Bilingual families: the role of the majority language parent

The majority language parent plays an extremely vital part when raising bilingual children. Most post on the topic of bringing up kids to speak more than one language are written with the minority language mum or dad in mind – including the ones on my site. This is of course understandable, as without the exposure to the lesser spoken language, the child will not pick it up at all. However, one should never underestimate the importance of the parent who speaks the language of the community the family lives in.

When talking to minority language mums or dads who express concerns about their kids’ language skills, the parents speak about lack of language resources, not enough exposure and the “unwillingness” of their children to use the language. These are all valid points, but I have noticed that the input or attitude of the other parent gets a mention only if I specifically ask for it. (Unless it’s one of the rare cases where the other parent is opposed to raising a bilingual child.)

What I often find in such discussions is that both parents are of the opinion that the responsibility of passing on the other family language lies firmly and solely on the shoulders of the minority language parent. Herein may lie part of the problem. Raising children is something that parents do together, and so should the language aspect of it be – independent of who speaks which language(s).

So what can you as a majority language parent do?


Communication is always at the heart of any parenting decisions and certainly so when it comes to agreeing about raising future bilinguals. It is one of the 7Cs to navigate on the family’s multilingual journey, which I write about in my book. Discuss together how you will go about ensuring enough language exposure – ideally put together a Family Language Plan.

It is important that you express how you feel about the situation, do you have any concerns? If you are the parent who is spending less time with your child, are you worried that your little one will learn a language you do not understand? (read on to find out more about this) Are you afraid that your child might get teased because of the language? Perhaps you have heard (the myths!) about language delay and confusion? Whatever it is that you are worried about, speak about it with your partner, and together find the answers and work-arounds by speaking to other parents, reading books and asking the questions.

Perhaps your child already speaks the minority language and you do not always understand what is discussed at home – does this feel uncomfortable to you? If yes, definitely speak about it with our partner! Agree to ask whenever there is anything you feel that you did not quite catch and you ought to know about. It is important that the languages of the family do not become part of any “power struggles” within the immediate or extended family. Agree to translate the important bits – all the minority language parents I have spoken to do not mind translating whenever necessary.

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Be open-minded and interested

When there are two (or more) languages involved, this usually also makes the family multicultural. A positive attitude towards different cultures in the home is important for a child’s sense of identity and also for the willingness to speak the language of the culture. Do your best to give both (or all) cultures the same amount of importance in the home. This often means that as a family you will have to put in a bit more effort to maintain traditions and festivities from the minority culture – as these may not be celebrated in the surrounding community.

Food is an important part of a culture – even if you might not like the taste of all the delicacies from the other culture, try to find some that you do like so you can share the meals and appreciate the flavours together as a family.

Learn a bit of the language

One of the worries mentioned above was about the child learning a language you do not master. Remember that children are not born speaking a certain language! It takes them anything up to two or even three years before they start to speak. You will have plenty of time to learn a bit of the language yourself.

“But I am no good at languages!” – is this what I hear? You are not expected to become a proficient speaker of the language, you will not need to sit down and study a grammar book or go on a course (of course, you can if you want to!) Start by learning a few words and phrases that are used in your everyday family life.

Listen in when your partner speaks the minority language with your little one. You will find that you can figure out most of what is said just from the context of the situation. Ask your partner to teach you some core vocabulary and especially words that sound similar in both languages. With a positive attitude to the language you will be surprised how much you are able to pick up!

Make time for trips

One of the most effective ways of giving children a boost in their minority language skills is spending time immersed in it. Many are the stories from parents who have said that their children made great strides in their speaking ability after a stay with grandparents or relatives.

For these visits to be possible, your partner needs your support for the travel plans. Even if you are not always able to join your partner and children on these trips, be understanding and encourage the rest of the family to do them – time and finances allowing, of course.

If you have been able to pick up some of the language, you will enjoy these trips so much more when you can participate on a different level, even if it is only understanding some of what is being said!

Together we are stronger and can reach our goals much more easily!

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  1. Christopher

    Hi! I was gleaning the posts to find an answer to my question and I think I can ascertain from the above post the answer HOWEVER—I was thinking is it alright for the parent who speaks the majority language to add in bits and pieces of the minority language when possible? IE read books, uses phrases they do know—or does this interfere with the OPOL strategy? It is clear to me that it does not go the other way around—ie the minority language parent should be as strict as possible staying with the minority language. Is this Q clear? I’m guessing from the above section “Learning a bit of the language” this would be alright and even encouraged. Thanks!

    • Rita Rosenback

      Hi Christopher,
      sorry for the delay in getting back to you – we are trying to keep the questions and answers to the Q&A section of the site, but I will give you a quick answer here. Yes, you are right, it is perfectly fine for you to readbooks and use phrases in the minority language. What you are doing is being a role model for bilingualism and this won’t interfere with your OPOL strategy.
      Kind regards,



  1. Q&A: How to be consistent speaking the minority language AND include the other parent? - […] I wrote a post about this topic in an article not too long ago which you might want to…

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