9 reasons why a child might not become an active bilingual

by | Mar 20, 2013 | Bilingualism, Challenges, Family life, How to motivate a bilingual / multilingual child to speak a family language | 3 comments

9 reasons why a child might not become an active bilingual

Why do not all children in multilingual families grow up to become bilingual? What are the differences between the families that succeed and those who don’t?

First, let’s start with some quick myth-busting: How clever or linguistically talented a child is has nothing to do with becoming a bilingual – any normal child can learn the languages of the family. The socio-economic status of the family is also not a deciding factor, nor is how educated the parents are – all parents have the ability to pass on a language to their children.

So why do some children only acquire a passive understanding of a family language? Here are the main reasons why:

1. Lack of conscious effort
Some parents who have themselves grown up with two languages think that it’s something automatic, just like it was for them them, so they don’t think they have to pay attention to passing on the language. Often at the time when the parents notice that the children really can’t express themselves well enough, the children are at an age where a change in behaviour and family language patterns would require a bit of extra effort, so it does not happen.

2. Lack of consistency
For children to acquire a language, they need interaction with other speakers. If parents and family members frequently switch between languages a child will most likely pick up both (or all) languages, but at the point when the child goes to school, the majority language might take over. Start of nursery or school is the time when consistency is most required from the parents to keep the home language(s) alive.

3. Lack of confidence
There are parents who are not confident that they would be able to “teach” their children their language. All normally developed children will learn to speak and they learn from their parents. You do not need to know your language perfectly, neither do you have to act like a teacher, just be yourself.

4. Lack of exposure
To acquire a language children should be exposed to it for at least 20% of their waking time – the general consensus is a recommendation of 30%, but it is not possible to give an exact percentage. The exposure should be interactive and engaging. If children only occasionally hear a language and not on a daily basis, they may not become active speakers of it.

5. Lack of pride in the language
This I find really sad – there are those parents who are not proud of their native language and think that it is not as useful as the majority language, so might not bother passing it on. No language is better or worse than the other and all language skills are beneficial.

6. Low status of the language
If a language is spoken mainly by a group of people whose socio-economic status is on average lower than the one for majority language speakers, this may lead to the incorrect assumption that the language in itself is less valuable. Parents that feel like this, may decide not to pass their language on. An incorrect decision, on so many levels.

7. Myths about bilingual children
It really upsets me when parents give up on passing their languages on due to misconceptions. Despite all the research to the contrary, there are still many myths about bringing up bilingual children: that children get confused by the many languages, that their development will be delayed, that it’s a disadvantage for them at school, that they will not learn any language properly. Myths, myths, myths! I really do hope parents would seek the correct support.

8. Incorrect advice
It is unfortunately not unusual for professional people to advise parents to drop a language. This misguided advice may come from teachers, GPs or even speech therapists. It is important to always seek correct information from professionals that are familiar with bilingualism.

9. “We didn’t have the time”
I have heard some parents stating “time” as the main reason for not bringing up their children to become bilingual. I have deliberately put this in quotation marks, as it is hardly ever the real reason. Yes, family life is busy in today’s world, but you still have to communicate! When communicating you are using a language that your child can pick up. Given the right guidance, passing on the family’s languages becomes a part of the daily routine.

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  1. Francois Retief

    Dear Rita

    A friend of ours, Philippa Tudor, pointed me to your blog, for which I am very grateful.

    My sister has a friend whose daughter speaks German (from her father), Afrikaans (her mother) and English (kinder garden). So I know it is possible. However, I am going to be a bit of a devil’s advocate and pose some alternative view points:

    1) My wife was a teacher in Russia, and when we moved to Australia she was asked by some Russian women to teach their children to speak Russian. I got the distinct impression that those kids hated spending their precious Saturday mornings taking Russian classes when they would much rather go play, go to the beach, or run around on the sports ground. In the end the time and effort that goes into learning another language is time and effort taken away from something else, and that something else may be more worthwhile than learning a language that is not used in the society where we live.

    2) South African friends of ours emigrated to Australia when their young children were already fluent in Afrikaans. Several years later it became apparent to them that their children were not communicating deeper emotional issues with them anymore – just the normal communication necessary to get along. When they delved into the matter they discovered that their children had become more fluent in English and found the extra emotional effort required to communicate, in Afrikaans, a sensitive issue that already required emotional effort to be too much of a barrier to overcome. The parents (both Afrikaans speaking) somewhat reluctantly allowed their children to respond to them in English, even though they spoke Afrikaans to each other and to them. That solved the problem.

    3) You mention that, for a child to learn a language, 20%-30% of his/her communication needs to be in that language. My wife speaks Russian to our 3-year old son and I speak Afrikaans to him, but he hears us speaking English to each other and he hears only English at child care (3 days per week). I did a rough estimate of the amount of time he spends being exposed to each language and it was 50% English, 35% Russian and 15% Afrikaans. Once he goes to preschool, two of the days that he spends with my wife will fall away and hisexposure to Russian will also drop to 15%.

    It seems to me that we will have to spend significant additional effort, beyond merely speaking to him in Russian and Afrikaans, for him to be fluent in each of those languages plus English. I don’t want to run the risk of encountering the issue that our friends encountered, and I wonder whether the opportunity cost in other growth opportunities foregone is really worth learning two languages that would neither open any real avenues for him in the future.



    • Rita

      Dear Francois – thank you so much for getting in touch (and say Hi! to Philippa from me) and posing questions about some very interesting scenarios, which I or one of our other coaches will be happy to answer. As we now have both a Forum and a Our Coaches section on the site, all questions posted in the blog comments are moved to one of these – this way more readers can benefit from the answers. Your question has actually been selected to be answered by one of our coaches and the reply will be posted on the second of October. It will appear on the home page on the day and I will also post a link to it here. Thank you so much for the thought provoking questions!


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