Bilingual children: (re)introducing a family language

by | Apr 23, 2014 | Being the parent in a multilingual family, Challenges, Family life, Practical advice, Toddlers | 10 comments

Bilingual children: (re)introducing a family language

As the benefits of bilingualism are getting more widely known and the old myths about it dispelled, more and more parents decide to pass on the family languages to their children, giving them the gift of an additional language, fantastic! But what if everything doesn’t go to plan and your baby grows up to be a toddler, school kid or teenager who can or will not speak your language? How can you (re)introduce it?

First of all, be prepared for some hard work – the amount of determination and patience you need to succeed is in direct relation to:
a. how old your children are (the younger they are, the easier it is),
b. how much they know of your language, are they receptive bilinguals? (the more they know, the easier it is) and
c. how well you can motivate them to learn it (the more motivated they are, the easier it is)

Also, before you start, I recommend that you plan ahead so you can be better prepared. You can do this by answering some questions:

a. Why do you want your children to learn your language?
Make sure that the reasons you list are based on your own feelings and thoughts, not on others’ expectations or wishes.

b. How are you going to do it?
Will it only be you responsible for the language exposure? Do you have anyone else who could support you? Will you introduce new activities? Will you make more trips to increase the exposure?

c. What does your decision mean for your family’s everyday life?
How will it affect the family life and relationships? How will you tackle the situation if your partner were to feel left out? Will you have to invest in books, DVDs, travelling or tuition? Will you have the energy to go through with it?

d. When to start?
“The earlier the better” is the mantra when it comes to raising a bilingual child, so I recommend that you start as soon as you have answered the above three questions!

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By answering the “why?” question above, I hope you have found what motivates you to pass on your language to your children. It is extremely important that you do, as your motivation will keep you going if you need to overcome challenges along the way.

We all know that when we want to learn something, the chances are far better than if we are told we have to. So your first task is to make your children want to learn your language. You know your children best, so you are the expert when it comes to motivating them. What spurs your children on? Make the motivating factors something they really want: to have fun, enjoy exciting activities, go on trips, learn something new and interesting. I am not averse to using some rewards to spark the interest of your children, but remember that you cannot bribe your kids to learn your language – they should want to learn it. What I am averse to is using any kind of threat or negative consequence as a motivator. You do not want to associate your language with negative feelings.


No matter how motivated both you and your children are about (re)introducing your language to your communication, it will not happen unless you make time for it in your lives. To achieve this, create (and maintain!) routines for language exposure. Routines are you best support mechanism on your way to success.

Be realistic when you put a routine in place. Will you have the time? What could stop you from doing the planned activities? What can you do to remove these obstacles? What is your back-up plan if circumstances change?

Choose a specific time, place or/and activity when your language will be used. It might be a certain time of the day (breakfast or dinner time, in the evening or before bedtime) or a day of the week or even the whole weekend. You could choose a place in your home which will be your cue to use your language. Maybe there are activities or hobbies you could do in your language?

According to research it takes 21-30 days to break a habit or to create a new one, so use your determination and patience to stick with your routine for at least a month. If you feel like giving up, think of what motivated you in the first place. Also ask for help from others: those who could help you with the language exposure and other parents, who have experienced the challenges and still succeeded in bringing up bilingual children.

Good luck!

Are you planning or trying to (re)introduce your language to your children? What are your experiences?

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  1. expatsincebirth

    Reblogged this on expatsincebirth and commented:
    It’s never too late, but if you decide to re-introduce a family language, there are some things to consider.

  2. Roadkill Spatula

    In Costa Rica I met several couples with one spouse from the US and one from CR. The clearest-thinking ones used English at home, especially with their kids, because they were surrounded by Spanish and were going to learn it anyway. Those who could afford it put their kids in English-language schools. When they lived in the US, they switched to Spanish at home so the kids wouldn’t lose it.

    My first wife and I were both raised in Latin America (MKs), but we never passed Spanish on to our kids because it was too artificial to speak Spanish at home. We lived in Costa Rica for four years. I was disappointed that my kids didn’t learn Spanish as well as I did; Costa Ricans are much more private people than Colombians so my kids didn’t have many neighborhood friends.

    • Rita Rosenback

      Thank you for sharing your story! It is really interesting what you say about the difference in how people behaved in Colombia and Costa Rica and how it can affect how well children learn the community language. Although you feel your children didn’t learn Spanish as well as you did, they do have a foundation and are miles ahead of others if they decide to improve their Spanish skills one day.

      • Roadkill Spatula

        My oldest worked on her Spanish through college, and is now teaching ESL in Costa Rica. She’s become fairly fluent, but she’s studying Mandarin because her next goal is to teach in China.

        • Rita Rosenback

          Wonderful – how great that she has become so interested in languages. She has clearly taken after her parents 🙂

  3. Joyce

    This entry is very useful for me as it applies very well to my current situation. Thank you for sharing your expertise!

    • Rita Rosenback

      Hi Joyce, thank you for your kind feedback. As a blogger and a writer, my reader’s opinions are so important to me, so thank you for taking the time to comment!

  4. preeti

    Hi there Rita! That’s was a lovely article. I am from India and we speak 5 languages at home and in life in general- Tamil is my mother tongue but English dominates the conversations. Apart from that Hindi, our national language and Marathi, our state language.
    My husband’s mother tongue is Punjabi (from the northern state of Punjab) but unfortunately he hasn’t picked up the language and hence my kids are not exposed to it much. We stay with my mil, even she does not speak much Punjabi with the kids which is sad. I, on the other hand have picked up P quite well, so it irks my mil that I don’t speak to my children in P- which I have flatly refused.

    My question to you is:
    I talk to my 6 yo son and my 1 yo daughter mostly in my mother tongue as I really want them to learn it. And now my son feels he relates more to my language and my side of the family, so much so, he doesn’t want to carry his father’s surname ACD wants mine instead. (I have retained my maiden surname – a fairly uncommon practice here in India.ln ) He told that to my husband’s face yesterday and he is very pained. I want to know if I have done something wrong and if there’s something I can do to change this.
    Best wishes from India!




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