Raising a Bilingual Child – With One Bilingual Parent


You are bilingual but your mate is not.  You have a baby.  Cognizant of the benefits from being bilingual, you vow to raise your child to also be bilingual.   During infancy and early toddler hood you speak to your child in your second language when alone and only in the dominant language (English) when engaged with others.  You are elated, your young toddler learns words and phrases and even songs in the second language.  Everything seems to be going as planned until one day your now preschooler no longer wants to have anything to do with the second language.   She knows that you too speak the dominant language present in the community and thus wishes to be only engaged in that language. She may even begin to refuse songs, books and other favorite activities once shared in the second language.  What do you do?  At this point, it would be easy to give up and say, “I tried but she just wasn’t interested.”  But her resistance is not from her lack of interest.  What she is really communicating is that she does not recognize the need to have the second language.  Her brain is in full throttle for language acquisition and she has already realized that everyone in her familiar circle also speaks a dominant language.  Thus, she intuitively focuses her efforts toward efficient and effective communication needed for her survival.

The use of language arises out of the need we have to communicate as efficiently and as effectively as possible with others we depend on in our community.  Thus, the key for learning any language is to understand and recognize the need for it.   If your child understands that you too speak the prevailing language, then she may not see the need to learn the other language offered.  Does that mean that a parent should just give up teaching the second language?  No, absolutely not.  As parents, we know the multitude of long term benefits that come from learning a second language including its importance in the global economy and its connection to culture and heritage.  Below are some tips to help keep the second language relevant.

Develop a local community with other families who also speak the second language.  Make social gatherings where the second language is spoken a regular occurrence in the child’s life with the expectation that the child also has to respond to the adults in the second language.

  1. Find television or video programming that your child loves to watch in the second language. When my toddler began not wanting me to speak to her in Spanish, I introduced fun programs like Speekee and Dora in Spanish which kept her engaged in the language.
  2. Sign up for bilingual programs.  There are a number of bilingual programs offered throughout the community in various languages.  These programs include parent and child classes in the language, weekly group classes, and part-time and full-time preschools, and after-school programs.
  3. Hire a part-time nanny or tutor who speaks the desired second language to care for your child several hours each week.  You can find such people by searching reputable sites like www.care.com.
  4. Travel abroad when possible.  Traveling to places where the second language is dominant not only demonstrates the clear need for the second language, it also engages your family more fully in the cultural context of the second language.
  5. Be persistent.  Your child will ultimately get her cues from you about what is valued and what is not.  If you wish to make bilingualism a priority, continue to insist that she engage with you and others in the second language.  It is a commitment and one that will require various support mechanisms like those mentioned above throughout her childhood.  Remember that infancy to early childhood is the age when second language acquisition is the easiest and most natural, so take advantage of it while you can and know that your efforts will pay off in the long run.