Bilingual children and long-distance family relationships

by | Aug 31, 2015 | Babies, Being the parent in a multilingual family, Family life, Practical advice, Siblings, Teenagers | 9 comments

Bilingual children and long-distance family relationshipsMany bilingual children have at least one side of their extended family living fairly far away, often on the “other side of the world”. Visits are possible perhaps only once a year, or even more seldom if at all, so it is essential to find other ways to connect.

Maintaining those long-distance relationships to grandparents, cousins and other relatives as well as friends is not always easy, so I decided to make it the topic of the Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carnival this month. I am overjoyed to have received so many great tips and stories from my wonderful blogger friends – please make sure to check out the full posts via the links!


We may not be able to travel to visit family and friends as often as we would like, and they may not have the opportunity to come and see us that frequently, but visits are still top of the list for nourishing family bonds.

Frances from Discovering The World Through My Son’s Eyes has stuck to the agreement she made with her mother when she moved – they visit each other every other year. Diana from  LadydeeLg  makes at least one trip every year and the extended family always comes together for Christmas.

In her post Galina from Trilingual Children takes her two kids to Russia for the summer – “mama, they all speak Russian!” comments her son, and I am sure Galina’s heart hit an extra beat! Audrey from Españolita … ¡Sobre La Marcha! describes the fun and precious moments of her family’s visit to see her in the U.S. –  I love how she decided to hang back to allow the grandparents to show off their grandchild.

Amanda from Expat Life (with a Double Buggy) fondly remembers her childhood visits to her family, and her children now have a close relationship with their English grandparents – despite the geographical distance. You don’t have to live close to be close – on the other hand, living close does not guarantee a close connection.

Visits are not only great boosters for a child’s language skills, but help to create a bond for life!

Video calls

When we cannot see our extended family in person, thankfully, technology can come to the rescue. Skype and FaceTime are the applications which get most mentions, but do not forget Google Hangouts, Oovoo, WhatsApp and other similar options.

For Anna from Russian Step By Step for Children Skype has been the means to keep her “kids close to their Russian family, even when they are far away”. Ebi from Wabi Zakka makes sure that her baby daughter is also “on the phone and camera so that the grandparents can see how she is growing up despite living so far away”. Audrey managed almost daily FaceTime chats with her sister so her child immediately recognized her aunt when she came to visit.

Amanda from The Educators’ Spin On It has collected many great tips on how to make a Skype session interesting for a small child. Ilze from Let the Journey Begin arranged for her daughter to meet up with “grandma in a box” and Galina’s parents have been helping her by doing “virtual babysitting”.

Adam from Bilingual Monkeys suggests that you can have your child and a relative or friend read the same book, and then discuss it together over Skype. Great idea to keep the discussion going! Diana reminds us that we can use Google Hangouts to connect relatives and friends in several locations, and that WhatsApp can be used for group chats as well.

It is great to have some plans for your online video call, but also consider for example simply leaving the connection open at the breakfast table. Depending on the time difference your kids will be able to share their morning meal with their distant family (or lunch, dinner, evening meal … depending on the time difference).

If your child is big enough to have the patience to sit still, allow him or her to do at least part of the calls alone. As adults we too often steer the conversation and the children may not be able to express themselves freely.

Recorded messages

Live calls are fantastic, but the advantage of recordings is that family members can watch and listen again and again, independent of time zones. Video clips, voice messages, emails and texts are also important.

I absolutely love the “my own mailbox” idea by Esther from Third Culture Mama – a way to make electronic messages real to your small child.

Care packages, letters, cards

Whatever current technology can offer, I doubt it can ever replace the thrill of receiving a real postcard or letter, not to mention a parcel a.k.a. care package.

Ebi describes how she savours “everything- from the stamps to the handwriting to the crumpled newspaper packaging”, and Frances appreciates all the materials she has received to help her children with their Spanish. Annabelle and Diana have some great suggestions on what to include in the care packages.


Photographs are an excellent way of remembering the extended family. Keep pictures of the extended family around your home, print those pictures (!) and put them in albums which you can enjoy with your kid.

Technology helps us share pictures of precious moments with the help of for example Facebook, Dropbox, Line or Snapfish.

Olga from Milk, crafts, and honesty shows you how to make a gorgeous family album which will keep your kiddos captivated for hours on end.  Esther has some beautiful ideas for photo-boards and lookbooks to showcase your loved ones in an interesting way.


We should not forget a very important part of nourishing and cherishing those all-important relationships – the common language!

Having a common language with your grandparents makes the bond so much deeper and easier to maintain when your child grows up. Small children usually have no problem communicating even without a common language, but as kids get older, this is no longer a given.

Olga from European Mama writes how having a common “secret language” is a great way to affirm family ties – sharing your native language and culture with your children also teaches them to feel proud about their heritage.

Having grandparents and other relatives support when raising children to speak a minority language is vital and Annabelle has some useful tips to keep in mind: Repeat, Connect, Ask and Show support.

Adam describes his family’s efforts to nurture the minority language and ensure that his children can communicate with their grandparents in English. He also makes a very important point that we should all remember “our time for building bonds and memories with grandparents is limited” – the time for it is now!.

As Audrey so beautifully puts it: “Language is love” and when we pass on the family languages to our children they will “have the words to reciprocate that love.”

Dear reader, I hope you have enjoyed our stories and tips – let’s keep in touch!


Raising Multilingual Children Blogging Carniva

A big thank you to all my blogger colleagues for your contributions – as always, you deliver!

Have you got a blog? Would you like to take part in the Raising Multilingual Children blogging carnival? If yes, please do visit The Piri-Piri Lexicon website for further information and instructions on how to sign up.


Never miss a post! Sign up to the Multilingual Parenting newsletter and I will send you a recap of the week’s posts every Sunday. Every second week you will receive a more extensive issue with links to research articles and interesting posts from other writers, as well as handy tips and ideas! Want to read more like this? My book Bringing up a Bilingual Child is available on Amazon and in well-stocked bookshops. Do you have a specific question? You can send it to our team of Family Language Coaches and we will reply in a Q&A (questions are answered in order of arrival). If you are interested in tailor-made family language coaching, please, contact me and I will send you a proposal.


  1. Adam Beck

    Rita, many thanks to you and to the carnival contributors for all this tasty food for thought! May we do what we can, while we can, to bridge the distance and build closer bonds with grandparents and other loved ones!

    • Rita

      … and thank YOU for participating! Thankfully it is so much easier and cheaper to stay in touch over long distances nowadays – however, we still have to put effort in to caring for these family bonds!

  2. Hilde

    Thanks for a great article. In addition to your suggestions, I discovered a great app that allows my 4-year old to connect with his grandparents, and other family by sending them visual emails, even thiugh he cannot read or write yet. The app is called Maily and basically enables him to send drawings, pictures and messages (voice to text) to the people that I invited to also install the app on their Smart devices. A great succes here!

    • Rita

      Thank you for your kind words, Hilde! Have to check out the app you mention 🙂

  3. MissPanda

    What a wonderful post! Being away from the family gives us some creativity to connect with them. Love all the ideas to keep the relationship growing and keep the love of target language developing over long distance.

    • Rita

      Thank you! It was such a joy to read all these posts and put together the article 🙂

  4. Andrew James Chandler

    What’s concerning me at the moment is how to maintain contact between my two sons, aged 26 and 14. Steffan, the elder, lives in the UK, and is not as strong in Hungarian as his brother, Oliver, who lives with Hungary, with me, his British dad, and his Hungarian mother. He does get a lot of exposure to English, but I’m not sure that it’s of sufficient quality to help him develop the all-round skills he will need in the language in future. Steffan is a teacher of German and French and while Oliver will start to learn German next year, I’m cocerned that he may not develop his foreign language skills, since German is a ‘third’ language in the school system here, and is taught in three periods per week. I have some ideas about how to develop his academic skills and knowledge in English, but wonder how his ‘sibling’ might help him develop other less formal areas, as well as with his German in the future. I hope to discuss all this with Steffan and the family during his Christmas visit, but a lot of activities will have to wait until our summer visit to Britain.

    • Rita

      Dear Andrew,
      sorry I missed your comment until now! How did it go over Christmas? To help with Oliver’s English – do your sons have any common interests they could discuss over regular online calls, for example? Is there a chance Oliver could stay in Britain with his elder brother for a longer time over summer? When it comes to German, it will be very much up to Steffan whether he wants to take on his younger brother as a pupil.
      Let me know how it goes.
      Kind regards

      • Andrew James Chandler

        Hello Rita,

        Good to get your thoughts on this. Christmas went well, with Ollie and Steffan spending some ‘quality time’ together in conversation, not just while playing video games. Steffan also worked hard in using his Hungarian with his grandma, and has promised to phone her weekly. My priority now is to get Ollie ready for his bilingual class entry examinations, ensuring that he has recent ‘input’ experiences to talk about through extra English reading classes at home. We hope to spend six weeks in Britain together in June-early August, doing a variety of activities, including visiting Steffan.

        All the best for 2018!



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