Raising Bilingual Children: The Non-Native Gone Astray?

by Corey · 42 comments

Raising Bilingual Children in Non-Native Language

By Corey Heller
Photo credit: eamoncurry123

As many of you know, my husband is German and I am American. I met him in Galway, Ireland during an education abroad program in 1991, fell in love with him in 1992 and life hasn’t been the same since. (In a good way, that is!)

After Ireland I moved to Kiel, Germany with my husband where I spent a total of two years learning the language, learning the culture, getting to know my husband’s family and friends, taking German language classes for many hours a day and eventually attending the university of Kiel in my field of Ancient History. After two years in Germany, we moved to Seattle in the USA to start grad school.

Those two years are the culmination of my intense, authentic German language exposure. Even though I was the most dedicated student I could imagine, two years is still a relatively short amount of time to master a language.

Of course, I have kept up the language on my own and my husband has been fantastic in helping me continue to practice it. But still… there is only so much that I can do. My German language skills have declined bit-by-bit each year, to my dismay. 

The Children

Despite this reality, for the past 11 years I have made the effort to raise my children and educate them at home in German as much as possible. I have made more grammatical mistakes than I can even count and I have failed to know proper vocabulary words on more occasions than I’d like to remember. I am rarely able to explain puns or special terms or sayings to my children while reading them the Percy Jackson books out loud in German – simply because I have failed to understand the meanings myself.

However, despite all of these failings, I am confident that I have provided my children a wonderful foundation in the German language. We converse comfortably in German and aren’t shy about looking up words or asking their father when we aren’t sure of a specific pronunciation or definition. My children can read books comfortably in German and I look forward to reading magazines and books in German every moment that I can. Each time we visit Germany, family and friends rave about my children’s German skills, which reminds me that I must be doing some things right.

However, I still grapple with that nagging voice in the back of my head that says that I am a failure for not having made it farther. I lower my head in shame that I wasn’t able to do more. I sigh in disappointment for not having practiced my German more diligently each day so that I could have have been able to do so much more for my children.

Reality Sets In

Since returning from a visit to Germany in the fall, I have been speaking more and more English with my children but not because I am lazy or forgetful or tired out. I do it because as a homeschooling family, I realize that I have been selling my children short by trying to do everything in German. As my children’s main source of language arts instruction, it is my responsibility to make sure that my children are exposed to increasingly complex vocabulary and syntax and overall language exposure each year. This is important!

And I have come to terms with the fact that I just can’t do this well enough in German. My own vocabulary and syntax and overall language skills in German just aren’t rich enough.

If I want my children to learn a variety of words for the world around them, aside from the myriad of literary terms and expressions and meanings and subtleties, then I need to be able to share these with them. My children and I need to be able to discuss things in ever increasingly complex conversations and debates. I need to be able to use a variety of vocabulary comfortably in a number of different contexts so that my children will themselves become comfortable with an abundance of usages and nuances.

If I want my children to be able to fully and accurately express and clarify what they are feeling and thinking, then I need to help my children become comfortable with the words and thoughts and expressions to do so. If I could do this in German, I would. But I can’t.

Am I disappointed in myself?

But am I also proud of myself?

I am proud that I have been able (and continue to be able) to provide my children with German language exposure in meaningful ways for these past 11 years and counting. I am also proud of myself for having admitted that I can’t do everything in German and have been willing to seek out a new path.

I am proud of myself for not trying to be some kind of super-woman for my children and for myself. For not being too stuck in my ways to admit that I don’t have to accomplish everything just as I had it all planned out in my mind.

I am proud of myself for accepting myself for who I am, what I have been able to do and for accepting my limitations.

Going Astray?

I am delighted that my children are old enough now to feel that they are masters of their languages. They feel comfortable switching to English and then back to German and then mixing the two when they want.

My children don’t feel that language use is something fraught with rules and demands and worries. I have never taught them that one language is “right” and the other is “wrong” so they don’t feel any discomfort using both at will. My children use their languages however they want yet don’t even realize how often they switch back and forth seamlessly. It is simply part of who they are.

I, on the other hand, feel like a non-native who has gone astray.

I feel like I have given in to something that I shouldn’t have (digging into that big bowl of chocolate ice cream that has been sitting there, taunting me). I feel like I have stumbled and fallen, crashed and burned, turned to the dark side.

Yet at the same time, I also feel strangely empowered – a non-native speaker who is taking matters into her own hands.

I feel like I am forging a new path through the thick underbrush with a machete in hand and a strong sense of direction. Forget the beaten path, we will create our own!

So, I although I feel that I have gone astray, I also feel that it was time to make a change. And although I feel like I have turned to the dark side, deep down what I am now doing also feels right and good.

Because when it comes down to it, the reality is that each of our family’s language patterns are always in flux; always ebbing and flowing and changing. It is simply a matter of staying on the path when it makes sense and then having the faith to create our own when the time comes.

But most importantly: we need to remember to check out the view along the way because dang, it is always so spectacular!

What about you? Do you feel that you have gone astray? Or do you feel that you are still on the path?

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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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Laura S. February 4, 2013 at 4:00 am

I understand completely. While our situation is different, I get where you are coming from. Like you, I learned Spanish in Mexico in a two year situation, came back to the States, met my husband (of Mexican descent), married and here we are 3 children later. With my 2 school age children, my approach has been different so the path has changed so to speak. My older child absorbed Spanish and English with no issue, reading at age 4 in both languages, and generally excelling academically. My middle child is bright but lacks the attention span and concentration so I this year I have had to dial down the reading in Spanish and increase the reading in English to supplement her school work. It’s hard, because I have so many fun materials in Spanish, but I feel it’s necessarily until she is better able to read English on her own. Parenting in a non-native language is quite the journey and I think that I am fairly successful, but certainly there are ideas I can’t express and words that don’t come to me in a given moment. However I remain firm on speaking to them and them speaking to me in Spanish because while my husband is a native speaker, he is not consistent with our older child in Spanish so I’m all they have on a certain level.


2 Beth Ortuño February 4, 2013 at 8:52 am

I am a non-native speaker in Spanish and at home we live our lives 90% in Spanish. We have enrolled two of the children in a dual-language Spanish-English school (50% of the homework that I try to help them with is in Spanish!) and are looking forward to having their sister qualify for the same school next year. Family vacations are often in my husband’s home country where I know nobody besides the family and none of them speak English at all, the whole time is entirely in Spanish.
Some things I have learned are:
– Children need a “rich model” language. In the long run that is more important than the effort to teach a certain language or other. When children know how to put building blocks together, they can easily use blocks of a different color or size on whatever day you bring them home. If, however, they don’t understand how to stack blocks into a good tower, it doesn’t matter which color or how many blocks you give them they won’t be able to build anything. Whenever I can provide the rich model in my non-native language, I do. When I can’t, I go back to my native language for a little bit. Also, if a bilingual adult is speaking to another bilingual adult among a group of all bilingual people, adults can be code-switching by choice but what the kids are then hearing is a constant mish mosh. Without the sentence structure and grammar being consistent that does not help them figure out how languages are put together. I cannot stay all in Spanish and stay reasonably correct so I use 1 language for 1 sentence at a time. That way the kids are still receiving the correct grammar structures and nuances of words for whichever language it is. And we strongly encourage everyone who can speak “pure” Spanish to do so while in our home. Try to improve your language skills, but don’t make the mistake of speaking primarily in a broken, inferior language you are just learning yourself to young children, or mixing hodge podge. This is especially crucial if the child has other language development challenges, like too much tv in the home, or a stutter. We sadly see what a strong and negative effect their mom doing this has had on my stepson and see it also around the community unfortunately.
– Emotions, attachments and languages are all mixed together in children’s minds as much as our own. When a child is unmotivated or outright refusing to use a language, it’s more important to figure out WHY than it is to force the language on them. It’s your job not to browbeat them but to figure out how to make it easy for them. They WILL come along.
– Don’t force yourself either. I have learned some lullabies in Spanish. Those are very nice and I am slowly learning more. But singing lullabies in my native tongue English, without thinking about it that is when I tend to rock steadier and hold the baby closer. My mother sings in English and now I am the mother she made me, in large part. There is nothing wrong with that.
– The fact that I make the effort (regardless of result), continue to try, don’t give up on working at my own language abilities, this is THE MOST IMPORTANT signal I can send: a non-native speaker feels this language is so cool (or KEWL, as the kids say) she wants to get into it, get as deep into it as she can and go as far with it as she can. That is a living daily counter to all the messages from larger society that can make kids feel negatively about being a minority and by extension feel negatively about the minority language.

Hope this has helped. Don’t expect yourself to be perfect. Just don’t give up.


3 andie February 8, 2013 at 3:08 am

Our situation is different, but I definitely understand where you’re coming from. We’re Americans living Turkey. Our American children are attending a Turkish public school and I’m just amazed with the language they’ve come home with after only one semester. My 7 year old daughter is already schooling me how to correctly pronounce vowel sounds that aren’t in the English alphabet (right down to telling me the proper tongue placement, then she shakes her head and assures me that I’ll get it one day). The tendency is to want to try to speak Turkish at home to help us all out, and sometimes we do. We definitely use as much Turkish as we can when out in public.

I’ve been thoroughly convicted about how a big part of my job is going to be to enrich their English. It’s easy to forget about English since it’s their native language and they ‘already know it.’ But they’re no longer immersed in their native language and it’s starting to show. They’re making grammar mistakes that they used to have mastery of. Some of their English sentences come out with a Turkish word order (which is completely backwards). It’s so hard to ignore the impulse to push Turkish all the time since that’s the language we’re learning together as a family. We need to remember who we are and where we come from. I don’t know where my kids will want to live when they grow up, but wherever it is, good English will never hurt!


4 Beth Ortuño February 8, 2013 at 6:48 am

good for you Andie! dont give up 🙂

I wish all the minority-language speakers in the United States would know what you know. You have to keep the minority language strong at home. The majority language comes on its own and it comes fast & hard.

My son is light-skinned, and I am “white” — for some reason other Hispanic people often notice he looks Hispanic, but other “white” people often don’t see it. When it’s just my son and me, sometimes depending where we are he is often the only Hispanic person around. I have learned to be sure and speak Spanish at him in a way everyone hears it, as that seems to be the only way to prevent him hearing horrible little comments that too often were being made when it’s assumed there are no “people of color” present.

Then I get the question, with a very negative tone, “why are you speaking Spanish to him?” as if there must be a reason, we must be getting ready for someone’s job to send us abroad or something. I wouldn’t say people have been really hostile, and my family is super supportive. But I can understand how my husband’s family (immigrants) have gotten the idea that our son being bilingual will be a bad thing. They are the ones who discourage it!

In Turkey do people ever react negatively when they hear y’all speaking in English amongst yourselves? If so how do you handle that with the children?


5 andie February 8, 2013 at 8:46 am

I really can’t think of any times we’ve had negative reactions from people. People in the States have the idea that people across the globe hate us, and in some places that’s very true, but in some places (like here) we hear people often say “Man, I hate your government, but you guys are great!” But even more than that, people are excited when I say we’re American (their first guesses are always German and English). My kids are the only foreigners in their school and they’re like rock stars. Both of their teachers I can tell are very excited about having the Americans in their class. The negative side is some days all the attention is too much for my kids (and for me, too). People are very touchy-feely here and it’s completely normal for perfect strangers to come up and kiss all over their blonde little heads. It’s hard to get the kids to always react graciously when this happens!

People are pretty fascinated when we speak English together and usually try to join in with what little English they may have learned in school. And I can guarantee that when I meet anyone new they’ll ask if I can teach them English at some point (which I’ve only ever said yes to that question once and it was to a good friend of mine). I think because English is becoming so wide-spread everyone wants to learn it. If I meet someone that does speak English at least fairly well it’s almost impossible to get them to speak Turkish with me. (But if I were in the states and found someone that spoke Turkish, I’d probably be so excited I would force them to speak it with me, so I can understand that.) 🙂

America has a whole different feel to it with so many immigrants and cultures and languages going on in one country. Here, the vast majority of people living here are Turkish and the Turkish language and culture is all they know. So a foreigner doesn’t necessarily have a stereotype or stigma like one can in the States. We’re more objects of curiosity and excitement.


6 Annika Bourgogne February 10, 2013 at 11:11 pm

Corey, you really should be very proud ( and not one bit disappointed) of what you’ve done for your children! You have greatly helped your husband to pass on his native language to your children. I also think it’s great (and wise) to be able to reassess the situation when things change. Good for you!


7 klaudia viola February 12, 2013 at 6:37 am

Dear Corey, I have just opened your web site and read the very first article. And it shook my heart. Having complete Slovak family, I am trying to rise my children to be aware and understand English. No native English speaking husband or extended family. With older daughter I basicly gave up at the age of 2,5. After reading your article, it seems way too early, but the reasons were the same as you described them. My daugher at this age was quite linguisticly and mentaly advanced, plus we had just have a newborn. I was not able to keep the emotional closeness with her. Our relationship was very fragile, because of the baby and me being horribly tired out. Also, I was not able to keep up conversation on the topics she started to be deeply interested: religion, Jesus, dinosaures…my vocab was simply not enough. I could not bear seeing my parents having happy conversations about the things, that I was supposed to have as a mother, in my mind, with her…. she was fluent at that time in Slovak and also started replying Slovak to me. Discouraging. With the boy, I decided to donor at least as much as the older got. He is soon 3, his Slovak is quite poor, so it makes somehow easier to continue with English. However, we again got to a mode of him replying back in Slovak. I do not know, what to do. From your and others example I know, there is a way, it just seems I am not getting it right. My older one understands about 60 sometimes more of the English conversation, is present to our communication in English with the younger one, but when I speak to her in E, replies Slovak. Could you give me any hints? I would love them to speak English back to me, however I realize, that for the realy rich discussions I am having in Slovak with the older one I simly do not have vocabulary…thank you for your reply. And I forgot to mention more about my backround- I am an corporate English teacher, mostly business English.


8 Beth Ortuño March 27, 2013 at 1:04 pm

Klaudia, I am also a non-native speaker and find my vocabulary is much stronger for business words instead of words used in a kid’s world. I can give a two-day training seminar to adults and yet found myself completely lost with a small child’s simple question about what happens to the water when it goes down the bathtub drain. One thing that has helped me immensely is reading lots and lots of children’s books out loud. Since kids love repetition, I’ve easily learned so many useful words now, words like ostriches and puddles. I was delighted to find so many books at all reading levels on Amazon. My son is only 4 but I really think we can keep going with this as he grows and just get books on subjects that interest him & I’ll read out loud. It’s totally worth the investment of time and money to build this little library and use it. Secondarily, I have purchased a couple of cd’s with children’s folk songs. Honestly I don’t even quite understand all the words of these songs at first, and I have to play the cd’s a lot in order to learn the song, but the bonus is that by the time I’ve learned it, my son has learned it too! And he loves singing (I think all small children do).
Hope these ideas help you!


9 klaudia viola May 11, 2013 at 4:04 pm

Dear Beth,

thank you a lot for encouraging hints, getting more out of the books on the topic sounds really doable for me. Will give it a try!


10 Rea February 14, 2013 at 5:32 pm

I have the same situation as you do. Non-native German speaker raising our kids with German. It’s hard! I’ve already decided that as time goes on, I’m going to have to speak more and more English with them, especially since we’re going to homeschool. I don’t really look on it as failure though. It’s necessary for them to learn English. We will keep on with German, of course, but it’s important to try and keep all the languages in balance.


11 andie February 14, 2013 at 11:02 pm

speaking your native language with your children is never failure! it’s only increased opportunity for them :).


12 Tulilintu February 15, 2013 at 3:58 pm

English and Hochdeutsch in Zurich. My children speak English to each other, German to their mother and in school. And Swiss German sooner or later, maybe we won’t notice it at home at first. I’m glad that their English sounds sloppy and natural. I agree about the fast and furious.


13 Tulilintu February 15, 2013 at 4:04 pm

But it would all be so much harder in the States. Here English is so highly valued that we know that it will stick. In the U.S. for 6 months they started refusing German, my daughter even started to hit me when I spoke it to her in the car.
But then English was her “first” language, German his, an almost imperceptible difference within the same family.


14 Sam @ Teenagers Abroad February 27, 2013 at 5:47 am

I think when kids become teenagers and young adults and you sent them abroad for a summer they start to appreciate the benefits of having a second language and how much cultural capital it actually gives you. I guess its the same as lots of stuff your parents make you learn, e.g. cooking. I was made to cook, clean, work at the weekends (speak Irish), when I was a kid. I resented it all until I went travelling and realised I had all these great skills. ~Send your teenagers abroad and they will soon appreciate their second language.


15 Cecy Fencer March 3, 2013 at 3:09 pm

I am Bolivian, married to an American. I have lived in the States for 10 years now, I spoke Spanish to my kids since I was expecting them. My first kid was born in 2004 and he is the most bilingual, The other 3 were born and were exposed to more English than Spanish. In 2006 we started to live with my in laws, which I don’t mind it at all, except it has taken away the time my kids are exposed to Spanish, because my inlaws speak to the kids in English. My husband speaks in English and Spanglish. I homeschool them in English, and what I can not explain in English I do it in Spanish, During school hours, I speak English and Spanish, but the rest of the time in Spanish.
What I have right now is 4 kids than understand Spanish, but they do not want to speak it. The older 2 can write and read, but they are not able to speak. Any advice? I am getting very frustrated.


16 Beth Ortuño March 4, 2013 at 8:01 am

I think it always goes back to “PERCEIVED NEED”. You know as a parent how good it is to be bilingual, but maybe the child is surrounded by people who aren’t, or kids may even vaguely figure out that in the US bilingualism is not always viewed positively. Kids may not perceive the need to speak in this language. You think in terms of cultural connections, future abilities, and kids just don’t think about that stuff too much so it does not “CREATE THE NEED” in their minds the way you know it.
You have to find & create situations where the kids get to do something cool that non-bilingual / non-bicultural kids don’t get to do. Can you travel, whether to another country or to a neighborhood where lots of people don’t speak English? Kids can participate in things like folkloric dance lessons or volunteering at a cultural festival. What about a homeschool book project with un libro en español that they select from Amazon.com on a subject that interests them? How about “Spanish Fridays” for the family, and kids teach the grandparents a sentence or two each week? There is loads of research on how beneficial bilingualism is — they can do this for their grandkids and don’t need to become fluent, just be enthusiastic. My mother in Ohio has been taking Spanish classes, and I am not a native speaker but I learned Spanish. It tells the kids loads about how cool something is when grownups are trying to do it, and the kids get very proud that they know more than a grownup about something 🙂
Even something as simple as going to a certain ethnic restaurant weekly can help. I’m from a not-very-big town where the local “Spanish” restaurant could never have survived with just cuisine of one country or another. Instead they featured foods from a different Spanish-speaking country each month and every Friday evening somebody or other was putting on a slide show, playing music or even having a little dance. The “Hispanic” population was surely less than half of one percent of the people around there, but they managed to get together, and this was pre Internet (pre facebook, pre meetup.com)
Just a few ideas that came to me but I’m sure you can think of lots. As kids get older they will realize how precious and wonderful it is to be bilingual. In the meantime as parents we have to keep reminding them about that and lots of other good things they will figure out later in life. So don’t give up!!!


17 Cecy Fencer March 4, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Thank you so much for the advise, I won’t give up. And make the process fun and interesting instead of an obligation.


18 Astrid Kincaid March 26, 2013 at 2:24 pm

Hi Corey:
You should be immensely proud of yourself and your children! I am a native German who has been living in the US for almost 13 years, married to an American and trying to raise our 3 1/2 year-old little girl and now our infant boy to be bilingual. My husband does not speak much German, and both our children are in daycare during our 8-hour workdays. I was home for 18 months with my daughter, working remotely, and was speaking to her only in German. However, since then, I have been having a tough time, mostly, I think, because I think about things too much. She and a trilingual little girl in school seemed to be the only ones behind in their overall language development, and I was beginning to doubt myself. Yes, I know the literature on the subject, but I couldn’t help but feel insecure. On top of that, my own language doesn’t come to me as naturally any longer as English does now, and so my conversations with her sounded stilted and unnatural to me, making me even more uncomfortable with the entire situation. Who wants to feel that way while talking to their own child. When my parents were visiting for two weeks during Christmas time, I was amazed by how much my little girl understood, despite all those times that I broke down and spoke to her in English. She doesn’t speak German, though, only English, except for a few words, for which she doesn’t know the English equivalent. Since my parents left, I have pretty much fallen off the wagon completely… Probably because the next opportunity for total immersion is somewhere off in the remote future, and I feel like all my efforts are in vain. On top of that, I have the feeling, and this is how this ties back to your piece, that I am depriving her of more complex conversations in German and English by half-a**ing it in both. It is hard to explain what I mean. I know how good it is for children to be exposed to more than one language, I have read about all the great benefits, yet, here I am still doubting what I am doing. I have not yet read the other comments, and I am sure there are many, many others out there feeling (sort of) like that, but, gosh, it feels lonely out here at times. So, knowing that, I really admire what you, a non-native speaker, have been able to accomplish. I saw one of your videos of your children last year and was amazed by how well they spoke and how natural they sounded. I am not sure where my whole comment is going; I guess I just wanted to take the opportunity to vent all my recent anxiety.


19 Beth Ortuño March 27, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Don’t despair, Astrid!
My son was living around 90% of the time surrounded in Spanish (including music, tv, and the neighborhood playground). When he first started talking about 3/4 of his words were Spanish. Yet somewhere around 18 months old he for whatever reason ABSOLUTELY REFUSED to speak anymore in Spanish as he’d figured out everyone understood also English. He most especially and stubbornly, maddeningly, refused to speak Spanish to his father. This resulted in situations like this: I (native English speaker) say to the boy, in Spanish, “ve dile a Papi que ya esta la comida” (go tell your father dinner is ready) and the boy walks outside and tells his dad (native Spanish speaker), in English, “Mommy says dinner is ready!”
When we visited his dad’s family in Mexico it turned out my son was willing to speak in Spanish to his grandparents and family. These were the first adults he’d encountered in his life who truly did not understand him if he tried to use English. But his Spanish was not really up to the task. I was pleased he was using it but dismayed at how much he struggled to use it. He’d always understood everything 100% in Spanish. But his speech ability was really, really limited. This was very discouraging!!!

But all the clouds lifted from my mind when he started at a dual-language immersion school and, because of the neighborhood where we live, his classmates all spoke Spanish and little to no English, starting out. WITHIN ONE WEEK he started willingly speaking to his father in Spanish. Now it is getting toward the end of his first school year and he still seems to have a bigger vocabulary in English but his reading skills are actually stronger in Spanish.

My father lost his German because in 1945 when he was 5 years old, where he lived the whole community went from German being used everywhere, to not ever using German for anything at all, not even in homes. So I know it is possible to speak a language and then lose it. But based on what I’ve seen with my son I believe you have a large window of time to “activate” a language that the child has been only able to understand but not speak. I don’t know how long that window of time is, but I am quite sure it never completely closes, either. When my dad started visiting distant relatives in Germany, he had to take a class to learn some German. But when he does speak, people say his accent is absolutely native and are surprised when he suddenly switches to English and sounds like an American. So stuff is still in his brain somewhere.


20 Astrid Kincaid March 27, 2013 at 12:46 pm

Thanks so much, Beth, for the encouragement. The sad thing is that there currently is no German immersion program where we live (New Orleans). Spanish or French, no problem, but German… I have been joking that I would rather she go to a French-immersion school and speak three languages badly then send her to a regular school and have her only speak German badly 🙂 We would like to move out of here anyway, so I am trying to figure out where to move to find a school that suits our needs and our wallet. We’ll have to see. Ultimately, I would love to move to Germany for at least a couple of years while my daughter is still little so that she can benefit easily from the language exposure and see it as a natural part of herself and her identity and heritage later on.


21 Kimberly de Berzunza March 31, 2013 at 7:01 pm

Corey, and everyone, don´t be hard on yourselves! You do what you have to do, the best you can, and that changes with your life changes and as your kids grow. I myself am pretty hard-core about speaking only Spanish at home, and actually struggle a bit more with my 6yo than with my 11yo, even though the 11yo is getting to an age… Spanish is NOT my native language, but I am very comfortable living in it and teach in it in an immersion school all day long, so I am maybe in a different situation, but I also get frustrated with the slowly-increasing percentage of English spoken in our home. And I get tired and fall into my native English, and then beat myself up over it, but I have to let it go. My 11yo does not want to read in Spanish, but I recently started having him read to the 6yo a chapter a night from a short novel, and though they both complain, I think it´s helping them both. I sit on the bed and listen so I can help with any difficult vocabulary or pronunciation.

Our struggle is increasingly with the perceived “low-status” of Spanish as the language of gardeners and housekeepers and the trouble-maker students at school… I don´t think my own kids really hold this perception themselves, as we know Spanish speakers from all walks of life, but this is the perception of many of their friends. So we just work on countering those negative stereotypes, continue to value Spanish no matter what, continue to speak Spanish in public and ignore people´s looks and comments- because we know we are in the right and we will not let our kids believe otherwise. 🙂 We KNOW they will speak English well and do fine, but it´s WORK to keep the minority language! That said, I am proud of us as a family for sticking to our guns when most of our friends have given in the the pressures around them, and if we are not 100% perfect, well, who is?!?


22 E F Williams May 10, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Thanks for such an interesting post. We struggle with the same issues, though have not been doing it for nearly as long as you have. You should be very proud for sticking it out for so long! My husband and I both learned Spanish living abroad for about 2 years over a decade ago! Yet, we both want our children to be bilingual. My mother is a native Spanish speaker, but she does not live near. And I always resented the fact that I did not grow up bilingual (as an adult, we value these things!). We speak to our children (2.5 years and a newborn) exclusively in Spanish, but speak to each other in English. Our oldest is also in daycare with native Spanish speakers, but they go in and out of Spanish and English there. Our Spanish is full of grammatical errors and is not nearly as good as it was many years ago. And our oldest is also fairly delayed in her speaking, causing us to question whether she is not surrounded by “good” enough and “complex” enough Spanish for her language to blossom. We both know that as she gets older, we will have to speak English more and more because we won’t simply know how to say things she needs to know about. Our goals are fairly low with her language skills: we simply want her to know quite a bit of vocabulary, understand most things, and be able to communicate the basics. yet, we still question whether we are doing the wrong thing ALL the time. To stay motivated, we think about how regardless of her Spanish skills, this has got to be good for her brain, forcing her to think in ways a monolingual child wouldn’t have to. And any time she does say a word in Spanish, it simply makes my day. But it is still really, really hard. We are going to try to spend some time abroad in Spanish speaking countries a few weeks a year, mainly to improve our own Spanish skills. Readings all of your post, as well as all the comments, has been very encouraging for me to keep going with this. What we are doing is so unconventional, and not always supported by others.


23 ptite maman May 13, 2013 at 5:04 am

Thank you so much for your post. I totally understand your issues, having kind of the same at home. My first kid was born in the US and while attending day care only 2 days a week starts speaking fluently English before French (our language). We had to move back to France when she was 2 and a half. Since we were having playdates mostly with american children I starts speaking English to my kid so others would understand. Before moving back a friend of us doing a Phd in multilingual children issues, encourage me to keep speaking English to my kids even in France. It is not common at all in France and people do not always understand. So far my kids seem to have no problem with it but living in France not easy to keep up and improve theirs and my English … GREAT JOB you did with your kids congratulation!!


24 David May 21, 2013 at 7:45 am

German was one of my majors in college but I was only able to live there for about two months during one of my summers off. I’m pretty good with languages and so was able to pick it up without much difficulty. My conversational and reading skills are pretty good but I have no idea whether I really know enough to raise a child to be bilingual.

My wife and I recently had our first child, a daughter. She’s now 4 months old and I’ve been speaking to her only in German while my wife speaks to her in English. Obviously she can’t talk back yet, but I am wondering whether it is a good idea to stick with the current arrangement given that I am not a native speaker and, like you, learned to speak German in contexts that are very different than talking to a small child. Along with slang and shorthand there are just so many nuances and details about how to use certain verbs, etc. that I get overwhelmed thinking about it. I bought a bunch of children’s books and music, and am planning to import some German children’s movies from Amazon.de etc. But I still just feel uneasy because I will be the ONLY one speaking German with her (neither my wife nor anyone else in either of our families speaks German, and traveling to Germany, at least on a regular or even semi-regular basis is not an option financially) and hearing all the stories of people whose children won’t speak the second language anymore once they find out they don’t “need” to is a bit discouraging, on top of the feelings of inadequacy with the language.

Is it worth it? Should I even keep trying or just try to work on it with her when she’s older if she show’s interest?


25 Viv June 20, 2013 at 12:19 am

David, I empathise and understand your point. It seems to me that many people as adults value a second language, however non-native it might be to them, because as adults we believe in the economic value as well as the other values like cultural awareness and sensitivity which are associated with knowing more than one language. However, my research and experience (my son is being raised trilingual) points to the observation that children learn languages with a completely different motivation from us adults. They speak ONLY for the function that language gives them — i.e., if they don’t think they need it, they won’t use it. That’s why kids won’t speak the “minority” language as soon as they figure out that you understand the majority language perfectly. Why make it hard on yourself, a 2 year old is astute enough to think!

I grew up bilingual because of my unique society being multicultural and school system being bilingual. My father spoke Chinese and my mother to me in English. Due to the social preference for English (it is the medium in schools and also the official working language of Singapore), Chinese was always a struggle as it got harder and harder in school and my friends and I only consumed American pop culture and conversed in English. (Think Quebec except no one is that interested in French) Today, my Chinese is at a basic proficiency level: when I was in Beijing recently I looked like a native but sounded like an schoolkid the moment I opened my mouth. My Mandarin was that bad. I am astutely aware of how valuable economically it would be for my son to learn and speak Chinese, that’s why I’ve been speaking to him in Chinese since his birth. But I am also aware that in time to come, I will hit that dreaded glass ceiling – I will no longer be proficient enough to engage him in deeper conversations. It would be an even steeper uphill climb if we are to live in Germany, where my husband is from. Where to find community support for Chinese? How to convince a 7 year old that I am not trying to ruin his life by sending him to Chinese school on Saturdays? I am prepared for this day, but I’ll take each day as it comes. I’ve decided to let go on being too anal about our Trilingual project, but we will stick to OPOL as long as we can.

Language is a small but vital part of our bag of cultural tools. We can’t learn it like Math or Geography, our brain doesn’t process it that way, and kids won’t appreciate their parents “forcing” a language down their throats, no matter how well-meaning and well-intentioned we are. An American language expert recently advised our education minister: get parents to speak their STRONGEST language at home with their children. This is the best thing you can do for your kids. I agree with her. Plus, bilinguals will always have a stronger language, and which it is depends on a host of factors like the community, the school system, the home, the peers. Our family is moving to Belgium next year as I will be posted there for work. Our boy will likely attend a bilingual pre-school (English/French) before he qualifies for German School which will be bilingual too. His German family will be 3 hours away so no problem with the German input. But I guess it’s sayonara to Chinese for a few years. Such is life!


26 David June 20, 2013 at 7:32 am

Thank you for that thorough response. It raises an interesting question about function that I’ve been thinking about recently. Do you think it is possible to manufacture a need to learn a language? For example, we have a TV in our home but no cable service, so everything that we watch is either on DVD or through some sort of streaming service. What if we were to make TV/movie time something that could only take place in German, along with story/book time? I have been building a collection of German children’s books and DVD’s, and I’ve found a neat website called kinderkino.de that offers streamed children’s shows/movies for a monthly or yearly fee. What if we were to make a “rule” in the house that, if our daughter wants to watch a cartoon or read stories, it has to be in German? It seems like that could create a “felt need” for the language that would then be reinforced by our current plan to have me speak German with her most of the time.


27 Beth Ortuño June 20, 2013 at 9:09 am

Hi David!
I can tell you from experience, you can definitely shape the child’s feeling of a need for the language by the media in your home. My stepdaughter spoke no English before attending school, and then she started watching Disney channel non-stop at her mom’s house, where her little brother was also watching. He had no other English inputs at that time. H picked up on English almost entirely from watching Hannah Montana and The Suite Life with Zach and Cody at their mom’s house. Then once he started learning English from tv, their mom abandoned Spanish and used her own broken form of English with both of them. His Spanish is very weak to this day.
I can also tell you from experience that your ability to create a need for the language through media in your home is only going to last a very short time. As soon as the kids go to school they start looking at what their peers are doing, and this only gets more pronounced as they get older. My own son was at best lukewarm about Spanish, and although he understood it perfectly and would speak it with me, he refused to use it with his father at all. That changed very quickly when he started at school because he is going to a dual-language school. All the children in the school are bilingual and Spanish is the kids’ language of preference for them socially amongst themselves. Immediately my son’s resistance to Spanish at home disappeared. It was like magic.


28 David June 20, 2013 at 7:34 am

Just as an addendum to my above reply, having media time in German would also fill in part of the gap created by my not being a native speaker, since she would be hearing native speakers using perfect accents on a regular basis.


29 Astrid Kincaid June 20, 2013 at 8:38 am

Thanks so much, David!!! kinderkino.de is a total revelation, and I have already recommended it to every other German-American family I know. I think it definitely helps to limit screen and book time to German, but I am not sure it creates a “necessity” for children to speak it. If you can, and I personally can’t, you might want to ignore your daughter’s requests etc. unless she speaks to you in German, along the lines of “I am sorry, but I don’t understand you, you are speaking in English (say that in German, of course :))”.


30 Thea June 24, 2013 at 8:40 pm

David and Astrid – We are non-natives living in the US, raising our kids to speak German. Since birth we have limited them to mostly German language TV/DVD. They are now 9 and 12, and watch a bit in English, but they are okay with German only TV. The German language TV broadens their vocabulary, exposes them to situations they don’t usually encounter in the US, and it’s fun. We have a mix of native German DVDs (Prinzessin Lillifee, Conni, Wicki, etc.) and dubbed American TV (Disney films, Cartoon Network shows, etc.). There are several German TV companies available on the internet (www.kika.de has some shows available), shows on YouTube, and commercial streaming companies, as well as our company, Alphabet-Garten (www.alphabet-garten.com), which is focused on DVDs, CDs, and books for German-speaking children in the US. Come check us out!


31 Astrid Kincaid June 25, 2013 at 9:08 am

Hi Thea:
Thanks so much for your response. I have actually ordered from you before, so I know your site. So, when you are saying you are non-natives, you mean not native to the U.S., i.e. natives of Germany? Based on your name, that seems the likely scenario. If you are German and, through your site, have such great exposure to German children’s books, could you recommend books for 4-year olds that rhyme? I cannot, from my own childhood, remember any rhyming picture books. James Kruess is the only author I can think of who wrote in rhymes. Also, I am looking for books that aren’t too text-heavy. My sister sent me “Der Regenbogenfisch” and “Der kleine Dodo”, but both are sort of text-heavy, and I am always nervous that my daughter will get bored with too many words she doesn’t yet understand, if that makes sense. I hope I am not wearing out your patience by asking so many questions. It’s just really exciting to have a German or at least German-speaking book experts to talk to. Thanks also for the movie suggestions. My parents brought us Disney’s “Der gestiefelte Kater”, which she loves in English, but due to the weird Spanish accent of Puss, it’s almost impossible for a less adapt speaker to understand what the cat is saying 🙁


32 Katie August 11, 2013 at 4:21 pm

Dear Corey,
you should definitely be proud of the efforts you made after just two years German language immersion! Seems to me you are doing everything you can and more. What I’m slightly confused about is the fact that you mention your husband so little, and his role in this bilingual upbringing effort. Isn’t he German? As in, a native German speaker? I am British and grew up in France, attended an international school and have been surrounded by bilingual and trilingual people all my life. Many of my friends grew up bilingual, with German mothers speaking German to them, American fathers speaking English, and so on. Your children have every chance of being perfectly bilingual if your husband systematically speaks German to them. For him, it should be no effort whatsoever, besides the occasional social pressure due to being surrounded by English-speakers, but if he does that, it would certainly save you a lot of sweat and ensure that your children are perfectly bilingual. Maybe I missed it somewhere in your post, but it seemed to me that you made almost no mention of him and his role in this, instead taking all the burden of the task on yourself. Culturally, he is also in a far better position than you to teach German culture to them, having been born and raised In Deutschland. Auf jeden Fall wüsche ich euch noch viel Glïck damit!


33 Jonathan August 24, 2013 at 12:22 pm

I really liked your honesty and openness about what it’s been like raising kids using a language that isn’t your native tongue. I can identify with a lot of the things you said as my wife and I are raising our four month old son in English and Welsh. Neither of us is from Wales but we have both been living here for a while. As I’m pretty fluent in Welsh, I’m using this language to communicate with my son and my wife is using English.

In some ways it does feel odd communicating with our son in what is my third language (I studied French at university, lived in France for three years and teach the language). Sometimes I do wonder what sort of Welsh my son is going to come out with, but I guess that the fact that we live in a Welsh speaking area means that he’ll swiftly pick things up from native speakers (e.g. at school) and in time his Welsh will doubtlessly become better than mine.

I think that bringing kids up using more than one language is about starting them on a path and getting them to appreciate things that are associated with a language (culture, traditions, food etc.). I think it’s about opening their minds and helping them to learn, but not necessarily doing all the teaching (…if that makes sense).


34 Charlotte Quevedo August 20, 2014 at 9:16 pm

My situation is similar but my husband is from Mexico. I actually started studying Spanish as a passionate hobby at age 15, and while I did not “master” it, I learned how to conjugate the verbs and have been able to hold a conversation for many years. When I first stepped into motherhood, I immediately started teaching my son two languages, but I could not get my hub to speak to us in Spanish, though he was willing to help in other ways. When my son was two he was diagnosed with autism and I was wrongfully advised not to teach him two languages. I was also discouraged from homeschooling. My son went down a completely different path than what I had originally planned. Then we had our dd when he was 4 or 5 and thinking I had caused my son’s delay and wanting nothing more than for her to be able to talk…period, I initially did not teach her any Spanish until she was 3ish. That was when my husband’s relatives became pushy with me. I started to research it and realized that I really wanted both of my kids to learn Spanish, if for nothing more than to not act weird every time we visited my husband’s relatives. My son was used to hearing it spoken around him and even understood certain things and still retained some words from before his regression into severe autism. Now my daughter is starting to speak Spanish, and while that is exciting, I am also nervous because I want her to know both languages. Granted, she speaks both all the time, she does not appear to have forgotten a lick of English. However I am now withdrawing my son and never intend to send my dd to school, so I will be glad for them to eventually speak Spanish correctly, learn the grammar and literature and at the same time…speak English. I believe I know enough right now to one day be fully fluent and understand absolutely everything. I have been studying every night and am very tired!


35 Tuli September 17, 2014 at 11:59 am

I have enjoyed the emailed comments from this website very much over the years. Regarding my own children, I feel nothing but satisfaction with their German and English here in Zurich. To my Connecticut ears they have wonderful fluidity and naturalness of speech in English, though they have spent only a few months outside of Switzerland. My wife, who speaks Hochdeutsch, is more demanding than I am when it comes to points of grammar, citing her father’s persistent case faults coming from Plattdeutsch. But their school and social life is in German, so I am confident about that side too.

Having read many of these comments, what I think makes all the difference in one’s feeling of adequacy is the *social support*, or lack of it, that flows from the environment. In the U.S. there is a lot of skepticism about second languages. I read with great sadness about the lonely standard-beaers facing unhelpful spouses, linguistic vacuums, and finger-wagging authorities. In Zurich, it is the opposite; having a smattering of several other languages is so commonplace it is almost not noticed.
People are forgiving and accomodating when to comes to Hochdeutsch, Italian and so forth, less so with Schwiizertüütsch. English is put on a kind of pedestal by many ambitious parents. And I’m very impressed by how many of them succeed. I’m constantly meeting 6 and 8 year olds who can communicate reasonably well in English, simply because their parents want it, and they’ve seen a few movies or games and had a vacation in South Africa once.

Incidentally it was not always so obvious. At the beginning we worried about the burden of two languages and both children spoke late, to the point that we asked a Logpaedin to look at them. My daughter did not really say much till she was three, and each of the children picked one language to speak first — he German, she English. They were able to translate words and phrases very early, that was funny and delightful. Neither speaks quickly. At 4 and 6 they made grammar-mixing mistakes and also phoneme collisions. For a time you envision them becoming some stiff adult who says vee for we or makes gender mistakes. But then it all goes away. The th and dh might be late, but then it’s late in North America too. And so on. It is fine here. But we benefit from the social support.


36 Erica October 8, 2014 at 8:09 am

Hello all,
It is nice to be a part of this thread. I initially commented on it a long time ago and figured I would give an update. My husband and are not native Spanish speakers and we live in the US. We learned Spanish on our own, through traveling and school. In other words, our accents are not perfect and are grammar isn’t either. We speak exclusively in Spanish to our 3 year old daughter, and have since she was 1. We speak to each other, however, in English. Our daughter took time to speak, and really didn’t say much until about a year ago. However, now I am happy to report that she is an excellent Spanish speaker. She speaks better Spanish than English (which I am not worried about because once she goes to school that will all change). She exclusively speaks to us in Spanish and there is no resistance. I am only mentioning this for people to stay motivated! It can happen. Her vocabulary is probably not the same as a native Spanish speaker’s would be, because we simply don’t know as many words as natives do. But she has a very strong base and an excellent accent (which she must have picked up from all of the spanish music and tv shows we listen to). Her little brother is almost two, and he knows only Spanish as well. I am sure we may have been lucky, but I figured I would write given all the criticism we came under for this experiment and how demoralizing it has been at times. All we can do is try, right? Even if our daughter stops speaking Spanish tomorrow, we have at least provided her with a base that neither of us had as children. Hang in there everyone!


37 Harry September 2, 2015 at 5:25 am

I’ve always been interested in how children learn language with parents who speak different native tongues. Language is just a tool to communicate ideas and it doesn’t have to be perfect for one person to understand what someone is communicating. A lot of language is indicated by common body language that is universally understood by anyone. It’s all very interesting.


38 Noraad June 26, 2016 at 5:31 am

I don’t have children yet. But I actually don’t even plan to talk to my future children in my partner’s language. I want to talk to them in my mother tongue, while he talks to them in his, so they learn native pronunciations in both of the languages. I have a degree in linguistics and learned that this is actually recommended. So I want to do it that way. Also I would be afraid they have an accent in both languages otherwise. Although accents can be cute, sexy, attractive and what ever, they also can be stigmatised in the professional environment. But nevertheless great effort on doing all that teaching by yourself !!!! Very impressive. I have a forum website myself called international-relationship.com Feel free to come check it out. It is brand new, hence still relatively empty. I would love to get conversations going on there. (No worries, it is no competition to this site, since it is only a forum-website, no blog). And I am the greatest fan of yours 🙂


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