To Italian version of "Bilinguismo e Multilinguismo"

6. Practical tips: how do I raise my child bi / multingually?

Welcome to the sixth appointment of Multilingualism matters!

In this article, we are going to explore different methods to raise a child bilingually, and some tips for families wanting/needing their child/children to grow up with more than one language. We are also going to understand the importance of maintaining the mother tongue.

First of all one has to consider that raising a child in a multilingual context can be challenging. Nonetheless, it is also an immensely rewarding experience. Many parents in the world are raising their children with more than one language, and the reasons for this choice can vary a lot. Clearly, every family should discuss a few issues to make sure everyone knows what to do. For example, who should speak what language to the baby?

There are many different ways to raise a child bilingually and multilingually. The first important thing to do is to agree on who speaks what language to whom. Then, we have to stick to it. The two most successful methods are One Person One Language (OPOL), which  implicates that one person always speaks to the child in the same language; and Minority Language at Home (ML@H), where the whole family speaks always in Language A, while the community where they live speaks language B.

Of course, there are endless variations on these two approaches. For example, if you would like to add another language beyond those already spoken within the family, or if your family doesn't speak any foreign languages, you'll need to provide an outside source, like an immersion program or  a nanny. Consider that anyone who is spending a significant amount of time with the child can function as his/her primary source for language experience.

Another option is to have a time specific rule. For example, both parents speak one of the languages during the weekend, even though one parent may only be a rudimentary speaker of this language.

Although agreement within the family is the most important factor, it can happen that a partner doesn't want the other partner to speak to the child in a language he/she doesn't understand. He/she may feel being excluded from "the secret language" between the other parent and the child. Discuss and compromise. It is very important to find a solution that is acceptable to both parents as well as beneficial to the child.

Once you decide which language you would like to speak with your child, consider the following tips:


Raising multilingual children requires patience, and sometimes it can be frustrating. As with most aspects of parenting, it is a long term commitment and there will be ups and downs. Don't worry if your child doesn't speak his/her languages as quickly as his/her peers, or with the same proficiency in all the languages. Focus on the success, and praise your child!


Don’t give up even if your child’s language proficiency seem to fluctuate over time in his/her two languages or if he/she is mixing languages. This is part of the normal bilingual development, since the child is trying to figure out how languages work. Some variability in language skills is normal, but don’t allow for interruptions or long periods of no exposure to one of the languages.


If you are the primary source of language input for your child, try to speak consistently to him/her in that language whether at home or out in the community. Although code mixing is completely normal and appropriate for bilinguals, try to limit it as much as possible at least at the beginning stages. This will help your child acquire the two or more languages.

How can we boost language A in a country where language B is spoken? Consider the following suggestions:

  • Everyday activities (e.g. Mealtimes, bath time, getting dressed, playtime…) are all opportunities for providing quality language exposure. Talk to your child about what you are doing! He/she has to feel the need for the language, otherwise he/she will discard it.
  • It is important for your child to have access to other speakers of this language as much as possible. There are many different opportunities for this, like joining a playgroup, joining a reading group, or watching videos. Even a baby sitter, a nanny or an au-pair speaking language A would be a good idea. Also, visiting the country where the language is spoken can help: total immersion for a couple of weeks has an amazing effect. Of course, visits from friends or family also provide a valuable language input.
  • Whatever is the interest of your child (dance, soccer, or animals), make an effort to “involve” these passions in the language (e.g. using books, magazines, videos…).
  • When your child uses incorrect words or grammar, just repeat the correct vocabulary and/or the correct sentence in a gentle and caring way. Don’t criticize, otherwise he/she will feel inhibited to speak.
  • One of the best tools to help your child acquire the language/s is using dialogic reading. It is not about an adult reading the book and a child listening to him. It is a more active method, through which the child becomes the teller of the story and the adult becomes the audience for the child. How does it work? The fundamental reading technique is represented by the PEER sequence, a short interaction between a child and the adult. The adult: Prompts the child to say something about the book; Evaluates the child's response; Expands the child's response by rephrasing and adding information to it; and Repeats the prompt to make sure the child has learned from the expansion.
    Remember that it is important to read frequently with preschool children. Different researches confirm that reading to children provides them with many of the skills that are necessary for school readiness, for example vocabulary, the meaning of print, the structure of stories and language.

Furthermore, many studies confirmed that the mother tongue plays an important role in the child development, it is extremely important to foster it and not to abandon it. Since we acquire the mother tongue during the most important stage of our life, childhood, it has a strong impact on the formation of the individual, it is connected to our thinking and emotions. A child’s first comprehension of the world and his/her perception of existence, starts with the language that is first taught to him/her. Besides, it establishes a strong bond between a child and his parents (especially the mother).

The native language links the child with the culture of the society where he/she comes from. Therefore, it is also one of the most powerful tools used to preserve and convey culture and cultural ties. Children who are unaware of their culture can lose confidence in themselves, and they have to seek an alternate identity. In this aspect, the attitudes and beliefs of immigrant parents are very important. If they want to prevent language loss, they should find ways to help their children maintain and improve their mother language, keeping positive attitudes about other cultures.

Numerous investigations show that the mother tongue provides the basis for learning other languages. For this reason, Jim Cummins, an expert in multilingual education, stresses the importance of preserving the mother tongue: “Immigrant children who come to school with a strong foundation in their mother tongue develop stronger literacy abilities in the language used at school.”

Finally, helping your child maintaining and improving his/her ability in the mother tongue will give him/her the chance to become a balanced bilingual and to benefit from the cognitive and linguistic advantages, that we have discussed in the third article of this column.


Find out more:

§  Naomi J. Steiner & Susan L. Hayes (2009). 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child. Amacom, American Management Association.

§  “Bilingual Children's Mother Tongue: Why Is It Important for Education?”, by Jim Cummins: http://iteachilearn.org/cummins/mother.htm

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