Top tips

Guide for parents

Guide for parents raising a multilingual family – The early years (0-5 years)

WFBG exists since 2003 and we have discussed issues, concerns and advice given by others on many, many occasions. From these discussions we have extracted some very basic tips

which every bilingual family starting out will find useful to read. Thanks to all members who have shared with us their experiences.

Every family is different !

There is no solution that will suit everyone. Don’t slavishly copy any system recommended by anyone – including us! Every rule can be broken. Think about what you are comfortable with and how your family works, what opportunities you have, and how you can work around those you don’t have. This doesn’t mean you have to accept things as they are, and not try to change things within your family, but if you are struggling to bring about a change in order to follow someone else’s rules, you may well not come across as convincing or wholehearted, you may be using up energy better invested elsewhere and you may achieve better results by focusing on something else. Children are also very quick to notice when people are sincere and when they are pretending, when they really mean something and when they don’t.

What is Bilingualism ?

Bilingualism is a deceptively simple term which means many things to many people. There are many different definitions of bilingualism and much debate over what degree of proficiency and / or fluency in two languages a person requires in order to be considered bilingual. However, for our purposes, we would define bilingualism simply as using two languages on a regular basis.

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Key tips

We are based in England, so we refer to English as the community language.

  • If you are worried about your children learning English: Don’t! Your children will always learn the community language. If you speak only another language at home, try to arrange some exposure to the community language “ child care, play groups, nursery, visiting friends “ before your child starts school. But don’t worry, even if they don’t speak English at all, when they start school they will very soon catch up.
  • Set yourself a goal: Think about what level of bilingualism you would like your children to achieve ultimately i.e. understand but not fluent in speaking, fluent in understanding and speaking at home, able to read a newspaper, able to work, speak at a meeting, write a report. A certain level of bilingualism, with the average child, can be achieved without much or any sacrifice at all. If you want to aim higher, then think about how far you are prepared to put yourself out in order to achieve this. If your options are limited because you have other constraints (money to pay for the ideal childcare, space for the minority language Au Pair, you need to work fulltime and cannot spend as much time as you would like with your children) or priorities (your career, your children’s piano/ballet/football lessons), you may have to accept a lower level of bilingualism.
  • More (high quality) input = more output: The general rule is that the more exposure your child has to both languages, the better their level of understanding and speaking will be. But remember that it is an issue of quality as well as quantity. Bilingual quality time is having a rich and varied conversation where both you and your child (once they are talking sentences) express a wide range of ideas or discuss concepts (from colours, numbers, animals, with younger children to space and science and relationships “ or whatever your 4-7 year old is currently fascinated by). This is easy to say but more difficult to achieve. Everything that the books and experts say is good at developing one language is also good for developing two “ nursery rhymes, poems, songs, reading stories together, word games, talking to your child and listening to your child in the car, in the supermarket, discussing a TV programme, a book, an event.
  • It is useful to adopt a set of rules of who speaks which language at what times to children. The rules are not important in themselves, (one parent; one language, one place; one language; one set of people; one language) but very young children (0-3 years approx) seem to benefit from this as it helps them understand that there are two distinct languages involved. If you find that you can’t stick to your system totally, don’t worry that is normal too. (See also common concern 2).
  • Languages vary in the availability of materials, resources, people, so here we have suggested the easy route and ways you can get round problems. Ways to expose your child(ren) to a minority language that have worked for us are listed here “ they begin with the least expensive/time intensive/difficult and get progressively more demanding.
    • Books, tapes, CDs “ you can get these in most languages now in libraries, over the internet, during visits home, even if you have to arrange for a friend or family member to buy them elsewhere and send them to you. If no books exist, you can make up stories or tell traditional stories from your culture to your child. If you cut out and colour some of the main characters in a story, your child will love acting it out using them without a book and will use their imagination to supply the settings. If you or your child really feel the need for pictures, you can find books that have no words and you can write in the text in your language or just tell the story in your language from memory. Discuss the story with your child.
    • Satellite TV, videos, DVDs “ again can be got in many languages including some that have fewer written resources e.g. Kurmanji Kurdish Sattelite TV. This has the advantage that it contains the relevant culture as well as the language (unless of course you disagree with the cultural content e.g. some Hebrew speaking families do not watch Israeli satellite TV as they are not Jewish and do not approve of many of the things that the Israeli government does). The cost of satellite TV equipment and subscriptions may be a disadvantage. Videos come in different formats “ but you can get the tapes copied onto the format used in the UK relatively cheaply (i.e. £3-£5), alternatively you may be able to buy a video player in the alternative format. DVDs bought anywhere in the world can be played in the UK. The fact that TV does not require children to speak can be a disadvantage as it may strengthen a child’s listening skills in a language without helping them speak (and some children go through a phase when they understand their second language but are reluctant to speak it.) Strangely some children seem to react particularly well to TV, videos, DVDs that are translations e.g. children who are fond of Bob the Builder in English discover that Bob also speaks French and this can make them feel much more positive about the French language!
    • Computer games and sites: Currently most provision is in European languages but Asian languages are also provided for. African languages are unlikely to have computer games for some years yet. Many of our members have bought computer games either on trips home or via the internet. It can be harder to find good games that you approve of at a distance and without a source of advice such as a family member with slightly older children. Many national TV stations have now set up sites for children (linked to the children’s shows they produce, this is a good route to try). There are also a number of multilingual sites set up by progressive organisations (e.g. based in Canada is one that is now available in 6 languages). Clearly you need a computer at home, internet access and computer games are not cheap. However, computers are still very cool and attractive to children and if they are also available in the minority language this can help children view it positively.
    • As children get older a minority language school can be very good value. Usually on a Saturday morning some schools/clubs take children from 2 years old, others are more suitable for children of nursery age and they often provide right up into the teens. There is a national organisation in the UK (Resource Unit 020 7700 8189) that keeps lists of all these schools and can tell you if there is one in your area. If not, they offer training and advice on how to set one up (if there are enough families). These schools can provide high quality input in a language, often have libraries to lend out materials, but perhaps most importantly for older children, they provide a peer group where children (who often want to fit in and don’t want to be seen as different) meet other children speaking their language and understand that it is not unique to one family. Another useful source of information about schools in some languages is the Embassy of a relevant country (of course this applies mainly to national languages).
    • Child care (usually child minder, shared nanny etc) in that language is a very tempting option if both parents work. It can take some effort and luck to find a suitable minority language child minder in your local area. Some childminders include information about languages they speak on local authority lists but often only when these languages are very widely spoken in the local community. Some members have had some success through putting up adverts in clinics, surgeries, nurseries, and playgroups or through advertising in papers published by the Embassy or language community (although these usually cover a much wider area). If you have a large enough house, bringing an au pair from your country may be a possibility although the fact that au pairs can stay a limited time and work a limited number of hours per week might be a problem. Bringing in a nanny for a longer period would be another idea but (outside of the EU at least) raises all sorts of immigration/work permission issues so you are going to have to be quite determined to attempt this.
    • Relatives/friends “ going to stay with relatives and/or friends who speak the minority language can be a very good option “ even though flights may be expensive. It clearly has many other advantages for every family. For some, particularly asylum seekers, refugees and exiles, it may not be an option. It may be more difficult than you think to persuade family members and friends to speak the minority language to your child(ren). Similarly inviting minority language relatives and or friends to come and stay with you will increase the minority language spoken in the household.
  • Expect ups and downs, expect to need to persist, expect others to tell you it is not working/is not worth attempting.
    Family members will often comment on your attempts to raise children bilingually “ even people who would respect your other choices for your children may feel that they can comment on bilingualism because in monolingual societies it may be seen as a bit different. Advice from professionals can be more scary. If you are given advice by a professional, make sure it is someone with a considerable degree of knowledge about bilingualism. Although it is less common than it once was, many doctors, nurses, health visitors, and teachers (not to mention TV researchers and producers) hold totally out of date and incorrect views about bilingualism. No one should advise you to give up raising your child bilingually. (If your child has a significant disability e.g. partial deafness or dyslexia, get specialist help “ both from bilingualism experts and experts in that particular area). Being bilingual is not bad for your child, will not hold them back, confuse them or make life difficult for them; in fact it gives them many advantages. If someone gives you advice that worries you, find another professional who is really informed about bilingualism and talk to them before acting. Most London boroughs have a speech therapist specialising in bilingualism on their team, as do most Sure Start teams. If you can’t find someone locally, contact us and we will see what we can do “ we are not experts, but we know people who are, and they may be able to put you in touch with an expert in your area. If your child speaks very late, speaks only one language, tells you that he or she hates the second language, be assured that all of this is normal. It does not mean you should give up, it is a phase and your child will move through it and move on as long as he or she gets the message from you that both languages are important to you.
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Advantages of bilingualism

The many advantages in becoming bilingual are outlined below

Communication advantages

  • Communication within the family may be improved. Being able to communicate with each parent in the parent‒s preferred language may contribute to making the parent-child relationship closer and enables parents to pass on part of their own heritage to their child. Bilingualism is also valuable in enabling children to communicate with extended family.
  • Wider communication – international links. Bilinguals may also be bridge builders between different language communities.
  • Biliteracy – gives knowledge of different world views and values

Cultural advantages

  • Bilinguals have the opportunity to experience two cultures, complete with behaviour systems, traditions, stories, greetings.In short, they have two windows on the world.
  • Greater tolerance and less racism. It seems likely that bilinguals would be more tolerant of difference and diversity and less likely to be racist but this is yet to be scientifically tested.

Cognitive advantages

  • In tests that measure creative thinking or divergent thinking (e.g. imagine you have a brick/tin can/cardboard box – how many ways could you use it?) bilinguals regularly score higher i.e. they think of more uses than monolinguals. (Most tests do not measure this i.e. IQ measures convergent thinking when there is only one right answer). Bilinguals seem to think more freely, more elaborately and more creatively.

Character advantages

  • Raised self esteem. This may depend on the attitude of the wider community to the languages spoken. However, in general, in Europe/the US, being bilingual is seen as a positive thing (once achieved). Also, the praise and recognition of the second language given by parents in order to achieve bilingualism may also help self esteem.
  • Security in identity. Bilinguals have close links with their heritage, they know who they are and where they come from. Children who loose one half of their linguistic heritage may regret this later.

Curriculum advantages

  • Increased curriculum achievement. Studies have found that bilingual children who have a fairly well developed knowledge of two languages do better at school. This may result from multiple factors, such as higher self esteem, creative thinking and a wider worldview.
  • Bilinguals find it easier to learn a third language than monolinguals find it to learn a second language – two thirds of studies show this result, the other third could find no difference. It is not yet known why this should be – it could be down to higher confidence.

Cash advantages

  • Economic and employment. Studies show that bilinguals earn more on average in the US and more recently in the UK. As companies become more and more international there is a need for bilinguals in media, sales, marketing, customer services. Although children may resist one language, by the time that they are young adults almost without exception they are extremely grateful to have two (or more) languages. The short term struggle is worth it in the long term.
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Common concerns

My partner doesn’t speak or understand my language. I feel that s/he is being excluded from family life because s/he does not understand conversations between my child and me.

Our members have had different ways of dealing with this. Much depends on whether the partner is him or herself supportive of the decision to raise the child bilingually. Some partners have used the opportunity of hearing the language spoken to begin to learn the language – perhaps backed up by an evening class – this is easier for those with an ear for language and some confidence than for others.

In other cases, agreement has been reached that any very significant or important interactions are repeated in English for the partners’ benefit. A number of people have told us that they allowed this concern to influence the language they spoke with their first child (who is not, or who is less, bilingual) but decided with the second that they should just go ahead and not let this worry them (and in each case the second child is much better able to understand and willing to speak both languages.) Where the partner is very anti-bilingualism, it does make things very difficult, we know a number of cases where one parent has stuck to their guns and the partner has eventually come round.

I have read that it is very important to have a system and not to switch things around. Despite this, I find it very difficult to stick to speaking one language to my children.

This raises a number of points and it is a difficult area where the experts don’t agree. Over 90% of bilinguals switch and mix their languages. This is normal. Professional translators are given special training and lots of practice to stop them doing this. If you find you can’t stop switching, this is normal. It is not something to feel guilty about and it is one of the instances where you should maybe invest energy in reinforcing the language in other ways, rather than putting all of your efforts into sticking to one language at all times – and seeing this as the most important thing in terms of achieving bilingualism. If you are in a family where each parent speaks one language, it may be more of a problem if the parent not usually speaking the community language (here English) starts to switch frequently into that language. Doing this will reduce the amount of the other language the child will hear – although we know of many families where this has been the case and the children are still bilingual. In some cases, but by no means always, frequent switching is the first step of a process whereby the person stops speaking their language most of the time and talks in English. Switching may be more of a problem for very young babies and toddlers (who have not necessarily worked out that two different languages are involved). Once your child can distinguish and says things like Grandma speaks Spanish/Swahili etc, this is almost certainly not going to be a problem. It is certainly our experience that when the parent who would normally speak the community language (English) switches into a minority language e.g. Farsi, French, etc it can be very positive for the child. It reinforces the language which is getting the least input/support. The fact that the person may speak the language imperfectly may also not be a problem as long as the child is hearing a mother tongue speaker as well. What is almost certainly a bad idea is when wholesale changes are involved before children understand that separate languages are involved. E.g. a couple who both speak Spanish to their child whilst living in England decide that the mother will switch to English when they move to a Spanish speaking country in order to retain the children’s English. One of their children, who is around one year old is very confused by this. Older children adjust fine.

My child understands my language but won’t speak it

This is extremely common – it is usually a phase and usually quite short lived – although some members’ children have kept this up for several years. Spending time in a place where that language is the community language, (for those for whom this is an option) almost always solves it (when the child is good and ready i.e. not necessarily the first time you try this). This is possibly because speaking that language starts to become normal instead of the exception, but also since if the children want to ask for anything to anyone apart from their parents, they need to ask in the language they are reluctant to speak.

This works particularly well with relatives and friends you may be staying with. It helps if parents refuse to translate. If you find this difficult to resist, some members have arranged to leave children alone with grandparents and aunts to help this process along. It can also work well with other children – e.g. around a hotel swimming pool.

Clearly it only works if the community does not speak the child’s other language(s) and so will not respond if they make the request in that language. This type of scenario can be engineered without travelling by arranging for childcare by a relative or friend or carer who either genuinely speaks only the language the child is reluctant to speak or who is prepared to pretend to only speak and understand that language (obviously not an option if your child has heard this person talking English in the past).

The good news is that once your child has decided to speak, it is a bit like a switch being turned on, within days, they will make sentences and in many cases the switch stays on once they get home.

Some members have reported the process taking over 3 weeks, others under two weeks. It is probably the case that a concentrated day in day out process is needed – one day every week of the minority language may or may not be enough – let us know if you know of people who have done this without a concentrated period and it has worked.

My child says she doesn’t understand when I explain things in my language and asks me to reply in English.

This tends to be an issue with slightly older children who are spending some time in an English language environment whether at daycare, a nursery school or school itself. It can be even more the case with children at school who are given homework in English.

Members have different views about this. Many are concerned that children have the vocabulary in English to discuss the subjects at school. Many are concerned that their children genuinely won’t understand the answers in another language and will be none the wiser.

Others feel that children will never gain the full range of vocabulary or concepts in their other language, if these issues are only discussed or explained in English. Even if their other language is less developed, they argue that even complex issues can be expressed in relatively simple language that the child can understand. (A slightly different question arises when a child asks for a word to be translated. Here most of our members would give the child the requested translation – if they know it! – although some would instead refer the child to the parent who normally speaks that language with them if they are present.)

Is it possible to learn and speak perfectly 3 or more languages in parallel ?

I don’t feel confortable speaking my language in family or public because nobody understands and I don’t want to be rude

Should I first teach speaking the language and then reading and writing ?

Can I switch the family language when my child is a toddler ?

Our family is relocating to a different country, what are the language issues ?

At what age is it best to start teaching my child a second or third language ? When is it too late

discontinuity in learning another language, gaps ?

I have been advised by a professional, not expert in bilingualism, to stop speaking another language to my child

how to handle status and negativity towards a language

missed opportunity and regrets