Q&A: Is bilingualism always the right choice?

by | Oct 2, 2014 | Bilingualism, Coaches, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family, Rita R | 3 comments


My sister has a friend whose daughter speaks German (from her father), Afrikaans (her mother) and English (kindergarten). So I know it is possible. However, I am going to be a bit of a devil’s advocate and pose some alternative viewpoints:

1) My wife was a teacher in Russia, and when we moved to Australia she was asked by some Russian women to teach their children to speak Russian. I got the distinct impression that those kids hated spending their precious Saturday mornings taking Russian classes when they would much rather go play, go to the beach, or run around on the sports ground. In the end the time and effort that goes into learning another language is time and effort taken away from something else, and that something else may be more worthwhile than learning a language that is not used in the society where we live.

2) South African friends of ours emigrated to Australia when their young children were already fluent in Afrikaans. Several years later it became apparent to them that their children were not communicating deeper emotional issues with them anymore – just the normal communication necessary to get along. When they delved into the matter they discovered that their children had become more fluent in English and found the extra emotional effort required to communicate, in Afrikaans, a sensitive issue that already required emotional effort to be too much of a barrier to overcome. The parents (both Afrikaans speaking) somewhat reluctantly allowed their children to respond to them in English, even though they spoke Afrikaans to each other and to them. That solved the problem.

3) You mention that, for a child to learn a language, 20%-30% of his/her communication needs to be in that language. My wife speaks Russian to our 3-year old son and I speak Afrikaans to him, but he hears us speaking English to each other and he hears only English at child care (3 days per week). I did a rough estimate of the amount of time he spends being exposed to each language and it was 50% English, 35% Russian and 15% Afrikaans. Once he goes to preschool, two of the days that he spends with my wife will fall away and his exposure to Russian will also drop to 15%. It seems to me that we will have to spend significant additional effort, beyond merely speaking to him in Russian and Afrikaans, for him to be fluent in each of those languages plus English. I don’t want to run the risk of encountering the issue that our friends encountered, and I wonder whether the opportunity cost in other growth opportunities foregone is really worth learning two languages that would neither open any real avenues for him in the future.



Hi Francois,

Thank you for your very interesting and insightful questions!

1) Without knowing the exact details about the children of the Russian families, it is difficult to comment on the specific case. Questions that arise from what you describe are: Did the children have any prior knowledge of Russian? What age were the children? Was the teaching age-appropriate and engaging for the kids? Did the children have a real need for Russian in their lives – i.e. was Russian used in their homes at all? Any activity or hobby you choose to pursue will of course mean that that time is taken away from something else, and it will be a question of priorities. Whether or not the language is commonly used in the society does not, in my mind, come that much into the equation. Russian is part of the children’s heritage and would enable them to stay in touch with Russian-speaking relatives and friends. They would also be able to understand the Russian culture better if they knew the language. In addition, Russian could be of a great advantage to them later in their working lives. Also, knowing how many adults have said that they regret not learning their heritage language as children – as opposed to no one regretting doing so – there is a strong case for learning the family language. However, I would also like to see parents make more efforts themselves to motivate their children to learn and want to speak the language and not just rely on outside tutoring.

2) A parent’s bond with his or her children is more important than the choice of language. If bilingualism becomes something that negatively affects the relationship between parents and children then you should do exactly what this family did – use the language which feels most comfortable. It does not have to mean that the children completely stop speaking the language – maybe normal everyday discussions could still continue in the minority language. The children may well still grow up to become bilinguals and in any case, they will have a solid understanding of it.

3) The recommendation is that, ideally, children should be exposed to a language for 20-30% of their waking time for them to acquire a language while growing up. These numbers are however not based on research, but rely on general observations of multilingual families. Does it mean that 15% is never enough? Definitely not – I know this from my own daughters, who learnt their father’s language with what was certainly much less than 20% interactive exposure and very little other exposure. They are now grown-ups and are fluent in three and four languages respectively, including their father’s language. Every family is different, but for us it worked – as parents we were both consistent in the language use with our daughters, and the language choice became second nature for us. I did not feel that we put in “significant additional effort” and neither do the girls remember it as such. I would not say that they have lost out on other growth opportunities either – my elder daughter is now a lawyer and the younger one is a trainee doctor. Any language can be beneficial for your son’s future career, but most importantly, knowing the family languages would allow him to better stay in touch with his heritage. Clearly, you have thought a lot about the topic, and I have the feeling that the two of you would do really well at passing on both Afrikaans and Russian to your son – English he will learn anyway, but you should choose what feels right for you and will work in your family circumstances.

Wishing you all the best and do let me know if you have any other questions. All the best!

Kind regards,

Rita Rosenback

Rita Rosenback

Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.


  1. mnelson

    “… and I wonder whether the opportunity cost in other growth opportunities foregone is really worth learning two languages that would neither open any real avenues for him in the future.”

    I think these are the key words. In places like the South West of the USA and Florida and almost everywhere in Central and South America, Spanish and English literacy are real occupational and career advantages. This has been true in Quebec, Canada also. Those who learned English and French rose to the top. Those who insisted on only speaking French became the underclass economically.

  2. Marion

    Like Francois, we have 3 languages at home: I’m French, my husband is Brazilian, we live in Iowa and communicate in English. Our 9months daughter goes to daycare 5 days a week (english speaking) and we both speak to her in French/Portuguese. I understand that the main key is to be consistent, but how to make sure she would want to speak our native languages and not English? Also, how to best transmit not only the language but also the culture? Thank you for your great book and this nice website!

  3. Chris

    The question is : how do you choose your language(s) ? The reality is that a lot of us have moved away from our origins/birth country and now get exposed to other cultures and languages. What makes you think YOUR kids will stay where YOU are now ? They might move to a completely different country with different languages that do not correspond with the language you have “chosen” to expose them to…..

    However, I do not believe that learning another language is EVER a mistake. No matter how badly or with what accent you speak it, your EFFORT will always be seen as a sign of respect to that culture. And when you show respect to someone else, you more often then not get welcomed with a smile. Even if you have to revert back to a mutual language in the end. My husband grew up in an English country. However his career oppurtunities are very limited by his inability to speak other languages. On the other hand, his professional capabilities can see him working in any country in the world but his linguistic abilities not.

    So to me it comes down to teaching your kids the language your heart speaks with. Be it the dominant language or not. And as research has shown, once you have mastered a second language, others come much easier. So by exposing your kids to multilinguism you are actually opening more doors for them in the future.

    Whether they choose to open them will be their choice.


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