Tuesday Tips: Bringing up children Bi-lingually

IMG_8495Having bi-lingual children is great — it is so impressive to see them jump from one language to the other seamlessly. For our Tuesday Tips series I wanted to jot down a few things I have learned about bringing up children with two languages (though I am by no means an expert). I hope they help and I would love to hear your tips and your experiences!

I was born in Germany to a French mother and an Irish Father who had met in San Diego. So we were tri-lingual: I went to a German school, my brother and I spoke German together (and still do), but my father spoke English to us and my mother spoke French. It was a great experience and something I am so grateful my parents insisted on, because, my gosh, I really rebelled as a kid. We were living in this teeny village in Germany and I did not want to be different from all the other kids. But every time I answered back in German to my mother, she did not answer me until I repeated myself in French… so I did not have the choice!
Interestingly, I have always gravitated towards English. I moved to England to study right after finishing high school, so English is now my most dominant language and the language I naturally felt the most comfortable speaking to my children.

My two daughters are now also totally bi-lingual, but the circumstances are very different to my German childhood. We live in a huge cosmopolitan city and, though the kids go to the local primary school (and speak French, of course), they have always had at least two other Anglo-speakers in their class and numerous bilinguals from all across the world. It is so normal for them to speak two languages, they don’t even think about it.

So here are a couple of tips:

  • Stick to the one language you have decided to speak to your child – Of course there will be moments when you will have to switch (homework for example), but it is important to stick to one language and build up a relationship with your child in that language. I read somewhere that a child needs to be exposed at least 30% of their waking time to an environment where the foreign language is spoken to be able to learn the language properly.
  • Build a network – one of the things that has been really helpful for us here in Paris is to have an English speaking network of friends. Joining the local Anglo parenting Network helped a lot. The children have grown up together and still speak in English to each other, though, when they are with French friends, they will swap back to French. It means that it feels normal for them to speak to other children, not only adults, in English even when in their home city.
  • Don’t listen to and don’t worry about myths – I have been told that bringing up my children with two languages may delay their development or might even give them a speech impediment. Total nonsense if you ask me. As long as your children are thriving and happy, I don’t see a single reason why speaking two languages should harm them. And in all cases, the benefits outweigh any potential downside.
  • Books and Films – I mostly read books in English to the girls to counteract a whole day of French in the classroom. Again it is also interesting to expose them to a different culture via books. When we watch films, we watch them in the original language they were filmed in. We also have the international BBC Iplayer to watch nature documentaries etc. in English and Netflix if we want to have a movie night and watch a film.
  • Travel – We are lucky, as we are only a short plane ride away from my family in Ireland and a train ride away from all our friends in London. Traveling to English speaking countries is really helpful as there is nothing better than emersion once in a while to develop language skills. It also helps for my children to put their second language within a context. They read books about children wearing uniforms to school, riding double decker buses and eating fish and chips, but there is nothing like being able to see and understand the culture of the language you are learning with your own eyes.
  • Reading and Writing and Music – For Coco, who is nine now, learning how to read and write in English has opened a new world to her. Again so much of learning a language is also getting to know a different culture. Listening to the lyrics of songs, reading books and also writing has been a massive step. Interestingly she has never had a formal class in English but, because of learning how to read phonetically in her French school, she managed to teach herself how to read in English.
  • Ideally I would love to send my kids to live in a host family abroad when they are 16 or 17 for 6 months. I did this when I was 17 and lived in the USA for 6 months. It not only improved my English a lot, but also it was an amazing experience to get to know a different culture.

The photo above is of my kids on yet another little trip away to Ireland. The moment they get onto the plane, they start speaking English to everyone around them.


Comments (27)

April 7, 2015

This is one of the best articles I’ve ever read about raising children bilingual – well done Emily! My mother spoke Chinese to me growing up….and I also remember how resistant I was. But now I’m forever grateful.

April 7, 2015

I grew up with a norwegian mother and french father who spoke english to each other. Although I confused my babysitters a bit, there was no problem with this. My mum would always speak english to me when I was growing up in France, and when they split up and we moved to Norway she always spoke french to me since my culture was dominated by norwegian. Now I study in the UK and I’m very grateful to have grown up trilingual. My boyfriend speaks english and norwegian and grew up with german in his family, so we’ve joked about which languages we’d teach the future children.

April 7, 2015

I still need to read the article, but I would like to share my experience. I’m trying to grow up my baby girl bilingual: italian-croatian, with some english, when we play or when I read a badtime story. I realized that she will never be a “perfect” biingual child, because there’s nobody to speak the croatioan language to, and she understands two languages but always answers in italian… but I can see all the benefits she has, so I’m pretty glad even with this situation…sorry for my grammar mistake, please feel free to corect the text before editing.

April 7, 2015

This is such a great article and a great motivation to keep going!!! It’s definitely a shame not to teach kids a second or third language when there is the opportunity!!!
I am an Italian mum living in the UK and my husband is British – we have an 8-months-old baby and she is being raised bi-lingual. Sometimes it’s quite difficult to stick to one language (as some things are easier to say in English for some reason!!), I usually speak Italian to her whenever we are by ourselves, and we read books, listen to the radio and sing songs in Italian. This is now my experiment, let’s hope it works!!!

April 7, 2015

I am sure it will! Funnily enough my French friends would agree with you: When speaking to kids, some things are much easier to say in English! It feel like there are a lot more simple, shorter words than in English than in other languages.

April 7, 2015

Great article! Thanks a lot for raising this topic! We are trying to bring up our three kids tri-lingual (we live in the USA, my husband is German and I am Spanish). Unfortunately, there is not so much written about tri-linguism. We are really strict with the kids and we use our mother tongues all the time(as Emily´s mother, we try not to answer until they repeat what they have said in German or Spanish). We even speak in our mother tongues when we are in a situation in which everybody is speaking English (with neighbours, at the public library, playground, play dates, school, at home with friends, etc). A friend of us, also raising bi-lingual children, once told us that you should not confuse your children using other languages with them, and in order to be polite with others, you might want to translate to others what you have just discussed with your children in your mother tongue (imagine you are playing with your child in the playground/park and all the parents/children are speaking English. Your child asks you something in front of the others, and you answer in your mother tongue and then explain to the other parents/children what you are talking about-it would be quite impolite otherwise!!!).
What I find quite fascinating is the role that the language plays in the creation of your own identity. When you are bi-lingual or tri-lingual, do you feel that you have two/three identities? Emily, would you say you are German/Irish/Frech?

April 7, 2015

Interesting question and actually a subject so close to my heart that I did my Masters thesis on European Cultural Identity 😉
I personally consider myself Franco-Irish-German. However, my older brother, who grew up in exactly the same way as me, considers himself German. I personally have always enjoyed being able to jump from one culture to the other whenever it suited me, especially as they are all relatively similar. I have also always enjoyed not having to conform to any particular culture, as I have always been a bit on the outside, so that some restrictive cultural norms have not applied to me wherever I am. The downside is, I don’t really “belong” anyway, the upside is I “belong” a little bit everywhere 🙂

April 7, 2015

This is another great post, Emily, thank you! We are bringing up a bilingual (Russian and English) daughter (3), with my husband speaking to her in English, me in Russian and us speaking English to each other. It’s hard work when you are the parent with the less dominant language, but it makes it so worth it when you hear her speak it. Thank you for the tips!

April 9, 2015

so sorry to misspel your name!

Courtney in London
April 7, 2015

I SO wish my children spoke two languages. I’m all for swapping kids when they’re 16 so that my kids are forced to learn French and your kids can learn their best American/English!! 🙂

April 7, 2015

Ha, that is actually already a given! xx

April 8, 2015

Lovely article Emilie! Love how you keep it simple as it should be! I am Irish and my husband is French and we live in Melbourne. We have 2 little girls (4 and 2) and they are bilingual (well the 4 yr old is!). My instinct is attitude is the most important aspect-it’s got to be kept natural and fun! Got to avoid any negative associations…I felt so strongly about that, that I developed something for bilingual kids that I could not find and funded it on! It’s called ‘The Little Linguist’s Alphabet’-your girls are too old for it now but feel free to check it out 🙂

I love your photo and imagine your girls in Ireland! We have a trip home coming up too! We are also going to France and the girls will attend school there for a couple of weeks-we are very lucky to have that opportunity!

Thanks for the article!

April 8, 2015

This is also my story too! My kids speak French and Spanish and now they’re learning English too! I know it’s a huge effort on our side as parents but what a gift for our kids!

April 8, 2015

Very interesting Emilie. Thanks for sharing!

April 8, 2015

Hi Emilie,
I was wondering before why you had an Irish passport. Sounds like a lovely childhood!
We are raising our three children bi-lingual. Originally we’re from Germany and moved to Ireland 3 years ago. A few weeks back I had to fill out a questionnaire from school about cultural background and spoken languages at home. I had to answer with ‘no’ to “Is Irish or English the main language spoken at home?”. We try to keep up our German at home as we all started to loose it at some point. Made all kind of silly grammar mistakes. Even the hubby who works as a journalist (In German language)!
Our older two (boy 6 yrs& daughter 8yrs) are well capable of their English. Often they ‘play’ their games only in English and switch languages especially for me. When friends are surprised that we speak German at home, I have to ask back “why wouldn’t we? Who should they talk it to?”
And of course it feels most natural to do so. Back in Germany I spoke English with them since they were born. We did nursery rhymes and read books. So they have a good feel for the language from a very early age.
What I find most difficult is sticking to one language. The kids started it and I have to admit sometimes it’s easier to just build German sentences with English words mixed in!
We have a 19months old wee boy who is just developing his languages. To him it is most confusing with the two languages mixed together. He understands everything. For now he usues the words that are easier to pronounce (in either language). I’ve read some books on bi-lingual upbringing and I can totally understand why one parent should stick to one language. Sometimes easier said than done! (My husband is only there in the evenings)
Great article Emilie! Many thanks. It’s great to read how other do it 🙂

PS: I wouldn’t have it any other way and would encourage any possibility you have to let children grow up with two or more languages. My kids learn Irish in school on top of their mother tongues. I can proudly say they are top of their class. They just adapt easier to yet another spoken world! (They call it their secret language as I only understand a few words)

alice fraser
April 8, 2015

This article was spot-on : I was raised in France by a Scottish father and a French mother. Both spoke English to my siblings and I. I now speak English to both my children, my partner speaks French to them. Apparently I use the same methods as you do. My daughter who is nine taught herself to read in English. Her spelling isn’t so good yet though. I also found out that their English can be absolutely dreadful at times, then it gets better again either because they visit their grandparents or their cousins, or just spontaneously. They’re not reluctant to speak English, as I was when I was their age (I use to force my mother to talk to me only when I was sure no one else could overhear us until I was 9 or 10 🙂 ).

April 8, 2015

Great article! And great comments as well! We are a bilingual family. I speak English to my daughters and my husband French. Although I am of Portuguese origin, my husband does not speak Portuguese, so I opted for English, which is now my adopted mother tongue. We stick to one parent one language in our house. Between my husband and I we speak English. I was like Emily’s mom in that when my older daughter would speak French, I would tell that I did not understand (which of course was not true!). We are now living in the German speaking part of Switzerland where my daughter is learning German. To all those who say do not teach children more than one language: my daughter is already going on 3 languages. My neighbor who is 8 can speak Dutch (mother), Italian (father), Swiss German and German (born in German side of Switzerland) and as well English. He amazes me everytime. Looking forward to your next article.

April 8, 2015

Really a great article! Very inspiring.
If you allow me I’m almost tempted to add another point that is very important in our way to raise our children bi-lingual: we don’t allow our children to mix the language in a sentence/story. If we start in Italian, we finish in Italian. Same for English. It also give us the opportunity to each time translate the words they don’t know and make sure they understand which is english which is Italian.
Although we would understand each other I think that being consistent is very important to learn properly each language.

Nomi Olsthoorn
April 8, 2015

Lovely article and I think you are spot on Emily!

I learned about bilingualism and language development first and was doing my postdoctoral research on second language learning and bilingualism when my now husband who’s British and I (I’m Dutch) met. Never in a million years did I expect to be actually raising bilingual children, but here I am, in England, raising two!

I found that as easy as it is presented in the handbooks: “They just pick it up without a cost as long as the parents speak their respective mother tongues with them” is only true to an extent. Yes, kids are very flexible, but nonetheless they can only use their time for one thing at the time and therefore bilingual children tend to have measurably smaller vocabularies than monolingual children. Of course there are always exceptions, my two certainly develop very differently with regard to their linguistic abilities, and I think that’s just because children and people in general vary in verbal aptitude and verbal learning.

There is no question that bilingualism is beneficial though, even despite this possible (short-lived) disadvantage: Did you know that bilingialism delays the age of onset of Alzheimer’s for instance? It also makes it easier for children to learn foreign languages in general, probably because they already have a grasp of how languages can vary and that grammar isn’t set in stone! (in other words they might acquire an abstract sense of languages that monolingual children not normally will by default).

In contrast to what was once preached, it is now thought to be ‘best’ to link the different languages to different environments. The non-dominant language at home and the dominant language elsewhere for instance. It isn’t harmful to be consistent both inside and outside of the home, but it isn’t necessary either. That’s a relief to me, because I also find some things much easier to say in English! I’m not sure is that is because English as such makes things easier (though it could be a factor) but rather we know that 1. switching while you’re talking from your mother tongue to a foreign language is easier than from a foreign language to your mother tongue (yes! really!) and 2. there is some ecvidence that suggests that somehow it is easier to express yourself emotionally “in strong terms” (or even positively) in a foreign language (I think I can vouch for that!). And of course: 3. you copy what you hear around you, so in my case if I hear “we don’t help ourselves” as a directive to children (not a phrase I had ever come across before I had kids), somehow that becomes easier to say for me too, instead of using the Dutch equivalent, or the Anglicised version of how a Dutch speaker would try to convey the same which would be along the lines of “you’re not allowed to…”. This with the added bonus of other parents being able to understand that I am indeed parenting my child in public. (Because let’s face it, sometimes we say things to our children so that other people can hear we have things under control!)

(sorry for the lecture!) xx

Nomi Olsthoorn
April 8, 2015

oh, Emilie, I just noticed I misspelled your name! Apologies!

April 8, 2015

Ha, absolutely no problem, 😉

April 9, 2015

Hi, I totally agree with you. I have 2 kids, ages 4 and 2. Both my husband and I are Portuguese but we are leaving in Spain for several years now and both my kids were born here. We always refused to speak with our kids in Spanish and have always made them watch movies in the original versions which are most of the times in English.
My oldest went to a Spanish-English nursery and very early in her life was exposed to 3 languages: Portuguese, Spanish and English. She had a tremendous development in terms of speech and at age of 2 she was already able to speak quite well Portuguese and Spanish and understood very well English following mostly commands. At age of 3 she was the best English student of her class and we decided to change her to a British CV school with native teachers – it’s really amazing because she speaks perfectly the 3 languages. She knows that when she is with us or family she speaks Portuguese, in the street she speaks Spanish and in school she speaks English. She changes form one language to the next very easily and I never notice that being exposed so earlier to 3 languages caused any damage in my daughter’s development; on the contrary.
With my son we are doing exactly the same we did with our daughter but I notice he has a different rate of speech development. He turned 2 recently but has a very limited vocabulary although I notice he understands what we tell him and in school he is also doing fine both with the Spanish and English. He just refuses to talk. But I am pretty sure it’s not because of being exposed to 3 language at same time. Is just different personality. And as parents we have to respect that.

April 9, 2015

Multilingualism is a topic of big interest to me, not only because I studied linguistics and it’s close to my heart, but also because I am raising my kids trilingually. I love reading different views and experiences. Have you heard of ? It’s a great blog with plenty of great inspiration and tips to motivate children about their minority language.
I also wrote about multilingualsim on my blog that I started recently. Many friends asked me how I manage my situation so I wrote down my experience and knowledge. The last entry on trilingualsim will be up soon.

April 18, 2015

My son is bilingual Spanish English and I do think that bilingualism caused his speech to be delayed at first. I’ve met a few other boys in our ex pat group that were similarity hesitant about language. I think it’s unfair to deny bilingualism can be a factor in a speech delay. A developmental delay is a very hard thing to go through as a parent and it was so hard for me to read / hear that bilingualism doesn’t cause issues when it so obviously was causing issues for my son and it made me feel like something was wrong with him/ that I was failing as a mother. And there was nothing wrong with him. He just needed more time to sort out the two languages and I have no hesitations about continuing to be a bilingual home with our second child. I’m commenting mostly because reading the first few lines of this post would have crushed me a few months ago. It’s not non sense. It can cause a delay. But it’s just that ! They’ll easily overcome it. And that’s what the me of a few months ago needed to hear.

April 22, 2015

Love seeing so many kids being raised in more than one language! We’re an Irish/English couple living in Germany with our two daughters. I’m curious to find out any tips for teaching the children English grammar etc, as they’ll only learn German or English as a foreign language at school. Does anyone have any tips? Thanks!

October 28, 2017

It is a very interesting topic for us. We are a family of vietnamese mother, german father and two sons of nearly three and eight years old living in Denmark. I speak vietnamese with the children, when we are at home (or together) without their papa, but we all speak german, when their papa is there. The children speak danish at the school and kindergarden. Our older son can speak a little bit english now. He like also speaking italian, when we are in Italy every summer. Both of them can change the suitable languages to the partner automally at the same time. I think, it is a big gift we can gave our sons. I am also very curious about our children´ development of identies. I am sorry for my bad english. I love reading your blog. Thanks for sharing!

Esther in Amsterdam
November 1, 2017

Thank you for your sweet comment Phuong! What a gift you’re giving your children — all these languages will be so very useful for them! xxxx
PS Your English is perfect!

Leave a Comment