Multilingual Children: Which Language(s) Should We Use for Homework?

by Corey · 13 comments

Bilingual Family Husband's Language IsolationNatalia is from Spain, is married to a German and they live in the USA. Together they are raising their children multilingually. Here she asks a question about something that many bilingual, trilingual and multilingual families around the world struggle with: homework.

Even though there are no absolute right and wrong answers to Natalia’s question below, there are surely tips and suggestions from families around the world that can guide her in the right direction.

Please take a moment to leave a comment for Natalia (and others who are having difficulties in the same situation)!


Dear Multilingual Living,

I am from Spain and my husband is German . We now live in the USA. We have a baby girl and a toddler boy, who will start pre-school this year in an American school. My kids are being raised trilingual: Spanish, German and English.

I have been reading a lot about how to raise multilingual kids and we follow the system “One Person One Language” (OPOL) with no exception of situation. No matter who is around we speak our language. My toddler boy (nearly 3) answers to each of us in our language which makes us both very happy.

But we still have some doubts and my question for you is the following:
When my kids do their in English homework and we help them with it, in which language should we talk? How do you do it?

Thank you very much in advance.

Best regards,


How do you help your multilingual children with their community-language homework? Do you have some helpful advice for Natalia? Share it in the comments below so that she can benefit from your knowledge, wisdom, experience and expertise!

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Suzanne Kamata August 22, 2013 at 10:31 pm

After about second or third grade, I couldn’t keep up with my kids’ Japanese and math homework, so I hired a Japanese tutor. It was the perfect solution for us.


2 Sharon August 22, 2013 at 11:21 pm

This one’s easy. Since you speak English, you’ll be able to *understand* your child’s homework. You can still speak Spanish but can go over the homework material in English. Math can be done in Spanish.

I don’t speak German, or at least, not very well but I can still help with my children’s German homework. By the time it was too difficult for me, they were more independent.


3 andie August 22, 2013 at 11:50 pm

My kids attend a local Turkish school. At first when we did homework, we did it in Turkish. But then, since the majority language is Turkish and they only hear English at home, I started noticing gaps in their English vocabulary. Some things they knew in Turkish and not English (their mother tongue). So I started working with them in English. I thought it might be confusing, but it wasn’t. I think their understanding of everything got a little deeper, and I was able to use that time to improve their English as well as get their homework done. Since English is your community language, they’re going to get a great vocabulary. It’s the languages at home you need to be more intentional about because most likely they’re only hearing those languages from you two. The more subjects you talk about in your languages, the more words they’re exposed to.


4 Emilia August 23, 2013 at 12:41 am

My kids are bilingual and my husband’s language is the community language (Spanish). Math homework is done mostly in Spanish (Dad’s responsibility) as it is confusing for my daughter if I use Polish with her, especially when she’s working on a new concept. Once she mastered it in Spanish I gradually introduce Polish vocabulary. In case of other subjects, I tend to use Polish with her as we are also OPOL, but sometimes it is inevitable to switch to Spanish, mix and translate. So far it has done no harm to her Polish skills (she is starting second grade, segundo de Primaria, in September).
As her school has extended English language programme and some subjects are in English, we try to use it while doing homework. It is something she’s very happy to do although her English skills are quite basic at the moment. Probably switching to English seems more fun and it is something she is accustomed to in this particular situation.
In your case, hiring a tutor or asking an English native speaker for help seems a perfect solution although I’m sure that if you do it on your own switching to English when necessary, it’ll be OK. Good luck!


5 Steffi August 23, 2013 at 1:48 am

I use a mix. Community language is English, I speak German to my children. I explain the homework in German, but use English phonics for spelling and repeat sums and substractions in German and English (I do this because even as a very proficient speaker of English, I can’t for the life of me do maths in English, and to me it’s more important that she focuses on the task and enjoys it rather than insisting on the language). I waited until the end of the first school year (she started school at 5 1/2) before starting to introduce German words just so she had a chance to focus on the task of learning phonics and deciphering English. She finds transferring that knowledge to German quite easy, so even though we’ve not practiced much reading in German, her reading skills in German are not far behind. I did not do any literacy work before she started school by the way, other than sharing books and looking at number and letter books, which we always “translated” as needed. So bottom line, I wouldn’t worry too much about it! I also sometimes speak English to both children, now that their German is well established it does not have a negative effect, or rather this is off set by having German friends and trips to Germany, so she has a motivation outside the home to speak the language.


6 Bilingual znaczy dwujęzyczny August 23, 2013 at 2:02 am

My two children are bilingual Polish-English. We’ve always used OPOL approach with them: they speak English to dad and Polish to mum. English is our community language as well as the language of the school my kids attend. I’m the one who usually helps them with homework and I always do it in Polish. Somehow it works when we talk about the subject entirely in Polish and then write about it in English. If the task is to read a text aloud and then answer comprehension questions, my children read in English and then retell the story or answer my questions in Polish. Their English teacher was thrilled when I told her about our way of incorporating two languages into homework. She said it reinforced understanding of written text. I’m aware though that the moment will come when homework becomes too complex to do it in Polish. I hope my children will be doing it independently by then 🙂


7 Marie August 23, 2013 at 10:05 am

We decided to help our children with their homework in English. We live in the USA and in order for them to succeed in the academic language used in school we needed to help them understand the concepts in English. If they get stuck on a word or concept, I do explain it in Spanish (my native language). It seems to help them see it in a different way and move past any cognitive barriers they may have. We have a rule, however, that if we are not talking about or doing homework, we switch back to the two other languages we speak at home – Dutch and Spanish. It’s been working pretty well. Our kids are in 1st and 3rd grade. and both are advanced for their grade level…at least that is what the teachers tell us 🙂


8 Taru August 23, 2013 at 3:17 pm

I have always stuck to speaking only my native language (Finnish) to my children no matter what the situation*. With homework, they ask the question in English and I answer in Finnish. Of course, there are times when I have to use English to answer them, but I rarely do; only with words I can’t come up with in Finnish at that moment. 🙂 When I comment, for example, about their writing, I still use Finnish for the comment, but would say the sentence in English, if needed.

*Single mom, so no other language at home. Well, okay, the kids talk mostly English amongst themselves… 🙂 but they have truly begun to understand the gift of multilingualism now that they are both in their 20’s.


9 Natalia August 24, 2013 at 5:49 am

Thank you so much for your comments and for your time answering:-)
We will try to follow your advice and keep doing the OPOL even with homework.

Thanks, Gracias, Danke!


10 Beth Ortuño August 24, 2013 at 6:55 am

Simple answer: BOTH!

For one thing, you’ll have a hard time maintaining any hard-and-fast rule. When a child is struggling with a concept and has a test tomorrow, to insist on using only German words to describe it, that he or she has never heard until just now, is not going to help further the understanding of the concept. So, if your most important goal is understanding the schoolwork, flexibility is going to be a must.
You will also see that being flexible will HELP your child with his or her homework. Here’s an example. My stepson struggled with basic 3rd-grade math. The fact that he speaks Spanish has helped me explain percents. “Percent” doesn’t sound like anything to his young mind, but “por ciento” sounds like “por 100”. The fact that he speaks English has helped me explain multiplication. “3 por 6” didn’t sound descriptive to him, but “3 times 6” helps him imagine a group of 6 things, 3 times. So maintaining a strict policy of one language or the other wasn’t the best thing for him.

Having said all this, I will also say, though, that in my son’s case I am NOT flexible about the language I use when helping him with his homework. Why? Because he’s not struggling academically at all. He doesn’t have a big problem with getting too frustrated, either. There is only a small difference in his future happiness as an adult from whether he gets an A or a B on a given math test in elementary school. But there is a big difference in his future happiness as an adult from being a balanced bilingual who can really function, do the “hard stuff” like math and science and correct grammar, in the minority language. So, I stay on the side of the minority language with him as much as possible.

Hope this helps!


11 Natalia August 24, 2013 at 3:11 pm

Thank you Beth, it does help a lot!
Best regards


12 Christy K. August 24, 2013 at 5:56 pm

Hi Natalia!

Having been in a very similar situation as your children, I have a unique answer.
Quick intro to me before I answer your question: I was raised bilingually in the USA with English and German. The majority of my homework was in English, so we spoke English while doing that homework. Any German assignments were done speaking German.

I’m now 27 years old, and fluent in both English and German. Let me tell you it is completely worth the effort socially, academically, and career-wise to raise your children multilingually!

I also agree with Marie’s comment above about using other languages when you’re not talking about/doing homework.

You mentioned doing OPOL. Excellent! So your husband speaks German, and you speak Spanish. I’m guessing the language you speak with each other is English.

Keep up the awesome work!



13 Ana Paula G. Mumy September 23, 2013 at 8:11 pm

Below are a couple of excerpts from my parent guide “Practical Bilingualism: A Concise and Simple Guide for Parents Raising Bilingual Children” (or trilingual children!). There is a whole section on Bilingual Schooling and Literacy.

“If your child is attending a school in the community language, try discussing topics and books that are being presented to him/her at school in the home language. This will not only reinforce their learning but also enable you to teach the specific vocabulary and concepts around that topic in the home language. For example, if they’re learning about a certain country or historical figure in the majority language, you can reinforce that learning by presenting it a different way in your language. Be creative with it and have fun!”

“Don’t feel you can’t or shouldn’t help with homework, projects, or assignments that are in the community language. You can read the assignment’s text or the given passages in the community language. Just be sure that all of the verbal interaction around that homework or reading activity remains in your home language. In other words, give the instructions in the home language. Give explanations or clarify questions in the home language. Discuss passages and their meaning in the home language. It may take some focus and practice on your part, but once you grow accustomed to it, it should become second nature to you. Code switching, or alternating between two languages, is a normal part of communication in bilingual individuals, and it will not promote confusion.”


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