Bilingual Binds: Methods of Raising Children to Speak Two Languages

Bilingual Binds: Methods of Raising Children to Speak Two Languages
Nov 02, 2013 By Jessica A. Larson-Wang ,

Bilingual Binds: Methods of Raising Children to Speak Two Languages

Many parents in China, Chinese and foreign alike, dream of raising a child fluent in two (or more) languages. Parents go to great lengths and sometimes great expenses to secure the gift of bilingualism for their children. If you have a Chinese spouse and a half-Chinese child, one of the first things strangers will ask you is whether or not your child speaks both languages, and if you must, reluctantly say no, your child only speaks the one language, a well-meaning scolding on how easy and natural it would be to teach your child your own language will follow. What most people don't realise, however, is that raising a child to speak two languages takes a lot of hard work, no matter what languages the parents speak. Experts still debate the best way to raise multilingual children, and parents, no matter which method they choose, will encounter frustrations along the way.

1) The "One Parent One Language" method

Without a doubt the most popular method of fostering bilingualism in a multicultural household is "One Parent One Language," otherwise known as OPOL. OPOL involves each parent speaking their own native language to their children, not mixing languages, period.

This method is deceptively simple. After all, all you have to do is speak your own language, right? What could be more natural! OPOL usually works quite well until the child starts school, at which point many parents often find that the language input from the minority language parent (that is, the parent whose language is not spoken in the country where the family lives) is simply not enough to overcome the overwhelming influence of the home country's language. Especially if the minority language parent is capable of speaking the majority language, a child will often "rebel" against the second language, preferring instead to speak the language that his peer group is speaking. Since most children do not like being labelled as different, they may find that speaking a second language sets them apart. One father, raising his child in China to be bilingual in Chinese and English noted that his daughter understood everything he said to her in English, but would stubbornly respond in Chinese.

OPOL becomes more complicated when the language of the host country is the common language between the two parents. Many parents raising their children bilingually in the United States have found it difficult to speak English with their spouse and a foreign language with their children. Multicultural families who speak Chinese at home in China may encounter similar problems. The children realise from the beginning that speaking English only is a viable option, and once they are old enough to make the choice, they may simply choose the language of the majority.

This doesn't mean OPOL is a bad option, but compared to other methods it requires almost all of the "work" to be done by one parent. As one mother said, "I got tired of always being the one who had to push English all the time. No one else was responsible for their English education, it was all on me. It was a lot of stress."

2) The "Minority Language at Home" method

The other major method of at-home bilingual education is called "MILH," which stands for "Minority Language at Home." This means that there is a "family language" and an "outside language." This might mean that a Chinese-British family would speak only English at home, and leave the learning of Chinese up to school and society.

The advantage of this method is that there is no switching back and forth between two languages at home, and the whole family can share the same common language. The two parents can present a united front and simply refuse to engage the children unless they are speaking the minority language. In fact, many immigrant families use this method out of necessity simply because the parents do not speak the majority language, and MILH is overall considered to be quite a successful method, considering that the child gets minority language input not just from one parent, but from both parents as well as any siblings in the family unit.

The drawback of this method, however, is that both parents must speak the minority language for it to work. Families raising children to be bilingual in English and Chinese in China probably have two parents who are reasonably competent English speakers, since English is taught in Chinese public schools, but a Chinese-Italian family might not have the choice of speaking Italian at home. MILH would not be an option for such a family. Furthermore, as with OPOL, MILH is not immune to the problem of rebellious children simply giving up on the family language, especially if at least one parent speaks the home language.

3) The "No Set Method" method

Of course some families don't use any set method, they just cobble things together as they go. Parents might speak a mixture of Chinese and English to each other and to the kids. Or they might choose schools particularly to strengthen one language or another, or send their children to visit relatives abroad on summer vacations for extended language immersion (for young children especially this can be extremely effective, especially in accent reduction). Sadly, some families even give up on bilingualism entirely, throwing in the towel in the face of an overwhelming native language culture that is not always conducive to second language learning.

Every family is different 

In fact, the language choices that each family makes are highly personal. Families usually find their own way of doing things, a way that is as unique as each member of the family. Striking a balance between two languages can be a difficult task, but the results are almost always worth the effort. No matter which method, if any, you choose for your family, you can help foster your child's interest in his or her second language and culture by playing up how much fun it is being multilingual. After all, you get twice the books, twice the movies, and sometimes even twice the holidays and vacations.

Whatever you do, don't pressure your child about the second language or turn acquisition of the second language into a chore. Language learning should be an enjoyable experience for children, and as soon as it stops being fun and starts being work, that's when language rebellion sets in. It is very hard to recapture a child's interest in his or her second language, and the rebellion usually continues until, as adults, they lament the fact that they never learned how to speak Spanish, or Greek, or English, and how now, as adults with lives and responsibilities, it seems to be "too late."

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Keywords: raising bilingual kids China multicultural family China methods of raising bilingual children children language learning China bilingualism China


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From a university study that I proofread on bilingualism, I can add that bilingual children, although they can speak 2 languages, will often not achieve the same level of mastery that a monolingual child does. I speak English and Dutch due to my dual British/Dutch upbringing in both countries, and I can attest that my middle school English and Dutch grades were lower than expected. My language skill has improved over time, but it took longer to learn for me. Learning takes time, and bilingualism doesn't magically make 2 languages just as easy to learn for a child as 1, but it helps to get an early start. The method of sending 3-year-olds to English training schools is hardly equivalent to a bilingual childhood, though. But the parents need to do something to posture and brag about their child's intelligence, I guess.

Nov 23, 2013 13:33 Report Abuse



What about if my native language is not English ? We talk 3 languages at home, but of course, mostly chinese now. going to improve everything slowly, We do not push him hard.

Nov 05, 2013 17:00 Report Abuse



have another problem... this is all for english/chinese couples. So my gf speaks chinese and i dont, i speak german she cant, both together we speak english so i guess that would definitly confuse the kid if i speak german my wife only chinese and if we both talk then only in english lol

Nov 03, 2013 17:13 Report Abuse



Wow, this escalated quickly... I personally plan to do a mixture of sometimes me speaking English, sometimes my wife speaking English and vice-versa with Chinese. I plan to tutor my child in Spanish as well, if nothing else but for the accent. (Important to teach at a young age.) Children can pick everything up. Technology these's incredible. They play a little game here or there, they pick up the English/Spanish/Chinese/whatever else very quickly. Reading story books in the evening greatly increases vocabulary, grammar through listening comprehension. Even if your spoken English is minimal. If you can read it, pronounce it well, are aware of that particular story/the vocab, then you can teach your children a language.

Nov 02, 2013 07:08 Report Abuse



My child has studied at YCIS Shanghai for a while, and it is the time for her to graduate and embrace another phase of her life.

On one hand, she is so happy to finally be finished with the IB program (what she was studying), her exam results turned out to be much better than we expected, and she was admitted to 3 top-tier universities. On the other hand, I can tell she is a bit sad about leaving YCIS, a place where she has made so many friends and learned so many things.

Her high school life at YCIS was definitely memorable. She always says she is not a math person, and she often struggled to understand different concepts. But she mentioned so many times how grateful she was for her math teacher, who always took the time to patiently answer her questions, and motivated her to do well in the final exam.

She also took a lot of elective courses at YCIS, in addition to her usual core classes. These were often related to her personal interests, like playing basketball and studying the history of various Asian countries. The electives at YCIS helped reduce the stress of the IB program, and made the overall experience much more enjoyable for her.

Studying at YCIS has contributed greatly to her interest in math and history, and it has provided her with a solid foundation to continue her studies in the future. We are really happy that we made the choice to send her to YCIS several years ago.

Sep 26, 2012 00:04 Report Abuse



Thank you Jessica, an interesting article and one very dear to my heart.

I am English and I'm married to a Chinese lady, we have a 20month old daughter, we have lived in Nanning for eighteen months now, after having previously lived in the UK for 7 years.

We are going for the OPOL method with variations, so I suppose you could call it option 3 the no set method. I heard about OPOL many years ago (as I remember it was a French / British family and the daughter didn't finally speak 'daddy language' until she had a 'gestalt' moment in a supermarket in France). However it requires the one parent speaking the minority language, (in our case, me speaking English,) to be very strong willed and strict. No Chinese, EVER, and no accidental understanding, e.g. if she asks for something in Chinese she doesn't get it as, 'Daddy doesn't understand'. This also means when the child is awake and in the house you cannot communicate with anyone else in Chinese, (for me no problem yet, as my Chinese is still very limited, but I am working on that). Which additionally means when I am studying Chinese it is in my office with the door closed.

Our 'variation' if part forced and part chosen by my wife. Our original intention was that I speak English, my wife speaks Putonghua and that would do. However, my mother-in-law lives with us and she only speaks the Nanning variant of Guangdonghua (she cannot speak Putonghua). So now at home my wife speaks Guangdonghua when alone with her mother and our daughter, and English when I am at home, partially because that is easier for her, and partly because we felt, with my work our daughter wasn't getting enough English exposure, my daughter is also getting a little Putonghua from other visitors and will get the rest when she goes to kindergarten. Life is complicated language-wise but at least my wife is near fluent in English, so it appears to work.

My daughter (21 months) is now speaking small simple sentences in Guangdonghua, 2 or 3 word phrases in English and the odd word in Putonghua. However, I do realise there is a long hard road ahead and that I will have to, at times, be the 'hard nasty daddy' if we want to achieve our goal, which basically is fluency in English, Putonghua and Guangdonghua for our daughter.

Jun 03, 2012 00:38 Report Abuse



One additional point, once our daughter reaches 7, the age at which the 'average' child, (if such a creature exists), starts having to learn whereas previously they 'absorb' language, then the teaching regime will become more 'regimented'. As a qualified language teacher, I hope to be able to incorporate that into our daily routine. However I fully concur with Dave and Lorne above, injecting fun into this 'regime', and making it appear natural will be absolutely essential to her success. As will, of course, making it appear like anything BUT a regime.

Jun 03, 2012 00:48 Report Abuse



Our daughter is 8 yrs old and speaks both English and Chinese equally well, she attends a Chinese foriegn language school which requires both Chinese and English skills. Since birth she has heard both languages English from dad and Chinese and English from mom.

We are fortunate that we travel to the US every summer for a month where our daughter interfaces with her older sister and brother and their respective families which has resulted in her ability to communicate efetively in both languages. Is it difficult communicating in two languages, absolutely, but withinterested parents and aq support structure our daughter has bridged the gap of two cultures and languages. As noted many times in the comments it's not easy, but life isn't is, anything worth having is worth working for.

We've been surprised by how easily our daughter jumps between the two languages, even in the middle of a sentence, and responds correctly within the conversation. we believe her ability has come about by not forcing one language majority over another; in China the language is basically Chinese, in the US it's English and she fully understands the difference.

The best advice I could offer (from our experience) to families with multi-lingual parents is let it happen naturally and don't force one langauge over the other. Children are smart their brains are empty when born and what they learn is what the parents and grandparents and the local culture input,

Apr 13, 2012 08:07 Report Abuse



Our children have lived in China almost all their lives. They are now 14, 13 and 12.
Our method to teach them to be fully bilingual was simple and effective, did not involve any psycho-babble nor any pressure. We mixed both languages at home, often within individual sentences. We encouraged our kids to translate things in daily life (whether it was necessary or not) and to have fun with languages. We often made small private jokes in the language people around us weren't able to understand. The big keys to their success was fun, interest, the ability to help, inclusion in "adult" conversations and a lot of praise.

Apr 12, 2012 17:09 Report Abuse



Spot on advice there. Make anything a chore and you kill it. Make it fun and it will thrive. Make it naughty (making fun of others when they cannot understand) and kids will love it.

Apr 14, 2012 23:38 Report Abuse



One thing not mentioned - most people on this planet are bi- or multi-lingual. Being a mono-lingual is actually in a very small minority. Most people in China have at least 2 languages (home town language, and Putonghua)... and it's common in Africa to meet people who have 4 languages to conversational level. Many Europeans have 3 languages.

Thus, all I'm saying is - it's not really that hard! And, I'm pretty sure that for most of those speakers, there wasn't a big deliberate intention focused on methodology.

Apr 10, 2012 16:48 Report Abuse



You are right in general, but wrong about Europeans often knowing 3 languages. It is a common myth among Americans and Australians that Europeans all know multiple languages.
In reality Europeans with a low educational level only usually know their own national language, especially in big countries like France, Italy, the UK and Spain. Depending on the place, they may also know a local dialect which may or may not be very similar to the national language. Countries like Holland or Sweden where everyone knows English are the exception and not the rule.
Even intellectual types may only know their own national language and one other language, usually English if they are young.

Apr 12, 2012 21:26 Report Abuse



Yeah, that's why I said 'many', and not 'all'... especially since most countries in Europe have English as a standard (and required) foreign language in their school system. All depends on where in Europe you're talking about.

(and, no, I don't mean 'many' to equal 'most').

Apr 15, 2012 22:23 Report Abuse


giuliani ezio

Children are ,on language learning matters,very simple minded.Once ,when I was in Australia,i asked my two children why they didn't want to speak italian (our native language),The promp answer was disarming :"Why should we speak italian when everybody aroud us speaks english?" simple as that.
the only way you can get them to be willing to speak and in the process learn another language consists in placing them in two or three different language environment at different times.say:mother who speaks only chines in the morning and father who speaks only english in the afternoon or as a perso I've been knowing,having the money to do it, trough the services of 3 different maids or teachers of 3 different mother languages in 3 different times of the day.
THE last one seems to be the most satisfactory as far as language learning is concerned

Apr 10, 2012 03:13 Report Abuse


A truth

I think you hit on a truth there. If a person has to do something, they generally just do it. If a person does not 'have/need to', then one is less likely to. I don't have to speak Chinese at work, all staff have good English, as a result my business/social Chinese is poor. I have to speak Chinese at home, as my in-laws speak no English, as a result my 'domestic' Chinese is relatively strong.

This will perhaps be more true for children who less self disciplined in study.

Apr 10, 2012 07:08 Report Abuse



My son learns Chinese at school and speaks English at home. This method works best.

Apr 09, 2012 22:07 Report Abuse



Seriously i don't understand Chinese people any more when it comes to teaching,what is it with them and this "NATIVE SPEAKER"? Are they saying that people from Africa can't teach or can't speak better English? Do they even know that not all natives can even speak proper English?
You guys really need to grow up.

Apr 09, 2012 09:22 Report Abuse



The reasoning behind this is the same as learning Putonghua. I would much rather learn putonghua from someone who grew up in the northern part of China versus someone who grew up in the southern or western part of china. It's just not spoken properly as often due to the dialects' influences.

I would go be angry if my kids spoke English with an Indian, Singaporean, or Filipino accent. It just sounds horrid and would be made fun of constantly. So whereas native speaker sounds discriminatory... that's because it is. People are judged by their accents and the way they speak all the time, why wouldn't a culture such as China, who value face and bragging, want their children to speak the best possible English.

Apr 09, 2012 23:46 Report Abuse



If I go to a Chinese or Indian restaurant I do not expect to see a Caucasian chef,

Having said that I have been to Chinese restaurants in the UK where I can honestly say, I could have cooked better. This still does not mean I would accept a white chef in these establishments. I just choose to 'shop' elsewhere'. In the case of the Chinese restaurant with the crap chef, I also choose to eat elsewhere.

The customer is always right. Perhaps ignorant, fickle, prejudiced, or even stupid; but always right.

Apr 10, 2012 07:03 Report Abuse



Honestly Leezy, one of the big reasons is idioms and shortenings of the language. Yeah, their grammar may be perfect, they may have clear and accurate pronunciation, and an incredibly large vocabulary... but it's the 'natural' language that people want (usually).

But, I totally agree, and was having this discussion the other night... 'native speakers' don't necessarily equate to IELTS 9.0... I've known quite a few brought up in a 100% English speaking environment who have crap grammar, limited vocabulary, and bad pronunciation...

However, I do think that if you're going to teach a language, you should have had a lot of experiene in using it - WITH those native speakers, in their environment.

Apr 10, 2012 16:52 Report Abuse


Natural English

@Aussie_English_Teacher mentions an important point.

A big move in English language teaching in the last 10 years has been the use of 'natural English'. Native speakers subvert the language for effect, for example humour or showing anger. To use the old cliché, 'It's not what you say, We can use the terms the tone or voice of the message.

Apr 11, 2012 01:38 Report Abuse


Truth in China

Honestly speaking Leezy,

If your African black face was African white and you had the same speech patterns their would not be any problems.

Forget all BS excuses, that is the real China face.

Apr 11, 2012 01:45 Report Abuse



People from non-native countries, non-native speakers with a strong accent and even some regional accents from native English-speaking countries should not teach a language they can't speak clearly. The Chinese have a saying about this, teaching 80% to someone who will only really retain 80% of what they learn - pronunciation-wise; they call it a discount on a discount. Non-native teachers never understand the idioms completely. I've heard quite a few very funny interpretations coming from non-native speaking "English Teachers". As I continue learning Chinese, I am becoming more fluent, but I would never teach it.

Apr 12, 2012 22:25 Report Abuse



It's called "emotional stress patterns". Subvert the language? Throw another f*cking shrimp on the barbie.

Apr 12, 2012 22:28 Report Abuse




You better do so. You can not become an English teacher. You see? Even if you use the "F" word, just so you can imitate the native speakers, it will always show that your English is poor. And the Chinese who use that "F" word are the ones whom I consider indecent. Those copycats who think imitating the westerners is cool!

Chinese people are good-natured. I never hear my Chinese friends say bad words.

What is that idiom about "throwing shrimp and Barbie? Ha ha. You sound ridiculous. Use another please.

By the way, if the Chinese people are really serious about their English learning, they should check qualifications. And check if the "native speakers" agencies present as native speakers are not Russians, Dutch, germans, etc.

There are non-native speakers who have neutral accent. Singaporeans, Malaysians and Indians are the ones who have very strong accent.
Singaporeans most specially. They have what is called "sing-song, stuckato" way of speaking. Indonesians and Filipinos are more pleasant to listen to.

Chinese can not pronounce "z" and ”L" very well but they are more neutral and better than Singaporeans, Malaysians, Indians, in terms of pronunciation. But most Chinese, even their fellow Chinese who are "English teachers", have limited vocabulary. But their speaking ability is not bad. Many of them are actually very good.

Apr 13, 2012 07:31 Report Abuse