Patience – a must-have for parents of bilingual children

by | Oct 15, 2014 | Being the parent in a multilingual family, Challenges, Practical advice | 5 comments

Patience – a must-have for parents of bilingual childrenYes, I am stating the obvious – of course, all parents need patience! As a mother or father of a bilingual child, there will however be times when you need an extra helping of this specific virtue. By applying lots of patience, you will succeed in keeping the family languages alive!

Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character.
– Heraclitus

When your family starts on the journey of raising a bilingual child, be prepared to be in it for the long haul. To start with, you may have to wait longer than you thought before your little one utters the first word in your language. Keep on talking – a lot and about anything. Keep on reading those books until you know them all by heart, and beyond. Keep on having fun together in your language. Don’t despair, the words will follow and they will be music to your ears when they do!

Patience is necessary, and one cannot reap immediately where one has sown.
– Søren Kierkegaard

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You may even feel that it is taking far too long for your child to start to say anything – and you worry that all those comments about delayed language development for bilingual children are true after all. They are not. Bilingualism does not cause language delay. The age at which children start to speak are very different, independent of whether they learn one or more languages. The learning process of a bilingual child is not identical with that of a monolingual and thus should not be compared, nor tested using criteria for those who speak only one language. On average, by the age of five, bilingual children are at the same level as monolinguals in all their languages – providing, of course, that they have had enough exposure to all of them. If you are concerned and feel that your child does not understand what is said in any language, speak to a specialist with experience of bilingual children. Also check that there are no issues with your child’s hearing.

Patience is not simply the ability to wait – it’s how we behave while we’re waiting.
– Joyce Meyer

Initially you may have to patiently wait for the first words. Next, you will be waiting for the two-word sentence and then a full long sentence … and then come all the questions! Soon enough your child will be testing your patience by a never-ending array of inquiries about anything and everything. Please do answer them – if you do not know the answer, say so, and then look up the answer together. Especially for a minority language, it is so important that you build up an extensive vocabulary by talking about different topics together.

Our patience will achieve more than our force.
– Edmund Burke

One of the greatest test to your patience is the situation where your child – who may have been happily speaking your language for some years – decides to answer you in the “wrong” language. Now your patience and persistence is needed more than ever. Keep on speaking your language even if you child does not. It is crucially important that you do not change your language at this point. It may feel a bit strange to be speaking in different languages, but ignore those feelings and carry on as normal. The quote above is spot on: you may try to force your child to speak your language, and you may even be successful for a while, but by being patient, increasing the motivation to speak and creating situations where the language is needed you will achieve a much more positive and lasting outcome.

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  1. Alana - eSpectacularKids

    Patience is certainly needed when raising a bilingual child. A good way to focus on language learning without putting too much pressure on your child is to expose them to videos and books in that language so that they can still enjoy learning the language without feeling too pressured. It’s also important to know that culture and language and intrinsically linked, and knowing one will eventually help you learn more about the other 🙂 thanks for the post.

  2. Jonathan

    I think that what you’ve said about both patience and having fun is so important. It’s great to be able to involve fun activities in exposing children to different languages. When it comes to patience, I’ve at times thought that my son wasn’t really benefiting from the Welsh I speak to him as he spends a lot more time with my wife (who speaks English to him) than I do due to our working arrangements. However, I now realise that he can understand a lot of the basic things that I say to him in Welsh and he’s getting good at repeating things. I was pleased to hear him say ‘afal’ this afternoon, which is the Welsh for ‘apple’ (one of his favourite words at the moment!).

    • Rita

      Thank you for your comment, Jonathan! You speaking Welsh to your son does him a world of good – in so many ways … keep it up!

  3. Delphine

    It’s really really good reading this. There are days when I wonder if my little boy will ever utter these 2 words sentence in French. We are very consistent and never doubted. My husband speaks to him only in Italian and me only in French. However he spend a lot of time at nursery and English is his dominant language. He perfectly understand both Italian and French though, so I’m still hopeful. But so far the only French I get when I ask him to reply to his grand-parents in French, he sings ” frère Jacques” … 🙂

    • Rita

      “Frère Jacques” is a great start – maybe introduce more French songs 🙂 The fact that your son understands three languages at his tender age is fantastic, you are well on your way – stick with it and one day he will respond to you in French!



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