This Is Why I Am Raising My Child Bilingually

by contributor · 16 comments

This Is Why I Am Raising My Child Bilingually

By Jeffrey Nelson
Photo Credit: Another Sergio

My name is Jeffrey Nelson. I am an American, however three years ago I married my Mexican princess and we now live in the Midwestern United States. We met in Denver, CO almost four years ago and our son, Liam, is now almost one year old.

This is our story and how we came to decide to raise our son, Liam, bilingually.

Our Story

After my wife and I started dating, I knew we would have a long and happy future together. At the time, she spoke very little English and I spoke very little Spanish. It’s probably more realistic to say I spoke no Spanish, and I wrote very little Spanish. Verbal communication was almost impossible due to my accent and lack of verbal ability. We communicated, but it was rough; we actually carried around a dictionary at all times just to be able to get our points across! We were known to text each other while seating next to each other just to attempt to penetrate the language barrier.

She was learning English, and we would most likely live in the United States; however I was very motivated to learn Spanish. I wanted to learn Spanish for her and for our future child. I studied like crazy, and we spoke only in Spanish regardless of how ridiculously frustrating this was at times.

Fast forward two years and we were pregnant with our little boy.

Liam came into the world on July 15th, 2012. Our preparation for his arrival started long before that in so many ways. I knew we wanted children, and I knew language would be something we would have to figure out. My wife and I speak Spanish to each other and our world outside the home, for the most part, is in English. My side of the family speaks English while her side speaks Spanish. Liam would grow up in two worlds simultaneously. While this is wonderful, it also requires a certain level of planning.

I scoured the internet for information and found many helpful resources. One of them was this site, I read the forums, articles, and anything else I could find. It was a great help. I also read books, articles, guides, and whatever else I could get my hands on. I had no experience living in a bilingual world and less raising a bilingual child. I didn’t know what to do or what to expect.

Throughout the pregnancy, and now during his first year of life, my wife and I have learned a million things. We have spoken to him solely in Spanish, with a little German mixed in from time to time, and he gets his English input from friends and my side of the family. He currently isn’t speaking in the traditional sense of the word, although his grunts are very Spanish sounding. We are anxiously awaiting his first words. It’s amazing to watch him grow and develop, and I can’t wait to see how he continues this process in his linguistic development.

We decided to raise him as a bilingual for a few reasons:

The first reason is purely the actual logistics and practicality of it in our situation; his mother speaks Spanish… it just makes sense. Surprisingly, when I started to research raising bilingual children, I came to realize the enormous benefits that bilingual children realize. That was very reassuring when making this decision. We had family and friends that were a bit concerned that he wouldn’t learn English or that he would fall behind in school not speaking only English from day 1, however all of this research helped put me, and them, at ease with regards to how the bilingual child develops.

We chose to use the minority language at home technique, as opposed to one parent one language, because we feel that living in the United States the English influence will be so strong it will be all we can do to try and keep him speaking his minority language. We are hoping that if we, from day one, reinforce Spanish at home he will just accept this as normal and continue with his development in his heritage language while with us in the home.

Raising a bilingual child does NOT happen by accident.

One thing that has become abundantly clear in my research, experience, and exposure to the “bilingual world” of our friends and family members is that raising a truly bilingual child does not happen by accident; it is very intentional. The minority language has to be nurtured, caressed, fed, and encouraged to grow and develop as it should.

I was very surprised when I asked the daughter of a friend of ours who is bilingual which language she is more comfortable with. She answered along the lines of “English, by far.” This surprised me because her parents hardly spoke English at all. All of her home input was in Spanish. This, to me, indicates that it takes more than just talking to your child at home in their language to optimally encourage their language development.

Intentionally raising bilingual children is going to be a lot of work. We are, however, up to the task.

This Is Why I Am Raising My Child BilinguallyJeffrey Nelson is a bilingual husband, father, and author who writes on bilingualism about raising his bilingual child with his wife. His goal is to promote bilingualism and dispel the myths that being bilingual is somehow a disadvantage. He lives in the Midwestern United States with his wife, Gyovanna, and their 11-month old son, Liam. You can read more from him at

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jonathan July 23, 2013 at 1:40 am

I really enjoyed reading your story. My wife and I are also starting out on the journey of raising a child bilingually. We live in Wales and our son was born in April. We will be raising him in Welsh and English, which is going to be an interesting one since Welsh isn’t a native language for either of us. That said, I do use the language a lot at work and also socially and my wife is learning more of it at the moment.


2 Jeffrey Nelson July 23, 2013 at 7:05 am


That’s awesome! I’m happy to hear there are others out there… 🙂

I do have a slight advantage in that my wife is a native Spanish speaker, however as far as my relationship with my son goes, it’s similar. I really hope to be an advocate for the people who are raising children in a non-native language, or even people raising bilingual children who don’t speak another language. So many resources exist to have success in any situation out there that, in my opinion, it’s a huge opportunity for the kiddos.

Thanks for the comment!



3 Claudia July 23, 2013 at 3:53 am

Hi, I enjoyed reading your beautiful story. My Swiss-German husband and I ( Brazilian born) have always communicated in English. We live in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Our 4,5 year old son, Luca, switches from our native languages, speaks French ( learned at the kindergarten) and understands English so well hubby and I know we no longer have ‘our’ language to say whatever we want in front of our boy. As you said, it does not come easily, I’ve read many books, visited countless websites and have even approached strangers whenever I heard multilingual families at public places. People ( even in multilingual Switzerland ) are often very impressed by our sons’ so called ” talents” but I like to say, without belittling his language skills, that children are natural sponges when it comes to learning. Sorry for the long comment.


4 Jeffrey Nelson July 23, 2013 at 7:09 am


You are essentially living my dream! Haha. I love the idea of Switzerland, although I have never been. I did a post about it on my blog and learned some interesting things…

I also wanted to name our son Luca but my wife says it sounded too much like a slang word for crazy in Spanish. I love that name!

You’re right – children are sponges. It’s amazing how they can even learn one language, not to mention two or three. I’ve also read a lot of information on how children can actually learn the language better than we speak it; a little hope for the non-natives out there!

Research, research, research! Sign up for blogs, regularly check websites, and read tons of books. You hit the nail on the head – knowledge is power in this space. It will probably happen regardless with consistent, quality language input but a little know-how makes it a lot easier. Also, the support of the ‘language community’ online helps quite a bit. Seeing others, reading their stories, and knowing it is possible can be quite motivating.

Thanks for the comment! I think my response beats your comment in length 😉


5 Stephanie July 23, 2013 at 3:58 am

Very interesting! I grew up bilingual, in a house where one parent spoke English and the other spoke French. The dominant culture where I grew up was English, but we went to French school all the way up until university. I’m thankful every day that I’m fluently bilingual – and your child will be too!


6 Jeffrey Nelson July 23, 2013 at 7:11 am

Thanks for the encouragement Stephanie! I love that you went to school in French.. I think that’s important. I’m currently trying to decide whether I would like to look for an immersion program in Spanish for my son or go with a third language. I would LOVE to go with a third language, obviously, however I need to get the ball rolling ASAP.

Hopefully my son appreciates it as much as you do when he is older!



7 Mohit kumar singh July 24, 2013 at 5:44 am

you people are so lovely.. careing so much about you child’s linguistic orientation . I am from India, you know we have 22 constitutionally declared language. And every Indian can speaks at least 3-4 language fluently. Like “Bhojpuri” is my mother tongue. I was brought Up in Bengal so i learned “Bengali”. Then i came to Delhi i learned “Hindi” . And i am writing all this in “English”. And my parent will not take care of it if i learn one or two more language .
you know in India every individual is a linguistic minority . Informally we speak more than 1400 languages but our state recognize only those 22 languages because they have literature and script.
But you know due to this globalization and long and tyrant British colonial regime we lost many of our rich cultural language. and we are still losing some of them..
I think one must learn as much language as he/she can because this will help them towards better integration with world.Look i can talk with English guy , Bengali guy, bojpuri guy, Hindi guy…. I find my self easily acceptable by many of them…All the best to you all , nurturer ….I any time you come to India, please observe this unique Mosaic of culture..One advise “take at least a travel from Indian train”, this will help you to learn that we have so rich diversity in cousins, apparel, language, even thought process but we all are One nation One state(we never fight on this issue)…


8 Jeffrey Nelson July 24, 2013 at 8:21 am


Thank you for your comment. You are lucky, linguistically speaking, to have so much great input in all of those languages! I actually wrote a post on bilingualism in India and I was surprised to find out about the 22 constitutional languages.

It’s awesome to hear that ‘the norm’ is 3-4 languages there in India. We actually have a friend from India in the same type of situation: she spoke a very small, local language, hindi, and now English so she is trilingual. It is pretty neat 🙂

Thanks for the note!


9 Ana Paula G. Mumy July 24, 2013 at 7:29 am

Jeffrey – You make two excellent points. First, that promoting bilingualism in a country where bilingualism is not the norm takes INTENTIONALITY. Though children are “sponges” in a sense, they don’t necessarily learn by “osmosis” so it does take planning, thoughtful decisions, and purposeful actions.

You also advocate for parents using a non-native language in child rearing. Though my usual recommendation as a speech-language specialist is contrary to that due to various reasons, the key to your situation is what you stated at the very beginning: “I studied like crazy, and we spoke only in Spanish regardless of how ridiculously frustrating this was at times.” You have been INTENTIONAL in your own language learning (great example!), and you are putting in time and effort to become a competent Spanish language user.

My concern at times stems from seeing parents attempting to raise their children in a language in which they are not confident, but also in which they are not actively pursuing to learn. I have witnessed children become like strangers in their own home due to language barriers with their parents caused by parents not speaking the language they are competent in (usually their native language). The result then is that the children and parents have to resort to superficial (surface) conversations and can never reach deep matters of the heart.

You might find a new parent guide useful in your bilingual journey: “Practical Bilingualism: A Concise and Simple Guide for Parents Raising Bilingual Children” – available at

Good luck to you and Gyovanna! 🙂


10 Jeffrey Nelson July 24, 2013 at 8:29 am


Thank you for your comment – I will have to check out your book.

I agree – I advocate non-native language parenting as a way to create an opportunity for your children however that goes hand-in-hand with never-ending language learning yourself. After over a year of only speaking Spanish to my son, I can see how limiting it would be if I didn’t have a very good command of the language. While the vocabulary isn’t overly complex at this point, it’s still necessary to have a fairly high level and I assume this only grows!

While the above is important when speaking ONLY a non-native language to your child, I like to think that having a half hour a day/an hour a day, or language input from someone else with the parents reading books/watching DVD’s/etc is beneficial on some level; if not solely to promote diversity and open up their world, to help reap some of the cognitive and social benefits as well.

Thanks for the comment!


11 Annika / Be Bilingual July 25, 2013 at 4:45 am

Hi Jeffrey,

A great post! We are a Finnish-French family living in Finland and like you, I’m doing all I can to help my native-speaking spouse pass along his language, French, to our daughters in a very Finnish environment. Our kids are nearly 8 and 13 and make fun of my (these days occasional) language mistakes – I love it as it shows that they feel French is their language in a way it has never been mine, despite the years of study and the degrees I have. I absolutely agree that it needs to be intentional (and as I always say, a priority but not a source of stress). Children may be like sponges but we parents need to make sure that there’s something in their language environment to absorb! Keep up the good work!


12 Jeffrey Nelson July 29, 2013 at 4:09 pm


That’s awesome! 🙂 I agree with your last sentence “Children may be like sponges but we parents need to make sure that there’s something in their language environment to absorb!”

Very well said. The key is the rich input. As you stated, we just need to give them the environment to thrive, they will take care of the rest! However, that environment isn’t always easy to piece together and be consistent with considering the rigors of every day life just trying to get by. Good for you! I hope to have my son correcting my, and my wife’s, Spanish soon! 🙂



13 Sarah @ Baby Bilingual July 29, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Hello from Denver! (Actually, I live closer to Boulder, but still, we were practically neighbors when you lived in this area, right?)

I am a non-native speaker of French, very competent, but not native-like (yet–since I don’t have a native speaker as a spouse like you, I don’t get that one-on-one daily tutorial!). For five years, I have spoken exclusively, imperfectly French to my son, and he is managing just fine. While native speakers have very occasionally criticized my speaking ability and my ambition to raise bilingual children, I strongly feel that it would be better for my kids to speak two languages, albeit imperfectly, than to only speak one language at all.

I also believe that, in general, “intentionality” is something that benefits all parenting approaches. And specifically, using my non-native French has kept me more alert and attuned to my children, since I still spend time figuring out what to say to them in French, what games and books and activities in French to share with them, and how to maximize my time in French with them.

(For example, my mother doesn’t understand why I’m not willing to plop the kids in front of the TV to watch Sesame Street for an hour a day–it’s just that if I only have, say, four hours alone with them that day, I refuse to let 25% of that time be in English!)

Kudos to you and all the readers of Multilingual Living who are raising their kiddos with more than one language (native or not)!


14 Ana Paula G. Mumy July 30, 2013 at 12:55 am

Sarah – I just checked out your blog…good stuff! In your profile you mentioned something crucial about speaking a non-native language to your child. You stated that you had not had much reason to talk in French “about all the myriad experiences that are part of the daily life of an infant…” and that you did everything you could so that speaking French gradually began to “feel natural.” Besides intentionality, speaking in a non-native language must feel NATURAL, otherwise, the parent-child interactions would be calculated, limited, and potentially awkward. So I commend you for whole-heartedly giving yourself to this effort, which you obviously value greatly. You have continued your own language learning, you have promoted playgroups, bilingual story time, toddler classes, etc., in order to enhance your own French use and to increase opportunities for yourself and your children/nephews/nieces to be continually exposed to French in and outside of the home.

The reason I point this out is because as a speech-language pathologist, unfortunately this is not always what I see in parents attempting to raise their children in a non-native language. Sometimes they’re not totally devoted to “the cause,” if you will, and so the children, or the entire family really, ends up suffering because of forced language barriers. I am also saddened when I see parents discarding their native language because they feel it’s inferior to the community language, but this of course is not your case.

As I see devoted individuals such as yourself and Jeff encouraging parents to speak a non-native language to their children, I feel it’s important that these parents clearly see that you are not haphazard about it in the least bit, and that it works because you are giving them a rich language-learning environment.

It’s interesting that even for me, as a native Portuguese speaker, after living in the U.S. for 20+ years before having children, I had to be intentional about relearning “baby talk,” children’s songs and rhymes, everyday idiomatic expressions, etc. in Portuguese so that relating to my baby in Portuguese would be a natural and constant practice in which I felt confident. When my baby arrived, choosing and staying with Portuguese in a monolingual society was a conscious effort initially, but it was an effort that eventually became effortless and natural with time and persistence. (I discuss this and much more in my parent guide entitled “Practical Bilingualism: A Concise and Simple Guide for Parents Raising Bilingual Children” –

By the way, I’m in Colorado Springs. I’ve taught Portuguese language classes for toddlers in my home, but I’d like to launch a bilingual story time at my public library, so I’d love to come and check yours out! 🙂


15 Jeffrey Nelson July 29, 2013 at 8:46 pm


That’s awesome! Keep up the good work. For some reason there are always those certain people who think it’s weird, a bad idea, or just somehow ‘not right.’ I don’t really understand that… but to each his own. We have friends who are raising their children in Spanish and neither is a native speaker of Spanish – they are just two American’s who are going for it! It’s awesome to see their kids progress in Spanish.

You’re so right as well… as if your kid doesn’t speak PERFECT French then it’s somehow just a huge waste of time? I don’t understand that mentality!



16 Samantha Ueno July 30, 2013 at 6:42 pm

My own mother actually came from a bilingual home as her father was fluent in Spanish and married a lady from Cuba, however, she rejected Spanish and refused to study it in her adult years and lost any that she might have absorbed in her childhood. I guess she didn’t want to be bilingual, and therefore I was not given the chance to be bilingual despite having an early aptitude and interest in language learning. I made up for it after turning 16 and moving to Hawaii to study Japanese full-time, eventually living in Japan.
Now I am in HI again, married to a Japanese man and I have a 1 year old daughter, we use Japanese in our household, and there is a big Japanese speaking community here as well. I want to at least give my daughter (she is 1 year old) a chance to be bilingual, as I never had that chance. It’s my understanding that when it is not essential to their survival, they either embrace or reject it, I know a lot of nikkei/bicultural children who rejected it and decided to assimilate instead, they can have a conversation with the Japanese parent or relative, but nothing complicated and they cannot read or write, and I am talking children of all different families, including a Japanese professor of Psychology and head of a school who has five children with his Japanese wife, and he speaks English with his now adult children instead of Japanese because they simply are more comfortable in the majority language.


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