Frequently ask questions about raising bilingual kids, answered!

Since I wrote my first post about how I’m raising my bilingual children, I got so many questions that it made me realize how important it is and how difficult it can be.

First question that I was asked frequently was how do I stick to speaking only one language to my kids?

I must admit, that at the very begging, when my first born was a wee baby, it did sound weird to speak aloud in Polish to her. Especially while we where surrounded by people who didn’t understand a word I was saying and obviously she couldn’t speak or really understand me neither. So yes, I did force myself a bit during these first couple of months of her life. But as soon as I had an impression that she understood me, it felt as if we were both speaking Polish, and now it’s the only natural way for us to communicate.

And that led to a frequently raised concern: do people around us feel left out when I’m speaking the language that they don’t understand?

In all honesty I never felt that someone was feeling bad or left behind. I explained to all of the family members and close friends how important it’s for us to raise bilingual kids. Some of them are actually trying hard to learn a couple of Polish words by now! And if we’re out and people hear us, they usually get curious, but never did it happen to us that someone got upset. Also, if we’re on a play date with other kids, I sometimes speak to everyone in French or English before I’ll speak to my kids in Polish.

And how about my husband? Does he understand us? If not, doesn’t he feel left behind?

At first he didn’t understand nothing. Polish was not more than a funny sound to his ears. And now, after almost four years, he understands most of what we say. Because with babies and kids, you repeat yourself all the time! Especially at the beginning, when you say every word a billion times! So at first it was a bit hard for him, but now even though we have two languages around the kitchen table, we all understand each other very well.

Common questions about raising bilingual kids answered

And how about the way our kids see our relationship? We speak different languages is that ok?

Children don’t know what a general norm is, for them what’s happening at home is the norm. So for my kids it’s just perfectly normal that mommy speaks Polish, daddy French and that sometimes they even speak English to each other. That’s just plain and boring normal to them.

Children don't know what a general norm is, for them what's happening at home is the norm. Click To Tweet

Many of you asked me what to do, if until now you were switching languages, and now your toddler/ preschooler/ teen refuses to speak in your language?

The only advice I can give you is: continue speaking to them in your language. And if they ask you for something, respond only if the request is expressed in your language.

Yes, they might get upset/ angry/ shocked/ furious (depending on the character of your sweet child). But only for a while. Because your kids want to be in contact with you, and they need your love and your attention. So the good news is that they’ll do basically anything to get it.

And no, I don’t suggest you to ignore them in the middle of the night when they’re crying, or when they’re really unhappy, scared or sick and they really need you. But if they want you to give them a drink, read to them or they need 20$ for the ticket to the movies, then I think  you should hold your ground.

But the good news is that you can make it fun!

With toddlers and preschoolers start by playing with them and make them believe it’s more fun with mommy ( daddy ) when you speak your secret language ( it sounds way more fun then a second language).

Raising bilingual kids

1. Role playing. Just take out some toys and start role playing in your language. ( How are you teddy bear, do you want some chocolate?  And you little Muppet, will you play with us?) Yes, get really silly.

2. Sing! Star singing while dressing them, feeding and washing. Sing simple songs and encourage them to join in.

3. Pretend it’s a magic spell.
Explain that a fairy ( or a witch ) have put a magical spell on you and now you can speak only your language to them. But the same spell makes you give them a kiss/ sticker/ candy/10 cents (whatever you think is appropriate and will motivate your kid) every time they respond to you in your language.

With older kids you can install a jar for cents, and then every time they manage to formulate a request in your language, you put a cent in, or every time they try hard during dinner they get 25 cents ( I know, it’s technically a bribe, but that’s for a good cause).

Make your kids believe that it's more fun when you speak your secret language #bilingualism Click To Tweet

With preteens and teens you can try involving them in the decision.

1. Explain the positives of bilingualism.Talk about the future work opportunities, travel experiences and facility in making new and exiting friends.

2. Ask them what they think could be done in your household. Get them brainstorming with you and maybe they have the solutions that you didn’t think about.

3. Propose 3 dinners a week when you talk in your language. Add special perks for motivation.Try involving more people in the language immersion. Teens want to have fun and connect with other teens so sending them for a language camp could be also a good solution. Or plan a fun vacation together or a student exchange where they could practice your language.

And some of you asked me if it’s even worth it.

Absolutely! First, because by teaching your child the language of your parents and grandparents you’re giving them the capacity to communicate with your family and a way to understand the culture that shaped you.

Second, these researches here and here show that bilingual kids are more emphatic, creative and they have more ease in learning third and more languages.

And of course, by teaching your child more than one language, you give them more opportunities for the future: work  and travel is easier when you speak more than one language!

I hope that I managed to answer all of your questions, but if there is anything else that you’d like to know about raising bilingual children, just let me know!

7 Comments on Challenges while raising bilingual children

  1. Valerie
    May 12, 2015 at 8:45 am (2 years ago)

    “Children don’t know what a general norm is, for them what’s happening at home is the norm.” – Wow, so true! I think it’s awesome that your child has learned multiple languages! We have used American Sign Language with our boys, in addition to English, since they were babies and it is wonderful to have two ways to communicate with them. http://atlantamomofthree.com/2014/05/15/asl-signing-as-a-hearing-family-the-perks/ 🙂

    Reply
    • Joanna
      May 12, 2015 at 10:53 am (2 years ago)

      I need to go and check your post! I always wanderd if teaching the sign language is worth it. Thank you for sharing it 🙂

      Reply
  2. Rachel G
    May 14, 2015 at 10:00 pm (2 years ago)

    My husband and I don’t have kids yet, but we hope to very soon, and we plan to raise our kids in a bilingual family, so this post was very interesting. We don’t know quite how that will play out yet–my husband’s native language is Spanish, mine is English, and we live in Asia, and both speak and read Chinese–me at a fairly high level, while his is more practical/survival Chinese. I can understand and read Spanish pretty well but my speaking is slow since I almost never use it.
    We know that English will be the language that surrounds them as they will grow up here, so at the moment we’re thinking that my husband will have to just speak to them in Spanish, and we’re also thinking of making, while they are very young, a rule that all books/educational tv shows/movies have to be in Spanish only, and having my mother-in-law mail us Spanish books and DVDs for kids since they don’t really exist here. I expect that my Spanish will improve if I had opportunity to use it and we would be able to have whole-family conversations in Spanish.
    I would like my kids to have the chance to learn Chinese as well but I think that might be a better thing to focus on later, when they are school-aged.

    Reply
    • Joanna
      May 21, 2015 at 2:51 pm (2 years ago)

      Living a trilingual life sounds difficult but actually is more common then people might think. When I wrote my first post about bilingualism, my daughter spoke French and Polish, but now, she’s trying to learn English too. And here where we live there are many trilingual families: usually French, English and another language speaking. So I’m pretty sure that as long as your husband speaks Spanish, you English, and friends and other kids Chinese , your child will grow up to be trilingual too! Good luck!

      Reply
    • M
      September 16, 2017 at 5:22 pm (1 month ago)

      I am a spanish speaker in Germany, my husband is german and we both speak eachother lenguages. We do not have kids yet, but i worked an entire year as a babysitter in a trilingual family (dad from germany, mom from Spain, but also from Mallorca where they speak mallorquin, a dialect). The kids can learn everything… but you have to learn that at the beggining is not so fast. They are kids that learn really quick, but others that just understand everything but dont speak an actual language so soon in comparision with other kids… but at the end is totally worth it.
      I know its not ideal, but a lot of families have a babysitter or au pair who speak in the second or third language.

      Reply
  3. marla
    June 12, 2015 at 5:13 pm (2 years ago)

    Rachel–we did exactly what you are suggesting but with 2 non-native, kind of bilingual parents. Go for adding Chinese since you live there! What a great opportunity. My five almost-grown children speak Spanish fluently-my husband and I are non-native speakers but one of us spoke Spanish only and the other, English. We had babysitters who spoke only Spanish so that helped everyone’s accents And we travelled for 1 month vacations to places they could use Spanish and Chinese and Italian. All studied Chinese with a tutor–now 2 speak and write it very well, 1 speaks Portuguese and another is working on Italian as a 4th language. We think reading and travel are the key components that need to be added to language learning. Kids can easily navigate more than two languages–it is all in the presentation. It was normal in our house to have books in all languages! We also did the mealtimes in target languages which meant that sometimes there were 2-3 languages going on around the table depending on what was easiest to say in each language! Most of all, have fun! Cooking, crafts, listening to music, playing games all aid speaking and engaging in other languages. You can have trilingual + kids even if you are barely bilingual and live in the US!

    Reply
  4. Eva Potociarova
    October 13, 2015 at 5:09 pm (2 years ago)

    I like your article and I will try some of your tips. I am Czech and my husband is Slovak living near Prague and we try to teach our daughters English at home because we both love and work in English. I strongly feel that it is natural to pass our knowledge and passion. I write about us in a blog too at englishwithkids.com
    To hear of similar experience gives me more energy to our activities. Thank you for sharing. Do you know perhaps any facebook group on bilingual topic that you would recommend?
    Thank you.

    Reply

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