5 Essential Rules for Raising Bilingual Children

Now we are five years into our bilingual journey, since I started talking to Emma in English while she was still in the womb.  Now we're about to start a new stage on this journey with a second baby on the way.

This is a journey that for me was always something – perhaps the only thing – that I was not prepared to compromise on. There was no way I was not going to speak my native tongue to my own child and no way I was going to let her grow up not understanding English.  And of course she was going to speak Spanish anyway.  So Emma was always going to be bilingual and the same goes for the new baby.  I’m hoping with my second bilingual baby that I’ll get help from Emma and that she will also speak English to her baby brother.  I’d love it if they grew up speaking English to each other – at least some of the time.  Time will tell if we can make this dream a reality.

There have been challenges along the way, and there will be many more, I’m sure (see my post on 5 Things You Should Ignore When Raising A Bilingual Child ), but nothing has deterred my single-mindedness about the importance of bringing up my children to be bilingual.  Hopefully nothing will.

5 Essential Rules For Raising Bilingual Children

How to raise your kids to be bilingual - 5 essential rules:

1. Be as consistent as possible in speaking only the target language with your child.  

This is the most important rule, to be consistent and constant.

The OPOL method – One Person/Parent One Language – is pretty much the system we’ve been following without realising.  One parent speaks one language exclusively to the child and the other speaks a different language, rather than both parents speaking both languages.  So at first, each language is associated with the person speaking it.  This could also be extended to third and fourth languages spoken by other family members or carers.  In our case I’ve always spoken only English to Emma and her dad speaks to her in Spanish.

Exactly how strict you are is up to you.  I  have been strict with myself in only speaking to Emma in English, but more relaxed in letting her talk to me in either language, since I obviously can speak and understand Spanish too as all my interactions with the other members of our household and people in our daily life are in Spanish.  Other parents may insist on their children only talking to them in the target language.  That may be the most effective way to get kids to produce the language, but nothing is guaranteed.  I’ve found just lately that Emma is speaking much more English to me than before, without me pushing her, and she’s really surprised me with how well she can express herself when she wants to.  She can pretty much say anything she wants in either language, although there are some gaps in her vocabulary and she still has greater fluency in Spanish.

The main issue she has at the moment is that her articulation isn’t great.  There are a lot of sounds that she still can’t pronounce properly – affecting both languages equally and making her difficult to understand at times.  A lot of the time, actually.  However, I don’t think this has anything to do with being bilingual, I think it’s a completely separate issue.

5 Essential Rules For Raising Bilingual Children - Baby On Her Tummy Looking At Camera

2. Start as early as possible, from before birth even.  

Babies in the womb can hear the mother’s voice from around five months.  Talking and interacting with a newborn baby lays the foundations for language acquisition even though they may not understand what you are saying, their brains are absorbing everything.  For you, the parent, speaking the target language with your child will become a habit so engrained it will feel strange to speak any other language to your child.  This will help you to stay consistent.

5 Essential Rules For Raising Bilingual Children - Girl Reading A Picture Book

3. Read books to your child in the target language from a very young age.  

It is a wonderful way to develop vocabulary that may not come up in everyday interactions.  It can spark conversations on all sorts of topics and provide lots of opportunities to produce the target language as well as listening to it.  It will help when they start school as they get used to sitting still and focusing while you are reading and they are also acquiring valuable pre-reading skills.  In addition to all these benefits, reading to your child is a chance to bond and spend relaxing quality time together.

5 Essential Rules For Raising Bilingual Children - Girl In Mexican Costume

4. Children learn language through meaningful interactions.  

One-to-one conversations with someone important to them, face to face with eye contact.  Watching TV programmes in the language or listening to songs can be useful additional activities but can’t supplement interaction with people.

5 Essential Rules For Raising Bilingual Children - Girl Swinging

5. Don’t give up.  

You will probably come across obstacles and setbacks on your bilingual journey, but don’t be discouraged.  Don’t let others put you off.

Especially at toddler and preschooler age,  you might worry about reaching vocabulary and speech milestones – remember your child is acquiring two sets of vocabulary, though.  He or she might be mixing the two languages, which could make them difficult to understand, but is perfectly normal at this stage.  Your child might even go through a phase of not talking – if it turns out to be more than just a short-lived phase then obviously you should seek expert advice.  People who don’t know any better might try to convince you that you should focus on one language first and introduce the second at a later stage, and that you will confuse your child by teaching them two languages at the same time.  This is not true.  It’s the adults who get confused!

5 Essential Rules For Raising Bilingual Children


Have you followed similar rules in your bilingual journey or do you use different methods?  What are your opinions on the best way to raise children to be bilingual?  What stage are you at and what challenges or problems have you faced?  

I’d love to hear all your experiences, advice and opinions, please leave me a comment below, or if you prefer send me an email to mummyandthemexicans@gmail.com


More posts related to bringing up bilingual kids:

Stories From Life Abroad featuring Mother Tongue Notes

Stories From Life Abroad featuring The Elephant Mum

5 Things You Should Ignore When Raising A Bilingual Child

Bilingual Toddler Update at 31 Months


Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday


Shank You Very Much




5 Comments

  1. This is some great information!! My degree is in Elementary Education with ESL (English Second Language) certification. We talked about most of this in my college classes! Love the OPOL Method! Thanks for sharing! #KCACOLS

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  2. This is really interesting. Your kids knowing 2 languages fluently will be such a big help to them when they are older - especially 2 of the most wideley spoken languages in the world! #ablogginggoodtime

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  3. Such interesting information. I'm actually very poor at languages so I'm hoping my little girl is better at picking them up. #KCACOLS

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  4. Ii think bilingual children are amazing but I suppose to them it is just natural
    Thanks for linking to #ablogginggoodtime

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  5. Very informative post! I would have thought that nowadays, most kids around the world pick up English as they grow up..? What age do they teach it from in school, in Mexico? In Sweden (where I’m oroginally from) they used to start teaching it at around 9 years old, but I think many schools start earlier than that now. And so many kids pick up English from tv programmes, games, internet, songs etc outside of school, too. :-) x #KCACOLS

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