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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


Stille Nacht & Astro del Ciel

One of my favourite German Christmas carols is Stille Nacht (heilige Nacht), not only because its message and the sweet memories singing it with my parents at Christmas when I was a child, but also because there is also an Italian version of it, with the same melody, but different words.

The lyrics of this carol are by the Austrian priest Joseph Moor in 1816 and it is believed that Franz Xaver Gruber produced the German melody in only a few hours (in 1818), written as a guitar accompaniment. The melody and words altered slightly over the years, but this is the carol like many sing it today:

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Hirten erst kundgemacht
Durch der Engel Halleluja,
Tönt es laut von fern und nah:
Christ, der Retter ist da!
Christ, der Retter ist da!

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Gottes Sohn, o wie lacht
Lieb’ aus deinem göttlichen Mund,
Da uns schlägt die rettende Stund’.
Christ, in deiner Geburt!
Christ, in deiner Geburt!

Words: Joseph Mohr, 1816
Music: Franz Xaver Gruber, 1818


Silent night, holy night
All is calm all is bright
‘Round yon virgin Mother and Child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Silent night, holy night,
Shepherds quake at the sight.
Glories stream from heaven afar,
Heav’nly hosts sing Alleluia;
Christ the Savior is born
Christ the Savior is born

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face,
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth

The Italian version follows the same melody, but the lyrics are completely different.
Don Angelo Meli (1901-1970) published a set of Italian lyrics in 1937 that were supposed to accompany the melody of “Stille Nacht” under the title of “Astro del Ciel” (Star of the Sky)

Astro del ciel, Pargol divin,
mite Agnello Redentor!
Tu che ai Vati da lungi sognar,
Tu che angeliche voci nunziar,
luce dona alle menti
pace infondi nei cuor!
luce dona alle menti
pace infondi nei cuor!

Star of the sky, divine Child,
Redeemer meek Lamb!
You, whom the Prophets dreamt about from far away,
You, whom angelical voices announced,
give light to the minds,
bring peace to their hearts! x2

Astro del ciel, Pargol divin,
mite Agnello Redentor!
Tu di stirpe regale decor,
Tu virgineo, mistico fior,
luce dona alle menti,
pace infondi nei cuor! 

Star of the sky, divine Child,
Redeemer, meek Lamb!
You of pride of regal descendancy,
You virginal, mystical flower,
give light to the minds,
bring peace to their hearts!

Astro del ciel, Pargol divin,
mite Agnello Redentor!
Tu disceso a scontare l’error,
Tu sol nato a parlare d’amor,
luce dona alle menti,
pace infondi nei cuor! 

Star of the sky, divine Child,
Redeemer meek Lamb!
You descended to atone for our errors,
You born only to speak of love,
give light to the people,
bring peace to their hearts!
give light to the people,
bring peace to their hearts!

I wish everyone a peaceful Christmas


How to volunteer in a healthy and efficient way


I lead several volunteer groups in the past 20 years and have helped many volunteers who were close to give up to change their way to volunteer into a more healthy one, for them, their family and the organization or group they were volunteering for.

Here are 6 question you should ask yourself:

1. Why are you considering to volunteer?

Do you want to help the world, your community, your children?

Do you want to hone your own skills, maybe learn new ones?

Do you want to make new friends?

Do you like what you do?

Do you want to share your skills with others or give something back?

– Before starting to volunteer, try to find out what you want to achieve. What is your goal? What are your expectations? For how long do you think you can or want to commit?

I volunteered for several reasons: to connect with the community, to hone my skills, learn new ones. The advantage of a volunteer job is that it’s usually time limited. You probably won’t volunteer in the same position for more than 2 years – I always recommend to change after 1,5 or 2 years as staying too long in the same role can take its toll on us: as it is usually an unpayed job, if we do it for too long, we tend to do more than necessary and not feel satisfied anymore. When you feel this, it’s time to say goodbye or to change something…

2. Choose the right role, the right organization…

Depending on what you answered under 1., choose the right place to volunteer. If you want to hone your skills (or learn new ones), and maybe want to gap a period where you don’t have a job, choose an organization that gives you the opportunity to grow and learn. If your intent is to socialize, a more flexible and relaxed setting is better (some volunteer works at schools, communities etc.)

3. Start small…and learn to say “no”

If you have already a busy schedule or if you are not sure if the volunteer job is the right one for you, start with only a few hours per week. Then, if you find you enjoy the work and have more time to pursue it, gradually take on more. – If you are too enthusiastic at the beginning, and say “yes” to too many tasks, people will be more likely to ask you more than you actually can or want to give. You may end up feeling exhausted instead of energized and rewarded by the work you’re doing!

When I volunteered for the first time after years, and after a longer break from work, I was so glad to have a new meaning and purpose that I overdid it. I committed to more than I really wanted and I resigned – yes, like in a real job! – after 6 months.

4. Voice your expectations

When you start in a new group, make sure that within a month of time you make clear what you expect from this new role. This might need that you have more meetings than expected, that you have to discuss a lot and negotiate, but it is better to find out asap if the new role fits you or not. – Like in a real job you can get overwhelmed and burned out quickly…

When I started volunteering in my 20ies I was way too shy to speak up every time I felt that something wasn’t going well. I kept on saying “it’s only a volunteer job and I can quit anytime”, but maybe I’m too responsible and conscientious: I once volunteered in a non-healthy position for 2 years and was very close to a burnout. Thanks to a very good friend who saw it coming, I quit on time…

5. Ask many questions…

Ask questions and do your research. What kind of prospectives will you have in the new role? Do you have a say when it comes to decisions? Are you ok with the role that is offered to you? How many hours are expected from you? What if you’ll work more hours?…

Sometimes you need to get your feet wet before realizing that the job is not for you. Don’t hesitate to speak up and quit if it’s not what you need right now.
I have volunteered in positions where I got a reference at the end. This is something you should always ask! Will you receive any kind of reference that you can put on your CV?

With the volunteer groups I am leading, I make it clear that if the role they choose is comparable to the one in a real job, i.e. if they take some responsibilities, use some specific skills, I will issue them a personal reference.

6. It is for you if…

I regularly do for my own business and my volunteer jobs. If you volunteer in a certain position, ask yourself regularly:

– Am I getting the feedback that keeps me going? – If your work is taken for granted and not “seen”, it is not rewarding enough. Getting regular feedback is essential. If you don’t get it automatically, ask for it. And if you still don’t get it, ask yourself why and if it’s healthy to keep on doing it.

– Am I getting the (personal!) recognition I need? – many organizations thank their “volunteers”: thanking volunteers personally is much more rewarding and healthy for a good relationship!

– How do I feel after an intense week? – Volunteer work usually requires a lot of flexibility, which can be very challenging. But it also can be immensely rewarding! If after a week of intense volunteer work you feel exhausted and grumpy, ask yourself why. Is there anything you can change in the way you work, the way your role is defined (maybe you want more responsibility, or less, or do something else). Voice your needs and if you don’t get the response you expect and need, find a way to change your position…

After great accomplishments we should take a time out to assess what went well and what went wrong, what could be done better. Always. – If your volunteer group is lead by a person who feels overwhelmed or unsatisfied, struggling, it is very unlikely that you’ll get recognized for the effort you make and it’s not a healthy environment to spend your energy for. It is very important to take good care of ourselves, to be aware of what we need to be happy to help and volunteer.

– Am I enjoying this? If the job/role gives you more energy, makes you stand up in the morning, it’s a good sign. If you wake up in the middle of the night, worrying or struggling: it’s the time to quit. As simple as that. Don’t feel guilty that you quit, that you speak up. Volunteering is not only giving, it’s also receiving. If you feel that you are constantly giving and not receiving enough in return, it’s not healthy to go on.

My very own experience

In the past 29 years (!) I have been regularly volunteering in many different settings and roles. I have created and coordinated student groups, local and international groups etc.
At my childrens’ school for example I first helped out occasionally at festive lunches, school trips etc., then as class representative (in total for 6 classes in 4 years) and PRC (Parent Representative Commitee, a sort of PTA) and finally as Team Leader of a Welcome Team and a Sessions Team at our Family Association. As leader of one of these groups I organized more than 20 talks in the last 2 years: all voluntary work and as a “solo volunteer”, i.e. I did the whole funnel, from finding speakers, agreeing on topics, coordinating the venue and the financial part until the actual speech (including all the technical aspects too). It may sound crazy, but I’m passionate about organizing and planning, so this didn’t cost me much energy – if everything runs smoothly. Wearing many hats simultaneously is what I’m good at, but I must be sure that every hat fits…

I use to say to my volunteers: “make sure that you keep your cup filled, that you fill it up from time to time, because you can’t pour from an empty cup!”… So when it was time for my regular assessment a few weeks ago, I realized that I spent much more time with emailing, double (triple- etc.) checking everything, for my volunteering than for my own business. Two of my hats felt like not fitting anymore – metaphorically speaking, of course… Things had gone out of balance for several reasons; circumstances had changed and required a constant adaptation and “re-inventing-the-wheel” which I was not able and willing to do anymore.
I did the “what if…”–test and imagined how it would feel if I would quit one (or two) of the jobs and decided which ones to keep and which ones to let go.

I am still volunteering, and it’s surely thanks to the fantastic work of my teams, that I don’t spend 20 hours per week anymore, but can keep the time under 8 hours a week– the right amount for me to keep my cup full!




If you would like some help with self-assessment, contact me at I’ll help you to make sure you keep your cup filled.



(this post was also published on my other site Ute’s International Lounge)


Repair instead of buying new

With the month of October fast approaching, as a buy-nothing-new-month “celebrated” in other countries too, when I saw this post on my timeline this morning, I remembered that I saw some Repair Cafés in Germany recently.

I wasn’t really surprised to find out that the Repair Café was initiated by the Dutch Martine Postma in 2007 in Amsterdam, and that it has been a great success since. Martine started the Repair Café Foundation in 2009, a non-profit organisation, “that provided professional support to local groups in the Netherlands and other countries wishing to start their own Repair Café”, and she even wrote a  book about it (in Dutch).

On the site you can find out where to find the closest Repair Café in your area:

And if there is none, they have a great guideline about how you can start one, after all, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel…:
Bildschirmfoto 2016-09-25 um 16.25.57.png

This step-by-step manual is based on our years of experience, and guides you through all the different stages of setting up your own Repair Café: from finding local repair experts and a suitable location, to collecting the right tools, creating publicity, finding funds for your initiative etc.




What I like about this idea is not only the fact that we get the chance to learn how to repair items even if we are not a professional – we can get help at those Cafés! – but it’s the mindset. Why throw away if you can repair it? Many times we choose to buy new because repairing is way too expensive, and I admit that I did it several times in the past. But many items can actually be fixed with less expense. There are shops that have spare parts – one has only to find them… In these Repair Cafés you can ask people about that and maybe you’re lucky and find even someone who has an idea how to repair it.
Repairing is to give things a new chance – and sometimes purpose. I like this idea because it is one of the things I want my children to learn: that we can fix things, that items can be repaired. I want them to grow up with what I call the repairing-mindset (I’ll explain it more in another post soon), because it will help them to be more conscientious and respectful for things they/we own.

Not throwing away things, but trying to fix them is in line with the buy-nothing-new-month movement, a “global movement for collective, conscientious consumption” and the idea started in Melbourne and spread to the Netherlands and the USA.

Since I wrote about this buy-nothing-new-month a few years ago, in our family we tend to expand this month over the whole year. It’s not about not buying anything at all – we all need food and items for our household that we still need to buy. It’s more about reflecting on what we “need” and what we “want”, and if the things we want are really so indispensable – and if they really need to be bought new…

I personally like the idea of knowing how to fix things, to reuse them, maybe by giving them another purpose; and I like the idea of my non-needed/wanted items to find a new home and make someone else happy.

– What are the items you repair? Do you throw away the items you no longer use or need, or do you give them away?