5 habits for parents raising bilingual children

by | Jan 7, 2015 | Babies, Being the parent in a multilingual family, Family life, Practical advice, Top 10 most read posts | 8 comments

5 habits for parents raising bilingual childrenThe custom is to make resolutions for the new year, but as we all know, most of them fall by the wayside well before the shops start stocking chocolate for Valentine’s Day. As a parent of a bilingual child, what could you do instead? My advice is to forget about resolutions and think more about habits. A habit is not as onerous as a resolution. With a resolution, if you fail once, you have broken the promise you made and that’s it – the resolution has melted away to the taste of the chocolate in your mouth. With a habit you can just pick it up again and keep going. That means less pressure, which can only be good for parents, especially when it comes to something like bringing up bilingual children. Here are five habits for you to implement into your daily life throughout the year – if you already have these habits, treat yourself to a … nice fruit salad!

1. Have patience

It takes time to create something great – it might sometimes feel that your little one takes far too much time to utter those first words in your language, puts a sentence together or knows which word belongs to which language. Learning a language, never mind two or three languages, is actually a humongous task and we are all different. Your child (like my younger daughter) might belong to those who need to take more time to get ready to speak. If you are truly concerned, speak to a language therapist who is used to dealing with bilingual children.

Also remember to have patience on those days when you think that you are not on track with your language plan for your kids. It is not a personal attack on you if they respond in the “wrong” language, nor does it mean that they have given up on the language. Circumstances change and it is important that you change with them if need be – by increasing the amount of language exposure, staying even more consistent or asking for others’ help.

Make patience a habit.

2. Give positive feedback

Show your appreciation when your child makes progress in speaking you language. Make it clear how happy it makes you that you can communicate in your language. Try not to let your feelings come to the surface at those moments when you feel that all is not going as well as you would like.

Find out what spurs your child on and use this to your advantage when coming up with rewards for sticking to your language. I know you can not bribe your way through the learning phase, but it may well make some sticky situations easier to overcome.

Make giving positive feedback a habit.

3. Keep reading

Read those bedtime stories and make sure you have a lot of reading material easily available. When you feel you have read all the books you have more often than there are pages in them, look for on-line stories. It might not always be easy or cheap to get hold of books in your language if you live far away from where the language is spoken, but you can always find stories on-line.

You can also ask others for help with the reading. Arrange Skype sessions with the grandparents (or other relatives or friends) during which they read different books – maybe some that they remember from their childhood.

Make reading a habit.

4. Chat away

Talk to your child – get used to speaking to your baby about everything that you are doing. Ideally start this habit already before your future bilingual is born (be prepared for some odd looks if you do it out in the public, though). Speak about anything, be it chores, gardening, shopping, holiday plans or the neighbour’s cat.

Some research has found that chatting a lot to your child can be equally effective as reading when it comes to language and general cognitive development. So especially on those days when you know there will be no chance for a story time, make sure that you chat away throughout the day.

Make chatting to your child a habit.

5. Have more fun

Associating your language with fun things to do will be a strong motivating factor for your child to learn it and keep on speaking it. Establish routines when you play certain games only in your language, or weave word play exercises into your daily life.

Make having more fun a habit.

What are your best habits when it comes to bringing up a bilingual child?

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  1. surjit

    Concerning the first point, I would like to add that “listening” in addition to patience is very important with children. I have seen situations where the parents are too quick to step in when the child pauses in reply. In these situations, parents should practice stop themselves from “filling in the pauses” and just listen and give the child additional time to vocalize their views.


    • Rita

      You are absolutely right – it is vitally important to give your child the time to find the right word or phrase. When they do they will experience the sense of achievement of doing it by themselves. Thank you for your comment!

  2. Andrew James

    I think it’s very important to remain as natural as possible in the home context, so that the child can switch between languages almost without noticing. My Hungarian wife will often respond to Oliver’s Hungarian question in English, the general language of the home except for homework, and, similarly, I will often use Hungarian phrases and sentences when we’re going out. Of course, if you’re living in Germany, the UK, USA, etc., where there is a ‘dominant’ language, you may need to be more careful. Oliver’s 11.

  3. Kristina Kiisk

    We are raising our little girl (8 m) trilingual (fingers crossed). My husband and I speak a different language to her and she will hopefully pick up English from the environment. In addition to speaking and reading to her in respective languages, we’ve also made it a habit (pretty much since birth) to play children’s music in those languages every day, alternating days for each language. So even if she’s just playing by herself, she’s still getting the language input with the nice touch of music and melody 🙂

    • Rita

      Thank you for your comment, Kristina – love your habit of making music in each language part of your daughter’s everyday routine. Great idea!

  4. Judith

    It has been very helpful thank you

  5. Sandra

    Thank you for the list. The first point is difficult, but I completely understand and agree. I’m Colombian (raised in Miami) and my husband American. I only speak in Spanish to both kids (6 and 4) since birth. I do switch to Spanglish at times when I don’t think my husband understands (or full on English if it’s a complicated conversation for him to understand) or if we are with their friends from school so they understand our conversations. We live in Michigan now (moved from Miami which was Spanish heaven), which is very complicated to keep up with the Spanish. But I found a Spanish immersion school where my 4 year old attends preschool. Our 6 year old attended the preschool as well, and now goes to their after-school advanced immersion program 3x a week. I also found salsa, flamenco dance classes for kids near my house, which I not only take my kids to, but their friends too. They all love it and I found that if their friends also begin to understand our culture, they will embrace the whole cultural piece of this and our kids will feel proud. Soccer is also big with our kids and they love playing knowing it is such a big deal in Colombia, especially having watched the World Cup with them last summer! We also go out to Latin American restaurants (Cuban, Peruvian, Mexican, Spanish, etc), I’ve found in the area (or even wherever we travel) and we go once a month so they can take in the food elements as well, even if it’s not necessarily Colombian. I just think they enjoy the Hispanic feel and finding other people who speak “their language” that’s not just their mother. Also, finding other Hispanic families in the area with kids around the same age is great. We visit with the parents and the kids play and we encourage (not force) the kids to speak Spanish with each other. As long as the parents are all speaking Spanish with all of the kids, it seems to work nicely. And yes, my husband can now speak conversational Spanish and helps my 6 year old with her Spanish homework so he can learn along with her. I do love Skyping or FaceTime with my parents (the grandparents). It does help keep them connected with the kids.

    • Rita

      Dear Sandra, thank you so much for your comment and for sharing some of the fantastic stuff you do to support your children’s linguistic and cultural understanding. Some really great ideas! I am impressed!



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