Being multilingual

Monolingual parents and bilingual children?

Many parents wonder if they can succeed in raising their children bilingually. Most of the studies of the ’60-’80 about bilingualism were about monolingual parents who wanted their children to become bilingual. Some parents would share the same mothertongue and the community language would be L2, in some other studies only one of the parents would share the community language etc..

I think that defining a monolingual parent becomes more and more difficult because talking “only” one language, i.e. being monolingual, nowadays is almost impossible – at least for all those who don’t have English as mothertongue*. Everyone studies another language at some point, and will acquire some kind of knowledge in it. Therefore, being exclusively monolingual parents, living in a continuously monolingual context is almost impossible. Especially if we count dialects as languages. – If we agree with François Grosjean‘s definition of a bilingual:

“Bilinguals are those who use two or more languages (or dialects) in their everyday lives”

we can define accordingly a monolingual:

“Monolinguals are those who use only one language (or dialect) in their everyday lives”.



Every family raising bilingual children need a language plan. There are several strategies that can work for monolingual families or monolingual parents. In a (almost) monolingual situation, the strategy would look like this:

                       Parent 1            Parent 2                  Community             

 Strategy 1   Language A      Language A              Language A

Parents would speak their native language and the child would associate the second language (not indicated in this figure) with a certain place or certain person, such as special classes or trips to visit relatives or friends. With an environment not providing a regular input to the child, the parents would need to make more effort in providing exposure to the second language (cfr. playgroups in the other language, language lessons, care givers who talk the other language – and DVDs, CDs, audiobooks, books etc.).

Monolingual parents who want to raise their children bilingually but are not able to support this at home, need to reach out for help and provide a regular input from someone else. With the help of technology this is surely possible and I know many families who succeded, but in the long run, either one parent (or both) would learn the other language and the parents would need to offer regular full immersion programms to their children – during holidays etc. – to foster the learning.

If one of the parents has the knowledge of another language, but the family lives in a Language A community, one of the parents would always address the child in his or her non-native, second language.

                           Parent 1           Parent 2            Community             

Strategy 2        Language A      Language A      Language A

                            Language B

These first two strategies require a special effort and commitment from the parents to provide regular input in Language B, with the advantage that in Strategy 2, one parent would be the regular dialogue partner for the child. On the long run, the child (and the parent) may need more people to share this language with. Playgroups, peers, collaborative teachers and family who either share the same language or at least support the bilingual upbringing can be very beneficial.


If both parents have the same mothertongue but live abroad, the scenario can look like this:

                       Parent 1           Parent 2              Community             

Strategy 3    Language A     Language A         Language B

Both parents would talk Language A to the child and leave the second language (B) to the environment and school. Usually, parents in this situation would learn language B at some point and would probably also be able to understand and support their child during his learning process.

When one of the parents has some knowledge of the community language, this could be the scenario:

                       Parent 1             Parent 2                   Community             

Strategy 4   Language A        Language A              Language B

                        Language B

One parent would always talk the community language (B) with the child, while the other parent would be consistent talking the other one. Language A being the minority language in this case, parents would need to support the child by offering other opportunities to speak language A (with peers, playgroups etc.).

For all the scenarios listed here above, it would be beneficial for the bilingual child if parents would agree on a language planning, be confident, creative, commited and consistent – and flexible, if the language situation within the family changes due to a move abroad or else.


My parents adopted strategy 3 in raising my sister and me bilingually: with German as mothertongue at home and Italian as the local language. They both learned Italian too and talked other languages (English, French and local German dialects). I can say that they succeeded: my sister and I are both bilinguals talking up to 6 languages and raising our children as bilinguals too.



Sign in Switzerland's four official languages

Sign in Switzerland’s four official languages (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


* I’ll discuss the difference with English mothertongue speakers in another post.


Related articles


17 replies »

  1. It must be tricky, this… some native English speakers I know here in Spain spend something like a couple of hours a week with Spanish toddlers at home, and the parents are wondering when their kids will finally start to speak flawless English. Or any English at all… you’ve got to wonder about people’s expectations and whether they realise just how much input it actually takes to learn a language.

    As an aside, I’ve written a post, which might amuse you 😉

    • Yes, this is really interesting: how much input – in hours and in quality! – does a toddler need to become “fluent” (and we need to define “fluency” for a toddler/young child…). And how efficient is “language teaching”, i.e. in classes for toddlers? Total immersion – also in language groups, i.e. with children whose mothertongue is the target language (the language you want the kids to learn) – have great results: children learn with children/peers during play and not because being taught in the conventional way (through grammar, structure). The focus is lead on speaking, repeating, copying (often through singing).
      There are some studies who claim that 20% in each language per week. But is this really possible? When you make a language plan and see how much time you actually talk with the children in one language, you see that it’s not really possible; at least not if your child goes to daycare or creche and the language involved are more than 2. But little input is better than none at all. Parents need to understand that it takes time and passion, commintment and conviction to learn a language.
      (I love that post! I’ll leave a comment ;-))

      • I don’t think it makes much sense to teach children under eight grammar in a formal way… but what do I know?! 😉

        I thought you’d like that one…. I got so many more interesting comments, but, unfortunately they are on Duolingo, where I also posted the link, rather than on the blog itself!

  2. For the past 3 years, we’ve been using Strategy 3, and it has worked well. But we’re preparing now to move back to an English-speaking country and need to keep up Language B (German). Curious to read your thoughts on native English speakers when you have a chance to post.

    • It would be interesting to see how your children react to this move and language change. If you want to keep up Language B, don’t forget to keep German books (maybe buy some more before leaving), DVDs, CDs etc. in order to not stop abruptly the language input for your kids (and yourself). You can still try to talk a bit of German occasionally – while having dinner or one day per week. It would surely be helpful to have some native speakers in the new place. For children it’s very important to have peers talking the same “other” language. – I would love to hear how things will go with you and your family! I wish you all the best for your moving!

      • This is a great suggestion that I have also heard from others. I’ve been buying some workbooks for myself, and I’m looking in to getting some for the boys as well. But DVDs, I’m stumped.. Some say to get something where you already know the story line. But I wonder if that is boring. Maybe we should get some kids TV shows on DVD. Ideas? And we have been trying to start speaking German at dinner while we are here so that it is not too weird when we do it in our new home as well. I’m praying we’ll find some German-speaking peers for the boys as well.

  3. About DVDs you can get those they know already or other ones. I’ll have a look at a list of DVDs: how old are your boys? And you can also follow “Die Sendung mit der Maus” via internet or directly on TV, also the KiKa (Kinderkanal) channel is great. It’s really fantastic that you’ve already started speaking German at dinner! Maintaining this habit once you’ve moved will even feel more comfortable for your boys then! Maybe you can try to find some German peers who would be willing to skype from time to time? This way your boys will still have some contact even if via computer. What works for adults can work for children too. And if you don’t find peers in the first months and see that their German is decreasing, maybe you can plan some visits in Germany in the nearer future? Where are you going to move to? On facebook you may find German speaking groups in that area?

  4. Hello, I`ve been using Strategy 2 and researching it. Could you please write to me if you have any information about this strategy: articles, links, references. I`d be very grateful to you. Thank you in advance

    • This is a strategy that is usually adopted by parents who want to raise their children bilingually in a monolingual context. It is a combination of OPOL and mL: One parent/person – one language and minority language combined in one person, i.e. one parent talks two languages to the child(ren) in very specific situations.
      You may want to search for “supporting minority language at home” (and you’ll find sites like this: (for US and mainly for teachers, but very useful for parents too!) or this (for Europe)).
      You can find all sorts of advice in François Grosjean’s studies ( and in many books about bilingualism.
      I don’t know what kind of studies and books you’ve already read.
      In Annika Bourgognes book “Be Bilingual. Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families” you can find some practical advices (like the subtitle suggests already) and in Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert’s “Language strategies in bilingual families. The One-Parent-One-Language Approach” (but she talks also about the strategy 2 mentioned in my post!).
      May I ask what you’re looking for specifically? And which languages are involved in your case?
      I’d be very glad to give you more specific advice and bibliographical references.

      • Thank you so much for your answer. Actually I`m looking for research literature like: Saunders G. Bilingual children: Guidance for the family or Aidman M. A. Biliteracy development through early and mid-primary years: A
        longitudinal case study of bilingual writing or Past A. & Past K. Early childhood: The best time to become bilingual and biliterate but one paret -two languages approach. The problem is I can`t find anything in free access. As for Suzanne Barron-Hauwaert’s “Language strategies in bilingual families. The One-Parent-One-Language Approach” I couldn`t find the book to download for free.
        And it`s impossible for me to find in the internet Mackey W. F. & Andersson Th. Bilingualism in early childhood: Papers from a Conference on Child Language. – Rowley (Mass.): Newbury house, 1977.
        Kind regards, Yuliya.

  5. Hello, I`m Yuliya. I raise my 2-year-old daughter bilingual in Russian and English and research her bilingual development. The other day we had an interesting situation. During Russian input my daughter heard a sound made by a motor plougher (she had never seen it before so she had no visual associations). She asked me what was that sound and I said it was a motor plougher (in Russian [motoblock]). 20 minutes later she heard a familiar sound again and said in Russian: “????, ??? ?????. (Mummy, It`s a block)”. “Motoblock” is a new word for her, that`s why to remember it she isolated a familiar English word “block” from “motorblock” and translated it into Russian. I would be very grateful to you if you could help me to find some research literature or other examples on the subject in question:
    Thank you in advance.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *