T Nation

Raising Bilingual Children


Hi T-Nationers,

I was wondering if there are any "bilingual parents" on here. Do any of you have any stories, advice, words-of-wisdom, techniques, etc for raising bilingual kids that you'd like to share?

My wife and I are finally starting to "settle in" and seriously consider having kids. Also, some good friends of ours are basically in the same "situation" as we are in (same languages, issues, location) but they have a 3 year old. So I started thinking about this. I want to get some books/websites and send them to our friends. I also want to start "reading up" myself.

For what it's worth, my wife speaks English pretty well and I can speak Japanese pretty well (although she constantly tells me how badly I do at it), but neither of us are "native" in our second language.

Our friends are NOT the same. She speaks English well but he doesn't speak Japanese AT ALL. Are there any differences to these type of "raisings"? Anything that should be considered? They are starting to get concerned because he is three and well behind his classmates in terms of language. He still doesn't use sentences and sometimes "confuses" the languages (Japanese words in an English phrase). He still communicates with motions, cries, and shouts. They are trying to get him into a pre-school so he can spend more time with kids his own age and he is seeing a speech therapist (or something). Other friends of ours told us not to worry because their kids were very quiet until 5 or 6 when they started speaking three languages well. Is that common? Should they be concerned?

Anyway, this is kind of a random thought I put on here. I'm also posting this on a more "specific" website dedicated to expats, but I thought T-Nation might prove a broader set of people and experiences.

Thanks in advance for any ideas/resources.


I am in the same situation that you are. I am getting married soon, and we both want to have kids soon since we are both in our mid 30's and not exactly "young" anymore. Our problem is that I am Russian, she is Indian, and we live in America so our kids may well end up having to learn three languages depending on what we decide to do. Anyway, this site was recommended to us by friends that have raised multilingual children. It has a lot of information and books.



I dont have children so take this with a grain of salt but one of friends learned polish and English at a young age. Her parents just spoke both languages to her and she just knew both. She has a younger sister who they thought polish before school and she learned alot of her english in school.

I've no idea about your friends but i know that my friends mother didn't have great english just polish but her father spoke both well.


My two sons, now both in their twenties, were raised in a multilingual household. Their Mom's first language is Polish, mine English. My wife also speaks Russian and German. I speak very little Polish, and that very badly. We also had my wife's mother, who spoke only Polish, living with us, and at various points a Polish-speaking nanny, one who spoke no English.

In 1995, when the boys were 7 and 11, my wife took a job, privatizing collective farms, with the World Bank in Russia. So, the whole family moved to Ryazan, about 200 km southeast of Moscow, and we spent most weekends in central Moscow.

At first, the language challenges were enormous. Both boys attended state schools, where the only language of instruction was Russian. There was certainly no "Russian as a second language" course. For the boys, it was definitely sink or swim. Well miraculously, they both survived, even thrived. I believe the early exposure to Polish was a big factor. Of course, in Canada, they both also studied French, starting in Kindergarten, and the older boy had spent a couple of summer months at a French-only camp in Quebec.

We've been back in Canada for several years. Their grandmother passed a few years ago, and my wife spends much of her working life overseas, so Polish is rarely used at home, but both boys still speak Russian.

I strongly feel that there are no negatives to learning a second or third language, especially when young. Children's minds are hugely adaptable. Sure, they might make some mistakes, or substitute Japanese for English or vice versa, but that is just part of learning.


My little cousin, now 3 years old is fluent in 2 languages. Granted, one is English and the other her parents' native Filipino, its impressive nonetheless. In contrast, my other cousin who is 9 cannot speak Filipino at all(she can understand it) even though both her parents are also from the Philippines.

The main difference in their approach was, my 3 year old cousin was brought up with her parents speaking to her in both languages, and everytime you tell her something in BOTH languages, she repeats it every time. I think that's how she learns. No matter how simple a word (if you say "yes", she'll say it back, etc..) and that's how she remembers the words. Kids have great potential, obviously because they have a "clean slate" and can absorb information quickly.


Immerse your kids in as many languages as possible. My native language is English, but I'm becoming quite fluent in Spanish. I wish my grandparents (who both speak German) had taught me German, though. If your kid will speak more than one language, it can come in handy when they least expect it. Like me, I used Spanish at my old job all the time. Never thought I would.



My wife is teaching our daughter Spanish (and I am trying to learn as well) and my daughter and I used ASL (American sign language) for a couple of years (less now). Her babysitter speaks German, we have friends that speak Spanish as first language, other that speak Portuguese. My parents neighbors on one side speak Thai, French and Vietnamese and sent their kid to ky parents to learn unaccented English (Texas drawl, of course) and their other neighbours kids as well, they are from Japan. In each case there seems to be a time where the kids get a bit confused but tend to work themselves through it quickly enough. For the development of the brain, the more languages the better when they are learned in person - interaction is key, it seems. I suck at learning languages (English was hard enough) but enjoyed learning ASL and helped us avoid the cry-and-point communication tantrums with our daughter.

Cliff notes: multiple language households are good for kids.


I just have to point out that I have several friends who deal in early childhood development and boys always lag behind in terms of language skills. Your friends are definitely taking the right approach though, attacking it head on. I think your friend should also learn Japanese. It's just rude to not learn your spouse's language, or the language of the country you live in. Why should everyone cater to you, the outsider? If you're going to live in a foreign country, you need to assimilate.


I think leanring more than 2 languages at a time is a bit difficult especially if they are similar but, two should be easy if the parents are fluent. I speak Spanish fluently and I learned at home. At school I spoke english and at home my parents spoke spanish. I would read books and listen to music in both languages. As I got older my mom spoke english most of the time and my dad continued to speak spanish. At a young age children just need to be constantly exposed to the language.


What do you call someone that only speaks one language?

an America.

I think having a good understanding of as many languages as possible can not hurt, make sure they master atleast one tho.


Thanks for the posts everyone. These stories are great.

Does anyone have any "techniques" or "advice"? I guess I'm looking for a "This is what I did. This is how it worked out. This is what I would do differently" type of thing. I very much agree that learning multiple languages is a "good thing" I'm more worried/thinking about the "hows".

Now sure how clear I'm being right now. It's easter and my "uncle" brews his own wine and beer...so I'm maybe not making too much sense.


Thanks, I'm definitely going to check out that link.

For what it's worth, the friends I spoke of earlier are Indonesian and German and living in the US. So their kids are now speaking all three languages. They claim it took until 5 or 6 for any of them to speak a lot. I guess I'm wondering if this is common. Anyway, thanks again for the link.


My wife is Filipino and speaks Tagalog (Philippines common langauge), Visayan (her island language), Spanish, and English. I was born in the US and have a German mother and French speaking cajun father. I speak German, French, English, and passable Spanish and Tagalog. As a youngster I attended native schools in both Germany and France and my parents spoke both languages at home as well as english. My sons grew up in the Phillippines, Germany, and France, and picked up the three languages from us at home, our relatives in the various countries, and a lot of local TV/radio. In today's world I can't see a down side to being a bilingual or polyglot.
The story of your friends child sounded very familiar. It's a much repeated story in my family of how I hadn't spoken a word until I was almost four. (Thank goodness for old time doctors. Told my mother I just wasn't ready. Now days I'd probably be drugged to the gills, sent to theropist, etc.) Anyway, somewhere around 4 years old I looked at my mother and said, "can I have a sandwich?" (story always ends with "and he hasn't shut up since".)
I think cultural immersion is the key. Learning langauges by using them in every day life is the best teacher. Only language I ever took in school was latin and I sucked at learning in a classroom.


I'm English and my wife is Japanese. We have two kids,a 7 year old and a one year old. We all live in Japan.

The general rule we follow is that we only speak English in the house and only speak English when we are all together.

My oldest daughter speaks Japanese perfectly as it is her first language. She speaks it at school and with her friends and is her first language.

Her English is communicative and she can get by in most situations but her Japanese is noticeably better. This is the case with most of the mixed marriage couple I know in Japan.

I have noticed that when my daughter talks about her school day, she prefers Japanese. When she talks about what the two of us have done together, she uses English. The language that she had the experience in dictates how she talks about it.

My advice would be to spend as much time with your kids using English as possible. Even if it is watching a movie, make sure it is in English and then chat about it in English after.

We also spend a couple of hours a week chatting to her grandparents on Skype in English. Every year she spends about a month with them using mainly English too.

That is what I have done/learnt so far but I am still figuring it all out.


Hey there.

I am a kindergarten teacher at an international school in Osaka (actually, I'm on hiatus at the moment, but whatever). This is what I've noticed over the years as a teacher:

Immersion is critical. The difference between the kids who live their lives in both languages and those who study it intermittently is quite noticeable. If you can afford, and are close enough to, an international kindergarten, do it.

Create language environments. What I mean by this is: home is always English, school/outside/grandparents' house is Japanese; dad always speaks English, mom always speaks Japanese, etc. This will teach your kids to separate the languages naturally. In my classes, and in front of my students, I never spoke Japanese, even if the kids did. This forced them to attempt to communicate with me in English. I would remind them if necessary.

Read to your children, from the day they are born. Lay them on your chest so their ear is near your voice box, and read children's' stories to them. This helps establish the sound recognition of the language. (A friend of mine did this, and he said it was very effective.)

Sing songs. Again, this is for sound/rhythm recognition purposes.

Know that the kids will mix the languages as they attempt to communicate. Eventually, they will learn to separate them.

Remember that the kids will learn at their own pace. In my last class last year, the youngest student was one of the brightest and most proficient at both languages.

Check out the book ''How to Multiply Your Baby's Intelligence.'' We used many of those techniques with the pre-school kids (pre-school being 1-2 years old) and even the first-year kindergarten kids (3 years old--this was the level I taught).

If you are in Tokyo, there are tons of international schools around. If you are in Kansai, there are some, but not as many. Elsewhere in Japan, I don't know.

If you have any questions, especially regarding the Kansai area, feel free to PM me.

Hope this helps.


Yes, totally agree here, as an educator.

One of my friends returns to the US every year during summer and at Christmas and enrolls his kids in daycare/summer school and has them stay at their grandparents' place. Also helps with assimilating both cultures, which is also important with regards to language.


Thanks for the advice everyone!

One quick thing: I live in the US now. I just never changed the "location" thing to the left. I guess I should have done that.


Thanks! You whole post was awesome. I'll check out this book.

One random question: How much should we "separate" the languages? I've heard about people using different rooms or "levels" of the house. For example, first floor is English, the second floor is Spanish.

I'm also worried about having "enough" of a Japanese environment for my kids. We have the converse problem as you have in Kansai. If my job DOES land us here, there is VERY little Japanese around. I'm hoping to nab a job in a location with more J-expats, but if we can't, then I'm wondering about how to make books and TV/movies enough. More skype with the inlaws? Maybe I just have to move to the east or west coast (USA).


Great story! This is exactly what I was looking for! Is there anything in particular that you suggest? How do you involve the different languages? "English Mondays and Tagalog Tuesdays?" The more I read about languages the more I think our kids will need time in Japan almost every year. Maybe even an Elementary school year in Japan.

Also, how did you teach/learn grammar and reading? I have a friend with a Japanese mom and English speaking dad who spent a year in Japan as a kid. She says that she speaks and reads Japanese, but her siblings can't speak as well and can't read at all. Even if life keeps us away from Japan, I want to make sure my kids can read and write in both languages, if I can.

Regarding age and language use: I've always heard that multi- lingual kids "start" late. 4 years old sounds similar to what I've heard. The speech-therapist they are seeing though IS HERSELF multi-lingaul (grew up in India speaking a few languages) but she seems concerned.

Thanks again for your thoughts. I have more questions, but gotta get going.


My wife and I are both white, she speaks spanish, I can only sort of speak it.

Our 18 month old son is immersed in English and Spanish and has been from birth. His nanny only speaks spanish to him, and we speak a combination of both.

A lot of the time we will say something to him in one language and follow up with the other, like:

"Are you hungry?" followed up with "tienes hambre?"

His first word other than mama and dada was "agua."

In todays' California, especially where we live, it's important to speak both or at least understand both. I don't think he'll have an advantage over other kids, but he'll at least be the same in comprehension. His trend is to speak to us in english, and his spanish when he does speak it is hard for me to interpret, though my wife can pick up what he's saying usually. Granted, his phrasing is maybe only one or two words at a time. Things like:


But then there are things where he only uses spanish, which is our opportunity to show him that there's an English word for the same thing, especially in regards to anatomy.

Oreja = ear
Ojo = eye
Dedo = fingers/toes

It's pretty fun, and I'm definitely glad he's learning both from the get-go and won't really know a life that's exclusive to just one language. I'm sure he'll pick up languages like Italian easier on down the road.