Bilingual children: 7 reasons why it may not happen

by | Sep 17, 2014 | Being the parent in a multilingual family, Challenges, Family life, Practical advice | 6 comments

Bilingual children: 7 reasons why it may not happenParents who want to bring up their kids to speak more than one language can learn a lot from families who have been successful at bringing up bilingual children. However, I also think that a great deal can be learnt from those parents whose children grew up to be monolingual, as well as from adults who come from a bilingual family but only speak one language themselves. Below are the most common reasons I have been given for a child of a multilingual family becoming either monolingual or a receptive bilingual (aka ‘passive bilingual’):

1. “We didn’t really think about the languages”

This is perhaps the comment that I have heard the most often. As I have stated in another post, bilingualism does not happen just like that, unless the environment is ideal. In the perfect scenario, a child is consistently exposed to both (or all) languages and interacts with several people in them. Parents who are bilingual often admit that they thought their children would just naturally grow up to speak the family languages, in the same way they did themselves, so they didn’t pay much attention to how much their children were exposed to the different languages.

2. “We started too late”

Following from the above, when parents noticed that all languages do need conscious nurturing, they tried to introduce their children to the lesser spoken language, normally a minority language. Other families may well have planned to raise their children to become bilingual, but of some reason or other decided to wait with the introduction of the second language. In both cases, a change in the family language pattern is necessary – an easy thing to say, but a whole different matter to do in real life. (If you haven’t yet heard about Pricken, the Swedish-speaking kitten, you can read about my struggles switching to another language with my daughter here.) Several parents have said that they did not have the energy to insist that their children spoke a different language with them.

3. “Our children did not want to speak our language”

Many parents claim that their children did not want to speak their language at all. I say claim, because I find it a bit hard to believe that the resistance would have been there from day one. A child will learn the language a parent consistently speaks to him or her. The question to ask is what happened before the child started to refuse to speak the language. Was there enough interaction with the child in the language? Were the parents actually consistent, or was it more of a 50/50 split between the majority and the minority language? Did the parents give up too easily? Did the parents really think it was important to pass on the family language?

4. “I spoke the language before I went to school, but then stopped speaking it”

Quite a few adult monolinguals have told me that they remember being fluent in a family language when they were small, speaking it easily with their grandparents and other relatives, but then something happened when they went to school and they stopped speaking it. Being immersed in the majority language all day, getting more friends and the common language is the majority language, wanting to be like everyone else: starting school (or nursery) is a crucial time and at this point it is more important than ever for parents not to change the language they speak with their child. The same adults state they wished their parents would have insisted on them speaking the family language.

5. “My parents spoke the minority language with each other, but not with me”

Unfortunately there are still families where maintaining the family language is considered less important than learning the community language as soon as possible. While understandable, and I am not at all saying you should not learn the language of the place you are living in, the fact is that the children will learn the majority language no matter what. However, if they are never spoken to in the family language they will not learn to interact in it. Be proud of your family language and culture!

6. “We were told to stick to only one language”

It constantly surprises me how many families are (still today!) given the wrong advice of dropping a language for one reason or another. I am sorry to say that many parents have also followed this advice and their child has missed out on the chance of becoming bilingual early on in life.

7. “We were too busy as a family”

Time can always be used as an excuse for not doing something. In my opinion, the real reason is not the lack of time but lack of something else. We will always find the time and a way to do something that we find important enough. In my book I walk you through the different stages of deciding, preparing and planning to bring up a bilingual child and give practical advice on how to do it and then stick to it when life throws its curve balls at you.

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  1. Nina Meza

    thanks for your article, Rita! I’m a Mexican living in Norway. I have unfortunately not being determinated and disciplined enough to raise my girls being bilingual. They are 7 and 5 years old, and we’re travelling to Mexico this summer for six weeks… they do understand topics related to daily life, routines and things like that. Do you think that there’s still hope in making a big effort and get them to speak Spanish, or do you think it iskind of late due to theor age? what would you recommend as the best strategy? thanks for your advice!

  2. Christine

    Dear Rita, I consistently speak Swiss German to my daughter. We live in Australia. I believe she understands everything but hardly replies in Swiss. Although she mixes nouns into English sentences or uses a swiss verb ending with the English -ing.. you mention above that sometimes we assume the child will just pick it up and needs more of an effort.. i am not sure what else i can do than to consistently and engagingly use my language. I cannot provide other people speaking my language and the enhlish family is big and involved.

    • Rita

      Dear Christine,
      thak you for your comment. You do not mention how old your daughter is, but if you are consistently using only Swiss German with her, reading, playing, watching cartoons together etc, then it is probably just a matter of time before she becomes an active speaker of the language.
      If you would like a more detailed answer, please submit your question with details about age and exposure times to each language to our coaches and we will respond in our Q&A section.
      Kind regards

  3. YJ Chun

    Hi thank you so much for this website it’s very informative
    I’m from South Korea and my husband is too, and we live there now, but my childhood first language is english as i used to live abroad for ten years.
    I’m trying to pass on my english to my son and i’ve been speaking to him in english since he was born, and i’ve been having a rough time.
    He started talking at two, and started with both korean and english words, but after 6months at kindergarten he only replies to me in korean, much to my dismay
    I’m getting pretty desperate, since english education is pretty important here and he’s gonna need to start speaking soon. He’s two and eight months now, and his korean speaking abilities are incredible now, full sentences, past and future tense and so on.
    If i keep at it, is there a chance he will start talking in english? Or do i have to give up this losing side and send him to an english speaking kindergarten?(extremely expensive)
    I also have a full time job so my son is only in contact with my english for 1-2hours mon-sat, and all day sunday
    Thank you so much in advance for any suggestions you may have for me

    • Rita

      Dear YJ Chun

      Sorry for the long delay in getting back to you. We receive a lot of questions through different channels and answer them in the order they arrive. To reduce waiting times we are now answering some questions during Facebook Live Q&A sessions. Your query will be featured on Thursday the 19th of October 2017 in the Multilingual Parenting Facebook group. Please click on the link and answer the three joining questions if you haven’t already joined. There will also be a recording for you to listen to should you be unable to attend the live session.

      Kind regards


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