Q&A: How can grandparents help a grandchild become bilingual

by | Nov 6, 2014 | Coaches, Grandparents, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Ute Limacher-Riebold | 4 comments



I will soon become a proud grandmother to my son’s first child and I wonder how I could help in teaching him Finnish. My son knows conversational Finnish but his strongest language is English and his wife speaks English. They would very much like their child to learn Finnish and I would like to support them as much as I can. We live near each other so I can see them fairly frequently.

Thank you for any advice you can give me.



Dear A.H,

First of all, I would like to congratulate you on your decision to support your son and his wife in bringing up their first child to become bilingual. It will surely be a great help for them especially if, like you say, your son knows “more conversational Finnish but his strongest language is English”.

You will probably make sure that together with your son and his wife you agree on a family plan that includes time you’ll spend with your grandchild on a regular basis. In the beginning, you will speak, sing and read to your grandchild and simply talk Finnish when alone with him/her and your son. You don’t mention if your daughter-in-law understands Finnish. You may want to avoid her not understanding what you say to her child, as this could cause some uncomfortable situations and tensions between you all.

Maybe she could envisage the opportunity to learn a bit of Finnish alongside her child? With the help of children’s books – which have simple sentence structures and usually basic vocabulary – and poems and songs, she would learn the language more easily. She may decide how proficient she wants to become in speaking Finnish, but in my experience, it would surely help if she understands what you say and what her child will talk later. It can be distressing for a mother (or a parent in general) if she doesn’t understand her own child.

I don’t know if you would consider making a language plan for the first years? You may mention this option to your son and his wife. You can find a model for this in Rita’s book and we could help you with this, if you want.

Please let us know what you decide to do and if we can be of any further help.

In the meantime I wish you all the best.

With very kind regards,
Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold

Ute Limacher-Riebold is a researcher, writer and an independent Language Consultant and Intercultural Communication Trainer at Ute’s International Lounge. She has a PhD in French literature and a Masters in Bilingualism and is a trained Speech and Language Specialist. Ute combines her knowledge in linguistics and intercultural communication, and her experience as multilingual and multicultural, who managed to successfully adapt to other languages and cultures, Ute made it her mission to translate research into evidence based, easy-to-apply tips for parents, families and practitioners, to use in everyday life. After Italy, France, and Switzerland she now lives in the Netherlands with her Swiss husband and three multilingual and multicultural children. Ute is fluent in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch and Swissgerman, and understands Spanish and Portuguese.


  1. Rita

    You must be so excited to become a grandmother! How fantastic that your son and his wife want to make sure their child learns Finnish – and how lucky they are to have a grandmother who will be able to help them with this! Like Ute says, it would be a good idea to sit down and plan ahead how you can make sure your grandchild grows up learning Finnish. If your daughter-in-law is interested in learning alongside her child, then you could check out some resources for her on this site: http://viestinta2.kpakk.fi/treenataan/index.php?page=opiskelu-internetissae – I know she will be really busy after the baby arrives, but if she gets a chance and feels motivated she could try to learn a bit of Finnish before he or she is born. Your son might even get interested in brushing up on his Finnish with some of the resources available!
    You probably remember children’s rhymes and songs in Finnish, but if you need a reminder, there are plenty of them available on YouTube and also on Spotify. When you grandchild grows a bit older you could check out children’s TV programs at http://yle.fi/elavaarkisto/haku/#aihe/lastenohjelmat.

  2. Helena Virtanen-Pienemann

    Hei A.H.! Since I am in the same situation I would like to tell you how we are managing the trilingual grandchild- grandparent situation in our family. My son and his wife had their first baby five months ago. My son is trilingual English-Finnish-German, his wife monolingual German with some passive knowledge in English and has a very positive attitude towards Finnish language and culture. They live 50 km away from our town. Dad speaks English, Mami German, Mummi Finnish and Pappa German to little Paavo.I have an arrangement with the parents to pick up the baby every Friday afternoon for an app. three hours walk and use this time for as much Finnish “conversation” as possible. For me it is just great to experience the same situation I had when my own children were growing up with three languages. I sing songs in Finnish, tell him nursery rhymes, just talk to him and let him get used to the sound of my mother tongue at this very early age. When he grows older and won’t be breast fed any more, we can have him to stay with us for a weekend filled with lots of cultural activities. We also have planned holidays together so there will be longer periods of time to give him more input in Finnish.This might not be enough for an active knowledge in Finnish, but it will allow him to understand Finnish and open him the door into the Finnish culture. Good luck!

  3. Aila Howells

    Thank you All for your encouraging comments!
    Your advice and information are very useful and Rita’s book was well-received by the prospective parents. They are thinking about their language plan and undoubtedly it will be discussed with both sets of grandparents.
    This seems yet an other case of “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. Planning ahead and taking every opportunity to use Finnish has to be part of my grandparenting style from the start.
    What Helena V-P noted on the possible level of language competence achieved sounds realistic to me. To avoid feeling, it will help to have realistic expectations from the start. Becoming familiar with the Finnish culture and laying the foundations for future language learning would be a sound aim in our current circumstances. Anything more than that would be a bonus.
    Best of luck to Paavo and his family – it would be interesting to hear how he is progressing.
    With many thanks to you all,

    • Helena Virtanen-Pienemann

      Paavo is now 20 months old and happily mixes all his three languages. We don’t worry about that since our own children grew up trilingually and eventually separated their three languages according to the person they were talking to. The time I spend with Paavo has increased to two full afternoons a week. He has stayed weekends with us and we had a lovely three-day holiday on a farm. It is so rewarding to spend time with him and see him developing to a cheerful little boy who has an open and positive attitude towards the languages around him. Here’s a list of words I remember at the moment he actively uses in Finnish: Mummi, Pappa, keksi, pallo,pupu, kakka, hei hei, anna, joo. In English: cheese, more, go go, no, music, milk, hi,baby and in German: Mami, Papi, da, Licht, win, aux, Milch, Eier, Eis, nein, ja, Pipi, ein-zwei-drei, Ball, Kinder and lots of his own words we try to understand. And every day there are new ones!


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