Bilingual Families

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How to Keep a Third Language Going(2 responses)
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2010 - 2012 Discussions

Starting a bilingual household - too late to learn Italian?

Oct 2012

I am Italian and unfortunately my two kids - 9 and 13 - don't speak Italian, and barely understand the basic phrases. I understand they will never be fluent and will always have an accent, but I wonder if it is not too late to start speaking to them in Italian (will have to figure out how to make the transition). I am the main caretaker, and my wife speaks the language pretty well. Any advice and suggestions on how to make this happen will be very appreciated. Grazie! Un papa italiano

I'm not sure about best advice for your situation but I wanted to say it's not too late for them to become fluent and without an accent. My mom took us to her native country for about six months when I was nine. Within a couple months I was speaking fluently and people thought I was from that country. No accent. I have an accent now when I speak in that language and my vocabulary is that of a kid, but I never forgot it and feel very lucky to have learned a second language this way. Take your kids to Italy for the summer! anon
I am Italian too...have a 14yr old and a 12 yr old....they were both fully bilingual until they started preschool and by kindergarten it became harder and harder. I'd like to return to speaking more Italiano and keep hearing that the trick is to get a peer group for the kids....not easy. Also, I think that developing an ''ear'' for the language via videos, music, etc. is helpful. in boca al lupo! ios
I can't offer specific advice on your situation, since my kids are much younger (2 years) but I too am trying to raise them bilingual with Italian.

I can, however, recommend you come to an Italian-language learning play group called Bambini Ciao at the Columbo club in Oakland. We have been going for a year and love it. There is one group for young kids (2-5) and another for older kids (6+).

Many families who come have one parent immigrated directly from Italy such as you, and the sessions are run by a native speaker. It's every other saturday. email bambiniciao [at] for more information.

Hope this helps! Know that there are many others nearby in a similar situation! un altro papa'

I don't think your children are too old to learn a second language at all, and become fluent and speak without an American accent as well. I know people who became fluent at college age so the younger the better. Good luck never too late or early
Although our son learned two languages (English and German) from his start at a childcare center at the age of 13 months, I might have a few suggestions how you can manage with your older kids:

1.) Talk to them about their wishes - If they are both interested in learning Italian, that's a good start! If they are not, try to understand their concerns and take them seriously.

2.) Be consequential - After you made the decision to switch to bilinguality and discussed this within your family, you may not switch back to English again. That's really important. If your children are supposed to learn from you, you should try to speak as much Italian as possible. Try to say everything in Italian first, and only if they don't understand, repeat in English.

3.) Don't push things - E.g., if they don't want to answer in Italian but understood you, be happy and don't force them to speak.

4.) Make it fun - Invent some games to improve language skills or watch your kids' most loved movies in Italian.

5.) Find other people - If your children see that they are not the only people on the planet speaking Italian, they might enjoy it more. Congrats to your idea and good luck! Although your kids might not know it yet they will be very grateful later that you helped them to learn another language - it's a real great opportunity! Vera

I don't think it's ever too late to learn. That said you need to be realistc about what that is going to require on your part.

I am from France and my husband doesn't speak French. Our 7 year old is bi-lingual and people always assume it's easy since i speak it and i say it's hard work. I only speak french to him and i do some ''homework'' with him. We also watch TV in french. But the biggest difficulty you are going to encounter is making it worth it for them. A language is nothing without a context and a reason to learn it. What seems like a wonderful opportunity to you, seems pointless to them. We go around that by visiting every year (and therefore never taking any other kind of vacation), attend every french related event/class we possibly can, meet with other bi-lingual families so that our son knows it's not just him and it's not weird, he takes a private class every week and of course i only speak french to him.

I am not saying it's not possible. I just think you need to be very clear on what this is going to require. I find many local families have a very romantic idea of what it's like to be bilingual but don't realize that's an adult pespective and not kid one. anon

NO, it is not too late at all, Papa! Please teach your children how to speak Italian. I so, so wish that my mother had taught me Spanish. I feel like an idiot to this day that I am half Mexican and cannot speak Spanish. In high school I learned ''French'', like I am really going to use that everyday! I think that if you sit your kids down and tell them that they are going to learn just a little Italian every day, and then do it, they will in the future have this gift from their father, which they will never regret. It would be wonderful gift from you, and it is within your control now, since they are still living at home. If they don't want to learn, can I come to your house and learn? kidding, but teach them!
Hi, Good for you for wanting to share your language with your kids. This was such a great question, I posed it to our resident linguist and expert on childhood bilingualism at, a website for parents raising little global citizens. We talk a lot about raising bilingual kids on the site. Here was her helpful response: Best of luck! Stephanie

Maintaining Spanish in a Bilingual Home

Oct 2012

Are there any families out there that have had success maintaining Spanish in a bilingual home? Our oldest is starting to resist communicating in Spanish even though mom only speaks Spanish to him. What worked for you?

Dear bilingual mom/dad, I have 2 teenagers 17 and 19. My husband is American but always supported my efforts to keep our household bilingual. My kids are both fluent spanish speakers. What worked can be resumed in one sentence. Do not give up, always talk to them in Spanish, even if they respond in English. Encourage them, though, to respond in Spanish, repeat the words they said in english, in Spanish. Give them instructions, orders, disciplining, praising, all of it in Spanish. During the baby/toddler years I hired only native Spanish Speakers with little or no English knowledge as nannies. My husband talked to them in English with some Spanish in between.

We were also lucky enough to be able to travel to my hometown yearly for one month, they had to talk to their grandparents, aunts and cousins in Spanish. We still go there and they have made many friends and they can join the teenage life there easily, speaking like locals teens. I also always read to them in Spanish, always searching for good Spanish books in the era before internet. For baby/toddler books I searched in Toys go Round, Goodwill and such, but for better books and as they require more vocabulary, I'd buy them at home every year. I read the entire Harry Potter series in Spanish to my son, it was great because the language was quite sophisticated.Progress was slow because I had to explain lots of new vocabulary. When talking to them, I never used easy words, I said it they way it is spoken, and eventually they either understood or asked me. We also always listened and sang along to spanish kids music. My sister there always gave them music and books in Spanish upon my request as Xmas/b-day presents. And we had a great selection, each year changing to accommodate their age. Now they get spanish music from their friends abroad and they know what's in by the time they get there. It's really great because that is one more thing they can easily share over there. In elementary school I tutored them and had private spanish tutors just so they had a bit of grammar/spelling knowledge. And I required that they take Advanced Spanish in high school

So it's not easy, it's work, lots of work. The key is that the native parent maintains the language, if it is the mom, all the better. But if she/he gives up now, it will be gone for good and you can never regain it because once the kids know you are not serious about the language they will go the easy way of always using English and your household will become unilingual. I know families where both parents were native Spanish speakers but they gave up speaking in Spanish to their kids early on (preschool). The kids don't even UNDERSTAND Spanish now. A total shame ! Suerte ! Gladys

How to help 6yo keep her German?

July 2012

Hello, My family was lucky enough to live overseas for a few years, and during that time my daughter attended German National schools. She is six and is totally bilingual, but not yet reading German. Our family is now relocating to the US, and as two non-German speaking parents, we're interested in helping her keep her second language.

I have many German resources, such as children's books, movies, etc., and will certainly try to find a native German speaker to keep her talking. However, I'm concerned if this inauthentic experience is even a worth endeavor, and if there are resources that I'm not thinking of that may support her if it is a good idea to try to retain her second language.

I'd appreciate any feedback from parents who have had similar experiences, either as parents or as children themselves. Thanks! Megan

There is a German School in Oakland that teaches both kids and adults. They have some summer program as well. Here is the link: Joy
My kids are bilingual (Hebrew) as well, and have no difficulty with the English language. Perhaps there are events at the German-American school in Menlo Park or the Goethe Institut in SF which you could attend that might help ? I'm not sure why you'd refrain from encouraging such a useful capacity. Anon.
Please, check out our wonderful afternoon German program at: kinderstube. Org/ BAKS + For our first grade in the fall we have a couple of spots remaining and it sounds to me that we would be a good fit to your child's skill level. Best regards Heike (BAKS + Co-director)
Hi, You could enroll her in a German ''Saturday school''. There are several around the Bay Area, and they serve both kids who already know German and kids who want to learn. Here's a listing of Bay Area German Schools on the German School of San Francisco website: There is also a program for fluent German-speakers called BAKS+/Deutsche Sprachschule Berkeley (, which is what my son attends, but if neither you nor your partner speaks German with her at home, then this program might not be a good fit. --
Have you thought about sending your child to school at the German International School of Silicon Valley? The school has three locations in the Bay Area: Mountain View, Berkeley and San Francisco. GISSV mom

Single parent wanting to raise a bilingual child

Nov 2010

I am a single mom (sole custody) and would like my baby to grow up bilingual, as I did, in my heritage language. In two-parent households, it is typical, I think, for one parent to primarily speak each language. But how does it work when there is just one parent? (I do not have local family, and my heritage language is not one of the more common ones in the Bay Area.) So far I primarily speak the heritage language to my daughter, and her caregiver speaks to her in English. But there are challenges, including the fact that English is my primary language, and the language that is more intuitive to me. Part of me would like to speak English to my daughter some of the time, but I don't want to do that at the expense of the other language.

I would love to hear from any other single parents out there who figure out a way to do this. Has anyone done something where you speak English and another language on alternating days, or some other arrangement? How has it worked? -single momma

I am a single mom teaching my daughter our heritage language- Russian. I just speak to her in Russian. Very seldom I use English words at home and only when no Russian word exist for that. In school everybody speak English so she speaks it fluently. She speaks Russian almost fluently with minor mistakes. If she speaks English to me at home I ask her to say the same in Russian please. It is not too hard. Good luck to you! single mom
I am a mother of a newly bilingual 5 year old (he was monolingual spanish speaking before starting kinder) so I have lots to say about this but I will try to keep it short. Feel free to contact me offline through the moderator if you would like to talk more.

You should absolutely only speak to your daughter in your native language. She will pick up English - it is everywhere and it will inundate her, even if you didn't want it to.

It is worth the extra effort. I am similar to you in that speaking Spanish requires much more effort for me than English. Even though I am Latina, English is my primary language. We have always only spoken to our son in Spanish, only read him books in Spanish, only shown him videos in Spanish, etc. He went to a Spanish-only preschool and has many Spanish-speaking friends. He has been in Kinder since Sept (in a dual immersion classroom) and has already picked up so so much English from his new friends there is absolutely no concern that he will be behind in English. Because we live in a society in which English is the spoken language, your daughter will learn it - no question.

The risk you should know about is that once she starts to pick it up, at whatever age, she will likely to try switch over to English. If you have firmly established with her (as we have with our son) that we only Speak spanish together, then this should be easy to stand on. But if she is used to going back and forth with you, this will open the window to her switching over to only speak English with you.

So in short, only speak to her in your heritage language - always. She will pick up English soon enough. genevieve

I would suggest getting a caretaker who natively speaks the language you want your child to learn, and then eventually look for a pre-school that might offer that language too. This is what I have done with great results. However, if the language you are speaking to him is something not found commonly in curriculums (ie not Spanish, French, etc) then your best bet is to stick with your current plan! Raising a child bilingual is so much work but it is a wonderful gift. good luck!
Well, there are two main approaches to bilingualism. One is the One Parent One Language approach, which you mentioned, where each parent speaks their preferred language to the child. The other approach is Home Language Outside Language where the minority language is spoken exclusively in the home, and the majority language is spoken outside of the home. To be honest, most bilingual families I know (including my own) do not really have hard and fast rules about these things and tend to mix approaches according to situation. What I would suggest is speaking the target language as much as possible at home-- resist the temptation to speak English at least at home. Try to find books to read in the target language, cartoons to watch. I would also try VERY hard to save up the money and vacation days to take a trip to a country where the target language is spoken. For our daughter, one short trip abroad made a HUGE difference in her speaking (and her willingness to speak) the target language. It was a complete turn around for her and, if at all possible, I would make every effort to do that. anon
I strongly suggest to keep speaking your heritage language exclusively. This way it will become more natural to you, too, and your child will learn it first hand. If possible, try to sing songs and nursery rhymes, find books and music/children's songs CD's, and later kids' videos in your language. Maybe somebody from your home country can send those. That's what I have done.

I personally think it will be confusing if the same person is alternating languages. For now the nanny's English will be sufficient. Later your child will be immersed more in an English speaking environment, probably attending English speaking preschool and school. In any case your child will learn English at some point. You would not have to teach that language. But if you feel strongly about teaching your own language you will be the only source. Pass down your heritage.

I am always amazed that parents worry about their babies' and toddlers' English when they consider the bilingual and even trilingual issue. As an immigrant (I came to this country when I was 11), I can assure you that the English will fall into place by itself, because the ENTIRE world outside your home speaks it. Children learn language by ''osmosis'' - they just absorb it in a way that adults do not and cannot, and perhaps that is why we worry so much. We imagine the language challenge for the babies will be like it would be for us as grown ups. But the truth is that language learning is a mysterious and very different process for anyone under, say, 10 or 11. I don't ''know'' how I learned English - I never took a single ESL course. I just sat in on classes at school and had to interact with other children and the adults in my new country, and it just fell into place. For children under 5 that process is even easier and more automatic. The biggest mistake parents make is not reinforcing the second language at home, or doing so inconsistently. I know families from my country of origin whose children never retained their parents' language precisely because the parents did not speak it consistently at home. So in terms of practical advice, I would say that if you really want your child to be bilingual, speak the second language to her EXCLUSIVELY. She will not get enough of it even then.

As a relevant side note, when my Chinese friend had a baby, she decided to speak to her exclusively in Mandarin from birth. And I mean exclusively. When she sent her to daycare, she sent her to a Chinese immersion daycare. And three years later, the child is perfectly bilingual, without ever interacting with her mother in anything other than Mandarin. There really is no problem with this set-up, provided that it is consistent. The child ''understands'' that when she is at home and talking with her mother, they communicate in Mandarin. If I am there visiting, she ''understands'' that she needs to address me in English. At this late stage, her mother is now able to say, ''today we will have a visitor and will be speaking English.''

Hurrah to bilingualism

My husband and I share a heritage language, but he did not grow up hearing it or speaking it. So much of the heritage language fell to me, even though English is my primary language.

One parent one language is one way to go about it, but that hasn't work for us. Our daughter went to a school where they alternated languages each day between English and Japanese. But that method also didn't work for us at home, because it seemed way too artificial.

Instead, I've taken my cue from some European friends who explained that they speak the language with their children that is appropriate for that social situation. This way, the child learns not only that language is a means of communication, but also the social cues for that language. For instance at a playground, I was speaking Japanese with our daughter, and I realized that the other parents were excluding me, not maliciously, but they probably assumed that I couldn't speak English. Which in turn meant that I couldn't get my daughter to play with other kids. So in those situations I learned to rely more on English. Likewise, if we have Japanese-speaking friends and/or relatives around, we speak in Japanese. I just keep on using the two languages as I always have, situationally.

With that said, I try to be very careful about not mixing the two languages together. My pediatrician pointed out that full sentences should be in one language or the other, and not mixed together. That seems to be very sound advice.

We supplement with lots of books in Japanese, a fairly sizable collection of Japanese children's DVDs and song collection CDs. We're also able to go visit Japan regularly, which is wonderful language exposure, but not necessary. If you can find a playgroup in that language, all the better.

To complicate the picture, we also had some pretty significant speech delay issues with our oldest child. If you want to talk more, feel free to contact me off-line. GOOD LUCK! annette

Good for you for passing on your heritage language! But no, you don't need a two-parent household to do it. Lots of families speak only one language at home, and all the exposure to English happens outside the home. As long as these kids have someone to help with reading / homework / etc, they learn English just fine. So having just one language in your house isn't a concern. As far as your heritage language is concerned, it will help your child if you can set up a playgroup or other opportunities for her to use the language and (also very important) hear you using it with other adults.

I know bilingualism can be an uphill battle -- I'm a native English speaker who is fully fluent in another language, but when my kids were little and I was sleep-deprived, it was a struggle to speak to them in my non-native language! And the difficulties continued as my kids got older and started answering me in English. But it is very much worth the effort, so I encourage you to keep up the second language. Full disclosure: I work in a bilingual school. On our web site we maintain a page with links to information about bilingualism and resources for bilingual families. You might find some useful information there:

The book ''Bilingual Families'' is also quite useful: it has lots of real-world case studies. Jennifer

hi single momma, I believe that the idea that each parent in a two-parent household speaks one language is a myth. So, go forth and speak what you want! My siblings and I were raised in a two-parent household where both parents spoke both languages - and there were no negative consequences. And I know of many other families such as ours.

I'd say what's more important is the length and consistency of the approach. How long will your child be exposed to both languages? Do you give equal preference to both languages? Will you use both languages for all topics? (Many latino households use Spanish for emotions, feelings and relationship-building, whereas English is the language of business, school, facts. That leads to a certain kind of bilingualism.) Will you have both child-, youth- and adult-level books/magazines in both languages?

Your child is already lucky for having such a thoughtful momma! bilingue

I did not see the orginal question, so don't know what the specific situation/concern was but want to throw my two cents in about bilingualism about which I have very strong opinions/feelings.

Language besides a means of communication is far beyond that also history and cultural and a way of being and a sense of inclusion. I am a first generation Polish-American. As I did not speak English, only Polish, when I first went to nursery school (YEARS ago), my family began speaking English to me to help me out (all very innocent). However, this became an ingrained habit in my family, and while everyone else spoke Polish to each other, they only spoke English with me (from nursery school onward). And this was the habit that was established between their Polish friends and me as well.

At the time (I don't know maybe it's still the case with immigrants) there was a sense of wanting the child born in America to be fully American, so there was some of that too in the language thing.

If your native tongue is something other than English, most definitely speak it with your child and teach them to read and write it as well. Because you are not only passing on words, you are passing on culture, history and a sense of belonging/connection with mother/father. As others have mentioned your child/ren will naturally pick up English on their own.

While I did not speak nor learn to read nor write Polish, I can completely understand what is being said. (Such a strange thing to be spoken to in one language and answer in another.) My parents spoke French to each other when they wanted me not to understand, so out of self-defense I quickly picked up French (which was offered at my school at the time - and eventually majored in it in college).

If the language you'd like to teach your child/ren is not your native tongue, while they may be able to communicate in that language with other speakers, which has a great value in and of itself, they will not have any innate transference of culture or history.

I'm no expert, this is simply my personal experience. I feel that I missed out on a lot by being excluded from my family's native tongue; perhaps the greatest loss was the complete connection to my mother. My (Polish born) sister has said many times how ''articulate'' my mother was. I never got that from my mother, because her English was good but rather halting. As a result, I feel that I don't have full expression even in English.

Hope this is helpful in some way.

I speak Spanish to son but he always answers in English

March 2010

I am Spanish native speaker and my husband is an English native speaker. We speak in English between the two of us. He speaks English to our 3-year old son, and I only do Spanish. Preschool is in English.

Maybe it is no surprise to you that since most of his communication is in English, he only speaks in English! We are becoming worried that we are missing a key age-window to have him be bilingual. This is not just because it would be nice, wouldn't it but because half of his family only speaks Spanish.

Even though I only do Spanish - which he understands completely - he always answers in English. For the last 4 months I have been doing the - exhausting but worth trying - exercise of reminding him every 10' or so: with me you need to speak in Spanish or no te entiendo (I don't understand), or how do you say that phrase in SpanishC - you get the idea. It is not working!

What I am looking for is for suggestions about what have you - or someone you know - done in a similar situation? We are even thinking age-appropriate classes. Suggestions? Thanks! maria

Our child is bilingual, and also learned English first because most of the environment is English. But I was very strict about using the second language at home exclusively, including only reading books and watching videos in the second language when I was the one reading to my child. I also never spoke English when we were at the playground or at play dates. It worked although I converse with my spouse in English.

Can you try to put your son in a Spanish speaking preschool? There are a few out there, and it helps a lot even with children who only speak English at home.

Also, try to visit your Spanish speaking family regularly to expose your son to people who don't understand him when he speaks English. It helped us. Wish you success.

I have been exactly where you are. I am a native English speaker and my husband a native Spanish speaker. We both learned the opposite language in college and are now bilingual ourselves. Not sure if your husband is bilingual but my first suggestions would be to get him on board with learning some spanish too. Second suggestion I have is to be persistent. Even though we ONLY speak Spanish in the household, my daughter was surrounded by family and kids and TV and books in English and therefore same thing, only spoke in English although she understands both wonderfully. As she turned 3 I got more and more and more worried about her not being able to SPEAK spanish especially since that was my dream growing up (to have bilingual kids, I'm half Mexican). At the time I started to push it more, we ended up moving in with my parents who only speak English which meant less and less Spanish at home. So i became more determined. Everything she would say to me I would repeat it in Spanish and wait for her to repeat it to me but always with a smile so Spanish didn't seem like a punishment. Then I'd REALLY REALLY celebrate with her when she would use it. It started with something she really liked....fruit. I would make her ask in Spanish by having her repeat, not by saying ''tell me in spanish.'' Once she learned a few phrases, I did the ''no te entiendo'' thing. Then, once she would get through it in Spanish I'd really celebrate with hugs and kisses and dances. Now, just a few weeks later, she REGULARLY speaks to me in Spanish. I pick her up from the babysitter and she immediately starts addressing me in Spanish. It just took a LOT of patience of repeating every little thing she said to me back to her in Spanish without showing frustration. I wish that I still lived in the immediate Bay Are because I would say 'let's get together!'' but unfortunately I'm not there, but that would help too. It really helps if you can find other spanish-speaking kids (I''ve heard) so your child doesn't think that isn't just ''mami's language.'' good luck, and be patient and persistent!

BTW, As I type this, my daughter is playing with her toys talking to herself in Spanish. The sweetest sound I can imagine! Bilingual Family

I am sending my daughter to Escuela Bilingue Internacional for day camp this summer. It is a Spanish immersion camp. There are also some places that have after school programs. If you husband speaks Spanish I might also speak only in Spanish at home. BTW it is very common for bilingual kids to speak the dominant language (in this case English) at this age when they know someone understands. anon
I am raising a bilingual son as well (English/Russian), in a similar situation to yours, although we have a grandma at home who only speaks Russian. Perhaps thanks to her presence, my 2.5-year-old speaks Russian to her and to me, and English to his dad and at preschool. I keep expecting though that he'll revert to only spoken English and passive Russian... which is not the worst thing in the world. I've heard that kids who grow up with understanding (but not speaking) the ''other'' language can start speaking it fluently on very short notice, within a few days, once they are in an environment that requires it. In your case, dealing with family members who only speak Spanish is likely to force spoken Spanish out of your child. Classes may help too, but not language classes, more like a playgroup or preschool setting where only Spanish is spoken by adults and children. From what I've read on the subject, peer influence is more important than anything adults can do; if your child plays with kids who speak Spanish, he will speak Spanish - at least to the playmates. He may always prefer to reply in English to you, knowing that you understand it perfectly well, but I wouldn't worry that he's losing a chance to be fluent in Spanish. Just be sure to continue speaking Spanish to him and trust that it will all work out! Bilingual too
Hola Maria, I'm in a somewhat similar situation, but am having pretty good success with my 2 1/2 year old boy. I know many folks who have reported the same problem - that the child will understand what you say in the other language, but will not speak back in the target language. My son *is* speaking back to us in Spanish when we use Spanish, so I'd love to talk to you off-line about my approach. I also want to suggest a good book on the topic: 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child, by Naomi Steiner. Also, there are some great videos out there by a company named Whistlefritz. Check out ''Los Animales'' and the other ones. We also use You Tube a lot - basically ONLY in Spanish. Anyway, me encantaria charlar contigo - favor de escribirme un email. Mari
We have a very similar situation in our bilingual home. My husband is the native Spanish speaker, and I while I am fluent in Spanish, I am the native English speaker, so I mostly speak English to our 4.5 year old girl. At 3 yrs, our daughter also always answered in English, and just now she's starting to answer/speak more Spanish. One of the preschool teachers suggested that we make Spanish ''fun'' and incorporate it in fun ways; playing games that include vocabulary building, etc. She suggested ''Spanish-only'' times - meals, or mornings or weekends, etc. Papi reads her books in Spanish. We always get new ones from the library. Daughter does NOT like it when I read in Spanish; she usually demands English reading from me, which is disappointing, but then again, it makes sense. Her dad reads beautifully in Spanish and she totally accepts it when he reads to her in Spanish. She also loves Dora and Diego, so we play those shows/dvds in Spanish whenever possible and she enjoys it just as much as English. We've also tried Plaza Sesamo, though she's not a big fan. We put on Despierta America in the mornings before work. She's learned the phrase ''echate pa'ca'' (ha) and loves the joyful dancing the hosts do every morning. And Obama was on the show recently and had prepared a great message en espanol. Our daughter was facinated (she loves the president). I said, See? Even Barack Obama knows Spanish, isn't that cool?? She loved it. I want to show her that being bilingual is wonderful and great and all things positive (never a ''chore'' or something arduous or negative). We want her to be bien bilingue and proud of her Latina heritage. I would love to meet new families in our situation. Feel free to email me if you're interested in getting together or just want to share more tips on bilingualism. -Kelly
There are some great programs in the East Bay that might support your son speaking Spanish. Lango ( has weekly classes for young kids- that may be a fun way to get him speaking Spanish with you. Cheryl
If you live anywhere near this preschool you should learn more about it!! Las Semillitas, is an amazing Spanish immersion preschool in the foothills of Oakland. Visit Las Semillitas Cooperative is a group of bilingual English/Spanish speaking families working together in the creation of a unique preschool. My niece and nephew attend/ed and both are fluent in spanish and have lifelong friends they have made at this preschool, that help keep up their spanish. Even if you arent interested id suggest you call and ask these parents what they are doing right because the children are extremely well educated AND speak incredible spanish!! I highly recommend it. C
Maria, te escribiria en espanol pero muchas mamas no van a entender. I have two kids now 16 and 14 y/o. Spanish is my native language, My husband speaks some Spanish, understands much, but mostly speaks to our kids in English. Today my kids speak mostly in English but are fully bilingual. Here is what I think. The most important role for you as a giver of the second language is to NEVER, i truly mean N-E-V-E-R fail to speak to your child in Spanish, all the very little things that happen everyday at home: meals, play, bath time, reading, discipline, jokes, everything... no matter in what language he responds, I never said ''I don't understand'' or ''try that in Spanish'' or ''how do you say that in Sp.'' When they were very young we read only in spanish, this is before amazon etc. so i had to search hard for Sp. books of quality writing. We only listened to kids music in sp. (music from my own childhood that I loved and was very familiar with) and we would learn the lyrics, sing and dance together. For presents, I asked my sister to give them sp. books/music. And they loved it. She still gives them hip music in spanish that the load in their ipods. Also, I only hired native sp spakers who spoke no English. Slowly I had to switch to Eng. for school homework, etc. If possible take him to your family -hopefully to your native country- it will be a revelation for him. don't translate for him. My kids traveled every year to their grandparents/aunt from age 8 and 6 respectively and spent lots of time alone with them. A couple of times I signed them up for school there even though they were just visiting for 2 months for them to make friends They learned the slang, swear words, jokes, etc. and these days they have quite a deep understanding of the culture and language. But back to your baby's age, I spoke, directed, explained and disciplined them in Spanish even in front of English speaking parents, grandparents, aunts/uncles here. Sometimes people whine about how they did not understand what it was being said... but I was talking to my kids not them...One important thing is for your husband to be fully supportive, even if he does not understand at the moment (you can explain to him later), if he doesn't your son will be the only one who loses. He will lose his mother's language. It was a lot of hard work, but I love the results. No dejes que tu hijo pierda tu idioma, seria una pena. Gladys
Hola, I missed the original post but wanted to add our story. We are raising our kids trilingual. The key for us is that each parent speaks to the children in their native language ALWAYS, without fail regardless of where we are. This indicates the importance of the language & the necessity of it to communicate with us. We initially did play dumb when he tried to speak English to us. Now, he definitely is aware that we speak English but rarely tries to speak to us in English (occasionally a word here and there). We, the parents, speak to each other in English. We have as much of the other languages in the environment as possible (TV, books, music). In fact if we couldn't find it in our native languages we wouldn't let him watch it. Playgroups in the other languages help tremendously too. If possible, occasional trips to your motherland or somewhere where they speak the language. Also, daycare in spanish (also important to demonstrate importance outside of the home) and now my oldest (5.5yo boy) is in a public school which is Spanish Immersion (Melrose Leadership Academy). Our biggest fear was that we would put in all this effort all for him to speak to us in English once he hit Kinder. Luckily our fears were not realized. He currently is speaking all 3 languages successfully, learning how to read in Spanish & his English is getting better. It is a lot of work & requires determination but it is well worth it. Good luck! suerte!

2007 - 2009 Discussions

Bilingual Toddler-Rearing - Spanish/English

June 2009

I have a two-year-old who I started out speaking Spanish to as a baby, but it seems that as he gets older I've been doing it less and less and speaking/reading mainly English. So he is now quite proficient in English and understands a little Spanish but only speaks a handful of words of it. My question is how I can get back to a solid Spanish language influence with him? I was raised bilingual but honestly my Spanish is not so great anymore after a long time of disuse, so it doesn't come so naturally for me to speak Spanish with my son. And my husband speaks only a little Spanish which he learned in school. However, I'd love to hunker down and raise my child to be bilingual. Any tips for getting back in the groove, books on bilingual learning, dvds, etc. much appreciated. Gracias!

What about a bilingual daycare and ask them to speak only in Spanish that would do it. Paty
I met a family recently who was raising their toddler to be bilingual. They said that most of the exposure in the non-English language was through books. Get a bunch of Spanish-language books from the library and read/talk about them as you would the English books. That way the vocabulary/syntax is provided for you and you don't have to worry about your rusty Spanish. It probably isn't enough exposure to make him completely bilingual, but even in very dedicated ''biingual: households, English seems to prevail eventually. It's a good start. Buena suerte. T.
Hi, you sound like me with my limited Spanish.I've been speaking Spanish and English to my children,(my Spanish vocabulary is very limited),my children also attend''Viva el Espanol'', classes in Lafayette,twice a week, which is a Spanish full immersion learning center, which helps tremendously. I can recommend checking out, they have an assortment of Bilingual CDs that are fun for the whole family. And if you are able, La Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley has shows for children/families on Saturday mornings around 10:30am that are occasionally in Spanish.I often go to book stores and can easily locate Spanish/Bilingual books for all ages.What I find is helpful are the books with the CDs, so at least when you follow along with the book, you can hear the correct pronouciation of the Spanish words. Hope this helps...a mom of two Bilingual children Denise
My husband was raised bi-lingual (spanish/english) and I studied spanish in school and speak a little, but not enough to try to speak to our child in spanish. From my limited research on the subject, one parent is to speak only one language to the child, and the alternate parent only the alternate language. From the time our son was born until 4 years old, he only had spanish speaking childcare, and we would ask the childcare provider to speak spanish to him. He is now in a bi-lingual pre-school. My husband's father only spoke english to him, and his mother only spoke spanish. He still is equally fluent in both languages. Even though my husband knows he should speak spanish to our son, he is not consistent, and does not require him to speak back to him in spanish. Where we are now, is our son completely understands spanish, but chooses to speak only in english. We have to bribe him to talk to ''abuelita'' in spanish. Hope that helps, it is not the perfect solution, but we are coming along. I will probably incorporate spanish tutors, or summer spanish camp until he is old enough for spanish classes in school. also want a bi-lingual child
I initially didn't respond because I thought you would be overwhelmed with the amount of responses but I was really surprised at how few there were.

I'm raising my children bilingually-English/Spanish. My husband speaks English to them. I speak Spanish to them. Spanish is not my first language. I have a 5-year-old and a 1-year-old so I'll speak to my experience with the 5-year-old more.

My biggest advice is don't underestimate how much your child gets exposed to English and how little they get exposed to the second language. If you really want them to be bilingual--you have to expose them to a lot more of the target language than you think you should. As soon as you put them in a English-speaking preschool (or even a bilingual one where most of the children are Englsh speakers) they will start relying on English more and pretty soon, they're going to lose a lot of their language proficiency (particularly around language production--getting them to understand it is the EASY part).

For us, being around other children that spoke the language exclusively made a big difference. That's when my son realized ''this is not just mommy's language. It's cool!'' Other advice: If you're the Spanish-speaking parent, do NOT speak English to your child. Read lots of books in the target language. If you're watching movies always put the dvd to the target language. Your caretaker should speak the target language and make sure that they do not speak English with your child. Even babysitters who speak English very poorly surprisingly will try to speak a lot of English with their charges. Your child needs to know that everything they want to say can be said in the target language but if you can only be affectionate in English, or be fun in English, or play games in English, then why would they want to interact in the target language? Find/Start a playgroup in the target language. As often as possible, put yourself in an environment where that language is exclusively spoken (travel to home country, family events, volunteering/socializing in the community where language is spoken). Carry around a dictionary everywhere so when necessary you can look up a word (so you don't have to insert an English word). Lastly, keep going. It is so easy to give up, especially when your child is speaking English back to you and it's easier to communicate in English but (hopefully) your child will thank you eventually for your diligence. bilingual mama

Japanese bilingual-ism for kids- how to keep up?

Oct 2008

We are in need of advice regarding how to keep up with Japanese bilingual-ism. Some parents are more diligent with speaking in different languages at any time, but we are not. I am Japanese but we predominantly speak in English at home, and our daughter now goes to a Spanish-English bilingual daycare. We're thinking of sending her to Sycamore or Pan Pacific school so she gets more Japanese exposure. We actually would like some advice on options in Japan. I hear some people actually go to Japan, and kids attend some camps or preschools for several weeks. Is it really possible? It seems like the best way to learn the culture and language and given that all my family is in Japan, such arrangement is definitely possible for us. Please let us know if you know of any school you can just attend for a month or so. Lastly, we're pretty disconnected from the Japanese network in Eastbay. If there is such a thing as Japanese-based play group, we'd like to find out about it. Our daughter is now 2years old, and another one is on the way. Thank you! Hopeless japanese mom

Look into bilingual Japanese schools: Global Montessori International School (Berkeley) or Pacific Rim International School (Emeryville). There are many families that are native Japanese, but others that are not (like us). Our son speaks/writes in Japanese, as well as Chinese and English (they are a trilingual schools). samokai
Hi, I recommend Sycamore Preschool stronly! My child attended three years there and just graduated. It was the greatest place to learn Japanese culture and keep up with Japanese events of the seasons. Also, you get to know many Japanese mothers and families who go through exactly what you go through. It is a great support. I suggest you go visit the school. They will be happy to have you visit any time! In terms of sending your children to school in Japan, I know some families who have done that from Sycamore. I have heard that in some areas, public schools allow you to come in for a month or so, and in other areas, only private school would allow it.

I hear your frustration wtih your children losing Japanese. All of the mother have the same problems. The only way is to keep on talking to them in japanese and reinforce them to respond in Japanese. It's a work and takes a lot of patient. Many parents give up. It is easy to give up but I know so many grown Japanese American saying they wished their parents sticked with it. It gets harder once they hit Kindergarten, so I recommend you to enjoy the luxury of having your children speak Japanese at school while you can. Good Luck!!! sachikookano

I can't give you any advise on school/preschool in Japan since I haven't done that, but I'm with a Japanese moms' playgroup in Walnut Creek. The kids' language(s) is our great concern, so we talk about it often. I think it helps a lot if you talk to Japanese moms since we're in the same boat. If you're interested, let me know. I don't know where you live, but I used to go to the one in the Berkeley area. Although I lost in touch with them, someone in my group might know about them. white_impatiens
I came to US form Japan 15 years ago and have 2 children who were born here in Bay Area. My husband is also Japanese. I did send my older daughter to the local elementary school at my parent's area in Japan for a few weeks before their summer break started when she was 7. That was an only occasion. It was a great experience for her. The arrangement itself was very easy. My mom talked with the school and that was it. I am not sure about the preschool, but I think it is worth to ask. Nowadays, many Japanese or Japanese -origin children live abroad and many schools are very open to it, especially in big cities. However you need to keep in mind that that is more for children's experience, not for their language skill. That will stimulate your child's language skill, but learning language does not come for a short period. It has to be consistent and every day thing. The institutions such as Japanese-speaking schools can be your help, but you are the one who really work for it. Also it depends on children. Some kids, like my daughter, love it, but on the other hand, the others feel burden. (My younger son is not so eager for learning Japanese and I have also seen the case in other kids). I guess the good way to start for your family is to set up the realistic goal for your child(ren) in a long term, especially you are in a bi-cultural family and your daughter has not been exposed to Japanese much. I believe that being Japanese or keeping our culture does not only come from speaking the language. More importantly, it is how to understand, accept and accommodate our culture. I see it in many Japanese-Americans who barely speak Japanese, which, I think, is wonderful. If you have any questions, I am happy to answer by email. Rie
Hi, I can relate your struggle... I am Japanese and my husband is American. We speak English at home most of time and I have been trying to speak Japanese with my daughter, 18 months old. I do not know many Japanese family in the area either. I can speak to her in Japanese all day long, but I think it is important for her to hear conversation in Japanese. I work everyday from 8:30 to 3:30. I have been looking for playmate/ activity after 4:00 p.m. If you would like to get together, please e-mail me. I am available on weekends as well. lets

Bilingual families and language exposure

Sept 2008

Hi, I have a toddler who is about 2.5 years old. I am bilingual (english and spanish) while my partner only speaks english with some high school spanish inermittently. I mostly (90% of the time) speak spanish to our daughter since we want her to also grow up bilingual. She appears to understand everything I say but will always repeat things in english. She has been attending 1/2 day pre-school where the teachers and students communicate mostly in english. My partner also speaks english to her and she has stayed home with her. Our plan was to transition her into a full day spanish speaking child care provider this school but just found out she will be moving soon. Our options are limited. There is a great pre-school nearby but it has no spanish language exposure. As she is developing her language skills she is also excited about the recognition she is making of the meaning behind language. She is quite communicative and many people comment on how vast a vocabulary she has. She seems to be confused at this point and needs more exposure to other people speaking spanish besides me. I guess my questions are these: Is it enough exposure to only have myself speak spanish to her? Is it necessary to try to find another spanish speaking provider? Does anybody know of spanish playdates or groups for kids her age for mixed or inter-racial families? What other ideas do people have outside of expensive basic lango type classes? (She knows basic identification of colors and such as I have several kids cd's) Any ideas would be helpful. Muchas Gracias. eva

I have a friend who raised her two kids to be completely bilingual in Swedish and English, but she is mostly a stay-at- home mom who never veers from speaking Swedish to them (reading them Swedish books, watching Swedish kids' films etc.) and expects them to answer in Swedish. And their Dad is a fireman and so is often not home. But both kids attended English- language preschools and schools, there is virtually no Swedish- language stimulus in the environment (unlike Spanish and Chinese, for instance), and still they speak fluently. Some of the key factors are my friend's unswerving dedication to speaking Swedish with them (even sometimes when English- speakers are present), her husband's acceptance of this, and yearly, long visits to Sweden. I think that it can be done, but probably you will need to teach your daughter code- switching -- that is, she answers you in Spanish when you speak to her in Spanish, she learns who in the environment speaks Spanish and speaks Spanish with them. I do know of some basically bilingual people who answered their parent in English; they developed superior facility with understanding the language when they encountered it elsewhere, but sometimes had difficulties in speaking and certainly difficulties in writing. Good luck with your efforts, bilingualism is a great gift! tvaaspraakig
I don't think it's enough for only you to be speaking the language. I know many kids who grew up w/ parents that don't even speak english. And while they can understand the language, they will always answer in english and barely speak the language. Listening and speaking are two different skills. You will have to insist on your child speaking back to you in Spanish and expose her to as many other people who needs her to speak the language on a day to day basis. English is the main language here and w/o that constant exposure, the language skills will erode over time. Try There are several playgroups out there, usually based in Oakland, for inter-racial kids. anon
Ours is a bilingual home, too, and it seems to be working out alright with only one parent speaking the ''minority'' language, and the outside world speaking the majority language. I am working on an MA in TESL right now, and a lot of the research seems to indicate that if your child is in, say, a French-speaking environment 50% of the time, that's going to improve their French a lot more than if they were in a French-speaking environment 10% of the time. In other words, it all depends. But if you're providing 50% exposure to your kid, she should be fine... don't be surprised, though, if she decides to simply not speak Spanish if you're the only one speaking it to/with her. The way to counter that possibility is finding other native speakers to interact with her. I would bet that there are people on the BPN who have connections to pretty much whatever target language group you're after, and they will probably offer some advice; that said, I would imagine that the majority of BPN members are native speakers of English; the messages are all in English! (Some industrious person should make a BPN en Espanol!) El Kevin
We're a trilingual family. I speak Spanish exclusively to my kids and my husband speaks only French to them. Our 4 yo speaks very good English and Spanish, and also French although not quite as fluently. Our 2 yo speaks very good Spanish, some French and only a little bit of English. That will probably change soon. My recommendation is that you speak ONLY Spanish to your child. No English at all. And that you're adamant that he/she speak Spanish to you. Otherwise, the tendency will be to speak English. Of course, the more exposure to Spanish the better. If you have more questions, or you would like to hang out so that our kids can speak Spanish together, send me an email. Languages are an asset. Jimena jimegalfaso [at]
Hola! No se donde vives, pero te puedo sugerir que investigues la Casita Bilingue en Pinole. Los precios son rasonables, por medio dia yo pago 708/mes. Todas las maestras hablan espanol, y les hablan a los estudiantes en espanol. Nos. hablamos los dos idiomas, y mi hija habla muy bien el espanol, somos de Centro America. Si tienes algunas preguntas me puedes mandar un correo electronico. Gabriela
Hi, I, too, am in your situation. I'm bilingual (although my first language is definitely English) and my husband speaks no spanish whatsoever. We have no friends who speak spanish so I'm basically on my own. Although my kids completely understand spanish and respond to all requests, etc. in both language, my oldest (4 yo) would only respond to me in English and, frankly, still mostly does but we're making progress. This is what has worked for us so far. First, I employed a spanish-speaking nanny and two things happened a) my kids started understanding and speaking more spanish and b) my spanish improved so much that I'm speaking even more than before. This has helped a lot since the nanny didn't speak english. Second, and what had the greatest impact, was that I took my kids to Argentina (where my family is from) for 5 weeks and I put my oldest in camp there. (I know this isn't feasible for most people but I can work from anywhere). Being surrounded by so much spanish with everyone speaking spanish made the biggest impact. He went from speaking no spanish at all, to speaking it much more. So, if you can find a spanish-immersion daycare/school, it will help a lot. Third, I repeat what he says to me in spanish and then he'll repeat it back to me. I even sometimes tell him I don't understand him and to say it in spanish and he will. I think this really helps but I admit to not being very consistent with it. although I don't know of any spanish playgroups for kids your age, you are welcome to contact me to see if we would be a match. However, my youngest is only 18 months and my oldest is in school during the day. Good luck nfiedotin

Bilingual kids -- one parent = one language?

Feb 2008

My mother language is English, and my wife's is German. We want to raise our daughter bilingually, and my wife and her friend insist that we must use ''one parent, one language.'' My instincts tell me that this is just an expert's opinion -- and experts opinions change every few years. Anybody out there have success (or failure) with two languages with or without ''one parent, one language''? Advice? Tips? Articles to read, websites to peruse? Thanks! kevin

I don't believe one-parent, one-language to be the only way to do it, although it would probably work in your case. We have the same issue at home, and since English is everywhere, we have chosen to speak the one ''foreign'' language at home by both parents. It has worked out fine, and given the pervasiveness of English I think it is better to make the home have the other language as dominant. This is especially the case if it is the father who's native language is the foreign one -- since moms tend to typically spend more time with the kids than the dads, even today. I am the mom, English is my native language, and I speak the other language with my kids. Yes I make some grammatical and pronunciation mistakes, but it is not a big deal and at least the kids are bilingual -- which is wonderful.

There are many ways to bring your kids up speaking more than one language, just remember that English is pervasive and don't do anything that would ruin your kids' chances of being totally bilingual. I hear lots of parents that moan about their kids not speaking back to them in the foreign language (which does happen with virtually all older kids, but not the little ones), when it is the parents fault for not putting in enough effort when they were young. --

I am French and speak ONLY French to my child. My husband is American and speaks English to him (my husband doesn't speak French at all). Our son is now 3.5 and is speaking to me more and more in French. If he needs to repeat what he told me to his dad, he'll automatically translate it with no effort. Our son wasn't speaking much French for a long time so I was wondering if my dedication was going to pay off. At some point, I suggested that he asks me for anything he really wanted in French. That put him on the path of making entire sentences in French, and speaking French to me happens now more and more often. I don't correct his grammar because that might inhibit his efforts at this age, but I do buy DVDs of cartoons in French, and often will tell him how to say the same word in French and English. He recently understood that speaking another language is something special, and even if he rebels against it -like most bilingual kids seem to- I'll be there to remind him now is the time to learn this, and he'll be happy to have this knowledge later. If you go to your local library and type in ''bilingual child'' you should be able to find books on the subject -I did find good books this way, but can't remember their titles. ingrid
During the day my 2.5 year old is cared for by my parents who have been speaking Chinese with her. My husband knows only one language which is English. I can manage some Chinese. It didn't take long for her to figure out that daddy doesn't know Chinese. After getting blank stares from her father, she only uses English when speaking with him. She will use either one with me depending on her mood. And she speaks Chinese mostly with my parents as they actively discourage her use of English with them. We expect her opportunity for daily Chinese use will decrease once she starts preschool.

Personally I think the one parent one language idea is good. However, if you are also fluent in German I would recommend speaking German strictly during the first two years. Your daughter will most likely have more opportunities to pick up English than German as she gets older. crystal

I too have often heard that one parent/one language is the way to go. My daughter attended a Spanish immersion public grade school and they taught that way with very good results; the children only heard Spanish from their primary teacher, and went to another teacher for their English time. And I had a friend in her fifties who was raised in Mexico. One parent spoke English, the other Spanish, and my friend was beautifully fluent in both.
Hi, We were in the same position - I am German, my husband English. We really liked this book: Growing up with two languages - a practical guide by Una Cunningham- Anderson and Staffan Anderson. A really useful guide by parents for parents.

Re. one parent one language - some 4 years ago a researcher from Canada gave a talk at UC Berkeley (may be someone remembers the name?)and basically said that there's too little empirical evidence supporting OPOL, other ways work too. We started with OPOL, but when we decided for our kids to go to an English speaking pre-school, moved to speaking German at home,because we wanted more exposure to the ''minority'' language. We also stocked up on German DVDs, which helps since we don't do TV. If we have visitors, we switch. This seems to work fine for us and our kids. I think the most important thing is that both parents support the idea. It is more work, but don't give up and be prepared for the ''your child will be delayed talking'' nonsense. Kathrin

Kevin, we are in the same boat. I speak English and my husband speaks Tibetan to our 2-1/2-year-old son. But we are having a very difficult time making him SPEAK Tibetan. He understands it fine, but he simply refuses to speak it.

I have heard that this is common among bilingual families here. The kid is immersed in American culture and English-language TV, books and radio, 24 hours a day, so you have to really persist. So be prepared -- be sure he's around as many German speakers as possible, and really be proactive about it. When our boy is older around 6 or so, we plan to send him to a Tibetan school in northern India for 3 months of language and cultural immersion. You may want to search out similar immersion training for your child! Lisa in Oakland

Hi, We are raising a trilingual kid. I speak ONLY to my son in Spanish & my husband ONLY in his language. He then gets English from everywhere else and he hears us speak English to each other since it's the only language we (the parents) share. He is also in a Spanish daycare. In addition, we have the family on board. They speak whatever they are fluent in to our son. We've been doing this since birth and he is 3.5 now. It has been fantastic. He totally speaks all 3. He naturally switches between languages depending on who is speaking to him. I highly recommend it! Language is such a gift.

here are some resources: Whatever you decide, just be consistent! Good luck! anon

Studies and personal experiences have proven that the expert advises of using the ''one parent=one language'' approach is right. In our family I only and exclusively speak German with our two children and my husband ONLY speaks English with them. Both kids are bilingual, switch easily between the two languages and have never even thought about talking to me in any other language then German. For them it is natural that Mami speaks one and Daddy another language. At the dinner table the spoken language is English while questions addressed to me or conversations between the kids and myself are in German. If I need Daddy to understand what we talk about I make an exception and switch to English.

I am part of a large German speaking mother's group/playgroup (does your wife know the East Bay GerMOMs?) in which many mothers of new babies have asked the same question and were unsure what language to use with their baby. Most - if not all of them - now use the ''one parent - one language'' parenting style and it works like a charm - if you are consistent. I have a friend who switches between German and English when talking to her boys, with the result that her kids prefer to answer in English and have a much larger vocabulary in their ''strong language'' while they try to avoid the weak one. Make sure your daughter is exposed to other sources of the German language (books, CDs, DVDs and even German playmates) so she gets a positive feeling for the language and understands that her mother is not using some kind of ''secret language''. Their is plenty of literature about ''how to raise a bilingual child'' (i.e. ''Language Strategies for Bilingual Families: The One-Parent-One-Language Approach'', check out which might be interesting for you to read ... Viel Glueck! A GerMOM

My BIL is english speaking and his wife speaks spanish. They each speak to my nephew in their native tongue. By 3 he was conversing in both languages, but sometimes he forgot and would speak spanish to Dad. By the time he was entering grade school, he could tell the difference between both languages and converse beautifully. aunt of a genius
What's the best approach to bilingualism in any given family/situation can vary. I recommend the book ''The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents.'' Part of the book is a bunch of anecdotes about all the different ways that different families in different contexts have approached bilingualism. My husband is German; I am a native English speaker, but can understand and speak German at an intermediate level. I speak mostly English with our two-year-old son (and three-month-old daughter); my husband speaks German with them. One important factor is to what extent the child gets equal/varied exposure to the two languages. German is definitely the ''underdog'' language in our case: (1) we live here, in an English environment, (2) my husband and I speak English with one another, and (3) I'm home with the kids all day (speaking mostly English) while my husband works full-time outside the house. Thus, our kids get exposed to a lot more English (and more varied sources of English) than German. So, I speak German with the kids when I can muster my brain and mouth to do so, and I take them to play with a playgroup of German moms and kids weekly. In that sense, we are not strictly one parent/one language; our strategy is more one of trying to increase exposure to the underdog language as much as possible. The balance of English and German may be different in your family, which will affect your approach. Another important factor is how each parent responds to utterances in either language. In our case, neither of us ''forces'' our son to respond in a certain language; my husband does not feign incomprehension or refuse to talk with our son if our son replies in English; he just keeps up his half of the conversation in German, regardless. We feel that, ultimately, the relationship between parent and child, and making our kids feel loved and valued, is more important than pushing the bilingual issue. So far this is how it's turning out in our case: our two-year-old understands both languages very well (i.e., is ''receptively bilingual''), speaks English very well, and usually responds to German with English or a mix of German and English. Chelsea
My wife and I are also raising our daughter bilingually, and have never stuck to the rigid ''one parent one language'' rule because we love both languages. Both of us are fluent in each other's native languages, but since we live in the States, we have decided to use the foreign language as our ''home'' tongue, (although we often end up speaking English anyway). The upshot of this is that, so far, our 20 month old understands the 'foreign' language about 20% better than English, but for the most part understands both pretty well. Her speech is a little behind other toddlers we've seen, but we've never worried because, hey, she's learning two languages at once! She IS learning, and delights in speaking both words for one object.

When one of us reads to her, the other will often translate, and she loves this. We also purposefully switch languages sometimes, so that she doesn't associate one language with one parent - in order to teach her that both of us are comfortable in both languages. Our goal is to have her, like us, switch easily between these tongues (and any others!).

In any case, the best advice I can give you is to do what feels most natural, because you won't stick to anything else. Also, we believe living in the other country is in fact necessary, so we recommend you spend as much time in Germany as possible with your child. It's hard to do, what with jobs and all, and is expensive, but utterly worth it. You're giving your kid a priceless gift! Whatever Works For You

A friend of mine has raised her child speaking Hebrew, Dutch, and English. I haven't seen them in a long time, but by the time the child was two, he could speak and understand large chunks of all three languages,though English was dominant. Boy, was I impressed! Anon
My husband is turkish speaker and he speaks mostly turkish to our daughter. I speak severeal languages, but when we decided on languages we decided on only two. English and Turkish, because in the family communication I speak Turkish and English addition to other languages and my husband speaks Turkish. My daughter turned out to be bilingual. She is 6 now. Speaks both languages.

From the point of ECE/ESL teacher I tell you no matter how many languages you expose your child to, he or she will get all that you give him or her. Early language exposure is very important to the life of the infant. They develop cognitive skills in both languages and results are wonderful. You may contact me for more information if you need. Maksuda

I have to agree with your wife. Unless you speak German and then i would say you should BOTH speak to your child in german. I am French and my husband American. I have always spoken french to my son and i am a stay at home mom. At 15 months you don't see yet how much the environment is affecting her language skills... was a huge surprise to me. Even though i only speak french to my 2.5 year old and even don't have english speaking toys in the house he has learned an AMAZING amount of english words. He understands both and knows the words her knows in both as well...yet he often choses to start in english even with me. The environment is overwhealmingly english because that's what she hears outside and she need as much reinforcement as possible. He goes to a french daycare two afternoons a week and yet the kids speak english to each other. On a side note, my mom is visiting and now that there are language reinfrcement in the house (she doesn't speak english), his french is taking over. SO i would say yes to the system your wife says...but if you speak german speak it to me she will learn english no matter what if you live here. magaliusa
My husband and I speak both Spanish and English and we have spoken to our two year old in both languages. I am not sure what the ''experts'' say, but I can tell you that my daughter knows how to use both languages, she speaks spanish to grandma and uses both languages when she is with her mommy and daddy. I find that it is better for a child to learn both languages as infancy is the BEST TIME to learn to speak, why not two languages. think about how hard it is to learn a language at our age? Check out this website, there is tons of information that will help you make a decision, this is to their pros/cons section. Gabriela

2004 - 2006 Discussions

Reading in non-native language

June 2006

There have been a couple of posts about raising bilingual children recently. I have a specific question that I'd like your input to. I'm speaking in my native language (turkish) to my 15 month old son almost all the time (except occasionally when my in-laws are around or sometimes when he is playing with other kids). I also translate all the english books when I read to him in addition to reading him in turkish. Now that he is getting more and more aware of the connection between letters, words, and sounds I'm wondering if I should read the books in their written language. Will it be confusing to him if I start reading to him in english? or would it be better for me not to read in english at all and leave that to my husband? Any insight? Thank you Elif

i went through the same thing with my daughter who is now 3 years old. i only spoke/read to hear in french when she was a baby but then, as the books became more sofisticaded, i found it hard and tirying to constantly be translating. it makes for a much less fluent story and you can't always translate all the subtlilities, like a joke or an expression. BUT, BEWARE! once you start doing that, your child will make the connection between you and speaking english. when my daughter started speaking her first words and not quite yet making sentences, she spoke 99% french. as i found myself reading/talking to her in english once in a while (for the sake of playmate or other mothers in the room), she slowly started speaking english as well. it coincided with the time that she entered pre-school and within weeks i could see (hear!) all the french words dropping out of her vocabulary as she constructed her sentences in english. now she's 3, she understands everything i say in french but can't speak it anymore, and it brakes my heart! my advice: stick with YOUR language, (i know, it's really hard at times) and very early on require that your kid answers to you ONLY in your language and pretend not to understand her when she speaks english. but do it early on, don't wait for her to start connecting the dotts in her mind. i have another daughter (8 months old) and i will definitely use this method on her this time around! good luck. diane
My advice is: Keep reading and speaking to your child in Turkish!

I am Dutch and I am married to an American. I speak solely Dutch to the children (2 and 5 yrs old) and my husband speaks English. I also translated books from English into my native language and I believe that it only made my daughter become better at speaking both languages. Both children are now bi- lingual and I believe that it has everything to do with the fact that I exposed them as much to my native language as I did.

About half a year ago, my 2-yr old went through a phase where he started talking to me in English. I never told him that he couldn't do that, but I did always repeat it back to him in Dutch. This lasted maybe 2 weeks and then he automatically switched to speaking Dutch to me and English to my husband. The same happened to our 5-yr old and she is completely fluent in both languages.

I have several Dutch friends who were less adamant about their child speaking our native language and none of their children will speak Dutch. They completely understand it, but will only reply in English. I never make my children feel like they did something wrong when they speak English to me, but I will ALWAYS repeat what they say in Dutch.

I heard that children sometimes get embarassed about being different and as a result will refuse to speak their 2nd language. My daughter is extremely proud of the fact that she is bilingual and her environment (friends and family) are very supportive and compliment her about it.

I am now teaching our daughter how to read in Dutch. There are many differences in sounding the letters, but she is doing a great job. I never ask her if she wants to learn to read in Dutch - she asks me! I think, of course, that she is a very bright child, but to be totally honest; she's a normal child. She isn't an Einstein, or something.

So keep up the good work and in a couple of years you'll be a super-proud mommy (like me!) of your bilingual child! JOJ

Keep reading and speaking to him in Turkish. Having spent three weeks in Turkey earlier this year, I found Turkish an incredibly difficult language to speak and understand, so learning it now will make it easier on your child. The best time to learn a language is when a child is young. Your child will go off to pre-school and then kindergarten and can learn English then Lori
My son is 10 and I have only just started last year with reading him books in English because it becomes too difficult to translate. Because we live here, and he goes to an English speaking school, English is his first and primary language. His level of fluency and comfort is in this language, even though he speaks my native language (Dutch) fluently. It is very easy to loose the second language. Even now I find myself speaking English to him when I am frustrated and I am suprised how easy it is for him to communicate in back in English. If I would speak only English from now on, his Dutch would dissapear very quickly. Therefor it is extremely important to have a very strong foundation in your native language, where you read and speak to him in that language. He gets enough English around him as it is. This is such a gift you can give your child, keep it up. J. Emerson

Maintaining child's Spanish she learned from babysitter

Aug 2005

My two-year-old daughter currently spends three days/week being cared for by a bilingual babysitter who speaks Spanish to the kids. My husband and I are both native English speakers, and I speak fairly decent Spanish (and he speaks a little). My daughter is somewhat bilingual, though her English is miles ahead of her Spanish. This fall she's starting preschool and will no longer have any regular exposure to Spanish. I try to speak Spanish to her some, but truth be told it's not that much (and she'll only speak English back to me). I strongly value multilingualism and would really like to encourage and develop her Spanish. I'm trying to figure out what I can do that will keep her from forgetting everything before she starts kindergarten. It's easy to get her videos and books in Spanish, I can try to speak it with her some, but I doubt that's enough. I know that she needs to spend time around monolingual Spanish speakers, but how? Unfortunately I work very long hours (medical resident) so I can't just hang out at a park in Fruitvale until I start meeting the moms. Anyone out there have any success maintaining a language learned from a caregiver after the kid left that person's care? My husband feels much less strongly about this than I do so I don't think he'd go for a bilingual school or preschool. Specific places and times of toddler/preschool activities in Spanish would be particularly welcome. Muchas gracias! Kate

There is a new pre-K through grade 8 bilingual Spanish/English private school that is currently being organized in the East Bay. They plan to open in fall 2006, and I believe they are looking for a site in the Berkeley/Albany/Oakland area. I personally do not know a lot about it, but you can check out their website: Burr
With all due respect, but what is your goal? If you want your child to be truly bilingual, then it takes a commitment- it takes classes, friends, schooling, time.

From your posting, it sounds like this ''My child has been playing the piano for the last two years, but now we've gotten rid of the piano. I don't have time to take her to piano lessons and my husband doesn't really support piano playing. Given all these obstacles, what have others done to make sure that your child learns to play the piano?'' If this is truly your situation, then wait until your child is a little older and enroll her in a private school or excellent public school which has Spanish classes. Kindergarten is not too old to start learning a language and there are many good immersion programs around the Bay Area. You can do what you can with books until then, but don't worry about what she loses, she can get it back.

If, instead, your goal is to really work more toward bilingualism now, then I have lots of suggestions, but I don't know where you live (and given your tight schedule and the distance this network covers, knowing that would be helpful).

Most important to her language development, however, is your language development. So, attending activities is so less important than your interaction with her. You should do your best to speak and read Spanish to her and to improve your skills. Practice on the job with other native speakers and you'll feel more confident to bring that home. Bring out those old dictionaries, conjungation sheets and high school workbooks and build her vocabulary through your re-learning.

Just trying to be realistic not negative- smile. Diane

I'm native Italian but my children barely understand it

Aug 2005

I am native Italian, and my children (4 and 6) barely understand it and don't speak it at all. Now they seem interested in learning and I am looking for some help. Other then speaking Italian to them, what should I do? I know it is not too late, and this time I really would like to be rigorous! Do I need books, videos, classes (if any available), etc... Thanks.

I am italian and I have a 6 y.o. practically bilingual daughter. Please contact me directly, if you wish, for tips/books/videos. Grazie, Silvia
I am completely bilingual, and so far I have managed to keep my kids bilingual, though they both lean heavily towards English. When I was growning up, my parents spoke ONLY Japanese in the house. It was a strictly observed rule. I speak only Japanese to my kids, and they are supposed to speak only Japanese to each other. They have both attended and one still attends a native Japanese school every Saturday. My older child started off speaking only Japanese, but now her Japanese is starting to get iffy. I've known many kids who have two Native Japanese parents that end up not speaking Japanese. Playmates that speak the language help a lot, but most often when they start school, the kids start playing in English.

What I'm trying to say is, it takes real dedication, dicipline and conviction to keep this language thing going. Keeping a language in a society with a different language takes lots of work, though I wouldn't have it any other way. To me it's worth it, but it only gets harder as the kids get older!

Also remember that once a child reaches 5 or 6, the language is never lost. Even if the child stops speaking Spanish, when he/she decides to learn it again, what he picked up earier will come back.

Good luck! Bilingual mom

(to the native Italian parent) I am also native Italian, with an American wife. She speaks Italian pretty well but understandably prefers to speak English to the children. My children are 3 and 9. Other than speaking to them in Italian, I buy pretty much all of our videos from, and they are allowed to watch them with the Italian soundtrack only. Books also work well until about 6 years old, when they no longer need an adult to enjoy a book. (I read a couple of Harry Potter books in Italian to my elder daughter). Check out Before 9/11 we had au pairs from Italy with 6-month tourist visas. Now they don't give out 6-month visas any longer and 3 months is a bit too short. But of course the most useful experience of all is to visit relatives in Italy---that's when they hear a lot of Italian and switch to it pretty quickly. Each time I noticed a large change after about 2 weeks. Luigi
I have a close friend who is a linguist specialized in language aquisition and many friends and family members who speak to their children in a language which is not the dominant language where they live. My friend has told me that the key to bilinguilism in these situations is for the mother (or father -- but because mothers usually spend more time with their children it works better with them) to be consistent in using this second language every time she addresses her child. It does not matter that the child speak back only in English (in the US), because the child is assimilating even without speaking. Consistency is key. For some linguists, language aquisition takes place even much after the age of four, so in their view older children can become bilingual if exposed to another language later in childhood. Another very helpful strategy according to my linguist friend is to expose the child to videos and TV in the other language daily or as much as possible. It is more effective if the child is watching new programs or films as opposed to the same 6 videos all the time. I have seen the effectiveness of this strategy as well.

The best success stories of friends and family around me are of mothers who are consistent in speaking the other language with their children. They do this even when there are other people around who may find it rude or weird, explaining their reasons. One of my friends is American and learned Spanish as an adult and has spoken Spanish consistently with her daughter since she was born. Her 12 year old daughter speaks Spanish fluently. I know Berkeley has at least 2 bilingual public schools (one is Cragmont). On the other hand, children in my family who have not had consistent exposure from parents do speak and understand the second language, but with greater limitations in terms of vocabulary, grammar and fluency.

Finally, since I am bilingual, I would just like to add that acquiring a second language with no effort as I did with exposure from an early age is priceless. It has opened doors and affected my life in so many respects, it would be impossible to list all of them (professionally, travel, friendships etc). If anyone can give this gift to your child, by all means make the effort to do it and you will not regret it.

I am a native Italian mum with two mainly English-speaking kids (well, the second one does not really speak yet - but i know he'll speak English first...). Here's my advice, for the Spanish speaking mom as well: I have found that the most important thing is one's own commitment to speaking (and reading, and watching movies etc..) the foreign(native) language. I ALWAYS speak Italian to my daughter. She almost never replies to me in Italian, and I never push her to do so. She is exposed to way too much English to ask her to do such an effort. But she does understand Italian perfectly, and will in fact look at me amazed if I talk to her in English. I have come to accept the fact that maintaining her ability to understand Italian is the most important thing I can do for her, without forcing her active involvement. And from time to time she surprises me by trying to answer in Italian, or by quoting by heart the Italian books I read to her. When my mother comes visit, my daughter realizes that my mom does not understand English, and makes a big effort to speak Italian to her, and actually manages to communicate. I am sure that when she will be old enough (she is 3 1/2) to spend some time in Italy with the ''nonni'' and her cousins she will end up speaking fluent Italian. To the Spanish-speaking mother I recommend trying to keep a level of consistency in her speaking Spanish to her child, as well as of course finding other Spanish-speaking activities (I am sure you'll get a lot of answers about that).

As for products, groups etc. in Italian, there are groups of Italian parents meeting regularly at Royal Caffe, in Rockridge, and there is a Friday morning child-care program for Italian children starting this fall.

As for products: I have lots of Italian DVDs and books, you can easily find a DVD player that reads European DVDs as well, or use a european computer. She does not watch a lot of movies anyway, but it's a start. We also (my boyfriend is trying to improve his Italian too) read them books in Italian, play Italian kids' songs, etc. I know of a company called ''Professor Toto''' that has very good educational DVDs in Spanish, French and English, and will soon have an Italian version. You can email me if you would like to have more info on that. Good luck to both of you! svalisa

2000 -2003 Discussions

Want to raise our baby as Spanish/English bilingual

October 2003

My husband and I are expecting our first child (a girl)! I'm wondering if anyone out there has advice about how to raise a child to speak two languages. We speak English in our home, although my husband is fluent in Spanish. (I understand a lot of Spanish, though am not always comfortable speaking it.) His parents speak only Spanish. Mine only English. We feel it's important that our daughter be able to communicate in Spanish with her grandparents, and to be fluent in Spanish. But I also worry that trying to teach her two languages at once may be confusing for her and delay speech, and since she'll have to be in day care before age two, I worry about her not being able to communicate. Does anyone have any experience with this firsthand, or recommend any research or books on speech development in bilingual children? kck

Your daughter is very lucky to have a chance to become bilingual. I'm a mother of four bilingual (English/Finnish) children. I strongly feel that the best gift I've been able to give my children is their bilingualism/biculturalism. Kids are amazing....they are not limited to learning one language. In most of the world, children grow up with more than one language. And your second one being Spanish....what better combinaton in California!

Children may mix-up languages at the beginning...but figure the separate systems out quickly. The mixing is the result of using everything they have in their possession to communicate; and lucky them...they have two languages to use. Your job is to provide your daughter with enough input in each language. Luckily, with Spanish that is easy. Make sure your husband will start speaking Spanish from the moment your daughter is born....or even before (songs, books). According to some research, the auditory maps of babies are completed by the time they're 6 months old, so you want to make sure all the sounds necessary for the two langauges are included for her. You will also benefit from a Spanish-speaking daycare, play groups, etc. Excellent books, a newsletter, etc. are available from Multilingual Matters. I have been writing an ongoing 'process'-article based on my experiences for years; I can send it to you if you're interested. Feel free to get in touch!

Good luck! Buen suerte! Sirpa

PS. A bonus: most bilingual children become multilingual adults, due to their interest and ease of adding other languages.

For the mom who comments ''But I also worry that trying to teach her two languages at once may be confusing for her and delay speech'', I would like to say that, outside the US, all over the world, people routinely learn at least 2-3 languages as children with no ill effects whatsoever. Though I was born here I was lucky (or curious) enough to have learned 4-plus, and although this flabbergasts many folks here it is quite routine elsewhere. I can't express what a joy it has been to speak other languages well. It has made my life far more interesting. Probably the best method is for each parent to speak his/her native tongue, and encourage the child to learn a third in school, such as French. I discovered that once I got Spanish and French under control by studying (and only a little of this was in school), it was not much more work to understand Portuguese and Italian, Catalan, and Provencal, and even a bit of Romanian. The thrill of being able to understand so many people is absolutely indescribable, ecstatic. The history of the world is embedded in language in ways you could never guess. Good luck and keep your kid going with languages without fear! berkeleynurse at earthlink Christine V
I am now working on raising my third trilingual child. My oldest is 13 and is quadrilingual. She speaks Spanish at home, French at school, German with one grandma and English with everyone else. She is at the top of her class and has never been confused. My other children are not confused either and none were delayed in speaking. In fact, they are incredibly verbal. I know plenty of monolingual kids who have delayed speach. But really what does that matter if in the end they are bilingual.

My daughter started pre-school speaking very little English but was managing English quite well after a couple of weeks. She was 4 years old when she learned English and just scored in the 99th percentile on her verbal English score for sixth grade.

The benefits of being bilingual are numerous and yet many people seem to be afraid that allowing their children to learn more than one language might have some ill effect on them. Not only will your children not get confused or speak late because of bilingualism, their verbal ablilty will quite likely surpass that of their monolingual peers.

Your husband should definitely speak in Spanish to your child. You can also participate by reading books to your child and learning Spanish children's songs. I participate in a Spanish-language play-group which you could also look for when your child is one or two.

One thing to note is that it is very hard to keep children speaking a language that is not English. Even children who come from pure Spanish-speaking homes tend to speak more English than Spanish as the result of the overwhelming influence of our mass media and surroundings. Learning English will definetly not be a problem, maintaining Spanish could be.

Speaking Spanish will give your child pride in their heritage and connect them with their grandparents who could have a profound relationship with them. Spanish will open doors to relationships that would otherwise be closed and vastly improve their prospects of getting a job in the future. I hope my perspective helps you and good luck with your new baby Liza

I had the same questions as you regarding a bilingual child/household. My husband and I are both Latino, but neither of us was raised in Spanish-speaking families. My husband learned Spanish in college and through extended work experience in Latin America; I still struggle with decent comprehension, but no confidence in speaking. We are raising our 1-yr. old with 100% Spanish from ''papm'' and 90% Eng./10% Span. from ''mommy.'' I worried that we were confusing our son when mommy says ''ball'' and papm says ''pelota.'' How would he know which was ''right'' when learning to speak? All I can tell you is that our son's verbal aquisition has been lighting fast. He clearly understands both simple commands in English and Spanish. It's been truly amazing. He has many words and very good comprehension for his age. I'm just not worrying about confusing him anymore, and I would encourage you to proceed with sharing both languages with your child if that is truly important to you. Another Mommy/Mamm
Please speak both languages to your child from day one! There is absolutely NO evidence whatsoever that being raised bilingually is confusing (in fact, this is a very monolingual belief; children all over the world are raised bilingually, and in many cases, trilingually). Brain scans of bilingual children show that they have activated more of their brain than monolingual children. There is a slight delay in speech production of bilingual children, as they are working with two separate linguistic systems; there is NO delay in language comprehension! Not only are you passing on a language, but you are passing on a set of beliefs, a culture, an identity, and much more. Finally, language classes at UC Berkeley are filled with students whose parents chose to speak only English with them, and now as young adults, they are enrolled in Chinese 1, Spanish 1, French 1, and so on, trying to reclaim a language that was never taught to them. Do your child a favor, and speak in both languages. It is a plus for everyone (including society as a whole). Ph.D. in Linguistics and Pro Bilingual!
My husband was raised in a tri-lingual environment (English, German and Spanish) and we are raising our children in English and German. It's the best possible gift you can give them and it does nothing but good for the child's development, not to mention language skills.
I'm in the same situation as you. My husband is from El Salvador, and his parents speak only Spanish. I think it's crucial that our son speak Spanish well, but I am not comfortable enough in Spanish to have it be the main language of the household. Research on raising children bilingual shows that children benefit from learning more languages at an early age in terms of the neurological connections they make. They also begin with muscles in their mouths that allow them to pronounce any language, and the unused muscles disappear when they get older. So the earlier, the better. One of the key findings is that children learn the languages they NEED to learn. So many children begin bilingual and then allow their non-dominant (not English) language to become passive when they figure out that they can answer back in English, even if they continue to understand the non-dominant language. Plenty of exposure to the grandparents who don't speak English will help with this, as will being in places where Spanish is the dominant language. Some children speak a little later when they are processing two languages, but then manage them both well.

I've witnessed several approaches that seem to work. In one family I grew up with, the father spoke to the children only in French, and the mother only in English. They also took regular trips to France. The children, now in college, speak both languages well. One of my nieces speaks Spanish very well because her mother insisted that she answer back in Spanish always, and that is the dominant language of the household. My other nephews and nieces don't do so well, as their parents, who both speak Spanish, allow them to respond in English. Once there is more than one child, it's also harder, because they bring English into the house from school.

Our approach is to have my husband speak as much Spanish to our son as possible, and for me to speak English. We also try to see the Spanish speaking grandparents regularly, play Spanish music, and are looking into Spanish speaking preschools for when the time comes. I would encourage you to try to raise your child bilingual as much as possible; the early years are not the really tough ones, it's the later maintenance of the language that can be challenging. ryquill

How to pass on my Tamil when we speak English at home?

July 2003

I am struggling as a Tamil-American parent to pass on the Tamil language to our children. I am married to a Scandanavian-American and we speak English at home. They know few words here and there, but I would love to be able to immerse them somehow in Tamil a few hours a day, but how? Any suggestions? Most Tamils live in the South BAy, so, it would be difficult to go so far! thanks for any suggestions! Nagarajan

My son who is seven now speaks very well in Hindi. But I have to tell you that it has been a long hard road to get here. Specially because everyone around him has been talking in English. I am not sure how old your children are but between the ages of four and seven is the best time to learn your native language. Later than seven it is really hard to pick up tones. When my son was three and someone told me this, I really got nervous and started right away. The first rule is you always talk to them in Tamil, there will be months when they keep replying back in English and you will keep talking in Tamil and that is frustrating but slowly that will begin to change. Children learn really fast and will be really proud of themselves once they have learnt a bit. Listening to songs and watching movies in the native language has helped us. If you visit India often, that will make a huge difference. My son just progressed by leaps and bounds once we started making the effort to go to India often. Keep talking to them in Tamil and they will thank you forever for it. Bipasha

Bilingual child learning sign language - too much for a 1-year-old?

April 2002

My one-year old is exposed to 2 different languages. My husband and I have spoken and read to our baby in 2 different languages from birth. Additionally, we are planning on adding American Sign Language (as a third language?) to give him another tool/means to communicate with us. So far, he has been able to say only a couple of words. I am a bit concerned that all this exposure may delay the development of his verbal skills (due to confusion). Can this be too much for an one-year old? Any suggestions or books/research on this matter? Thanks. Monica

First things first: congratulations on teaching your child to be bilingual! I did some research in this area a while ago, and now I find I've forgotten most of what I read. However, I do remember reading that one way to help your child become bilingual is to have one parent speak one language to the child exclusively, while the other parent speaks the alternate language. I think some theories position that children are 'hardwired' to develop grammar, and mixing up two languages can confuse their natural grammar abilities a little (they hear two unique grammars, and have a hard time understanding the rules of each as a result.) Even if you don't feel like doing this, I would think that the ultimate benefits of bilinguality (more creativity, understanding of different cultures, not to mention just knowing two languages) would outweigh any possible delays. I am interested to see other posts about this to know if I am correct.

As for teaching sign language as well, I'm not sure how this would affect those grammar abilities. Signing is unique in that you can speak english or another language while you sign, so the languages are more simultaneous, although usually it is impossible to maintain both ASL grammar and another spoken language grammar at the same time for long. I don't know how fluent you are, and if you planned on using ASL grammar and not speaking while you sign. As you probably know, signing with children is very beneficial, and they can usually produce many signs before they can say words. I will look into this more for you (and for my own curiosity) but it may take some time, so please email me and I'll let you know what I learn. Kelly

i think the more exposure to different languages now, the better in the long run. boys tend to develop language skills more slowly than girls anyways, so i wouldn't worry about that yet. my son didn't utter his first word until he was 18 months, whereas my daughter spoke before age 1. both of them were exposed to 2 or 3 languages in infancy. my son heard english and spanish and then mandarin. my daughter hears english and mandarin. suzie
Our family only has one language, however, I have heard from bilingual families that it does take kids exposed to multiple languages longer to start talking-- they understand both, but the talking part takes longer. Once it clicks, however, they just take off verbally.

As for sign language, we taught our son some ASL signs, and it was great fun. I used a book called Signing For Kids, by Mickey Floodin. It's a beginner's book, but has most of the signs you'd want for a toddler and good, clear diagrams about how to make the signs.

When we started, someone told me to start with just three signs, use them over and over whenever I used the word--you might want to the same sign with both languages--and wait until my son was able to use those three before adding more. To be honest, I didn't want to wait. But it was good advice. Once he got the three, it was clear he understood what sign language was, and I was able to show him a new sign just a few times before he learned it.

One more note, don't be concerned about your son saying only a few words at one year old. That's normal with only one language in the family and gives no indication about his ultimate verbal abilities. So try to relax and enjoy the next year as language comes pouring out of you son! Carolyn

The book _Bilingual Families_ gives good information on language acquisition in bilingual and multilingual households. It's clearly written, not preachy, and (I believe) relatively easy to find.

It's pretty normal for monolingual children to speak only a few words at one year, so I think it's too early to worry. My older daughter wasn't saying anything at a year either, and but these days (at 3.5) she can outtalk most of her friends in English. For various reasons, her French proficiency is about a year behind that. Jennifer

1999 and Earlier

Family speaks German, French and English

Sept 1998

I would like to hear about your experiences with children that grew up with two or more languages. We have a 2 1/2 month old son and since we cherish our mother tongues we would like him to master German and French just like any native speaker. I try to talk to my son as much as I can in German. However, when Daddy is close by, I often switch to French which is our common language of communication. During the day, my son is essentially exposed to English due to daycare now.

I am afraid that French might become the predominant and preferred language of my son. This is of course not a problem, but I still would like him to be able to talk in an accent-free German. I am wondering which is the age when the kids are most open to learn a language perfectly. Is there something like a preferred language? Might he refuse to talk to me in German later if the family language is rather French? Will his German be so so, spoken with a French accent if I talked in French to him quite a bit? How important is bilingual education at school and the environment in all this? Is it possible at all that one can learn two or three true mother languages equally well?

At his baby age will our son be very confused to have to learn three different words for everything? Could it be easier for him if he associated the German word with me, the French words only with daddy, the English ones with his nanny? Is it likely that he will talk rather late due to such a complex situation?

I would very much appreciate peoples' comments and observations on these questions. Petra

My son just turned three and he speaks two languages fluently. I started speaking Dutch to him right from the start, and his father speaks English to him. I never intermingled the two languages. I only speak Dutch to him, even when we are in a large group of just English speakers. When he just started saying some words, I would say at about 18 months, he would mix them up. When he was about 2 1/2, he really knew the difference. He would speak Dutch with me and English with everyone else. Now, he even translates to me when someone tells him something in English. It is a lot of work to teach your child another language when everything surrounding him is in English, but it can work. The one thing is consistency. You have to keep the languages separate and only speak one language. Once you start mixim them together, your child will get confused. Also, keep repeating everything your child says but then with the correct pronunciation, instead of correcting. When they hear it the right way often enough, they take it over. My son is in day-care full-time now, so it is more challenging than ever to keep up the Dutch, especially since he comes home everyday with many new English words that he has not yet heard in Dutch. But I always tell him, this is the English word, and this is the Dutch word for it. He does remember to say the word in Dutch the next time. Once in a while when he wants to be silly, he talks to me in English. It sounds harsh, but I ignore him until he talks to me in Dutch. I know he understands. Once, I was not paying attention and he asked me a question in Dutch, which I answered with sure honey, just a minute, when he told me (in Dutch) mom, you speak Dutch with me. I hope that he will always speak Dutch, but there might be a time that he will refuse. But as long as I speak it, he will at least understand it. It will be interesting to see the long-term results. Jannette
There is a very good book on the subject that might help -- it's full of case studies of situations not unlike yours! The title is The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents by Edith Harding and Philip Riley, published by Cambridge University Press. I ordered mine, but I think I saw it at Barnes and Noble -- you might give them a call. Maria
Hi! What I've heard is that when the two parents each speak a different language, it's best to have each parent focus on their own language with the child (whatever language is most comfortable to you). As for learning without an accent, the accent usually comes in as a result of learning the language after the critical period for language has passed (ie around 10-12 years). Presumably, if your child hears your native French and your spouse's native German (and everyone elses native English), he will learn the languages without accents. A lot of it has to do with hearing- a young infant makes all sounds possible to human languages. By about 6 months, s/he starts making only the sounds that s/he has been hearing (cooing vs. babbling I believe). This is why it's so hard to learn accent-free language later in life- we have simply lost the ability to make some of the appropriate sounds for the new language.

I think as long as the languages are natural to your speech with the child (and not a drill to try to instill early learning), he will have no problem learning to speak each. However, it is known to take a little while longer! My partner is German and I am American- he speaks to our son primarily (but not exclusively) in German, I speak primarily in English, as do most other people he knows (I am learning German, so I practice talking to my son in German, and I also know some French, so I read him children's stories once in a while that are in French). Now that Zak is 22 months (and we have both heard his father's German speech for about the same time), Zak clearly understands much more of it than do I. He is starting to talk, a little bit slower than some of his age-mates but still within normal ranges, and uses both German and English words, although at this point he has many more English words. I don't think he'll necessarily pick up the French (especially since I'm not a native speaker), but maybe it'll be easier for him to learn later if he chooses to do so.

Good luck! In any event, it is definite that learning earlier is much easier than learning later, so it's not going to hurt your son to hear several languages, even if he chooses to express himself in just one of them (he'll probably understand the others, if nothing else!). Naomi

Re: bilingual kids:Our son, now almost 3, has grown up speaking two languages: Hebrew at home and with our family and English at daycare and around town. He speaks both languages well now, although he did start to speak a bit late. Amazingly, he knows what language is the right one for each situation and always answers a question in the language asked. He does not mix languages often, even when he can't find the right word. He usually resorts to a literal description (that blue thing) as opposed to inserting a word in the opposite language.

My feeling is that he has picked up these two languages well because they were being spoken to him constantly. He also hears songs in both languages, and watches videos, and has books read to him, so that the language goes beyond conversation. We have also begun showing him the Hebrew letters as he is already mastering the English alphabet at daycare.

Sometimes I have the feeling that if someone spoke another language with him, he'd pick that up too! It seems that kids at this age are just sponges, soaking anything and everything up! Good luck! - Hagit Hagit

Mom is bilingual but Dad is not

Nov 1998

Does anyone living in a bilingual household where one partner speaks two languages and the other only speaks English have any thoughts that they could share with me about their experiences? My brother is expecting a new baby. His wife is bilingual and he is not. Several questions have arisen for him: --what does hearing two languages from birth do for language and cognative development? Can it delay learning english or does it enhance language capability? --how does the situation in which one parent and child speak a language fluently affect the parent who does not have the same command of the second language? What happens in the social dynamics of a family in this situation? Is there the potential for exclusion and if so how can one best prevent this? ( Obviously, the ideal situation would be for english-only parent to learn the second language as well, but this is easier said then done, especially when one is working full time and does not have extreme facility with foreign languages.) Any advice, personal experience or suggested reading that members of the list could offer on the topic would be greatly appreciated. Thanks Jenny

My 19 months old daughter is growing up with German and English. My husband speaks English only, and I speak German with her and only English if someone else in the room needs to understand what I'm saying to her. She understands instruction in both languages and forms two to three word sentences in both languages. I have not read one book about how to do it right and I probably won't, because I don't have specific expectations about her mastery of German, as long as she can communicate her needs. Everything above is a bonus. So far, it has been a lot of fun, she seems to know that there are two words for everything. Often she will pick whichever word is easier to pronounce and sometimes she will say both words in both languages. Two cars she will tell me and when I say Ja, zwei Autos she will repeat zwei Autos with a big smile while pointing at the cars. I am not concerned about leaving my husband out, because I won't. He learns a little bit along the way, because he wants to understand every word she says. As her communication gets more complex, I will simply translate whenever appropriate. However, I think it is important to keep in mind in which country the child is going to grow up and accept/ understand that the child naturally will and should give priority to the language spoken there. Heike

Does a bilingual household affect child's language capability?

Dec 1998

Hi, I haven't been following the digest very closely lately so I might have missed others' replies, but there was a discussion recently on the child language acquisition mailing list* on a similar question about bilingual households.

--what does hearing two languages from birth do for language and cognative development? Can it delay learning english or does it enhance language capability?
Yes and yes. It does temporarily delay learning English, BUT in the long term (by school age) English is fine AND future language learning capability, and other cognitive abilities, are enhanced. You have to keep each language separate though, and the recommended way is to have each parent speak exclusively one language in the presence of the child. The point is to not model mixing languages up with one another. There is a good and practical book but I don't remember who wrote it, whose main idea is one parent - one language. There is also a book edited by Ellen Bialystok that might be useful. I know less about the social aspects, but there is research on that too. One of the world's experts on bilingualism (especially the social aspects) is Susan Ervin-Tripp, a professor in UCB's psych dept, but I don't know if she is retired now or not.