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How to raise a bilingual kid


Or more precisely, how to make sure your binational, bicultural kid becomes bilingual.

Six months after the creation of this new rubric on the blog, here is at last its second post (this rubric is meant to be a long term thing, more or less 20 years in the making).

Today, I want to share with you some of my thoughts and experiences about bilingualism among bicultural kids.

When you’re married to someone with a different native language from yours and when you have kids with that person, you often think that, awesome, your kids will automatically be bilingual. Except that it’s not that simple.

If you have bicultural kids yourself, you may certainly know this, if not, here is the awful truth: many different factors are going to play prominent roles determining your lovely kids’ language(s) of choice.

I think that the very first bicultural and bilingual kids that I’ve met were the ones in that Franco-American family whom I met during my very first trip to the US, fifteen years ago. Before them, I had a Anglo-French friend in college, but I never really thought nor asked about how she became bilingual, in my mind she “naturally” was and that was it (Anne-Sophie, if you ever read this, your input is more than welcome).

So let’s return to our Franco-American kids as it’s my experience with them that forged my views on the linguistic education one can give to bicultural kids.

They were three kids with an American dad and a French mother. The children had lived their whole life in the US (with frequent vacations in France). They were perfectly bilingual (with an American accent though). The “secret” was that French was the only allowed language at home. Of course, outside of the house, they spoke English. The fact that both parents were French teachers at the university obviously helped.

After the few conversations I had with the parents on the topic, I deduced that the key was indeed to make the “foreign” language (foreign from the place where the family lives) the only spoken language at home. Had they grown up in France, they would have spoken English at home.

That seemed highly logical and foolproof.

Years went by and I never really deeply thought about the topic again. I met a few more bilingual kids along the way, but I never wondered much about their linguistic education, after all, I had the solution for my future kids if they had a mother who is not a native French speaker.

And I indeed ended marrying a foreign woman, and then I went to live in her country, and then I had a daughter.


Time to put my great theory into practice.

You’ve already guessed it, it’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be.

康代 and I speak French together and we have done so ever since we met. Contrarily to popular belief she doesn’t speak English and my Japanese remains extremely weak (for a bunch of reasons). However, even if I was fluent in Japanese today, we’d still communicate in French, mostly because, I don’t know about you, but when I start using one language with someone, it’s extremely difficult to me to start using another one with them. It feels too unnatural for some reason.

Janvier 2014

Your mission, you will accept it, is to turn this very cute but wild toddler into a bilingual child.

Obviously, we also speak French to Hana. All the time in my case, almost all the time in 康代’s : she speaks French to her at home, even when I’m not present, but in public or when other Japanese people are with them, she will address to her in Japanese.

Hana has started to speak a few weeks ago… Well, speak is something she has done for a while now, but in a baby language that only her can understand… So, it’s understandable words that she has started to use recently.

And most of them are Japanese words!

I guess there are a few reasons to that. I could be wrong, but I think that the first one is that even if she hears more French in terms of quantity (and she does indeed understand French better than Japanese right now), the variety of sources for Japanese is far wider than the ones for French (her mom, me and one weekly video chat with her French grandparents basically). For Japanese she gets her Japanese grandparents (whom she sees several times a week), her mom’s friends, and TV that – for better or worse – is playing a big factor in her linguistic education.

Her Japanese grandparents are indeed a major factor, especially her jiichan whom she loves more than anyone else (ok, maybe not more than us, although I wonder sometimes). He definitely is her main Japanese language teacher at the moment. Most of the words she says in Japanese come from him, as they often belong to the context of her time with him.

Another factor I have heard about several times and that I have seen among many bicultural kids in Japan, is that kids will always unconsciously choose the easy way. I’m not implying that kids are lazy brats, it’s just the ways languages work (if you don’t already know, trust me on this, it’ll be too long and too off-topic to explain). What I mean by that is that they will always tend to use the language that is understood the most around them. And right now, in Hana’s mind – even if she’s unaware of it – it is the Japanese language. Especially because, even if I don’t speak it, she doesn’t really know that, and until now, I do understand all the Japanese words she has used. That will change soon, actually the other day she has used a Japanese expression I didn’t know for the first time (“ochita” – it fell). She may soon become my Japanese teacher.

Well, right now, she doesn’t consciously make a distinction between both languages, so she will tend to express herself in the language she hears the most around her, if not in duration, at least in variety of sources.

Before we go any further, a small anecdote fresh from this morning; maybe she is starting to make a distinction between languages. This morning, she was pretending to call her Japanese grandfather on her mother’s cell phone. Having imaginary phone conversations is one of her favorite games right now. Then, she gave me the phone and I pretended to talk to my father-in-law, in French. Of course, he doesn’t speak a single word of French. Instead of being amused, like I expected her to be, she looked at me as if there was something that didn’t make sense. Was she surprised/confused that I was talking to her grandfather in French and not in Japanese? Maybe.

I think that we are now at some sort of crossroads as far as her linguistic education is concerned. From what I’ve seen from many bicultural kids here, when parents speak Japanese together, or even only if the kid knows that the foreign parent understands Japanese, the kid will only speak Japanese and it will be very difficult to make them speak the other language. I kinda have the advantage of not understanding Japanese much (and it’s actually one of the reasons I have slowed down my learning of the language right now).

So, I think – I could be wrong – that now is the time to help her to start distinguishing both languages (as I previously said maybe she just did today) and after that start to understand that French has to be the language spoken at home, so that it becomes her language too and not just Dad’s.

Now, I also think that I need to multiply the sources of French at home. That kinda means watching more DVDs in French I guess. However, beyond the technical issues (French DVDs won’t play on Japanese players, some Blu-Rays do, but there aren’t many Blu-Rays for young kids), when I look through what French sites have to offer, I feel that there aren’t many cartoons and shows for toddlers in France (at least compared to what’s available in Japanese). No French equivalent to Anpanman or Wan-Wan for example (Hana’s two idols at the moment).

So this is where we stand at the moment.

Of course, I’ll post more on the topic as Hana’s language skills evolve.

And of course, if you have personal experiences on the subject, please share them with us in the comments.


20 janvier 2014

Apparently, selfies are all the rage these days, so…



22 thoughts on “How to raise a bilingual kid”

  1. Hi David!
    Victor and I did what you’re doing which was to make French the home language. We always spoke French to her, even in English-speaking situations. I would speak to her in French and repeat in English for the benefit of others. We read to her in French every day and listened to a ton of French kids music (Enfance et Musique), particularly in the car (lots of car time in Southern California). What really helped was having French-speaking peers in France and of course the long Paris stays (3-6 months per year). Good luck and enjoy!

    1. Thanks K-Rae.
      That’s true, I think I have never asked you how you did. I had always assumed that she was bilingual thanks to your extended times in France, I didn’t know you also spoke together in French in the US (although I should have expected as I knew you spoke French to each other).
      How about Romanian? (well, did Victor grow up in Romania or is second generation immigrant?)

  2. I have seen the “trick” to mention with several of my friends with multi-cultural families. The case that stands out is an italian friend of mine, married with an australian of german origin. They were living in US with two small children (three and six years old at the time, I believe). The deal was that he was speaking to them only in italian and she would talk only in german. They would then pick up english from pre-school, TV, etc. Well the oldest was great: changing language depending on who she was talking to, no mistakes, perfect accents. The little one instead wasn’t talking at all… until one day she also started to speak the three languages all at once, more or less in a finished form. Quite amazing.

    1. Pretty impressive. But yeah, raising your kids in a country where none of the parents are from is probably the best “recipe” to have multilingual kids.
      I have heard of kids that are very quiet, but are really learning the language silently, never met one, but it must be quite interesting.

  3. Going to a school that have other language options also help in raising bilingual or trilingual children. That is applicable in Northern Europe (where I had two penpals who studied western European languages AND Mandarin), and some parts of Southeast Asia like Malaysia and Singapore. Most non-natives would learn to speak their mother tongue from their parents (sometimes 2 monther tongues because parents are of different heritage), and the compulsory national (local) language and English at school.
    Does Japan has school that offers such options? And I am also curious if the international school in Japan is expensive. I am pretty sure your daughter can be bilingual smoothly without any problem 🙂

    1. Well, learning foreign languages at school is something else. This is basically how I learned English (although out of high school, I was far from bilingual, barely fluent). Here, I’m really talking about native languages.
      In Tokyo, there are a few international schools, but that’s pretty much it. And I suspect they’re more for expats (that is in Japan for a few years with no intention to settle down here, barely immerse one self in the culture) than for bicultural kids.

  4. I have a similar story to Massimo’s — friends of ours – he is French, she is Dutch and they live in England with their three boys. The older two are competant in all three languages now. The littlest one only ‘speaks’ (understands) Dutch at the moment — he’s about the same age as your little one. The deal in the family is that Dad speaks French, Mum speaks Dutch to the kids. English they pick up from their home surroundings I assume.

    A fascinating post and it will be interesting to read about your progress. Nice to read someone genuinely trying to talk about their personal experience with this.

  5. We consulted with our speech therapist friend whose two girls speak perfect French, English, and German. Her advice was for each of us to stay absolutely consistent with our own native language when speaking to our daughter – even in public. We live in France so that means she’s getting less English but we’re not worried because English is pretty prevalent here. I also work part-time so that helps tremendously to have that extra time with her. If both parents work full-time, then yes, there will have to be a better balance and perhaps one language in the home works better in that case.

    1. Thanks Nicolle.
      Yes, I had read something like this before.
      (whoops, I just remembered that I forgot to repost your comment from my French blog – if you want to do it yourself, do not hesitate, else I’ll do it tonight) 🙂

  6. Originally posted by Nicolle on my French blog, copied here by me

    This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart, especially because it makes up so much of my own past and will make up so much of my very close future 🙂

    In my family, my sister and brother and I cover most of the spectrum, from being completely bilingual (although I certainly feel more comfortable using one language over the other in specific contexts… and sometimes I feel like I am losing BOTH languages and will eventually turn into someone who cannot speak..haha), to being semi bilingual (my sister, who speaks and understands both english and spanish but certainly prefers and uses english over spanish and sometimes stumbles in her spanish), and finally something after that…. (my brother, who can understand most spanish but never speaks it). Even though we are all really close in age and more or less lived “similar” upbringings, there were obviously several factors that determined this outcome…. probable the most important ones were emotional and social factors (divorces, friends (even growing up in the same city, we had very different circles of friends who valued very different markers of identity.. this made a big difference in the language(s) we actively looked to use/not use/consider special/etc. in our teenage years), who spoke which language to who and when, etc.). Unfortunately, some of these factors are hard for parents to control for… other than placing children in language-specific schools, which can be expensive.
    But one thing that is easy to control and that made a huge impact on me when I was growing up was reading books in spanish. My extended family always had books for me in spanish, and they often made it into something special….
    The other thing that made a huge difference was that my parents would send us to our grandparents house in Venezuela every single summer for three entire months, many times without them. That meant that we only spoke spanish for three months every year, until I was at least 10 years old.
    Even so, though, I think that the most critical time period of my language development came when I was an adolescent… by that point, all my siblings had already acquired the ability to understand and pronounce words in both spanish and english as native speakers, but it was during my adolescence that we had to actively choose to continue to use it in age-appropriate and context-appropriate ways (beyond the home and beyond juvenile grammar and vocabulary).

    I think about this a lot as we embark on our own adventures in raising a bilingual baby, because like you, Javier and speak to each other in spanish, so speaking in spanish to the baby will be normal and will work great while we are still in the U.S., during the next 3-4 years. But what will we do when we move back to South America? I don’t want to have to be the parent that speaks to her kids in english because spanish has always been our intimate home language… so it will be strange….

    I look forward to reading more about how it goes for you!

    1. Hey Nicolle,

      Thanks for your input (I didn’t know your siblings didn’t really speak Spanish that much).

      Yes, as soon as Hana goes to school, I’ll try to give her French classes that are as close as possible to the curriculum that French kids follow at school in France… And regularly reading French books will be compulsory (for me too, but that’s another story 🙂 ).

      If you return to South America, it indeed may be difficult to have your kid be bilingual in English, unless you start speaking to him/her in English as soon as he/she is born, but that’d be odd if you speak Spanish with Javier. Some of my French friends here speak French to their kids and Japanese with their wives, and while the kids understand French pretty well, they don’t speak it.

      1. I think we as parents have to enforce the speaking more from our children. Your friends speak French to their kids and when they answer back in Japanese, it’s easy to just let it go because the French parent understands them. I’m trying to not do that but it’s hard! When Chloé speaks to me in French, I try to correct her to English. It must be confusing for her since she only just turned two – but I know if I don’t enforce it, the English will get further and further away. Now we have a situation where if she learns something in English first, she tries to correct Papa when he says it in French haha! And vice-versa….but I think she’ll eventually “get it”. Thanks for an interesting discussion!

        1. The thing with my friends (well, I’m talking about three friends here, but their situations are slightly different from each other) is that their wives don’t really speak French (some understand it, some don’t), so Japanese is the de facto language at home… When the kids are little, you can try to enforce things with more or less success but the older they get the more independent they get about it…
          I’d like to have my friends comment on this themselves, but one of them doesn’t speak English (but I’ll redirect him to my French blog next time I see him), the second doesn’t really use the web much. The third, I’ll contact soon if he doesn’t show up here in a few days.

  7. Hi David, I just read this amazing piece and I have to thank you for this. I am also tied to a man who speaks in a different language (Bangla) and we mostly speak Bangla among ourselves like you said that speaking in another sounds just weird for no reason! So, our not-yet born babies are going to face this problem and pretty often this comes to my mind like how to make them speak Chakma (my language), a less spoken Indigenous language in Bangladesh that even their would be mother can’t read and write (Bangla is the state language so we learn speaking chakma then Bangla and English at school, so no school to teach Chakma). Your own experience as well as Nicolle, Massimo and other commenters’ comments are road to the solution. Our kids would be in real trouble if we ever move out of the country when they’d have to learn at least 3 languages while growing up! I am going to share this with my husband straight away. Love to Hana and your wife. This is my first visit to your lovely website. Wish to be a frequent traveler to know more about Japan through your blog. Great work!

    1. Hi Ituki and thanks for the kind words.
      Having your future kids learn Chakma could indeed be difficult, but not impossible. You’d have to be their teacher though.
      As far as learning three languages, it’s not harder than two, and the younger the better. Once again, it’ll all depend on the circumstances.
      I don’t know if you got the chance to read more through my blog since you wrote your comment, but last summer, I got to meet several people from Bangladesh through the amazing Bengal Island event that took place in Takamatsu. You can read all about it there:

  8. German guy posting here who spent the first 11 years of his life in New York.

    I continuously spoke English with my daughter, and read to her in English, and watched videos in English. Sometimes it was slightly frustrating… like how she never answered in English; like how her general language competence development was slightly slow; like when she said “no more English” around age 6.

    But you reap what you sow. Later on, she was always best-in-class in English, and got straight ‘A’s in English at her baccalaureate. And she is now at University, studying successfully in Edinburgh and in Canada, with the most lovely international friends and a wonderfully cosmopolitan outlook.

    So my advice: be consistent, infect her with the love of your language, and you will be rewarded one hundred fold. To enable someone to speak French is a wonderful gift!

  9. Hi David
    I am an Australian who went to high school and university in England. As a result, I speak French fluently, having studied it all through school and completed a French degree, as well as having lived in France for a year and visited regularly. When I came home to Australia my French was very academic, and I spent probably 8 years not speaking French as there was no outlet to do so. However, when I was expecting my first child I started to make plans to bring them up speaking French. I got my hands on as many French language books as possible, as well as CDs of French nursery rhymes and songs for children. I started to teach myself a wider, more familiar vocabulary. When my first child arrived, I was very strict with myself in terms of always speaking French, they heard English from their dad and our family and friends, and of course out in the wider community. Music and picture books played a big part in my children beginning their speaking lives speaking French. As you point out in your post, children often switch though to speaking the more widely spoken language in their environment, so my kids changed from French to English as their main spoken language after 6 – 12 months of talking. So I was speaking French to them but they would reply in English. As I was the only one speaking French to them, I soon realised that if I wanted them to be bi-lingual I was going to need support and resources. I got more and more books as I realised that reading as well as speaking French was crucial. Films and cartoons help too. My kids started at the French School of Sydney once they were 3 yrs old and this has been the greatest force in them becoming bi-lingual. Now the pressure is off me to be providing all the French language, and instead it is now important for me to encourage their English vocabulary as they have very few hours of English study at school. I have also always needed them to understand that they are Australian, and make sure they know about Australian history and use of language. So the emphasis can change, but your commitment to helping and encouraging them to see the value in speaking more than one language/being part of more that one culture cannot flag. All the best in raising Hana bi-lingually/bi-culturally!

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