Raising Bilingual Children: Is It Too Late?
by Christina Bosemark, founder of the Multilingual Children's Association
"After we talked, I've spoken nothing but French to my one year
old for close to seven weeks now. All of his new words are French,
and from what I can tell he understands me completely." Not even
two months into her campaign to raise her two children speaking
French as well as English, Sheilagh Margot Riordan in Forida has
noticed a dramatic difference in the progress between her two
children: "My three and a half year old is much trickier. Even
though I speak only French to her, she replies in English, but
I guess that she understands about 70% of everything I say."
Frankly, Sheilagh worries that it's already too late for her
over-the-hill three-year-old to become a fluent bilingual.
In our culture it sometimes feels that if you didn't spring
for ballet lessons at two or violin at three, it's all over. While
there's no doubt that the optimal moment to start learning languages
is at birth, it's not at all impossible to achieve fluency later
in life. The more language interaction you provide, the more
dramatic the progress, and the easier for the child. Even older
children are still kids, and they'll remain chatty and unhampered
by self-consciousness. Still, transitioning into multilingualism
will require motivation; here are several tried-and-true tips.
You know how when you announce that it's bedtime, your kid
says, "Why?" You'll get the same reaction to your new language
program. "Why do I have to say it in Korean if I know how say
it in English already?" This is a fair question, and the answer
needs to be either one of necessity, fun, or flattery. Not much
else will fly. Here are some possible answers: "Because
I/granny/everyone else here only speak Korean." "This book/this
game/this song is in Korean." "Because you did it sooo well
yesterday." "So you can teach it to baby Ethan when he is a big
boy like you." "So you and Kim can have your own secret language."
After the explanation your next step will be to speak only
in the minority language yourself (or nanny, or whoever is
your child's primary language source). When you get confusion
and glazed looks, translate. And, be reasonable; accept replies
in the primary language when you first start out.
- When your child answers back in the community language, say
"Yes," and then repeat the sentence in the minority language.
- If you know your child is able to say a particular word, but
is struggling to remember it, jog her memory by providing the
- Be careful not to dampen her enthusiasm. Don't make speaking
the second language an inflexible rule or something that becomes
onerous. You'll just inspire revolution in the ranks. You might
require adherence to the language rules you've set up if you know
she has the vocabulary - just as you demand 'pleases' and 'thank
yous.' For example, when you're child is asking for a glass of
milk, you can require that she ask for it in the minority language.
But if she's excited about telling you what happened at the circus,
just listen, and then repeat it back in the second language. That
way, you provide her the missing vocabulary in a positive way.
- And, as always, praise endlessly. Even when you are providing
translations or the child has just issued sixteen grammatical
errors in a four-word sentence. In fact, a child simply doesn't
understand if you try to correct her before the age of three.
Instead, just repeat the words correctly (a process known as
modeling). Alternatively, you can make a joke and say, "Oops, that
came out wrong!" Laugh and provide the right way of saying it,
so you keep it playful rather than corrective.
Countless parents have asked me: "So now, how do we stay firm
with our language use?" Once the child has the vocabulary to
understand the second language, sticking to the family language
system is essential -- if you don't, you're back to square one!
Just think of the things you could never let your child do, even
if she begs, whines, and tantrums: things such as riding in a car
without a seatbelt, not brushing her teeth, or crossing the street
by herself. Don't negotiate about using the language any more than
you do about these things, and she will get the picture eventually --
despite the occasional earful. Give it at least six months, and
your persistence will be richly rewarded.
Sheilagh says that she realizes her trouble is well worth it
and has stopped worrying about beginning too late: "Instead of
looking at the things I should have done (speak French since birth),
I am looking at the great achievements we have made so far."
About the author:
Christina Bosemark is the founder of the
Multilingual Children's Association,
your web-guide to raising bilingual children with expert advice, parent
discussions, resource directory and articles. She is also mother of two
trilingual daughters and co-founder of the Scandinavian immersion school in
Other articles in this series
Links to website with information
and advice about raising bilingual/multilingual children