21 tips throughout a bilingual child's life

“Practical ideas on what to do” is the request I often get when I ask my readers what I should write about in my blog – so here are 21 of them to cover the different stages!

Before your baby is born

1. Get used to speaking your language with your child as early as possible. When you are expecting, speak to the bump (goes both for mums and dads)!

2. It does not matter what you speak about – describe what you are doing, speak about the weather, your plans, the shopping list, a film you saw, a person you met … anything will do!

3. If you are the mum, warn others that they may come across you talking to yourself – although you are not really, are you, the little one is intently listening to every word you say! Thinking about it, this is probably the only situation where you can be sure that you definitely have a listener…

Before your baby can talk

4. Keep up with the talking – continue speaking as you go about your daily life. Even though you are not getting an answer yet, your child is learning as you speak.

5. Talk directly to your baby, look him or her in the eyes and make the connection. Notice how your little one reacts to your speech. Social interaction is vital for the language development.

6. Sing songs and read rhymes, and repeat!

When your child utters the first word

7. I am sure you do not need reminding, but do show excitement at this new stage of your child’s life, even if the first word is ‘daddy’ not ‘mummy’ or vice versa!

8. Encourage him or her to use the first word(s) often by saying them yourself and adding a word – mummy – mummy sings, daddy – daddy smiles …

9. Keep in mind that there can be big differences between children, even siblings, when they start to speak. Do not compare with other children, and if you are concerned about anything, speak to a professional who has experience with bilingual children.

When the sentences start to roll

10. Continue engaging your child in communication and building on the words he or she already knows.

11. Speak about a variety of topics with emphasis on your child’s interests.

12. Play different word games, encourage imagination and creating stories – and read plenty of books together.

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Before your child goes to preschool

13. Speak about the new experience making sure your little one knows all the new vocabulary and read books about the preschool experience to make it more familiar.

14. Talk to the teachers about your family’s language setup – if your child starts school in a language he or she does not speak yet, give the teachers a list of words in your language which could come in handy.

15. For further ideas check out the advice given at Hanen.org

When your child goes to school

16. Be prepared that the child will start to use the majority language more and more from now on. Use different ways to motivate your child to maintain the minority language.

17. Find ways of expanding the group of people that your child speaks the minority language with – could a relative or friend do a weekly video call in your language?

18. Speak to your son or daughter about the importance of the family language.

When your child is a teenager

19. You might think that there is not much you can do with regards to the family languages at the time when you have a teenager in the house, but there is! Respect their wishes with regards to which language your child speaks when, but always be a role model by sticking to yours and being proud of your language.

20. Allow your teenager to travel, preferably alone or with other adults, to a place where your language is spoken – it may or may not be where you have relatives. Being surrounded by and having to cope in a language is an effective booster.

21. Make your son or daughter aware of available education and career opportunities because of their language skills.

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Expat Life Linky

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  1. Amy

    What do you recommend doing when your bilingual child is refusing to choose the minority language as a subject in High School?

    • Rita Rosenback

      Hi Amy – sounds like there has already been some discussions about the topic in your family? In my opinion it is not a good idea to try to pressurise your child to choose the minority language as a subject if he/she does not want to. It will only cause resentment and negative feelings towards the language and might lead to further frustrations.
      If you want a more indepth answer, please submit your question through the Contact Us page and we will pick it up in the Q&A on a future date. Also please let us know a bit more background:
      – how well does your child know the language?
      – what are his/her reasons for not wanting to study it?
      – what kind of discussions have you had about this?
      – why do you think she/he should definitely choose it as a topic?
      Regards, Rita

      • Amy

        Thank you for your reply. I will try and answer your questions:
        – how well does your child know the language?
        I would say she is not too bad though grammar, writing etc are needing improved
        – what are his/her reasons for not wanting to study it?
        She says she can speak it and doesn’t want to start with the basics and would hate the other pupils asking her for answers all the time. She also refuses private lessons where other pupils wouldn’t be an issue.
        – what kind of discussions have you had about this?
        I have tried to explain to her that it would enhance her grammar, reading, writing, understanding and could be helpful with her career, also that is part of her family/upbringing and important to me but she is having none of it.
        – why do you think she/he should definitely choose it as a topic?
        I feel it is important as it is part of our family and apart from myself nobody really speaks it. My husband has never made an effort to learn my language and I am gradually using it less and less because it feels like a huge struggle to be honest.

  2. Ersatz Expat

    Thank you for some excellent tips. I grew up bilingually – both my parents and one set of grandparents spoke both languages depending on the mood they were in and I was fluent in both. When I went to school we were advised to stop speaking the ‘minority’ language except with grandparents. It was a real shame and although I can speak and am comfortable watching TV and conversing in Dutch it takes me some time to get into the swing of it so to speak and my vocabulary is limited at first. There are still some thoughts and concepts that I can only feel completely right addressing in Dutch as they just do not exist in English.

    When our son was born my parents and I planned to speak Dutch together whenever he was at their house (my husband can understand it a little) but then my mother died. My father and I did not really feel much like speaking it and now my step mother is there it would be unfair on her.

    • Rita

      Thank you for your kind comments and for sharing your family’s story, which shows once again how different experiences can be, and how we all find the best way forward on the multilingual journey! Unfortunately the advice to drop the minority language is something that still happens (although less frequently than before) – so it’s a topic I will keep coming back to! Thank you again 🙂

  3. Amanda

    Great tips – I find that as my boys get older they have more phases of being more resistant to their minority language so this gives me a good nudge to reinforce it! Thanks for linking up to #ExpatLifeLinky

  4. sadina

    Great tips. Very good article. This is kind of article every parents should read.

    Thank you


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