Some people know they want to raise a bilingual child even before the baby is conceived! Before my first son was born, I had made the firm decision to raise him trilingual. It wasn’t an easy choice. I was confident that it was possible to raise a bilingual child, but my wife and I were afraid that introducing three languages from the beginning would just be too much. Now, I’m sharing my experience so far and giving you the best strategies for raising bilingual (or trilingual) children.
First of all, let me share my experience with my son Noa. Watch the video below or on our YouTube channel:
Until he was 2 years old, my son’s teachers were quite concerned about his speaking skills. Compared to the other kids in the class, he did not speak much and his vocabulary was far less developed. While many of his classmates were already building sentences, he was still at the stage of simple word groups like “Daddy bed” instead of saying “Daddy is in the bed.”
Many times I had to reassure them by telling them that for trilingual children, this slight delay is absolutely normal.
I was confident in this because of:
- the many books I had read about the topic
- the conversations I’d had with people who were raised bilingual and other parents
- the expert tips I had learned
- and the amazing progress I observed during the first two years of his life.
Today (when the video was recorded), Noa is a wonderful trilingual kid who is nearly 3 years old. He can build pretty long sentences, he understands complex instructions and he can switch between French, Italian, and Romanian without the slightest hesitation.
I wanted to record this video because you need to know that raising multilingual children is not always easy. If you choose to take this path there will be obstacles and difficulties along the way but it’s so worth it and they will thank you later!
I’m very happy to be able to share what I’ve learned about this topic by reading many books and articles, talking with other bilingual parents and children, and from my own experience. Let’s begin with my first tip:
To make the process easier on both you, your partner, and your child, you need to be clear about your goals and what motivates you.
For me, it was simply inconceivable that my son would not speak Italian, which is not only my mother tongue but also a language that means a lot to me. I associate it with my family, the country where I grew up, and a culture I love.
I want him to make a true connection with Italy and feel that this culture is one of his own. My motivations are really strong. Are yours?
You also need to be clear about your goals:
- Do you want your children to be fully bilingual/trilingual?
- Do you want them to have a good command of the language (not native speakers per se, but able to communicate)?
- Or do you simply want them to know some basic sentences and words in the language?
Your answers to these questions will change everything and will result in a different approach and in a different amount of effort from your side.
For me, it’s simple: I want him to be a native speaker and have a perfect command of the language.
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There are many different strategies you can apply if you want to raise a bilingual child. We chose the popular OPOL approach, which stands for One Parent-One Language.
This approach is based on a pretty straightforward rule. Each parent must ALWAYS speak with the child in a different language than the other parent. I always speak with my son in my native language, Italian, and my wife only speaks Romanian (her mother tongue) with him.
The goal is here is to help your child make an association between the language and the parent. This way, they know that they must use different languages based on the parent they are addressing.
For my son Noa, the association is so strong that he not only always uses Italian when he talks to me, but when he wants to learn a new word he asks me, “Come dice papà?” which means “How does daddy say this?” And he does the same thing for his mum’s native language.
Our situation is a bit more complicated than that of most bilingual families. Since we live in France, one of the disadvantages of the OPOL (One Parent-One Language) strategy is that it’s difficult to stick to this rule outside the home.
I have observed that some people don’t like it when people use a language they do not know in front of them. The temptation here would be to make an exception for these people. I want my son to speak perfect Italian so badly that I ignore this social pressure. So, I always use Italian with him, even in front of others.
Another common problem is when people scare you with unsolicited advice. Teachers, doctors, friends, or relatives might not understand what you are doing. They can make you doubt yourself, especially when your child seems different from their peers. Take the example of the teachers who pointed out repeatedly that my son did not have the same speaking skills as other children.
My tip is to not listen to them and to only take expert opinions into account. If you have doubts, read as many books and articles you can about the subject and you’ll see that what many experts and parents have to say is encouraging.
So stick to your choice and do not give up — you know what is best for your child!
To explain this tip, let me define the notion of minority language. Adam Beck, author of the book “Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability,” is American, is married to a Japanese woman, and lives in Japan. In this case, it’s obvious that English could easily become the minority language for his child because Japanese is not only used by his wife (and women tend to spend more time with their kids) but it’s also the language used outside the home. In the book about how to raise a bilingual child, Beck explains how much effort he made to expose his children to the English language. (Find out why and how to teach your kids English!)
This is a key tip. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because children are sponges they will automatically learn (or want to speak) the minority language.
Many experts say that children need to be exposed to a language at least 20% of their waking time. This amounts to about 15 hours a week.
My two recommendations are:
- Start very early (even when the baby is still in the mother’s belly)
- Spend as much quality time as possible with your children.
I spend less time with my son than my wife does, but I read him stories in Italian every day. We talk and play together for at least one hour a day, and I dedicate my weekends to him.
This is probably the most precious tip I can give you. If you really want your children to be bilingual, then make sure they actually want to be.
Let me give you some examples. A child might want to speak the minority language:
- to communicate with their grandparents
- to have a kind of secret language to share with their parents
- simply because you have shown them the cool things about the language
- to feel special compared to their friends.
Whether it’s an emotional or a rational argument, it’s important to nurture this desire to speak more languages.
For many people it’s obvious. But since it’s very important to have strong motivations if you want to raise a bilingual child, I thought it’d be a good idea to give you a short list:
- bilingual children are more open-minded
- bilingual people tend to develop higher levels of cognitive control
- being bilingual makes you more clever
- people who speak more languages have better chances of finding a better, higher-paying job
- bilinguals make better decisions and avoid distractions more easily
There are many other good reasons to raise your children bilingual. I even recorded a video about the benefits of being bilingual (in this article and video I explain 11 unknown benefits of being bilingual). We have published many articles about bilingualism. If you need a dose of motivation, have a look at this selection:
- 11 Unknown Benefits of Being Bilingual
- What Are The Advantages of Being Bilingual?
- How Different is a Bilingual Brain?
- Health Benefits of Learning a Second Language
- Does Bilingualism Delay Alzheimer’s Disease?
- Why Learn a Foreign Language? Seven Good Reasons!
- Health Benefits of Being Bilingual
In my video, I presented one of four possible strategies for raising bilingual children. Let’s dive deeper into the other possible strategies. Compare them and choose the right one for your situation.
As I explained in the video, each parent must ALWAYS address the child in a different language. It’s the strategy I have chosen and which I recommend to anyone who wants to raise a bilingual child. The advantages of this strategy are:
- It’s crystal clear for the child
- It’s easy to apply (especially if each parent is speaking/teaching their native language)
- It provides a lot of exposure to each language, especially if both parents spend a roughly equal amount of time with the child.
As for the drawbacks of the OPOL strategy:
- It may be difficult to stick to OPOL rules, especially outside the home. Some people feel uncomfortable when you speak a language they don’t know around them.
- The child’s minority language skills might become weak due to a lack of exposure. This is often the case with the father’s native language. Children tend to spend more time with their mother, especially during the first few years of their life (although things are changing). Avoid this risk by committing to exposing your child to each language for at least 15 hours a week.
One question I am often asked is, “How do you have a conversation between all three of you with the OPOL strategy?”
The best solution I’ve found is a language-switching strategy. I start speaking with my son in Italian, who answers me in Italian. Then, he asks his mother something in Romanian and she continues in Romanian. If she wants to tell me something, she speaks in Romanian (which I understand and speak) but I answer in Italian.
So, the child switches languages based on who they’re talking to and the parents stick to the one parent–one language rule.
In this case, both parents speak only the minority language in the home. It’s an option often used by two parents who share the same native language.
For instance, Spanish parents living in the UK could choose to raise a bilingual child by always using Spanish at home and English in public. If the parents are bilingual, they tend to speak the minority language at home.
I considered this option when we were thinking of only teaching my son Italian. My wife speaks perfect Italian so it would have been easy to help our children associate Italian with the home. But this option is more complicated for trilingual children.
Let’s look at the advantages of the Minority Language at Home strategy:
- It provides a lot of exposure to the minority language (young children spend a lot of time at home).
- If you have more than one child, this rule can be used by brothers and sisters. Actually, I’m considering using this rule when we have more children. Instead of letting them choose the language they speak to one another, I’ll advise them to use Italian at home and French outside.
The main disadvantages of this approach are that:
- It can’t be applied if one of the two parents does not speak the main language (he/she will have to use the minority language even outside the home)
- The association one language = one place can be less strong than one language = one person.
- For some children, speaking to their parents in two different languages can be awkward.
But according to Margaret Deuchar, author of “Bilingual Acquisition: Theoretical Implications of a Case Study,” children are perfectly capable of using a place instead of a person to regulate their language choice, and they do not have trouble speaking different languages to the same person depending on the context.
Another way to raise a bilingual child is with what is called the Time and Place strategy. It consists of using different languages at different times and in different places. It’s a sort of mix between the two previous strategies. For example, a family could follow the One Parent-One Language rule during the week and use the Minority Language at Home strategy on the weekend.
The advantages are:
- It gives bilingual families more variety and flexibility
- Families avoid social embarrassment when surrounded by people who speak a different language (for ex. when visiting friends or relatives).
As for the main drawback:
- It’s confusing, especially in the early stages. What I observed with my son is that they need very specific rules, and ambiguity can bother them. That’s why I’m not a big fan of this strategy. This is a big disadvantage, but as always, you need to test it to be sure. We chose not to because it seemed quite risky.
In this case, parents use the language that best suits the topic or situation. The speaker is usually the one who decides what language to use according to the situation. Your children could choose to speak about school in the majority language (because they are taught in that language) and pick the minority language for more family-related topics.
To me, this seems like you’re relying too much on chance and luck. There are many risks for the minority language, so, if like me, raising a bilingual or trilingual child is important to you, I recommend avoiding making this technique your main strategy. It simply has too many disadvantages compared to its advantages.
As you can see, there are different strategies for raising multilingual children. And there isn’t one “right” way to raise a bilingual child. Depending on your situation, the one that is right for my family might not be right for yours. Without going over every possible scenario, let me give you my recommendations — the two most common strategies:
- Parents who share the same native language, who are living abroad, and who want to raise a bilingual child (ex. two Italian expats living in the US): Any of the first 3 strategies listed above could work because there are fewer risks for the minority language. I’d personally recommend One-Parent One Language (especially for future trilingual children) or Minority Language at Home.
- Parents who do not share the same native language, who are living in the country of one of the parents, and who want to raise a bilingual child (ex. a Spaniard and an Italian, living in Spain): I’d definitely go for One Parent-One Language in this case. Since the influence of one language will be very strong (spoken outside the home and by one parent), you need to be careful to protect the minority language (spoken by the other parent).
I know that it’s not an easy choice and that every family is different. In case of doubt, I feel that (whenever applicable) the OPOL strategy is the safest choice.
In any case, remember that you can also mix these strategies according to your needs.
A nice example of a mixed strategy comes from one of our team members. Besides the co-founder, here at MosaLingua we have another Samuel, who is British but lives in Romania. He adopted the popular OPOL approach with his family. He speaks French with his sons since he lived in France for a long time. His wife speaks English with them because she is Romanian but speaks perfect English.
But when they realized that their sons were afraid to speak to them in the majority language (Romanian) in public, they decided to introduce the Time and Place approach. In the bathroom, especially in the evening during the children’s bath time, everyone must speak Romanian!
And since Samuel loves languages (he speaks 5), he is now using the Mixed Language Policy to teach his children Spanish. When they play games like Uno, everyone speaks Spanish. He told me that it’s not only working, but it’s also a lot of fun!
So to sum up, Samuel uses:
- OPOL as his main strategy
- The Time and Place strategy in the evening to help his children feel comfortable speaking the majority language with their parents
- The Mixed Language Policy to teach some Spanish to his children while playing games.
While reading the book “Raising a Bilingual Child” (which I strongly recommend), I was quite surprised to discover a lot of stories of parents who want to raise bilingual children in a monolingual household/environment.
It can seem strange that a non-native speaker might want to raise a bilingual child. But many people around the world teach their kids a language that is neither parent’s mother tongue. One case I remember quite well is an Australian guy who studied in Germany for a year and decided to raise his son bilingual (English+German). I must say, I admire him. I know it would not be easy for me to speak with my child in a language that is neither my native language nor the language of the country we live in (Spanish, for example).
That being said, I do know some families that are having success with this approach. In Romania, it has become trendy to use English as a second language in the household. And there are also quite a few success stories in the book I mentioned above.
Of course, there are some prerequisites for this path:
- You must have a good command of the language you want to teach your children. I recommend an intermediate level so that you don’t feel limited or frustrated when using and teaching the language.
- You need to have a lot of motivation. It is already hard enough to raise a bilingual child (raising kids is difficult in general, really). Teaching them a language that isn’t your own makes it even more of a challenge.
- Your child should understand why you are doing it. Prepare yourself for questions that are easy to answer in your native language, but less so in your second language.
Provided that you meet these 3 conditions, I think that teaching your child an additional language is one of the best gifts you can give them! So if you are on the fence, I really encourage you to give it a try!
I read many books about the fascinating topic of raising multilingual babies. I thought it would be useful to share my favorites (in order of preference):
- Raising a Bilingual Child – Barbara Zurer Pearson
- Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability: Ideas and Inspiration for Even Greater Success and Joy Raising Bilingual Kids – Adam Beck
- Be Bilingual – Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families – Annika Bourgogne
- The Bilingual Edge: Why, When, and How to Teach Your Child a Second Language – Harper Perennial
- 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child – Naomi Steiner
If you only want to read one, then I recommend Raising a Bilingual Child. Actually, some of the ideas I talk about in this article come from Pearson’s book (the 4 strategies, for example). I liked the fact that it talks about real people who have tried, failed (yes, it can happen), and succeeded.
Watch this video (right here, or on our YouTube channel) for more tips on how to successfully teach a language to your children. The video is in English, but there are subtitles in six languages if you need them.
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Raising a bilingual child is an extraordinary and exciting journey. As I said, offering an additional language (or several) to your child is one of the best gifts you can give them, so I really encourage you to do it.
There will be obstacles and challenges along the way but if you keep your final goals in mind and remind yourself of the incredible value of language, I’m sure you’ll make it!
I still have lots to say about how to raise a bilingual child, since this is a subject that interests me and impacts my life directly. Although this article is quite long, you might still have questions or doubts. If you do, please leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to share more of my experience and knowledge about raising bilingual children.