Take our user survey here!

Raising Bilingual Children

There are no golden rules for creating bilingual kids but what parents should do is balance the odds in their child’s favor.

By 5 min read 8

As I was born in a small town, I grew up with a strange view of language learning. One of my earliest friends was from a Polish family and I remember how effortlessly he could switch between the English and Polish languages. That was the norm, I assumed then and there, bilingualism was a birthright for multicultural kids.

As I got older and I met more people, I soon realized how wrong this childish assumption was. I met a child of Brazilian parents living overseas who struggled with Portuguese; a Japanese-American who struggled to put together a sentence in Japanese, but was well-spoken in English; then there were Japanese kids who’d spent their childhood abroad and were struggling to speak their native language now they’d returned to Japan.

What can parents do to stack the odds in their child’s favor?

I soon realized that bilingualism is far from guaranteed. This is, of course, not what most parents want to hear. Talking with my Western friends with children, I know that most parents want their child to be able to speak English as well as Japanese. Could there be a secret recipe for language success? I began to wonder. What can parents do to stack the odds in their child’s favor?

The first person I talked to was Professor Michel Paradis from the Université de Montréal. As a world-renowned expert in psycholinguistics and language acquisition, he soon put me in my place about trying to apply general rules to bilingualism. “There are too many variables and circumstances to have a ‘one-method-fits-all’ on how to raise a child to speak two languages.” He explained.

Instead what Professor Paradis would advise is for parents to maximize the opportunities that their child has to use multiple languages. “Each parent should speak his or her (native) language when interacting with the child. I would also encourage communication with children of the neighborhood from the earliest age.” He tells me, “Some coaching in the parents’ language may be useful – especially for reading and writing – at the appropriate age too.”

I tell this to another specialist, Professor of Linguistics John Matthews, and he agrees. “My personal view is that to the degree that it’s possible at all, it (bilingualism) effectively comes down to the proportion of time spent using each of the two languages.” He tells GaijinPot.

He offers this advice to parents, “(Parents should) ensure adequate exposure. Make sure that the children are using both languages regularly. It may be impossible to achieve something like a 50/50 mix, but a 90/10 split is not likely going to be sufficient. What the magic cut-off point is, I wouldn’t know, but I’d say that if a child is spending at least a third of his or her time in the lesser-used language, you’re doing pretty well.”

Professor Matthews also brings up a point that I hadn’t considered. “One thing that will affect families differently will be the degree to which the children identify themselves with one or the other language.” He adds, “Children may feel more or less Japanese; both Japanese and whichever country their family may be from; or something different, somehow neither Japanese nor ‘international’.”

One thing that will affect families differently will be the degree to which the children identify themselves with one or the other language.

Although it may not be the first thing that we think of, the child’s perceived identity is actually one of the most important variables. The person who conducted some of the important experiments on bilingualism in kids, Mariko Fujita, found that the children who didn’t get pressure from family and peers to abandon their non-Japanese language were the most likely to achieve some kind of bilingual language skills.

Professor Paradis’ research supports this idea too, he found that the person’s motivation had an important role and that every parent’s worst nightmare – their child’s language skills actually getting worse over time in their second language – is ‘accelerated by a negative emotional attitude.’

While this may sound like a lot, Professor Matthews has some good news for parents: not all kids will be totally bilingual and there is nothing wrong with that! “Any efforts to measure linguistic behavior among bilinguals against monolingual norms are misplaced,” He points out. “In the case of children, it is perfectly natural that they might exhibit average, or even below-average, active vocabularies in either or both languages when compared to their monolingual peers.

“(Famous bilingualism researcher) Francois Grosjean also makes a strong point that bilinguals are rarely, if ever, truly “balanced” in the theoretical sense,” He continues, “Individuals typically use one language in a range of settings or with one set of people and the other language in a different range of settings or with different people.”

So while there are no golden rules for raising bilingual children, what parents should be trying to do is balance the odds in their child’s favor. By creating a situation where the child associates some part of their personality with the language and has plenty of opportunities to use it, you are guiding them in the right direction. Even if the child doesn’t end up mastering both languages, they will have spent a lot of time interacting with their parents, making friends and affirming their identity, and that has to be a good thing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA - Privacy Policy - Terms of Service

  • Elle Juarez says:

    I really don’t see how the Japanese government thinks that they have to wait till kids in in their pre-teens to teen years to start English in some cases. It’s been proven children can pick things up quicker if they start from a younger age. I had friends that knew English and Spanish or some other language like Vietnamese, Tagalog, Visayan, Chinese, etc. This sort of thing is common for kids of mixed heritage in the U.S. I’m not saying Japan should force the kids to learn English but I’m saying it CAN be done. But thing I’m starting to notice is that some of these parents act like the welfare parents here in the U.S where they expect the government and others to raise their kids for them instead of manning up and actually being parents (and a lot of this has to do with overworking or just plain laziness)

  • Hector Nieves says:

    Does anyone have any articles on raising kids with 3 languages?

    • scuttlepants says:

      There were studies done about it- I remember because years ago I did a uni paper on trilingualism. The important point I recall, was that it needed to be stable to be of any benefit. As in, learning in fits and starts was not useful, but regular paced learning in languages (including comparisons between and relating points between languages) was still positive … 3rd language did not detract from other languages.

  • Allyson Aldam-Tajima says:

    Interesting article. Especially highlighting the identifying self and language connection. We see that clearly with our two boys. One, who has spent more of his formative years in Japan, sees himself more as a Japanese than his elder brother.

    Having done some reading about multi-linguistic parenting, I agree that achieving the perfect “bi-lingual” status is not a necessary, nor an optimum, goal. As long as my guys are comfortable with their language ability, can communicate with either family nationality, then we’re, and they, are fine. Also, what is the personal point of retaining both languages? For us, important as they have family in both Japanese and English speaking countries, plus hope to finish their schooling and pursue careers in that language.

    I’m somewhat confused with the statement:
    “My personal view is that to the degree that it’s possible at all, ….
    Is it possible or not at all?

    Finally, do people REALLY still pressure children to abandon a second language these days?

  • Souki says:

    It is a culture for us Chinese in Malaysia to speak at least One Chinese dialect, communication English and Malay. These are the least, me and majority of my friends speak Mandarin and more then one Chinese dialect. We switch effortlessly among these language as well as English.
    Our parents speak to us from childhood in mainly Mandarin and our tribe dialect (both are our native language), sometimes the neighbors are Malay or Indian which we use Malay or English to communicate. This is similar to what Prof. Paradis suggest. And it is compulsary to study Malay and English in school.

  • maulinator says:

    My experience growing up is I spoke English outside the
    home at school and Japanese inside the home.

    I happen to be perfectly bilingual with an American
    standard accent and no discernible accent from “hyoujyungo” Japanese,
    perhaps with some Tottori dialect from my mother.

    Getting a 50/50 mix is
    always going to be impossible. Growing up in the US you are exposed to more
    English than Japanese, as a matter of daily life. The way my parents kept my
    Japanese up outside of speaking it to me was to keep me interested in Japanese
    media so that I would have to understand Japanese to follow comics, TV,
    cartoons etc. My Japanese toys and things were given to me while I had to go
    earn money to buy Star Wars stuff….

    I feel fortunate that my
    parents invested the time and energy to keep me bilingual. I know too many second generation Asians in
    the US who cannot speak their parents’ language. They are ethnically Asian but culturally they
    are not.

    The downside is that as a
    child it takes you a bit to realize that not everyone speaks two languages at
    home and find it weird that if you know a word in Japanese but not in English,
    the other kids don’t know it too….

    What has been weird for
    me is that my parents tell me know that my Japanese sounds a bit more
    “gaijin” in subtle ways than when I first arrived. This probably from picking up bad habits from
    everyone around me, as most of the Japanese spoken around me is by foreigners…..

    • Robert Chandler says:

      The mix possible is defined by how often you are hanging out with friends and school etc. Yeah media is just important you cant spend all the time speaking to your kids even when they are home so what you are watching helps. We try to make our kids watch English shows (we live in Japan). Not pushing your kids to hard is also important.



Why You Can’t Really Count on Counters

Learning how to count in Japanese should be simple right?

By 4 min read 2


Toriaezu: The Undecided Decision

Here are 4 general uses of the word とりあえず that you are likely to encounter.

By 3 min read 7


How To Use Music To Improve Your Japanese Language Level

Using music as way to learn Japanese is an easy and unique way to increase your pronunciation, vocabulary and reading skills. It's also a lot of fun!

By 4 min read 23