The 5 main challenges of raising bilingual children

If you’re a parent aiming to bring more than one language into your family, you may already know that this isn't always easy.

Or rather, it may seem easy at first, until you hit your first hurdle and think: “Oh. What now?”.

I rarely meet families who have made a clear plan before the birth of their first child - most of us usually just 'have a go' and adapt as we go along.

For some, this works. For most, there comes a time when it just doesn't, anymore.

That's when families usually seek me out - when things start to go ‘wrong’. I use speech marks here because it is important to realise that there is nothing inherently wrong with speaking language A over language B - it just depends on what your priorities for your family are.

And whilst it’s really fantastic to hear from families who seem to raise multilingual children successfully, there is a lot we can learn from the difficulties the vast majority of families (mine included) face at least once along this journey.

So here are some of the main challenges we tend to face - and some suggestions!

1. We didn’t plan this very well

I hear this a lot.

The truth is, it is very rare for bilingualism to happen successfully without a clear plan.

Unless the conditions are ideal (equal exposure to both majority and minority language, equal access to resources in both languages etc), it is likely that one language will end up being your child's preferred language, and that you will need to start thinking of ways to keep the other language alive.

The good news is: you are not alone and there are lots of ways you can rectify the situation.

Which leads us to the second most common hurdle:

2. We started too late

The language we use to communicate as a family goes further than just a set of codes and words: there are huge emotional implications, and changing the language or languages inside your home is not just a case of flicking a switch.

If you have only every spoken language A, your children may be very resistant to a sudden change and they might show this through complete refusal to speak or even listen to you speak the new language.

It is very important that any such changes are brought in gradually, with your child's full understanding and involvement in order to guarantee a harmonious transition and your child's full cooperation.

3. My child refuses to respond to me in the minority language

The important thing to realise here is that this is actually only the manifestation of a more important issue, namely whether the child has a real need to communicate in the minority language.

So I imagine that whilst your child probably did respond in the minority language at first, if the circumstances changed (for instance, if they started full-time school in the majority language), or if you have been inconsistent or not always intentional about how/when you use the minority language, then your child will naturally become less willing to use the minority language.

Children really are like water; they will always take the path of least resistance.

So if you want them to respond to you in the minority language, you need to ensure that they have enough exposure and that you create the need for it.

This will be the subject of a future blog post - but here is a very quick fix: become intentional with your language use in one area of your day, starting today.

For us, it's our daily reading routine. We read to our three children every evening, for at least 15-20 minutes, in French. This often leads to hilarious or lovely post-story chats, which happen in French.

4. I can’t speak the language very well myself

If this is your case and you are still raising a bilingual child, you are simply amazing! It takes a lot of confidence to raise your child in a language that isn't your mother-tongue and I truly admire you.

What's really important here is this: manage your expectations. Imagine your child in 5, 10, or even 20 years; how do you want them to be able to use the additional language? Unless you want then to be able to study in this language, what you know yourself and the enthusiasm you have for the language are more than enough. And it's perfectly acceptable to be just one step ahead of your student - or for them to teach you things.

In fact, children will learn so many important transferrable skills from this: that you don't have to be an expert to have a go; that mistakes are ok; that learning is ongoing.

So once again: bravo.

Stop beating yourself up.

Some language is always going to better than none, and no child will ever tell you they wish you hadn't taught them another language, however little that may be.

5. We are just too busy

I will admit that I have used this one myself when it came to introducing German to my children. It just seemed like such a massive 'thing', that would require so much effort, time, involvement, planning, and potentially, money.

So yes, time is an issue.

However... we all have time for things that don't really matter.

And how much time really is necessary?

Some statistics suggest that at least 20-30% exposure is necessary to become bilingual - and whilst this may hold some truth, I would like to argue for quality of quantity.

So if you don't have time yourself, you can either outsource (hurray for monolingual grandparents!) or simply be really intentional about the time you will put in.

Here's that word again: intentional. I strongly believe that 30 minutes of uninterrupted time with your child, every day, is not only feasible but highly effective - and will no doubt become something that all parties involved will come to treasure and look forward to!

I would love to know what your main challenges are - and what top tips you can share!


Is your family facing some of these challenges?

I can help you.

Book a FREE 15-minute discovery call with me so we can discuss your situation and how I can help you and your family achieve your multilingual goals.

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