Category Archives: Bilingualism


Monolingual Parents and Bilingual Children?

Can monolingual parents have bilingual children? This is not about genetics – even if it sounds like it – but I may answer this question with: no.

When I started holding workshops on “Parenting the Bilingual Child”, I had to explain to some of my native English speaking friends, that their children were bilingual even if they didn’t grow up with multiple languages from day one and even if they weren’t fluent in the other language. Most of the parents were even bilinguals themselves without knowing it!

What is a monolingual anyway?

I have spent a lot of time proving to parents and teachers that monolinguals are a minority in our increasingly global world and that bilinguals outnumber monolinguals. – Everyone gets in contact with another language at some point: during travels, when interacting with tourists, talking with international friends etc.. We always pick up some sentences, try to understand the other language.

The simple act of trying to understand another language is the first step of becoming bilingual.

Acquiring some kind of knowledge in another language suffices to not be monolingual anymore!

Being exclusively monolingual parents, living in a constantly monolingual context is almost impossible. Especially if we also count dialects as languages. – I use François Grosjean‘s definition of a bilingual:

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

Please note that there is no mention of when the other language is acquired or learned, nor does the level of proficiency play any role in defining a bilingual anymore! This was only the case in some early studies about bilingualism, but since the last 20 years, linguists who are studying bilingualism are way beyond this initial stage – and it is about time we move on!

According to Grosjean’s definition of a bilingual, we can define a monolingual as follows:

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

If you can genuinely say that you only use, listen to, understand one language – in this case here, English – then you are a monolingual. If you are a native (English) speaker and understand any other language or dialect, then you are not a monolingual.

And if you are not a native English speaker and read this: you have already proven by understanding this text, that you have a good proficiency in the English language, hence, you are bilingual!

Being exposed to only one language is almost impossible nowadays. Only in some remote rural areas, with no or only national TV and radio channels this can still be the case.

But as soon as we move away from these strictly monolingual environments we will get in contact with other languages, either passively or actively.

The monolingual parent

Let’s play with the scenario of a monolingual parent that speaks (writes, reads) one language fluently, and has only a basic understanding of the other language (i.e. has more a passive understanding of it) – hence defines himself as “monolingual” and is not confident enough in this other language to teach it to the child. – What can this “monolingual” parent do to ensure his child becomes bilingual?

I mentioned several strategies monolingual families can adopt if they want their child to acquire or learn another language in my post Monolingual Parents and Bilingual Children.

As a language consultant and expert in bilingualism and language acquisition, I usually submit a questionnaire to my clients to find out what their language situation and short and longterm goals are. – These are only three basic questions I usually ask:

1) Why do you want your child to learn the other language?

I have seen many parents impose languages on their children that they didn’t need and didn’t want to learn, with different results, but mainly negative outcomes on the long run (with children refusing to talk the other languages or developing a resistance in learning a language only because their parents wanted them to).

If there is a real need for the child to learn the other language, either because they live in the country where the language is spoken or they are about to move there, or the child needs to attend school in that language, or family members speak this language: the attempt has more chances to be successful.

2) How proficient does your child need to be(come) in the other language?

If the child needs to attend school in this language, then the goal of a nearly native level is clear. If a basic understanding and basic reading and writing skills are enough, the methods and strategies will be slightly different; and they also depend on the age of the child, of course.

3) Who will talk the other language with your child on a regular basis?

When it comes to learn another language, consistency and regular input are the key.

If the other language is the local language and school language, your child has a good chance to acquire the language quickly and in the most natural way thanks to regular interactions with locals.

If the other language is a foreign language, some parents opt for a nanny or aupair when the children are still very young.

I had clients who would hire an aupair to talk the other language with their children – but aupairs usually have one year contracts. – Can you make sure that there will be other aupairs who will be equally engaged to provide valuable linguistic input for your child? If not, what is your plan B? Is there a local community that speaks the other language? Or can you ensure that your child will have the opportunity to fully immerse in the other language regularly (during holidays for example)?

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. It is advisable to provide this regular and consistent input from a person that interacts, converses with the child in an engaging way (i.e. not giving orders or “teaching”).

No matter how old the child is: if there is a need to talk the language and if the interaction is fun and interesting for the child, the child will be more prone to acquire/learn the language.

Many parents – not only monolingual parents! – tend to prefer help outside of their family. They look for groups who talk the other language, a nanny or an aupair.

If a monolingual parent wants to make sure that the child acquires or learns another language, the first tip I always give is to learn the other language alongside your child!

Parents parents who decide to introduce the other language into their daily life and speak the other language to the child at home too, face the problem of time: when and how can they talk this other language with their child as OPOL is the most suggested strategy and one parent “is supposed” to only talk one language to the child? Choosing the Time and Place strategy is a great option and can be introduced at any stage. This is also a valuable solution for single parents who want to speak more than one language to their child.

Learning the other language alongside your child is a great solution and it’s not only fun for the child: there is nothing that raises a child’s confidence more than to teach a parent something new!

I have very fond memories from learning Dutch alongside my son. When he corrected my pronunciation and taught me new songs, I couldn’t but notice how proud he was that he had the opportunity to teach his mother, this adult who seems to know it all, something new. – It is a great opportunity to have a meaningful connection with the child and the outcome has a very good chance to be positive on many levels!

The title of this post is “Monolingual Parents and Bilingual Children?” asking if a monolingual parent can have a bilingual child: my answer is of course “YES!”. This has nothing to do with genetics…

An initially monolingual parent will become bilingual eventually, for the sake of his/her bilingual child.

Please find my services as a family language consultant, other posts about bilingualism on my other blog, or mail me at at



This month bloggers from all around the world are coming together to write about the “A to Z of Raising Multilingual Children.” This series is full of tips, insights, strategies, challenges and stories from parents who are raising bilingual or multilingual children around the world. Expatsincebirth is honoured to be covering M for “Monolingual Parents and Bilingual Children?”as part of this effort. Don’t miss this wonderful series all throughout February here on the The Piri Piri Lexicon.


The Piri Piri Lexicon


When a bilingual child turns quiet

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This is an extended version of an answer I gave to parents who asked me for advice about their 7 yo boy turning silent.

One or the biggest myths about bilingual children is that they are all like sponges and that they become fluent in no time…

Fact is, that during language aquisition, children go through different stages: Pre-production, Early Production, Speech Emergent, Beginning Fluency, Intermediate Fluency, Advanced Fluency.

When a child turns silent there is usually some reason. It can be one that seems minor to parents but is major for the child. – Maybe your child went through a major change during the last few months? Or anything else happened like:  you moved country, or your child is attending daycare or school in another language? What is important for any parent, teacher, speechtherapist etc. needs to know if the child stoped talking both (or all) languages at the same time, and what could have triggerd this reaction.

Studies observe that the nonverbal period is typically

1) shorter than 6 months,

2) common in 3-8 year olds and

3) longer in the younger child

(cfr. Tabors PO. One Child, Two Languages: A Guide for Preschool Educators of Children Learning English as a Second Language. Baltimore: Brookes; 1997.)

During this time a child needs time to acclimatise to the new context and to begin to tune into the sounds of all languages involved. He may start rehearsing the language(s) silently to himself and practice “private speech”. You would notice this when he plays by himself and lets toys talk. – He is probably processing the language internally and building up confidence to try out the language before “going public” again.

What you, your partner and everyone interacting with the child can do, is to reassure and encourage him by making him feel accepted member of the group/family/society.
I know that the pressure from society, family, friends, teachers (?) can be very hard on you and your child, but I really suggest that you entirely focus on his needs now. Let your child decide when he wants to interact with you.

Here are some suggestions about what you can do:

1. Continue talking even when your child does not respond verbally.
2. Try to include you child in small groups (1-2) with other children who speak the same language.
3. Use varied questions, especially open questions, where your child can’t only nodd or shake his head.
4. Include other children as the focus in the conversation.
5. Use the first language.
6. Accept non-verbal responses.
7. Praise minimal efforts, but not in an exaggerated way. If he says something or tries to say something, you can praise with a smile or by repeating what he said. This will comfort him.
8. You can try to sing more songs with him. Through music, rythm, the body can relax and if he may try to sing the tune too.
9. The practice through role play can be beneficial. too: let him choose a puppet or a toy and try to let him talk through it.

If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Third generation of international children

Are you raising your children abroad? Are you trying (almost) everything to transmit your cultural heritage and your mothertongue?

When our children are second – or third, fourth etc – generation of international children, transmitting cultural heritage and language becomes a real challenge.

If your child is first international generation, i.e. you grew up in your home country

At the beginning you’ll think that talking more than the famous 20% of waking hours in your family language with your child will make him or her become a “perfectly balanced bilingual”. During the first years you will try to do your best to support your child’s bilingualism. You’ll organise playgroups, provide all sorts of books, audiobooks, videos etc. to make this language as interesting as possible.

When your child starts going to a school, you’ll opt either for a school in your family language (if this is possible) or a school where lessons are taught in another language, either the local one or a third one.

If your child attends school in your family language, he will hear and interact in your family language every day, but he will “only” learn vocabulary in the situations he experiences at school, i.e. during school hours and at recess. No slang will be learnt (unless other children at school know it and use it) because most of the schools wouldn’t allow the use of slang. This may not present any problem for the first school years, but when children realize that they don’t understand peers in their home countries or the countries their family language is spoken, they will feel excluded, alienated, not belonging.

Your child will grow up in a linguistic bubble. He won’t learn how to “live in that language” in every day situations and he’ll automatically build a selective vocabulary.

If you send your child to a school in another language, this other language will become more important than the family language as soon as your child makes the first friends in school. He will try to fit in, talk like his peers and therefore automatically consider the family language as less important, less “cool” and less interesting.

At this point you’ll realize that you need to make your family language more attractive. You try to link the language use to interesting topics and make it exciting for your child. You’ll notice that if your child has classmates who also talk the same family language as you do at home, and you invite those childern for a playdate, they will prefer the school language while playing together. You’ll try to intervene and set strict rules, which may work for a few years, but at some point, once you’re not in the same room, they’ll switch to the language they prefer. – You may or may not be ok with it, but that’s what happens naturally.

What can you do to make and keep the family language attractive? You’ll try to spend as much time as possible – usually almost all holidays! – in the country the language is spoken. Maybe with family, i.e cousins, occasional friends etc. And you’ll observe that after a few days or weeks your children will improve their language skills. They’ll learn the jargon, use the language in many different contexts you can’t usually provide at home. They experience full immersion and will literally dig into the other language and culture.

If you want to make sure that your child learns to interact in your family language in as many contexts as possible, you will need to provide opportunities for your child to use your language in diverse situations: in a shop, at the supermarket, in a train/bus/tram/plane, at a museum, cinema, with people on the street, at the beach… You will try to make your child experience a variety of “real life” situations, hoping that he learns that the same word can have multiple meanings depending on the contexts.

This will help your child increase his or her vocabulary, become more confident and competent.

Children need interactions with peers who speak the same language – preferably with monolinguals – in order to be more motivated.

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If your child is second (or third) international generation, i.e. you grew up abroad already

If you already grew up using your family language in a restricted context (i.e. only at home or at home and at school) and you raise your children in the same family language, you will notice that you’ll make more effort than other parents who grew up in their home country, to support your child become fluent in your mother-(or father-) tongue. You will know about the benefits of using more than one language on a regular basis and being “perfectly fluent” in one language doesn’t seem so important anymore.

I realize this every time I talk with my German friends who seem not having any of the issues with their children like the one I have with mine to make them talk German at home. It may be because my children know that I speak several languages and they love talking other languages with me too, but we never talk one and only one language in our family.

My children speak a second-generation-German. They always try to blend in when on holidays in Germany and fortunately they have no language barriers. They are very outgoing and make friends easily. They read German books, know German songs and can converse in German, but I notice a big difference between them and German children whose parents grew up in Germany. They are not as confident talking German as these children. – Does this bother me? Not really. Why? Because my linguistic goal is for them to be able to speak, read and write German in an eloquent way, but it doesn’t need to be perfect.

When you raise your child in your mothertongue and you already grew up abroad, you will probably be a bilingual or multilingual. You will be aware that every situation where your child can talk your language and feel special and even proud to use that language is very valuable. You know that in order to keep them talking that language, they need to be praised for their effort. Why? Because if they talk that language they choose to do it. They don’t always need to choose that language because they share other languages with the people they normally talk to. So, whenever they have the opportunty to talk your family language, they need to be supported. I know by my own experience that if you get told that the language to talk sounds “funny” or strange, this can affect you so much that you avoid talking it – especially if this “someone” is a grown up, a teacher or someone you admire and you already feel that this language is difficult for some reason.

We all know that maintaining our mothertongue not only serves to transmit our heritage to our children and to build a bridge to our (extended) family, but also to build their confidence and help them find their identity. If their efforts are not acknowledged, they can easily feel frustrated and excluded. Therefore our second or third generation international children need all the support they can get from co-nationals to maintain their heritage language.

Related articles: What happens to second generation international children.

International Mother Language Day: 21 February

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