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Raising Bilingual Kids

Chontelle B.
CHONTELLE B.
English Teacher and Mom of Bilingual Children
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Join Chontelle Bonfiglio, mom of two bilingual boys, for a Q&A all about raising bilingual children. Chontelle's children speak English and Italian and are learning Spanish. Ask Chontelle about how to introduce another language to your children, what speech looks like in a bilingual two year old and more!

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Ask Chontelle, our English Teacher and Mom of Bilingual Children!

Message Chontelle
CHONTELLE ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Multiple languages
NAMRITA, PARENT OF 6 YEAR OLD, 3 YEAR OLD

Hi,

I have a 3-year-old whose daycare, now preschool has been exposing her to Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic since she started there at 3 months. I speak a mixture of English and Hindi with her. I also know Spanish and Portuguese and sometimes speak with her in those languages if her babysitter is a native speaker of those languages. My husband speaks only English. As you can see, lots of languages going on in her world. Here is my question: I recently started actively finding babysitters that speak Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic to help reinforce the exposure she is getting at school. Is that beneficial or confusing?

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

Hello Namrita,

You are right, there are a lot of different languages there.How much exposure to each language does she get now? At what level does she speak each language?

I would step back and think about your long term goals, because at the moment it seems like it could become very confusing for her since there are 7 languages. Personally I think this is too many at this age. Ask yourself the following:
Which languages are important to you?
Which languages would you like your daughter to learn?
How fluent do you want her to become in those languages?
How will you create the need to speak each of them?

Based on what you have written, I would advise the following:
Since your husband speaks only one language, he can take care of her English.
If you are comfortable enough, you could speak with your daughter exclusively in Hindi, or one of the other languages you know. I would choose one and try to stick with it.

Since she is being exposed to Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin at pre-school I would choose a nanny for either one (or at the most two) of those languages and concentrate on helping her becoming proficient in those languages first.

Your daughter should be able to handle speaking three main languages with no problem, possibly four, and become fluent in each one, if she has enough exposure to each of them as she grows up. Exposure is the key.

The other language at school may become a passive language where she understands and may speak bits and pieces.

I hope it all makes sense!

Chontelle







CHONTELLE ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
At what age should we start?
CINDY, PARENT OF 2 YEAR OLD

Hi! I speak Madarin and English while my husband speaks Cantonese and English. At home we only talk in English. Grandparents are helping to take care of the baby right now and they only speak Madarin and their local dialect. Our baby is still quite young (1.5 months) so we are not careful with what language we speak around him. But when should we start to be more careful with what language we use to talk to him so he doesn't get too confused? Also I would like him to speak English and Madarin. What would you recommend us to do at what age? Thank you!

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

Hi Cindy,

Although you may think your son is too young to understand, there is a lot of research to say that babies start learning in the womb, so the earlier you start, the better.

If English and Mandarin are the languages you want him to speak, you can follow OPOL - One Parent One Language where you and his grandparents speak Mandarin and your husband speaks English. https://bilingualkidspot.com/2016/10/07/opol-method-one-person-one-language/

It is very important that you stay consistent in this case especially with Mandarin as it will be the minority language and have the least exposure. Exposure is everything when it comes to languages. You should try to make sure your son gets a good balance of exposure between both languages.

Does your husband understand Mandarin? If so, then it shouldn't be a problem speaking Mandarin to your son, even in a family conversation. When at home speaking with your husband, speak in English. However, when you speak with your son, switch to Mandarin.

I hope that answers your question, good luck :)

Chontelle

CHONTELLE ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Spanish Activities/Resources
MICHELE, PARENT OF 3 YEAR OLD

I only speak English and my daughter, who is 15 months is learning Spanish from my nanny who only speaks to her in Spanish. You mentioned there are some Spanish activities or play group. Are there any in Boston? Are there toys that you recommend for children that have Spanish and English? Are there resources you recommend for parents to learn the language.

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

Hi Michele,

It seems like you are doing a great job. Unfortunately I do not know personally of any playgroups in the Boston area as I am not based in the US however I found this useful post online that may be of help: https://mommypoppins.com/boston-kids/preschools/16-bilingual-and-language-immersion-preschools-in-or-near-boston

At 15 months old, I recommend a lot of play and reading books. Your daughter is still young and children at this age learn best through play. You can buy many Spanish books and bilingual books at: http://www.languagelizard.com/

As for you learning the language, I would start trying to speak with your nanny in Spanish to start with! What better way to practice. There are many online apps such as Duolingo which are very popular. Taking an immersion course yourself could be an idea or joining a Spanish playgroup or mothers club where you can learn the language together with your daughter.

I hope they help.

Chontelle

CHONTELLE ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Introducing languages
JESSICA

Hi, i have a 3 year old that speaks english and i want her to learn spanish too since that is my native language, her dad only speaks english and we were worried that teaching her a second language would confuse her but now i regret that decision because i feel like now we are behind.
So my questions are;
Is starting to talk to her in spanish at age 3 more difficult or a bit late?
At what age should parents start introducing multiple languages?
How long do they usually take to learn a new language?
When is a good time to inteoduce a third and a fourth language?
Help 😣

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

Hi Jessica,

There is nothing confusing about learning two languages simultaneously and it is still not too late. The "Critical Period" as they call it is from birth to six years old, where children have the best chance at becoming bilingual. You should introduce languages as young as possible.

You can definitely start talking to your daughter in Spanish. It may initially be a bit of a shock for so what I usually advise is to start "talking twice" for a little while. For example saying what you want to say first in English, then repeat it in Spanish. When you think she is starting to understand, start talking only in Spanish and see her reaction. Eventually stop talking English altogether. You can also start reading books in Spanish, and singing Spanish songs together. Introduce a doll or teddy bear who "only speaks Spanish" that way it gives her a reason to use the language.

You can't really put a time on how long it takes to learn a language, as it depends on the child, and also how much exposure your child has to the language. My son who is 4.5 years old has been learning Spanish as a third language for about a year and a half. He has probably about 6-8 hours of "play" per week in Spanish. He can understand everything, and speaks conversations, but still occasionally mixes with some Italian words.

Many migrant and expat children start new schools where they do not know the language being taught. Usually they are able to catch up with their peers within the first school year as they are being exposed to the language all day every day.

As for additional languages, as long as a child has the need to use them it is usually fine. The main thing is providing that "need". It is only worth introducing a new language if you have the resources for them to learn. Either a nanny, babysitter, language school, or playgroup etc. Or even by learning along with your child.

Here are some articles for further reading, I hope they can help.
https://bilingualkidspot.com/category/bilingual-parenting/

Chontelle

CHONTELLE ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
English and Italian
JENNIFER , PARENT OF 2 YEAR OLD

Hi! I am American and my husband is Italian. It's extremely important to us (especially him) that our child grows up learning both languages perfectly. I don't speak much Italian but starting to learn a little more. So he would like when the baby is born to start speaking Italian right away to him. So my question is... do we only speak Italian and home and teach him English outside the home or I only speak english and my husband only speaks Italian? I've heard this can slow down how fast the child speaks but is it the best way?
Thank you!!

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

Hi Jennifer,
I am actually in the same situation as you I am an English speaker and my husband Italian, however we live in Italy. I would suggest using the OPOL approach, One Person One Language, as you mentioned. This is what we do. I speak only English and my husband speaks only Italian.
As you live in the US, your husband will need to be very consistent using Italian though, if you want the best chance for your child to become bilingual. Because he/she will be exposed to so much English in the community, it would be best that he sticks to speaking Italian all the time, even when outside. If you can be consistent from the start then you should be able to give your child a strong foundation of both languages.
Chontelle

JENNIFER

Thank you Chontelle! So when you say he should speak only Italian even outside the house do you consider even when we are with friends and family? Even though they only speak English?

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

Hi Jennifer,

It really depends on what he is comfortable with. I personally only speak English with my children, even when we are with people who do not speak English. I know it may come across as rude to some people, and I have had some strange looks in the park. But, many people we know understand why I do it, and I explain to them how important it is to me that my children grow up bilingually.

For example my husbands relatives do not speak English at all (actually nobody does where we live!) With them I speak Italian, and in general conversation if we are in a group. But if I speak directly to my children, I speak with them in English, and I expect them to speak with me in English.

If I have to, I translate for anyone else if they want to know what I have said. Because I am the only English speaker, I made the decision to make this priority so to not confuse my kids.

With your children, Italian will always be the minority language, so the more exposure to the language, the better. Being consistent is also important, so that your child does not become confused. Children will follow your lead, they need to know what to expect.

Chontelle

JENNIFER

Ok I understand now. I was just wondering if we were with my family and he is only speaking Italian to them in front of or child, that it could get old very quickly as there would be no conversation. When we are in Italy with his family and friends then I should continue to only speak English even though his family and friends don't speak any English and I don't really speak Italian very well? Or to clarify it's only when I am speaking with our child I continue to always only speak English. The reason I ask this is because it's very important to my husband that I learn Italian and he wants me to start to only speak Italian to him so then I learn faster and I'm able to communicate better with his family when we are visiting however I don't want to confuse our son with me going back and forth.

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

To clarify, it is only when speaking with your child. In general conversation with my husband's family, I speak Italian. This is how I learned Italian, speaking with them, I never knew how to speak it before my children were born.

It is only when I specifically speak with my kids, that I switch to English. They also do the same, even my 2.5 year old will speak one minute with me in English and then turn and say the same thing to his Nonna in Italian. If you can be consistent it works.

Eventually later on, you can probably mix every now and again. For example, my eldest is 4.5 years old. If I am talking to he and his friends, who don't speak English, I address the group of them in Italian, and it is fine. He already understands well that we speak English together, but occasionally I have to speak in Italian so the others understand.

The younger they are, the more important it is to be consistent :)

CHONTELLE ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Trying to Raise Bilingual Baby When I Only Speak English
NIKKE

My husband is Gujarati and he speaks Gujarati and Hindi (and English). I only speak English but I'm also a stay at home mom who is with our 6 month old baby. We are not around family as we live far away. My husband wants our son to learn Gujarati (as do I) but there are very few resources for this language (I did manage to find a couple of DVD's with simple words and some books...but I don't read it so it is hard). I think it will be much easier for me to learn Hindi with him since this is a more universal language. However his family speaks Gujarati at home. Any advice for the non-speaker main caregiver to try to teach the baby both or at least one language?

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

Hi Nikke,

In your case, I think it may be a bit difficult to pass on both of your husband's languages without using outside resources, so you should decide which is more important for now, then maybe you can introduce the other later on. If your husbands family speaks Gujarati and it is the most important to him, then he should start speaking with your son immediately in only Gujarati. As you are the primary caregiver, your son may not have a lot of exposure, but as long as your husband keeps consistent it is still possible.

Make sure that when your husband is home, that he takes the time to just sit and play with your son talking as much as possible, especially at this age. Even if your little one doesn't talk back, he will still be processing everything! Many experts recommend that children receive around 25-30hrs per week language exposure to become bilingual. But, remember, quality time is better than quantity.

I know you said you are the primary caregiver, but if your husband can even set aside an hour each day constantly talking, reading and playing with your son only in Gujarati, he should be able to set down at least a strong foundation. Then eventually you can introduce other resources later on.

As for what you can do, you may be quite limited if you cannot speak or read the language. Audio books are great, if you can't read yourself. You can listen along with your little one following the book together. Music is great too, if you can play songs during the day. You can learn together :) As he gets older, you can then introduce some cartoons in Gujarati as well.

Maybe you can find families in your area who speak the language? How far away does your husband's family live? Even if you can arrange to go visit every now and again, it can help. You can also make video calls. Technology these days is amazing! We use Skype to talk with my family at least once a week and it is a great help!

Hope this helps, you sound very motivated, good luck!
Take a look at the minority language section on my website for more ideas: https://bilingualkidspot.com/category/minority-language/

Chontelle




NIKKE

This was very helpful. My husbands spends all of his time after work at home with our son and I will remind him to start talking to him in Gujarati. We do video call his family every other day and they usually speak in Gujarati. I have tried to find people in the local community but haven't been able to connect yet but I will work on that. Again thank you for your comments. They were very helpful!

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

You are very welcome. I would love to hear your progress :)

CHONTELLE ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Am I too late?
SARINA, PARENT OF 5 YEAR OLD, 3 YEAR OLD

Hello! I'm trying to raise my kids (3 yo girl, 5 mo boy) bilingual, as I was raised the same.

My parents both speak Thai and growing up my grandmother lived with us (who didn't speak English) so we had a 'speak only Thai when home' rule. My sisters and I spoke English to each other as much as we could but at home to our parents and elders it was always Thai. We also went to Thai Sunday school so we learned how to read and write.

I speak Thai to my children but my husband does not speak the language. He knows a few words at best but it being a tonal language, it is difficult for him to learn the proper pronunciation. So he speaks English to the children, I speak Thai to the children and he and I speak English to one another.

I've spoken Thai with them since when they were in utero. My daughter went to daycare when I returned to work at 3 months, so her exposure to the mother's tongue was in the mornings, in the evenings and on the weekends. She understands everything I say but doesn't always respond back to me. If I give her the choice between two things (in Thai), she'll choose with the Thai phrase. But she rarely responds to an open ended question in Thai. We recently hired a Thai nanny to help out in the evenings and we've noticed a slight improvement in willingness and/or ability to speak in Thai. I think it's because she sees that its more than just mommy speaking.

When I ask her to speak Thai to me, she sometimes asks me to tell her how and she'll repeat but she doesn't seem to come with stuff on her own. Is it possible for me to get her to speak Thai more? Am I too late?

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

Hi Sarina,

You are definitely not too late! It seems like you have set down a good foundation. The OPOL approach is the right one for your family. However it seems that your daughter doesn't feel the "need" to speak Thai with you.

If she is responding in English with you, perhaps you can say something like "In Thai" (in the language of course!). or "Mummy speaks Thai, can you tell me in Thai?" or repeat what she has just said.

Since English is everywhere, make Thai a priority in your household. Read Thai books together every day, sing songs, listen to Thai music. If you allow screen time, allow it only in Thai. (This actually works well with my kids, if my son asks to watch a cartoon I am more likely to say yes if he watches in English which is our minority language)

Play lots of games together, you will be surprised how kids don't actually realise they are learning when they are concentrating and "trying to win". The most important thing is to make it fun! Let your daughter choose the games to play and choose the books to read, then she will be more likely to use the language with you. Be consistent, repeating and encouraging her to repeat after you.

Here are some articles to read on improving the minority language:
https://bilingualkidspot.com/category/minority-language/

If you have any other questions feel free to ask!

Chontelle

CHONTELLE ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Would they get confused?
TOSH, PARENT OF 4 YEAR OLD, 4 YEAR OLD

My twins are 2, just starting to talk. I predominantly speak English because my husband does not speak Japanese. What is the best thing to do when we are all together, and would it confuse them if i switched primarily to Japanese when the three of us are together now? I ask because i realize that they dont understand Japanese at all at this point and would like for them to be bilingual.

My husband also soeaks a third language that i do not speak. Is it best for him to introduce the language now or wait?

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

Hello Tosh,

This is one of the most difficult situations, when one parent cannot understand the language of the other. They can sometimes feel left out. In fact, many parents choose to learn the language of their partner, or at least the basics.

If you really want your children to become bilingual, speaking to them is the best way. They are still young enough for you to switch to Japanese, they would get used to it very soon. However if you are uncomfortable speaking Japanese when you are all together you can use English as your family language, and speak Japanese with them when you are alone.

Regarding a third language, which language does your husband speak? And how important is it to you that they are able to speak it?

The younger the better when introducing any language. One possible approach would be for you to speak Japanese when you are alone with your kids, your husband speaks his language when alone with them, and you speak English when you are all together.
Or perhaps, you stick to your own languages at home, and they get their English exposure out in the community.

It really depends on how comfortable (and consistent) you can be, and how your husband feels not being able to understand you when you speak.

Chontelle

TOSH

He speaks Twi, which is one of the languages in ghana. There are little to no resources so it would be difficult for me to learn. I think i will focus on Japanese...thank you.

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

Hi Tosh,

It is probably a good idea to focus on Japanese for now and be consistent with it. I would speak Japanese as much as possible with your children, encouraging them to use the language and speak back with you. They are still young enough that you can switch to only speaking Japanese if you want to. They may take a little while to get used to it, but it shouldn't be that much of a shock.
Good luck! I would love to hear your progress later on :)

Chontelle

CHONTELLE ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Should we try?
TAMEKA, PARENT OF 5 YEAR OLD

My husband and I only speak English fluently. I took French in school, but know very little. We would like our 2.5 year old to learn Spanish. What's the best way? Do videos like Little Pim work well. Do we need to commit to learning too, so that we can practice with her? --Thank you!

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

Hello Tameka,

There are many ways that monolingual parents can raise bilingual kids! In my opinion, the best way is finding someone who is a native of the language to come "play" with her. At such a young age, play is the best method to learn anything :)

I am an English native and my husband is Italian. Our kids both speak English and Italian, and are learning Spanish as a third language. Neither my husband nor I speak Spanish so we hired a "playmate" to come play with them. She comes 3-4 afternoons per week for a couple of hours at a time. We started when our eldest was about to turn three and he had no issues adapting. A year and a half later he understands everything and can hold a simple conversation. I find it has been so effective because she ONLY speaks Spanish with them.

If this isn't an option for you, you can join some playgroups or mothers groups where they speak Spanish. Are you able to enrol her in a Spanish only or even a bilingual kindergarten?

Learning along with your little one is definitely a great idea too. Actually I am learning bits and pieces of Spanish so we sing songs together and I ask my kids to "teach" me Spanish which they love.

Audio books are great, you can read along together, and as your little one gets older you can introduce some Spanish cartoons too.

Hope these ideas help, for further reading you can see this post, if you have any other questions feel free to ask. Good luck!
https://bilingualkidspot.com/2016/06/05/raise-bilingual-children-dont-speak-second-language/

Chontelle

CHONTELLE ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
problems with the second language
CATALINA, PARENT OF 5 YEAR OLD, 5 YEAR OLD

I have two year old twins. My mother is Colombian and that entire side of my family speaks only spanish and i want to my kids to be bilingual the way i am. My mom lives with me and the kids (I am single) and she only speaks spanish to them. Their nanny speaks to them in english, and i switch back and forth, although i would say i speak to them the majority of the time in English out of habit. The problem i am having is they only speak english. They understand spanish perfectly but can't or won't speak it. For instance if we have a picture book and i say in spanish, where is the dog, they will point to it. But if i say to them what's another word for dog, or how do you say dog in spanish they look at my blankly. i don't know how to get them to speak spanish, and having grown up with a lot of first generation kids of all backgrounds, I know it is very common for kids to grow up understanding a second language but not speaking it at all and i'd like to avoid that. Any tips?

TOSH

Following! So funny just asked similar question and our twins are about the same age!

NAMRITA

I have had good success using sign language as way to prompt my daughter in her second language.

Chontelle
CHONTELLE

Hi Catalina,

This is not an uncommon situation. Many children grow up to be "passive bilinguals" where they understand everything but don't talk the language. It is all about creating the need for them to speak the language. If they can get away with not speaking it, then some will.

If your mother is speaking Spanish with them how do they respond to her? Perhaps if they are responding in English, she could repeat the words in Spanish and encourage them to repeat it as well.

Initially both my kids answered me in Italian, even when I have spoken only in English from birth. What I used to do if they said something in Italian was look at them with a strange look (like I didn't understand) and say "In English?" Sometimes they would say it, sometimes not. If they didn't say it, I never forced them. First I would prompt them with the first letter to see if they would repeat. And if not, I just repeated what they said to me in English. If I was lucky they repeated after me. I did this every time they spoke Italian and eventually they caught on that I spoke only English! Consistency is key.

My advice (if you can) would be to speak Spanish at home together. Your children have and English nanny, and will have enough exposure to English out in the community that you can make Spanish the primary language at home. This will give your kids the best chance of becoming bilingual as they will have equal exposure to both languages.

Here are a few articles that may help you:
https://bilingualkidspot.com/2017/01/04/minority-language-home-method-mlah-bilingual-kids/
https://bilingualkidspot.com/2016/09/16/create-a-need-minority-language/
https://bilingualkidspot.com/2016/12/13/why-child-wont-speak-minority-language-tips/
https://bilingualkidspot.com/2016/09/02/my-child-wont-speak-my-language-one-simple-technique-that-works-for-us/

Chontelle