life.

Take Home Points

Some take-home points as a bilingual mother (and speech-language pathologist too!):

  • If your child is showing a preference for the majority or community language, continue responding and engaging in the minority language.  So many parents shift to the majority language when this occurs, so make a deliberate decision to keep speaking, to keep praising, and to keep modeling correct vocabulary and grammar use, especially when you see them trying but struggling to use the minority language.
  • Even with greater exposure to the majority language within the majority culture, children are capable of developing language simultaneously in the languages of consistent exposure and quality input.
  • Sudden drops in expressive ability in the minority language may occur once the majority language is introduced and as majority language skills become more complex, however, the minority language skills are not gone and will gradually increase again with continued exposure and input, so don’t give up!
  • If you would like to read a more detailed discussion on simultaneous bilingualism, please check out my articles Convergence: When Two Languages Meet (Parts 1 and 2) on www.thespeechstop.com.  There I share the results of a longitudinal case study I completed on my daughter’s simultaneous language development or bilingual first language acquisition.

It Is All Worth It

Today my firstborn is almost 4 years old.  She loves to chat with my parents in Texas and my extended family in Brazil via Skype.

When I hear her talking, joking, and laughing with my dad in Portuguese, all the effort and stress and moments of difficulty just melt away.  And when my now 2-year-old son says to me in Portuguese that he just pottied in his diaper, instead of being frustrated that he didn’t ask me to go in the toilet, I smile because even those Portuguese words sound so beautiful!

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.

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Margaret Nahmias October 26, 2012 at 5:54 am

This confirms what I already suspected just talk and they will learn.


2 MA Shumin October 26, 2012 at 10:45 am

Persistence and discipline seems to be key

Exposing the kids to a second (or third) language in the early childhood years definitely demands great effort of the parent


3 Franck October 26, 2012 at 3:43 pm

We also had to “re-learn” children songs in French and Spanish when our kids were born! One challenge we have now in our family is that with Elena (7) we spend more time reading in English because of school requirements. She needs to read at least 30min in English every day. That leaves sometimes little time to read in the 2nd language, and as a result, she is more eager to go towards English books.



4 Dominick October 26, 2012 at 3:49 pm

My son is 13 months old, and I have only spoke Italian to him since he was born. He is too young to verbally express himself but he does respond correctly to things like “vieni qui” (come here), he points to what he wants when I ask “cosa vuoi?” and looks for his pacifier when asked “dov’è il ciuccio?”. The problem is, I didn’t actually learn Italian until my early twenties, and therefore don’t speak perfectly, have a bit of an accent (but it is very mild from what I am told), and sometimes respond to situations a split second slower than I could in my native English. Plus, besides all of the books and movies and a few interactive toys I bring back with me from my work trips to Italy, I was pretty much the only Italian exposure he was getting, and being the father it often feels like the communication time he is getting from his English speaking mother supercedes mine and too often I let her do all the speaking when we are all together. I have therefore decided to create a deliberate immersion environment for him and got an Italian au pair. 2 months in it seems to be working great. She speaks only Italian with him and is with him for about 8 hours a day. She is also a fantastic caretaker and very responsible for her age. Now I just need to figure out a way to get him Italian speaking friends when he gets a few years older.


5 Ana Paula G. Mumy October 26, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Yes, consistency and perseverance are crucial! To expand on a few of the comments, as far as school reading requirements, normally the requirements are meant to encourage not only reading fluency but also a love of reading, so I would visit with the teacher and present the possibility of allowing reading in the second language to count towards the requirement at least partially. The more competencies children have in any given language (speaking, reading, writing), the stronger and more internally relevant that language will become.

In relation to finding friends who speak the same language, start a play group if possible. I started a play group and also a little Portuguese class weekly, and it has expanded from 2 to 6 families, and I now have Brazilian families calling me from 60 miles away wanting to participate somehow…sometimes there are more multilingual families around us than we realize! Even though a lot of the interactions during play time are still in English because some of the children have very little Portuguese vocabulary, they are all more motivated to speak in Portuguese when they see other kids speaking.


6 Katy October 28, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Thank you so much for this article, it is very encouraging!

I especially liked your reference to your own being “rusty” in Portuguese. I felt the same with my mother-tongue (Russian). Myself, I had been immersed in foreign (for me) environments for too long to be confident in my own Russian. But once our kid was born, it was so natural to talk to her in Russian – I am so glad that I took my chances and revived my mother tongue, it is so natural now!

We are raising our kid trilingual, she is now 2 years old, and we just love to watch her experimenting with all 3 languages – with ups-and-downs in each of them, precisely as you have described!

Thank you again for sharing your experience!


7 Ana Paula G. Mumy October 29, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Thank you for the feedback and you are so welcome! I am glad to hear it’s been encouraging and helpful. If you haven’t seen my blogstyle newsletter entitled “Tips for Parents Raising Bilingual Children: When the Home Language Differs from the Community Language,” check it out at http://www.thespeechstop.com/sub.php?page=bilingualism.


8 Ana Paula G. Mumy July 15, 2013 at 10:46 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.


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