Bilingual Child-Rearing 101: the eternal basics

All bilingual families are different. Parents come from different backgrounds, have different parenting styles and different strengths and weaknesses. Children have different personalities, learning styles, attitudes, obstacles to overcome and talents. Families themselves have very different ideas of what bilingualism means to them, what they want their children to achieve in terms of their command of their languages and of course a million different ways of getting there. This is why we always say there is no one-size-fits-all solution to raising bilingual children. There are, however, a number of techniques, tricks and linguistic principles that have stood the test of time and should make up the cornerstones of all our colourful and varied approaches to raising bilingual children. Let’s take a look!

  • Know where you’re going – this sounds like common sense but it is surprising how many bilingual families do not have a clear idea of what they want their language outcomes to be. Do you want your children to be conversant with family and friends in your home country? Or to just have enough understanding to be able to visit your country when they are older? Are you happy for your children to just speak your language comfortably? Or do you also want them to be able to read and write in your language? Would it be acceptable to you that your children learn your language only whilst they are little? Or would you like your language to be a life-long part of who they are? This decision will very much impact upon the way you approach their bilingualism from Day 1.
  • Choose a bilingual strategy – this is something which causes a great deal of debate within the bilingual community: which is the best way to raise children bilingually? The answer is there is no best way, only the best way for your family, and that depends very greatly upon who is in your family and how they use their languages. The strategy which is by far the most talked about, the most anecdotally recommended, and thereby the most common, is OPOL, or the One-Parent-One-Language technique, where each parent speaks to their child exclusively in their own native language. The fact is there are MANY other bilingual strategies out there which are just as effective and which may be much better suited to your particular family dynamic. I will write more about bilingual strategies in another post.
  • Get your team on board – they say it takes a village to raise a child, so it must take two to raise a bilingual child! First, speak with your partner in depth about what your bilingual goals for your children are, you will need to be on the same page because this is no easy undertaking. Next, let your family know what your intentions are, and why. Speak to them about their beliefs and reservations about bilingualism. There are so many myths surrounding this topic, it is very understandable that not everyone may be on board at first. I will be writing more about the benefits of and myths about bilingualism in another post, watch this space! Finally, start recruiting your helpers. These may be family members, friends, neighbours, people from your community, teachers, doctors and anyone else your children come into contact with. These people don’t necessarily need to speak any of the languages in question, they just need to support them and say so!
  • Get kitted up – this is a whole lifestyle you are subscribing to here and it comes with its particular paraphernalia. Whilst the most important elements in your arsenal will always be the people in your child’s life, there are quite a few accessories now available which will assist you greatly. Yes, you do need to invest in these, so allocate a budget and spend the money! Books, games, videos, toys, CDs, overseas phone calls and (wait for it) visits, classes, excursions, extra-curricular activities, correspondence courses… your imagination is the limit!
  • Peers are your most powerful tool – your family is the very first place your child gets their sense of themselves from, but very soon the world calls them outside. And as anybody who has school-age bilingual children will tell you, the pull of the dominant culture, of fitting in and being like everyone else, has no equal. It’s wonderful, essential, that you provide your children with so much quality contact with your language, and their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins etc. truly do have a great impact upon your child’s desire to speak the family language. But nothing nothing nothing is so powerful as their own friends. Go out of your way, go a very long way, to make sure they have regular, meaningful contact with friends their own age with their own interests who speak your language. Nothing else will be so effective as this.
  • Barter in their currency – this is something which may seem a little counter-intuitive at first, but which will quickly make sense once you start doing it. You may give your child any number of gifts, books or treats associated with your language and it may have no effect on their desire to develop their language skills. But offer them THE toy they want more than any other, THE movie they want to see more than any other, THE book they want more than any other in (and only in) your language and you will see a very different result. You may hate Barbie yourself, but if it’s what your daughter craves more than anything else, then compromising your values and giving her a talking Barbie doll ordered online from your home country (with no English option) will destroy any reticence she may have to learn Barbie’s vocabulary. And all without you having to say a word!
  • Do not make it unpleasant – this is really the most obvious thing out there. Nobody wants to do something they don’t enjoy and children are no exception. Parents all know this, and yet it can sometimes be very difficult to put into practice. What if your child doesn’t want to speak your language? What if they don’t enjoy singing songs and reading stories with you in your language? What if they don’t want to work in their activity books? What if they’d really rather go and play soccer on a Saturday morning instead of sitting in Saturday School for their other language? This is the bilingual parent’s challenge: to continually make the associations with their language positive ones. If your child hates Saturday School, you are doing more damage to their bilingualism than the classes are doing them good. Find another way. I will be posting regularly about the many ways we can engage our children positively in home language experiences. Stay posted!
  • Give them reason – this, like a few of the previous points, is really about something we call internal motivation, rather than external motivation. You can tell your child until you’re blue in the face why it’s important they learn your language, but all they hear is why it’s important to you. It will only ever be really important to them if they have their own reasons for speaking that language. Because they want to follow that TV series, because they want to know what that celebrity is saying, because they want to read that book, because they want to play with that circle of friends, because they want to go to that country for themselves.
  • Prepare to invest – this is an extension of your bilingual toolkit. Not only are you going to need to buy the various knick-knacks that will become your daily bilingual staples, but you need to acknowledge the financial investment required long term to successfully raise your children bilingually. At some point, your family should plan to spend some time in a country where your language is spoken. You may choose to send your child on an international exchange programme, or host an exchange student yourself. You may have occasion throughout your bilingual journey to hire a nanny, babysitter or tutor who speaks your language, and you will certainly need to continue to replenish your child’s supply of language materials as their interests and capabilities change and grow. Not to mention the far from small investment of your own time and energy over the child-rearing years. The good news is, it’s all worth it!
  • Never give up! – last but not least. We’ve all been there, we all know what it feels like to think ‘this is just too hard, it’s not working, it’s just creating problems, it’s not worth it, I just can’t go on, I give up’. This is exactly why we created Little Bilinguals. Raising bilingual children is hard work, it’s not easy, it’s often frustrating or disappointing, and parents don’t always know the best approach to take and how to resolve the difficulties they face. The landscape is constantly changing, what worked yesterday doesn’t work today, and circumstances change too, now what do we do? I always come back to: remember why you decided to raise your child bilingually in the first place. Refresh your understanding of the benefits of bilingualism (post on this to come very soon). Project yourself into a future where you and your grown child are happily exchanging on any and every topic you choose in your language with ease and confidence. Remind yourself it is worth it. This is not to say there are not times when your child’s bilingualism may not take priority in your family and may need to be set aside for a time, for a number of reasons, but that is not giving up. Flexibility is a strength. Come back to your bilingual goals when the storm has passed.

This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it a magic bullet. You may follow all the advice given on this page to the letter with the best intentions in the world and still have a child who rejects your language, answers you in English, fails to make progress with their written language, or any number of other challenges which are all too common. This is why Little Bilinguals provides an individual consultation service offering tailor-made solutions created specifically for your family and the obstacles you are facing. If we can help your family, please call and book a consultation on 0439 688 817 or email me at

What about you? What are the sure-fire golden rules that keep your bilingual family ticking over? Let us know in the comments!

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