Top tips for happy bilingual kids

When I started on my bilingual family trip, I did some reading about bilingualism and bilingual family. One of the things that really surprised me at the time was how the many articles of information written by the “so called experts” and parents quoting those experts made free use of the term “bilingual”. Let’s be clear on something, a person like me who speaks only one native language and a second foreign language well is bilingual, a child who has being brought up with two mother tongues is bilingual, yes, of course, if we take the term “bilingual” as meaning “two languages”. However, it’s plainly obvious that their bilingualism is inherently different. I will use the term bilingual kids here to mean children who speak two mother tongues.

Why is making this distinction important? Well, kids who are brought up bilingually are not really learning a language, at least consciously learning it – they are acquiring it. They just get the input and their brain process it as it would the first native language. They don’t worry about sounding funny, having a strange accent, or waiting an age to speak until they master the basic grammar.

Are you worried that your kid will get all mixed up? Have you been advised to wait until he can speak the main language first and introduce your language when he is 3 or 4? Well, it is true that it’s never late to learn a foreign language. However, there is more to languages that what meets the eye. If you wait until your kids are fully fledged speakers of their local language, let’s say English in the UK, chances are that when you start talking to them in your language they will look at you as if you had grown horns.

Actually, something worse happened to the husband of a friend of mine. He speaks Arabic and decided to start speaking it to his son when he was 5 and had already stared school. The result was that the kid stared at him and in a blink of an eye started to laugh madly at his dad. Can you imagine how funny this kid thought that his dad looked uttering these strange and singing noises? If the dad had started talking to him since day one, this kid would have not thought anything of it. He would have just taken it for granted that people speak different languages. When they start speaking they will use grammar and words of both languages interchangeably, but soon they grow out of it and are able to separate the languages. So, my top tip is: don’t let for tomorrow what you can start today. Don’t teach your child a language, expose him to it from day one so he acquires it without thinking about it and/or stressing. Remember, in countries with only one major language bilingualism seems exotic while in some societies bilingualism is the norm. Have you ever heard about countries where children have suffered due to juggling two languages from birth? Of course not.

Bilingual Toddler

You can expose a child to another language from day one so she acquires it without thinking about it and stressing over the ‘hard work’ like an adult learner might.

Will my child speak with a foreign accent? Probably, maybe yes, maybe not. It does depend of many factors, like how good one is with language and sound. However, my top tip is: DON’T WORRY. It’s better to speak a foreign language with a funny accent than none at all.

What shall I do about reading? Shall I wait till he learns to read in school? Well, I suppose that question is deeply debatable, personally, I don’t think it makes much difference. Learning to read in one language will help him a little to learn to read in the other, even if it’s just because he knows the letters and understands the concept of reading. However, somebody suggested to me once that as once the kids goes to school the main influence will be the local language, and I would be the only source (or almost) of the second language, so if the child learnt to read the second language before the local one, or at least quite early on, then he would have access to lots of texts and a wider choice of vocabulary that I could provide him just by talking. So, my top tip would be try to get your kid reading and writing in your language before the local language, or at least as soon as you can.

What do I say to the nay sayers?I get it, you have already been the target of misinformed good-doers who have warn you about the dangers to your child of learning two languages at the same time – that their brains will explode, they’ll become mute or forget their potty training. Well, what can I say? In my experience these people have little or no experience of language learning, or in some cases I have even encountered children of bilingual parents whose parents failed to pass the language on “because” it wasn’t the thing one did back when they were little… Jealousy? … I don’t know, it’s probably just misinformation, top tip: ignore them. Nod and smile in agreement and then continue doing what you think best.

The funniest remark I have ever heard regarding this topic is: “How do you know your children want to learn languages? You are forcing them on to your children.” Every child grows up in a family where something is forced upon them… even if it’s the parent’s desire to force absolutely nothing on them – that in itself is a particular philosophy that has causes and effects. Everybody names their children without knowing if they’ll like their names or not… To be honest, this type of remark makes me wonder how many people out there live in the real world, or if they’ve been substituted by an alien entity. I’d thought any parent would jump at the opportunity for their kid to be bilingual and be exposed to other languages. Top tip: collect stupid remarks to rub them on their faces in twenty years time or simply write a book.

Many parents who do want their kids growing up bilingual encounter some resistance and problems. The main among my acquaintances seems to be school. The power of peer group and the need to fit in in the school environment makes a lot of children who were growing up bilingual give up or revolt against their parents. Probably I should be diplomatic and say there is no wrong and right answer, and if your kids is unhappy then stop forcing them to speak the second language as by then they probably have a good grounding and a big ‘head start’ in that tongue and probably with languages in general.

However, I don’t feel very diplomatic, and to be honest if my child was ill and the medicine that would make him well tasted like hell and made him cry, well, we would all feed him the medicine, wouldn’t we? It’s okay if you want to give up and don’t really want to face the extra effort that requires bringing up your child bilingual. For some people it is impossible due to work, or the main speaker of that language being away often, etc. But do not give up simply because a child’s whim. Today I like Spanish, tomorrow I won’t. Today I like sausages, tomorrow I won’t.

It just makes my heart bleed the amount of times I’ve heard people say, my parents spoke such or such language but I asked them to stop speaking to me in it, or they didn’t want to frustrate me… or … and now of course, I deeply regret not been able to communicate with my family overseas or even just enjoy the pleasure of conversing in a second language. So, top tip: the path is long and narrow, but stick to it, your reward will be at the end of it. Keep exposing your kids to language, speak to them, make them speak to you in that language (not the other), call your family and friends who speak that language, if there are no local playgroups and social groups for that language in your area organize them yourself, get DVDs, watch YouTube videos in that language.

But I think the very big TOP TIP is that if it looks hard, it’s because it’s hard. You have to make the effort to expose your children if you want them to make the effort to speak it. But it can also be fun!


  1. Melissa Christensen says:

    Dear Lidia,
    Thank you for your work on this site!
    I’d like to propose a blog post topic to you concerning bilingual story books for children. Please let me know where I should email details.
    I look forward to hearing from you!

  2. Hi Lidia, thanks again for this post. Let me know if you or your colleagues would be interested in exploring new bilingual children’s books. Feel free to email me at 2melissa.c (at) resqme (dot) com for details!

  3. Appreciating the hard work you put into your blog and in depth information you present.
    It’s nice to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same unwanted rehashed material.

    Great read! I’ve saved your site and I’m adding
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