Raising bilingual children

This is not a personal post. I’m not in a relationship and I don’t have plans to get children in the foreseeable future. Also English is not my native language, so expect a few mistakes.

I was doing homework at the local library and I thought to myself; “How is it possible to raise your child bilingual?”.
Because I sat next to a mother and her two children, and they were writing, reading and speaking in a foreign language. And I realised that immigrants children and other peoples children that move to a foreign country have to learn their own language at the side since most schools don’t teach Arabic or Thai at lower levels. One of my classmates is half Thai, but she speaks no Thai at all.

I’m just curious because if I were to move to another country with another Norwegian I would want my child to speak fluent Norwegian, but at an early age this might confuse a young child. Imagine him/her in kindergarden and she suddenly starts mixing the languages together. “Can you pass me the smør?” “Hei, hvordan are you?” It seems so strange to me, but also amazing. I’m wondering if anyone here has either raised bilingual children or been raised bilingual, and if so, how was it? Did you find it frustrating or was it just like a natural thing?

As a psychologist and proud uncle of two bilingual nieces, I’ll give you my two cents.
In my opinion, there are two factors. Most failures come from not follwing either one:

  • Exposure: the standard advice is for at least one of the parents to always (or almost) speak to the child in his/her mother tongue.
  • Interest: this is a big one, show the child that your language’s actually a useful skill to master: frequent, meaningful contact with family in the home country, songs, games in the language, … Your child wouldn’t be the first one who refuses to go on hearing your language if (s)he thinks it’s useless and just a silly idea of yours.
    E.g. Words said by the 2-year-old sister of one of my students to her German mother: “Don’t you talk to me in that crappy language ever again!”. That’ was pretty much the end of bilingual education in that particular household.

Do bilingually raised children mix up languages? Not much!
My bilingual elder niece did try to decline some Spanish words as if they were Slovak a couple of times, my colleague’s son once said “Mi sono spachurrato il dito” but it doesn’t happen often and it goes away soon. In general, children are acutely aware of which language is which.
When my bilingual niece asked my mother in Spanish how she was and my mother answered in Slovak (she’s picked up some words") “Dobre!” My 3-year-old nice replied:
“Oh, you’re not dobre, you’re bien, it’s the other granny that’s dobre”!

In general, my advice would be: make sure your children think your talking to them in a strange language is something natural and worth the effort!!!

I agree it seems to be important that one of the parents ALWAYS uses the target language which is not spoken at school, in the wider community, etc.

One of the classmates of my nephew was taught Welsh this way by his mother (who is, obviously, a native speaker.) Welsh is a relatively obscure Celtic language - certainly outside of Wales. And it’s not by any means the easiest to learn! But this 8 year-old kid always speaks it with his mum - and apparently just like a native. With everyone else he speaks English - also just exactly like a native speaker of his age.

So yeah, it can be done.

My son is bilingual, speaks finnish and swedish, like a lot of his friends here in Finland. I always speaks swedish with him, and his mother only in finnish. We read every night in both languages (switching between the two). Bilingual kids may learn words slower in the beginning (simply because of the amount of words they have to learn).
It´s a myth that they will become “bad in 2 languages” instead of “good at one” a statement I heard before. There is really no limits what kids can learn, as long it´s arranged in a peaceful environment and is guided with respect and joy. Over time one language will probably be stronger, than the other, depending on which school the parents choose. One way to handle that, is to spread the activities between the two languages. For example, in your case, going in a norwegian speaking school, and joining a english speaking soccerteam, etc. However, that may be practical hard to carry out. But thats isn’t a problem for us.

My (almost 3-year-old) is so far bilingual English-German (living in Australia). I speak almost exclusively English with him, my partner German. Until very recently he spoke 95% in English even with his father, although as far as I can tell he understands German just as well. But recently we stayed in Germany for a month. Pretty much from the second day he started using more German words. English was still dominant but he would mix in more German. e.g. I want Fruehstueck. I am Hunger. I want to go Spielplatz. It was as though he sensed the change in environment and responded by activating some of his previously passive vocabulary. He’s quite conscious of the two languages, which surprised me. For instance, sometimes we play a game where I say ‘Mama says: cheese, Papa says: …’ and he’ll say ‘Kaese’ for instance. I’ve heard that the mixing if it happens tends to sort it itself after a while…

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I am from Switzerland. I have a lot of cousins, uncles, aunts, and nephews they speak german and french. We are a huge family and some live either in the french speaking part of Switzerland or the german speaking part.The Parents speak german and at school and out of the house the children learn French. It is natural and common.
I have lernt French grammar at school and later on in my twenties I moved to the suisse romand and started to speak French.
My wife is from France and we live in France near the border of Switzerland and Germany. I work for a company in Switzerland, I hear the hole day long english because many of the employees are from India, England, Ireland, USA. There are several bilingual schools in the area. In the streets, shopping centers, restaurants of my town all kind of languages are spoken because near 40 % of the citizen are from abroad.
My daughter speaks fluently German, Suisse-German and French. She attended school in France, Switzerland and Germany. She speaks english fluent as well because she lived for two years in the USA.
With that background I rather wonder the other way: Why does a child learn only one langue? On youtube there is a girl speaking 4 langue and she is 4 years old, apparently she doesn’t mess up the languages at all. And there are other examples on youtube.
But it is also truth that not everybody in Switzerland speaks two or more languages. Many have to learn them as adult with efforts and spent money for learning. Although Italien is the third of four official languages in Switzerland (there is also Romansch) I speak very poorly Italien and as you can see my english is full of faults thats why I startet LingQ.
Honestly, I think when children have the opportunity to learn more than one language we have to encourage them. Perhaps there are sometimes problems in certain rare cases, I don’t no. My experiences are all positive. I think the easiest way to learn a second ore even more langues is as a child from 0 up to 6 or 7 years old.


“…I think the easiest way to learn a second ore even more langues is as a child from 0 up to 6 or 7 years old…”

I think that’s very true. But I also think that part of the reason for this, is that younger children don’t learn languages, rather they acquire languages through exposure and interaction. After reaching a certain age, people begin to be aware of the notion of learning, so they begin to try to learn things in a formal and deliberate way. In the case of languages this paradoxically adds a kind of “barrier”, and probably makes the whole thing far less effective.

(Having said this, however, I’m sceptical that it is possible for an adult learner ever to learn a language exactly the way a younger child does. So to that extent, once this “barrier” is in place, it can maybe not be removed, only limited…?)

You say it. that’s exactly the point. That’s why I don’t unterstand why teachers and politiciens tray to compel children under a joke they are not familiar with, instead let them learning by playing and let them listen to things they are interested in. Certainly they don’t now other practices as they studied themselves by that method. Teachers are not really aware of the problem.
It is not the same environment at school as it is at home, too. It works really when parents speak the language (and sometimes grandparents) and other children around but that is obviously difficult to apply in classrooms.
Even though I think there are possibilities to teach different…
Anyway, my experience: 5 years french grammar at school, as result I couldn’t have a conversation with others in French at all. Then I moved to suisse romand, 6 months later I was speaking fluently.
The same for english, I struggled for years and then I found LingQ on the internet. It was at that time not yet developed as it is today. Less content and other leaks but for me it was a revelation, just listen and listen to the languages like children do and the language with all its vocabulary and characteristic sink in the mind and stay there. I have listen for hours and hours and stopped the grammar, just from time to time because in certain cases things are more understandable when I get the grammar, but maybe only 5% grammar, not more. I started read books in english as well and did so a huge leap toward better understanding. But I have to improve that is way I restarted to press on with LingQ.
By my own experience I am convinced that “methods” like LingQ are as close as possible from the natural way humans learn their mother tongue in their youngest age.
That’s also the same when living for a longer time in a country where an foreign language is spoken. I think the same neurons as for toddlers and babes are active when we acquire a new language that way, but this neurons or what ever it is, are certainly a little bit less powerful as they were in our childhood.

“Let’s children be overwhelmed by languages.”

I just wanted to write one sentence or two not more… and now…ay ay ay…but I like it (writing) - and sleep as well…(it’s near 11 pm here in europe)

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This is a very inspiring post indeed, thank you very much! Your English is also very impressive :slight_smile:

En mi opinión , es muy facil para tener hijos biliguales. Yo soy Galés y puedo hablar 3 idiomas. El inglés , el galés y castellano. Mis padres no hablan galés, sino mi abuelo puede y mi abuelo me ensenó que sólo que tienes que hacer es SIEMPRE hablar con el hijo (en este caso, yo) solamente en el idioma que lo quieres poder hablar. No es difícil.

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I was raised bilingual - at home, we spoke Hebrew, and with everybody else I spoke English. As a kid, I don’t remember really being aware of the fact that we spoke different languages, but sometimes my classmates would ask me to say things in Hebrew and would think it was really cool. Only now do I realize how important this has been to me in terms of identity and culture, and I strongly, strongly advise raising children bilingual if possible. My parents simply refused to allow me or my brother to think that Hebrew was any less important, beautiful, useful, etc. than English, and as such we grew up loving the language and feeling the connection to Israel. Being bilingual is awesome, and also gives you a ginormous advantage when it comes to learning more languages in the future. While my peers struggled to understand gender in Spanish, having learned Hebrew, which has an even more complex gender system, made learning Spanish gender easy. Furthermore, my mouth was more used to producing a different set of sounds, which makes me for habituation of new sounds easier in the third language. I always find it a shame to see some of my friends who are also immigrants speaking English with their parents. In doing so, I feel like they lose so much of their culture and heritage. In all, bilingualism is great, and it’s definitely worth it!


Shalom, This is a very interesting post. I agree completely with you concerning bilingual children. God bless Israel.

Hi Andrea, I will try to give you my educated answer. In raising a bilingual child from birth research show that it is best that each parant will stick to one language. Your quastion is appropriate because there are many different opinions on the matter. there are common myths like that the child will be under developed, less intellegent or that she will have lower chances in succeding in life. But, research has shown that all of that is either not true or cannot be properly tested. To the point of confusion I must say that in an early stage this is actually a natural stage in development. On the contrary, a child who is bilingual from birth becomes more skilled in acquiring a langauge and parts of his brain become stertnghened. Today we know that there is o positive side to growing bilingual. There are some things that might come across as dificulties like Status of languages-different combinations and shift of dominance (moving, language of schooling, etc).
On the plus side, the accepted view today is that bilinguals have somethong that called a “conceptual
vocabulary” . this means that we look at what they know - words and concepts in the two languages combined. Also that bilingual children have at least one word for each age appropriate concept, just as thei r monolingual peers. Hope you will find it usefull.

Dear Andreas,
I take a course in language acquisition, where we also learnt about bilingual language acquisition. We were taught that children who are raised bilingually are not delayed in their development, neither cognitive development, nor language wise. Children who are raised bilingually are able to distinguish between the language, when to speak each language and they vary the language they speak according to the person they are speaking to. If they know that you speak Norwegian with them than they’ll speak Norwegian with you, and English for example with their teacher that teaches in kindergarten that speaks only English. Of course it is possible that they mis the two language–but this is not a flaw. It is called code-mixing or code-switching and there are various reasons that cause this to happen.

For example: children code-switch in order to fill gaps which are formed as a result of a gap between the languages. It is possible that a person knows a concept/word in one language but not in another, so they fill the gap formed with a word from the other language.

Children also code-switch depending on the person they are talking to. As I said earlier, if they know that you raised them speaking Norwegian they will speak Norwegian with you.

It is also believed that bilingual children know fewer words than monolinguals. This might not be true for all children. They know different concepts in several languages. They might not know all the equivalents in these several languauges, but they do know some concepts in one languauge and some in the other, along with equivalents. This is called conceptual vocabulary. The child then know how to express him/herself in a languauge one way, but it can be in different concepts in the other language.

To sum up, raising bilingual children should not be frustrating. Children know naturally how to distinguish between the languauges, depending on whom they speak to and they also know to adjust themselves in terms of the code-switching. Children will speak the two languauges naturally.

Hope I helped you.
Aviv Rubin.

Andrea, I could state that being raised bilingually does have its frustrating moments as you grow up, as when you don’t have a sufficient vocabulary to express yourself. You close the gap of insufficient vocabulary by transferring the word or few words from the second language. For example, as a kid I used to say I need to fix my spelling instead of correct my spelling. This occurred as a result of either forgetting the word or lacking it in my second language. It caused a frustration because you want to believe you speak both languages at an equal level but you in certain situations you realize that it is not the situation. This is called “multi competence” – when you speak two sets of languages but you don’t speak them at the same level, you have to transfer from one language to the other. Even though it’s a natural process it causes frustration. In addition, while studying in school, the monolingual students learned grammar which helped them grasp the language they learned. At the same time I believed I knew it and didn’t really believe I should learn it and therefor I created a gap in my understanding the language I speak. That led me to a future frustration in high school when I realized I didn’t have the basic knowledge of my monolingual classmates. In other words, I could speak grammatically correct but not speak about grammar.

First of all, confusion in acquiring language is natural for all children whether they are monolingual or bilingual. Having said, that bilingualism at an early age is not a reason for confusion.
Bilingual children develop the same amount of conceptual vocabulary the same as monolingual children, which means that the bilingual child might not know the word for a certain concept in one language but he could express it using the other language.
The child can acquire 2 languages simultaneously or successively, which means that he can acquire them from birth at the same time, or learn one language depending on the other.
There are different types of bilingualism,
Compound: the same concept but different languages. The child is able to express 1 concept in 2 languages.
Coordinate: the child develops 2 sets of concepts according to each language. For equivalent words in 2 languages he might have different concepts, or formulate different images of the concept in his mind.
Subordinate: this belongs to successive bilingualism, in which the one learns concepts in one language through his native language.

Thank you
Sabreen & Shaimaa

Dear Andreas,

My name is Johnny, and I’m an English Language and Literature major at Oranim College in Israel. During my Language Acquisition Course, I have encountered several issues regarding this matter, including one which is similar to that which you reffered to and I would like to point out several points:

To begin with, it is possible to raise a child as bilingual, do not worry. It might be a proccess in which the child acquires both languages at the same time (parents are native speakers of different languages) and the child is raised bilingually. It might also be a proccess in which a child acquires only one language up to a certain point and then acquires another language (for example, immigrants’ child who speaks Arabic and at the age of three years old moves to Norway). If the child is at an older age, it does not necessarily mean that it would be easier for one to acquire second language.

The difference between these possibilities is that in the first case the child acquires both languages simultaneously, thus creating a database of concepts and language knowledge in both languages at the same time. The child has to comprehend different syntax, pronunciation and sometimes different vocabulary concepts (for words which may exist in one language but lack in another) so the process might seem longer or more difficult but if you compare it to a monolingual child, the steps are just the same. In the next case, the child might already have concepts of objects in his life in the native tongue, and only then he begins to utilize these concepts into a new language which he acquires, for example in his new school in a new country. Since he builds his knowledge upon another language, it may lead to mistakes which are totally natural such as mixed word order and such, but yet again, even monolingual children do that when they meet more complex language as they grow up. There is a third case in which (for example, the parents) the child already has a solid comprehension of the language and then he uses it to acquire the new one, usually by translation.

To simplify, a multilingual child may acquire both languages at the same time and build two seperate language systems. One may acquire one language and build the second one upon concepts already known from the first one, but still acquire both of them (in elementary school for example) .Another things that might happen is that the child grows up with a native tongue fully comprehended already and then builds a new language system upon it (usually the parents).

My bottom line is that children may acquire two (or more) language in a different phase of their lives, yet their mastery over the languages might not be different than a monolingual child who goes through the same stages and usually does the same types of mistakes in the process. People might think that the multilingual child knows fewer vocabulary items in a certain language, but do not forget that he might know different concepts in each language or the same concepts in both languages, thus his vocabulary knowledge might be similar or even larger than that of a monolingual child.

Of course, as said here before, the best way to help the child (both monolingual and multilingual) is by exposure. Meaning that as long as you as parent expose your child at home to your native tongue and the environment would expose the child to another language constantly, the child would acquire both of them. Regarding the mixing, it is totally natural and sometimes even help the child in comprehension of a language if the mixing serves a purpose (for example: two words which sound the same and make the child confuse the two, then the parent can understand where the mistake comes from and correct it).

Warm greetings from Israel!


Dear Andrea,
As someone who was raised as a bilingual child, I can ensure you that I never felt hurt in any sense due to this fact. On the contrary, I feel that the knowledge of more than one language at an early childhood contributed to my ability of comprehending and respecting different cultures, as well as increased my knowledge of the world and the ability to learn new languages afterwards. Moreover, I hope that when I will raise my own children, I will teach them more than one language from an early age.
Your fear of raising your future children as bilingual is understandable, especially because this issue is contradicting. However, resent researchers proved that the different myths regarding bilingualism are in fact false. For example, one of the myths claims that bilingual children’s vocabulary is more limited than monolinguals’ one, yet, bilingual children may know less words in one language, but the knowledge of items in both languages is significantly wider, which eventually suggests that the concept vocabulary is larger than monolinguals’ (a child may know 50 words in French and 60 words in English, but when combining both languages, and omitting the equivalent words – the amount will be bigger than bilingual’s child).
Another myth suggests the confusion between the two languages, as you pointed out: the fear that both languages will be mixed in the child’s brain, and s/he will produce sentences which contain some words in one language, and some in another. This WILL happen for sure. In fact, my parents always make fun at the sentences I produced when I grew up, mixing Russian and Hebrew. Yet, the fact that children do this is because some of the concepts they know in one language, and some in another, but you should be happy that their vocabulary coverage is that wide in both languages, because probably a monolingual child would just say “it” rather than the word. Confusion is a major part in learning a language, and the fact that the child learns one or more languages at the same time does not increase or decrease her/his confusion. Yet, don’t you worry – until the age of three the confusion level will decrease significantly due to sufficient vocabulary coverage in both languages.
The third myth claims that bilingual children are less smart than the monolinguals. This is not true simply because there is no connection between learning a language and intelligence. In fact, several researches were conducted and it was found out that children who were more intelligent did not know less or more languages than those who scored less.
The final myth is that the delay in the child’s development, but again, evidence for this claim was never found.
Finally, there are several reasons which should motivate parents to raise their children as bilingual, primarily due to the fact that as many languages as the child knows – will help him/her in the future, because every language may open another door and opportunity.
Hope I helped you,

Years ago I live in the Canadian arctic where Inuktitut is the language. I knew a couple where the mother was Inuk and spoke Inuktitiut to their kids, 2 girls and one boy, and the father was white and spoke English to the kids. The boy only spoke English, even to his Inuit grandparents, who hardly knew any English. When the boy entered kindergarten, where only Inuktitut was used, the mother was anxious that her son would not be able to manage. On the first meet the teacher night, the mother asked, “Can my son speak Inuktitut?” The teacher was amazed and asked, “Can he speak English?”

Of course he spoke both! But what he revealed to the world was only what he wanted to reveal. Never doubt that a child raised in a multilingual environment is multilingual. It is nature. It has to happpen. IMHO…


For your information:

Bilingual toddlers better at solving certain problems


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