Single parent? Want to raise a bilingual child?

Most advice for parents raising bilingual children is based on the presumption that there are two parents actively involved in the upbringing. What if you are a single parent and don’t have the support of a partner – can it still be done? This is a question that has been put to me quite a few times, hence today’s post.

I know some experts discourage single parents from attempting to raise bilingual children, as it is not an easy task. Things to take into consideration are:

Will you be the person passing on the minority language?
If yes, how much time will you be able to spend with your child?
Will sticking to the chosen language cause extra pressure for you?

I am stating the obvious here, but being a single parent is not an easy thing to do at the best of times, so you need to be realistic about what you can take on. There are a lot of benefits in becoming bilingual for your child, but a highly stressed-out parent due to additional pressure from chosen common language is a very high price to pay for it. However, if you feel passionate about it and, after taking the above into account, it is doable. I also believe that you can do it and commend you for it. It will take a fair amount of determined commitment, a lot of your time, some help from others and maybe a bit of money, depending on the circumstances.

As with two-parent families there are also different language set-ups for single-parent families. Each scenario will need its unique approach.

Bilingual, single parent

If you speak two languages (one of which is the majority language of where you live) and want to pass on both of them to your child, the best (and arguably easiest) option is to speak the minority language with your child. Although you know both languages, it is better to only speak the minority one with your child, as this is the one for which there will be less exposure available. Your child will learn the language of the community by the latest in nursery or school. You would be using the minority language at home (mL@H) approach.

If you speak two minority languages and want to pass on them both of them, then you should set some structure to how you speak the languages with your child, i.e. us the time and place (T&P) strategy. You can alternate languages based on time (e.g. every other day, week or fortnight) or place (e.g. at home and outside the home or different rooms of the home). A word of caution though, this is a tough regime to follow, and you need to be really committed and determined to go through with it.

Monolingual, minority language single parent

If you move to a different language environment with your child, you might find that you are the only person that regularly speaks your language with your little one. You will most likely be working, so the time you spend with your child is restricted to evenings and days off. Should you give up on your language and support your child in learning the local language?

A solid foundation in the home language is the best support for learning an additional one, so the advice is to keep speaking your familiar language with your child. A move is a big change for both adults and children, so changing the language you have communicated in until now is not to be recommended. Should you switch to the majority language, it is highly likely that your child learn to understand but possibly not speak the minority language.

Depending on the age of your child there are different ways you can give your support. A child under the age about seven will pick up the local language fairly quickly once immersed in it in nursery or school and grow up to speak the language accent-free. You can prepare your child by watching children’s programmes and cartoons in the language together before you move. For older children, look for online tuition, some of which you can find for free on educational and governmental websites. The more costly option is to enrol your child in a language course or to arrange private tuition.

Monolingual, majority language single parent

What to do if you become a single parent of a child which has had a bilingual start in life, and you don’t know the minority language your child is still learning? In this scenario you will need some help from others to keep the minority language active in your child’s life. If you still have a good relationship with the other parent’s family, ask them to support you by spending time with your child and helping you with materials such as books, magazines and DVDs.

If this is not a viable option, look for a child minder who can speak the language, possibly an au pair. Try to arrange play dates with other children speaking the language. If your child is a bit older, look for weekend or evening classes in the language. If you are lucky, there might even be an immersion classes available at your local school. What you could also consider, is to learn the language alongside your child – I know, not an easy task to take on, but something you might want to think about if your are truly passionate about retaining the language.

I wish you all the best in your quest to bring up a bilingual child. And if it doesn’t quite go as planned, remember that some additional language skill is still a lot better than none – a receptive knowledge (aka passive skill) is a lot easier to turn into an actively used language than learning a language from scratch.

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  1. kidworldcitizen

    These are really great tips- multilingualism is such an immense gift that we give to our children! It is hard work, but so worth it.

  2. Beatrice

    I am not a single parent but I am the only bilingual one. I have 2-year-old and 4-year-old boys. For the first two years of my oldest son’s life, I spoke only Spanish to him and my husband only spoke English (since it’s all he knows anyway). But since my younger son has been born, and since my oldest was 2, my husband has been the stay at home parent while I work full time. My oldest understands almost no Spanish. I have home for such a short amount of time after work and could only speak in English to my husband that Spanish just fell to the side.

    We are about to switch roles again with me being the stay at home parent. I am not concerned about speaking in Spanish to my 2 year old since he is at a stage where he mimics and picks up everything anyway. My concern is my 4 year old. He is obviously completely comfortable in English and goes to an English pre-school. My question is how to approach teaching my 4 year old Spanish again at his age? Even though it’s all he heard for his first two years, it’s like starting anew with a new language. He has heard it from me occasionally and has heard it from my mother but shows absolutely no interest in learning. He basically either doesn’t acknowledge that anyone is talking to him if it’s in Spanish or he will just look confused until they say it in English.

    He’s too young to understand the concept of another language when I try to explain it to him. He thinks he just can’t understand the speaker for whatever reason. He’s at that in between point where I can’t just immerse him like his 2 year old brother but I can’t discuss the concept of another language the way you would an older child. How do I approach teaching him Spanish?? I would like to have him be fluently bilingual like my family. It can’t be 100% immersion anyway since my husband only speaks English and obviously his schooling is in English.

    • Rita

      Dear Beatrice

      Thank you for your question and sorry for the delay in getting back to you.

      Due to the big amount of questions coming in and to reduce waiting times, we have decided to answer some queries in LIVE Facebook Q&A sessions. The sessions will be aired in the Multilingual Parenting Facebook group. Click on the link to join the group if you haven’t already done so. Remember to answer the three joining question for a quicker approval.

      Your question will be featured during the Facebook Live Q&A session on Thursday the 26th of October – the exact time of the session will be announced in the group. If you attend the live session you can also ask any further questions through the comments. There will also be a recording available in the group for you to listen to later in case you are unable to attend the live session. If you cannot attend live, please do not hesitate to send us any further details you would like us to consider when answering your question.

      In case you would like a more in-depth answer and/or have a Family Language Plan set up, I also offer individual family language coaching. If you are interested in this option, please respond to this message and I will send you some further details.

      Kind regards

  3. Jay

    I am married and my husband and I are now raising a 19 month old. I am Dominican and my husband is from Chile, so we are native spanish speaker, that are now living in Norway and planning to live here indefinitely, which means my son will learn and live in a Norwegian speaking country.

    I have always been bilingual since I started learning english at 5 years old, and find that english is a very important language because you can communicate world wide with it, but I also find Spanish to be very important because my family and my husbands family speaks that language and it’s heritage.

    With my son, I’ve been speaking both english and Spanish since birth, and as me and my husband were in corona situation, we soend his entier first year together, so he qould speak spanish and i would speak just english to him.

    But now that corona is over, my husband started to work and he works at a restaurant which means he works from 12pm til 12am. Which also means that he doesn’t really see our son on the weekdays, only 2 days a week and not in the morning.
    So we can’t keep on one parent on language because it would mean he would only learn english and our order of importance are first spanish, second english and third norwegian (which we don’t really worry on this one because he will learn it for sure).

    So what I’m doing now is speaking one language per week. Meaning I switch between one week spanish speaking only and the next week english speaking only. The next spanish.. next english… next spanish…

    My question is, would this work?
    Is this a good plan?
    Or should I try something else?

    Also when he turns 6 and goes to school he will be taught english there so I will focus more at home with spanish.

    Let me know what you think and thank you for your time and sorry for the bother ☺️

    • Rita

      Dear Jay,
      Sorry for the late response – yes, you can switch languages per week (or two weeks, if that feels easier) – and the focus more on Spanish once your son learns English at school.
      Kind regards



  1. Single parent? Want to raise a bilingual child?... - […] t have the support of a partner – can it still be done? This is a question that has…
  2. Single parent? Want to raise a bilingual child?... - […] Most advice for parents raising bilingual children is based on the presumption that there are two parents actively involved…

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