Top Tips

This advice is intended for most bilingual or trilingual families, whether two parents speak a minority language or you are a mixed language family (one parent, one language) or whether you are a single parent speaking a minority language. 

1.  Start early

The earlier you start, the better.  Ideally, this can be from pregnancy or birth.  If you have not done so, it is not a disaster, but the later you start, the harder you may need to work..  It is much easier to establish and stick to habits of speaking one or other language if you start from the outset.  Switching languages after a relationship is already established can be hard for some people, although others manage it without difficulty.   If you are the main care giver and you have consistently spoken one language to your baby, be careful about making a sudden and total change to another language whilst they are very young (e.g. over 3 months and under 2 or 3 years), during this period, if you want to make changes, it would probably be better to do so gradually.  When it is clear that the child has an understanding that different languages are involved, you can explain any changes to them and it will be less of a shock to them.

2.  Try to be consistent

Children can become bilingual even in contexts where everyone around them mixes languages constantly.  By mixing languages we mean using different languages in the same sentence or in alternate sentences. But, unsurprisingly, it seems to be harder for children raised this way to speak without mixing languages themselves, which they will need to be able to do if they are speaking with monolinguals.  It is probably easier for children to learn to separate out several languages if there is some kind of system – e.g. one parent, one language; one place, one language; or even one day or time for each language.  (In fact, children may try to find – or impose – a system where one doesn’t exist).  Apart from helping children to distinguish between two (or more) languages, having a system also helps parents to make sure that language use doesn’t slide towards the language spoken in the community, which can happen, almost without anyone noticing unless you proactively guard against this.  If you do mix languages a lot in your speech, it doesn’t mean you should give up raising your child bilingually, just try to make sure that your child(ren) spend time with monolinguals in both/all languages so that they practice and develop the skill of speaking in one language or other and not both/all simultaneously.

3. Expect ups and downs, Keep calm and carry on, don’t give up

Don’t expect a simple straight line of progress in terms of your child(ren)’s use of two or more languages.  They may go through periods where they resist speaking one or other language or mix languages.  This will only impact on the final outcome if it means that you give up speaking a language to them.  It can be very disheartening and disappointing if you speak to a child in one language and they consistently reply in another language.   Some children like to conform (to fit in, and don’t want to seem different).  Others just want to communicate in the way that seems easiest to them, that which involves the least effort. Sometimes, you can encourage your child to speak all their languages (e.g. by spending time where that language is the community language or spending time with a friend or family member who is monolingual in that language).   But, some children will stubbornly resist all these efforts.  As long as your child continues to hear and understand the language, even if they refuse to speak it, they will retain a passive knowledge which they will be able to activate when they are motivated to do so (it may take some effort, but it will be possible, not at all like learning a foreign language from scratch.)  Some parents repeat back the phrase said by the child in the “wrong language” to them in the other one, some parents explain that they prefer to speak and hear their language, and if the child’s communication is not upset or urgent, ask them to repeat in the preferred language.  (Some parents apparently pretend not to understand the other/community language but this is, in our view, not sustainable if the children hear the parents speaking that language in shops, on buses etc.)  The key is to make sure that they continue to hear the languages that you want them to be able to understand (and to speak) and to trust that their ability to understand, can become the ability to speak when they wish or need this to be the case.

4.   Be clear why you want your children to be bilingual

We find that it is very helpful if you decide your aims.  If you simply want your child to be able to speak to their extended family and friends, the level of language they will need is lower.  If you are a migrant family and plan to return to your country while your children are still in school, you will need them to be able to read and write fairly well and to have exposure to the vocabulary that they will need at school.  You may hope that they will be able to work using their languages, which again requires literacy and the ability to gain a more formal repertoire.  Deciding your aims, helps you prioritise.  People sometimes think that our brains are so full that if we learn two languages, we will only be able to learn each one half as well. This is not the case, our brains are infinitely malleable and expand to hold all the languages, knowledge and skills that we care to spend our time learning. What is limited, however, is your child’s time and any parent’s energy.  If you decide your aims, it helps you to be clear whether you want to give up your job and home educate your child in your language, spend Saturday morning at a language school or at football/piano/ballet lessons, whether you invest your time discussing educational or family topics with your child. whether you prioritise holidays where your language is spoken or not.

5.   The more time and energy you invest, the more you/they will benefit

Whilst there is no fixed rule, it remains true that, when all else is equal, the more exposure a child has to a language, the better the child’s grasp of that language will be.  If the languages a child hears are 90% one language and 10% the other language, there is an increased risk that this will have an impact.  This does not mean that a 50:50 split is essential.  Once a child starts pre-school or school, a considerable part of their time will be spent in the language of education.  Children vary, and what may be enough exposure for one child, may not be enough for another child.  It also seems to matter whether the child is aware that the parent speaking that language truly cares that they speak it.  Again it comes down to choices, spending time with your child doing activities that involve language, at least some of the time may be beneficial, (charades being better than chess or football).  Clearly, you need to spend time with children doing things that they want to do and which they find fun, but you can find ways to maximise the use of language during such activities, e.g. by describing what you are doing or discussing tactics or progress or the outcome as you go along.

6.   Quality counts as well as quantity.

Just speaking a language to your child will get you so far, but a great deal of the language spoken to children is simple and repetitive.  It is good if children also get a richer and more varied exposure.  Books are excellent for this.  Reading to your child in your language regularly really does help.  Singing songs, rhymes, riddles and jokes are all excellent.  As children get older watching films or TV series together, pop music and computer games can all help expand and update vocabulary and make a language seem more relevant.

7.   Don’t worry that they won’t learn the language spoken in the community

Unless you move country after your children have started school, you should not worry that your child(ren) will not speak the community language at least as well as their peers.  Even children raised in homes where both parents speak a minority language, will often absorb some of the community language from being in shops, parks, playgrounds at a very early age.  When they start school or preschool, they may go through a silent phase, but this is soon past and within time they will be speaking the community language alongside their peers.  Children need to hear at least one language spoken fluently and in its full richness.  Parents who choose to speak a language that they themselves do not speak well to their children, may actually disadvantage them as they may not get exposure to all the nuances of language at a time when their language development goes through a critical stage.  Parents who speak the community language to them, if they don’t speak it fluently, not only miss the opportunity for their child to speak more than one language but also potentially disadvantage that child wholesale in terms of their language development   If you do move to live where your children don’t speak the community language after the age of around 7, there is a risk that this might impact on their education but many children will overcome this and have succeeded despite moving as late as age 13. This doesn’t mean you can’t speak a language that is not your mother tongue to your child(ren) as long as you speak it well and fluently.  See the book list George Saunders here for one example. 

8.   Try to provide time spent where your home language is spoken in the community/ with monolinguals in that language/with a peer group of children who also speak that language.

There are many examples of children who are reluctant to speak a language, deciding to do so, suddenly whilst on holiday where the language is the majority language.  Here it may be the necessity to do so, whilst speaking with monolinguals which will provide the motivation.  Or it may be that they decide to fit in with what seems to be normal in this new setting. If it is not possible for you to visit a place, you can achieve part of the effect by bringing a monolingual minority language speaker into your home – a friend or relative who comes to stay.  One of the benefits of a saturday school, other than the obvious language and cultural exposure is the fact that children see many other children like them and can form a mutually supportive peer group.   There are examples of children who routinely refused to speak their language for 10 months of the year but who spent 2 months at a minority language summer camp and whose active bilingualism was maintained as a result of that 2 month immersion per year, see here.

9. Try not to worry about the fact that you are speaking a language that others don’t understand.

Some people find it difficult when their partner doesn’t understand a conversation between a child and a parent.  We don’t feel that this is a good reason to stop speaking a language to a child.  Often, given some willingness, the partner can learn a passive understanding of the language alongside the child.  If this does not happen, of course, very important or urgent conversations can be repeated in both languages. Some people also become self conscious when speaking their language in public or when socialising and this may cause them to stop speaking that language to their children altogether.  Other than growing a thick skin and ignoring stares and so on, one would hope that such people would be able to continue to speak that language at home and that this should not mean that the second language input should stop entirely.

10. Don’t accept advice about which languages to speak in your family from professionals (e.g. your doctor, teacher, health visitor) unless they have expertise and experience in multilingualism, ask to speak to a specialist.

There are many myths and beliefs about multilingualism, many of which are widely repeated but are completely untrue.   This means that well meaning but non specialist professionals may give you advice which is inaccurate and may actually be harmful. Any significant delay in a child speaking should not be attributed to bilingualism and should be investigated to check that there is no hearing or development issue. If you are unsure, always ask to speak to a specialist with experience of work with multilingual families before you follow advice about changing the languages you speak in your family.