Why are some bilingual parents able to raise bilingual children while others do not succeed?

I used to have the assumption that every person raised in a bilingual family would become naturally bilingual. But that is not true. During all these years I have lived in the United States, the country of multiculturalism par excellence, I have come across many people whose parents and grandparents spoke to them in their native language. To my surprise, I only met some that can speak both languages (English and their families’ native language) perfectly. Most of them can only speak a few words and/or understand their native language!

Looking around for a study that could give me some insight into this phenomenon, I found one by the University of Miami Bilingualism Study Group (BSG). In their study, researchers recruited 25 babies in bilingual families and followed their progress until age 3.  Over the years, they observed all the babies learning words and phrases in both English and Spanish, but by the age of 3 years, several of them had stopped using Spanish. They were not comfortable enough in the second language to answer their parents or the researchers in that language, much less initiate an interaction in Spanish themselves.

We know that children easily pick up the majority language, even if their parents cannot speak it. We know that children have an amazing ability to learn languages.  Yet why is it that some children raised in bilingual families learn both languages, while others do not? What create these different outcomes? What are the key factors that help establish bilingualism in children?

Barbara Zurer Pearson, from the Department of Linguistics, University of Massachusetts published a study that seeks to answer these questions. She explained the phenomenon through five key factors: input, language status, access to literacy, family language use, and community support.


Input means the quantity of minority language that is available in the children’s entourage. It is obvious that the more input, the more learning, and consequently the more proficiency. If children feel comfortable using the language, they will invite more input so they will learn more and they will become more proficient. Attitudes of parents, siblings, and peers are very important to create input. If they share negative attitudes towards a language, they will be subtracting input, which will lead to less enthusiasm for using the language, attract less input, and decrease learning and proficiency. Therefore, if we, as parents, want to raise a bilingual child, we have to promote the minority language and facilitate its use around the child.


In general, children need a greater percentage of exposure to the minority language than in the majority language, and the reason is simple. We are immersed in the majority language. All our environment is in English; television, school,  advertisements, friends, and just about everything else. Sometimes it’s even difficult to use the minority language in public with your child because you don’t want to show disrespect to the monolinguals involved in the conversation.

Further, the natural attraction of the majority language for the child is very powerful. According to the same study, it is more likely that bilingual children sharing the same minority language will speak English or the majority language between themselves in private unregulated conversations. For instance, one of my colleagues of work has two girls of 4 and 7 years old. When they are in class, they speak Spanish. However, English is their language of preference when they are playing in the school’s playground.


Written materials in a language, whether in children’s literature or mass media, can extend input even in the absence of many language speakers. For slightly older children, reading is an important consolidator of their language skills, and contributes to both greater proficiency and retention of a language. In fact, reading skills transfer from one language to another and according to “Language and Literacy in Bilingual Children” (LLBC; Cobo-Lewis, Eilers, Pearson, & Umbel, 2002), children who learned to read in both English and Spanish scored significantly higher in reading in English as well as Spanish.

family's role in bilingualism


It is essential that the family provides enough minority language interaction to support learning it. In fact, there is a theory called “the three-generation rules” that suggests that the first generation (typically emigrants who came to United States) are somewhat bilingual, but they remain strongly dominant in their native language. Their children, the second generation, are fluently bilingual, and their grandchildren, the third generation, will be monolingual in the majority language and will only speak and understand a few words in the heritage language.

It is crucial to have contact with monolingual speakers of the minority language. In families where both parents speak the minority language at home, and especially if their ability to speak English is limited, it will almost always be sufficient interaction in that language to support minority language learning. These are these cases where the children act as “interpreters” of their parents. It is not uncommon to see a woman in a store and asking her child to interpreter between her and the shop clerk.

However, with only one speaker of the minority language, or two fluently bilingual parents, the language environment of the home is more uncertain, and is less likely, on its own, to provide a bilingual learner with enough input.


A connected and united community of minority language speakers can really motivate our children to use that language. We can see many of these communities throughout United States: the Hispanic enclaves in Florida, Japantown in San Francisco or Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, the Polish and Czech communities of South Broadway (Cleveland), Chinatown in New York City…we all know of that part of the city or area where there is a predominance of emigrants from a specific part of the world. It is not uncommon to find people living in those areas who have never had the need to speak English because these communities provide minority language speakers with an economy and services where they can  interact and live using their native language. Children living in these enclaves are exposed to the majority language at school but are otherwise immersed in the minority language.

However, there are some areas of the country populated predominantly with American born individuals which still attract foreigners. Those newcomers normally get integrated easier into the American society but they find it very difficult to pass on their cultural and language heritage to their children due to the lack of community exposure. Yet, they can still create a social community in order to stablish a context to maintain the minority language and culture. A key element of community support provided to a minority language is through education. We should have dual language education programs available to make sure that our children are learning both languages at an academic level.

The study conducted among the Latin community in Miami found that despite their economic and political power, these communities have almost no schools that offer bilingual programs. Furthermore, it concludes that Spanish is being lost in Miami even faster than the three-generation rule would predict, mainly because the community does not seem to recognize the level of threat to the minority language. Every indication points out that children learn the minority language when parents make a conscious effort to expose the language to them. However, if parents don’t make the effort, the majority language will take over.  In other words, while children have a unique natural ability to learn multiple languages, the process is not magic; it takes time, repetition, and focus to nurture bilingualism in children.

The full study can be found in the following link: http://www.umass.edu/aae/Pearson_social_circumstances_APPsycholing2007.pdf



Becoming bilingual – fast facts and tips

I recently bought a short pamphlet from the American Speech Language Hearing Association (ASHA), whose content I like to share with the families that come to my class, because it highlights in a concise way some important facts and tips.

How to become bilngual

Using two languages is like any other skill. To do it well, children need lots of practice, which families can help provide. Without practice, it may be difficult for children to understand or communicate with people in both languages. It can be hard to know how to teach your child to be bilingual. These facts can help:

Fact 1: There are lots of ways to become bilingual

Some people think that there is one best way to teach children to become bilingual. There is no one right way, but there are different ways preferred among the bilingual families:

  • One parent, one language. For example, Mom speaks Spanish and Dad speaks English. This is the system I personally think it works best for our situation, since Dad is not proficient in Spanish, although he tries his best using as many words in Spanish as he can. Anyway, and this unfortunately is not included in this pamphlet, the ideal way from my point of view would be by location. It works better when both parents can speak both languages and they choose the language to speak depending on the location. For example, they speak English outside home and Spanish when they are at home.
  • By time of day. For example, Spanish is spoken in the daytime, and English is spoken at night.
  • By activity. For example, Spanish is spoken at mealtimes, and English is spoken on the playground.

Another way to help a child learn a new language is to use only one language at home and let the child begin to learn the new one when she/he starts school.

ASHA enumerates different resources to help you teach your child two languages:

Books. Read to your child in both languages. Find the books you need at stores, at libraries, and on the Internet. I’m looking for them non stop to prepare the upcoming lessons, and I’m planning to include all my searches in this blog to make your task easier.

Computer programs or mobile apps. There are many interactive programs and apps that can help your child develop language skills. Initially I was reluctant to use apps and the computer at such a short age, but I have found out that a couple of minutes per day has very good results above all to train the ear in the distinction of the Spanish sounds.

Music. Singing is a great way to introduce a second language to your child, and it can be lots of fun!

Television programs and DVDs. Television programs and DVDs are available in many languages. There are different provides of satellite TV, like Dish, with a wide selection of channels from different countries.

Language groups. Children can learn to be bilingual at language camps, bilingual schools or in bilingual education programs. These groups give children the chance to use two languages with other children. I strongly believe this is the most important resource that can help your children to become bilingual. Language is all about communication, so if your children don’t have an environment where they can communicate in the secondary language, they will just not practice it. And as you know, you can easily forget a language if you don’t practice it.

Fact 2. Most children learn to communicate at about the same age and follow typical developmental patterns. This is true for children learning one, two, or more languages. 

Every bilingual child is unique. Developing skills in two languages depends on the quality and amount of experience the child has using both languages. Use languages that you feel comfortable using. Children learn best when they are provided with good models. That’s true, but it’s true too that monolingual parents can raise bilingual children. I will post more about it in the following weeks.

Fact 3. Learning two languages will not confuse your child

From time to time, children may mix grammar rules, or they might use words from both languages in the same sentence. This is a normal part of bilingual language development. I met once a 5 years old child whose father spoke to her in Catalonian and her mother in Spanish. The family lived in Rumania and enrolled her and her brother in the American International School of Bucarest, where her classes were mainly taken in English. Therefore, she was exposed since a very short age to four languages. One day she woke up and she started speaking in a mix of those four languages that nobody was able to understand. Obviously her parents were astonished and extremely worried. However, a couple of days later, she started speaking normal again, being able to answer and speak in each language without mixing all them up.

It is normal too that when a second language is introduced, some children may not talk very much for a while. This “silent period” can sometimes last several months. Again, this is normal.

Speaking more than one language does not cause a language disorder. Also, research shows that, with practice, children with disorders can learn more than one language.

Your child should be:

using words in the more familiar language (1-1.5 years old).

following simple directions (1-2 years old).

putting two or three words together (2-3 years old).

Every kid can speak more than one language. Even children with disabilities like the Down syndrome. The only difference is that he will need extra help from a speech-language-pathologist. If you are worried about your children’s language development, ASHA recommends you to contact a speech-language pathologist. For more information you can contact actioncenter@asha.org or visit their website: www.asha.org