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Can You Raise Bilingual Kids as Non-Native Speakers?

Updated: Feb 1

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Hello everyone! Welcome back to my blog.

In this post, I’m going to explore a topic that – as I’ve recently found out – is highly relevant to many families out there.

We will discuss whether it’s possible to raise your child to speak a language when you’re not a native speaker of that language.

Is it possible to raise a bilingual child as a non-native speaker?

My answer to this question is simple: It is a resounding yes!

Why? I know it’s possible, not least because I’ve done it myself!

Those of you who’ve watched my videos, read my blog posts, or my book would probably know that my husband and I are raising our kids to be trilingual in Mandarin, Russian and English while living in the UK.

Our family's experience

But many of you might not know that I’m, in fact, not a native Mandarin speaker – while I was born in Shanghai, I grew up in Hong Kong, and I consider my mother tongue to be Cantonese, which is a Chinese dialect spoken in Hong Kong and the surrounding region.

Without going into too much detail here, Cantonese and Mandarin are as different to each other as Spanish and Italian.

By the way, in mainland China, a significant proportion of people are bilingual in the sense that they speak Mandarin and their local dialect, which is often as different to Mandarin as Cantonese is to Mandarin.

So, in short, I am fluent in Mandarin but do not consider myself to be a native speaker of that language, yet I have been raising my two children to speak Mandarin and speak to them exclusively in Mandarin.

And the result? They are both "fluent" (depending on your definition of fluency!) in Mandarin and can read and write in the language.

A rising global trend

I always thought what we did was pretty unusual – the orthodox advice from experts is to speak to your child in your mother tongue or your strongest language, the assumption being that these two usually coincide.

However, it was only in 2023 that I realised how many families worldwide are, in fact, doing exactly what we’re doing, i.e. raising their kids to speak a language as non-native speakers!

When my old school friend from Hong Kong was visiting earlier this year, I saw that she made a considerable effort to speak to her toddler in English in addition to Cantonese.

My friend told me that it is now extremely common for young middle-class families in Hong Kong to attempt to raise their children to be bilingual in Cantonese and English.

According to my friend, even parents who don’t speak the best English would try to do this at home, in the hope of giving their children an advantage. I was pretty astonished when she told me this, as this was certainly not a “thing” when I was growing up…

A significant number of young middle-class Hong Kong families are raising their children to be bilingual in Chinese and English, reflecting a worldwide trend of raising bilingual children as non-native speakers
A significant number of young middle-class Hong Kong families are raising their children to be bilingual in Chinese and English

And Hong Kong parents are far from alone in this. Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of meeting a group of super-dedicated Italian mums who are all raising their children to be bilingual in Italian and English as non-native speakers.

A common theme that emerged was that these mums felt like the mainstream education system in Italy does not teach English well, but they, as parents, want to give their kids an advantage and give them more opportunities by helping them gain fluency in English.

This Q&A session really opened my eyes to a whole new parenting world – I guess living in an English-speaking country, I just never quite imagined how much value is placed on English language skills worldwide.

Despite advances in machine translation and AI, language skills remain extremely sought after. English, in particular, remains the world's dominant language and fluency in English remains highly sought-after
Despite advances in machine translation and AI, language skills remain extremely sought after. English, in particular, remains the world's dominant language and fluency in English remains highly sought-after

And I’m pretty sure this phenomenon extends beyond Hong Kong and Italy. There must be so many families out there trying to do the same around the world!

Going against the grain: challenging the prevailing wisdom in bilingual parenting

I really want to encourage and empower these families by reassuring you that your goal is absolutely attainable, despite what many experts say.

As I mentioned earlier, the prevailing wisdom is that you should always speak to your child in your most proficient language, which is usually your mother tongue.

However, I personally do not agree with this “purist” approach. My approach is that if you’re genuinely fluent in the target language – again, there are so many definitions of “fluency” that the whole concept is very fuzzy – there’s no reason you can’t speak to your child in this language.

The purpose of language is ultimately effective communication. If you’re fluent enough to achieve that, you are fluent enough to speak it with your child.

While I totally understand where the experts are coming from, I personally find this “purist” approach quite limiting and even somewhat elitist and condescending.

Because by this logic, if you and your partner are from the same culture, same country, speak the same language, and live in a largely monolingual society, as in the case of Hong Kong and Italy, you and your partner should just accept that and speak to your child in the local language only?

Of course, in reality, that’s precisely what the vast majority of people do, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that!

But I think that there’s equally nothing wrong with parents wanting to do something different with their child.

There are many reasons why parents may want to do that: they may want better career prospects for their kids. They may want to help their kids develop their brain in a different way, as bilingualism is shown to have amazing benefits for your brain, as I’ve discussed in a separate video.

They may simply want their kids to be able to communicate with more people outside of their own country.

Why should they be made to feel like what they’re doing is somehow wrong or unnatural?

I remember reading War and Peace, and there was a passage where Pierre disparages other Russian families for speaking to their children in French, which was the norm among the Russian nobility at the time. He vows never to do that with his own children. It’s easy for him to take that position because, of course, his French governess would do the job for him! Well, all the other families probably had French governesses, too – I digress – as I said, it is a really random example – but my point is that not all of us have the privilege of paying someone to raise our kids to be bilingual or trilingual, but as parents many of us still want our kids to enjoy the benefits that being fluent in more than one language brings!

I know that some people in this situation are worried about lots of things, like what their child’s accent might sound like.

OK, your child’s accent might not be perfect – I’ll be the first to admit that my children have a bit of a funny accent when they speak Mandarin, and English, and Russian!

I’ve even made a separate video about this whole accent issue.

But is it not better to speak a language fluently with a slight accent than not to be able to speak it at all?

And for children, such accents will most likely not be permanent anyway. So, my point is this: focus on fluency and don’t sweat over relatively minor details like accent.

In another post and video, I dive deeper into the how-to aspect of raising your child to be bilingual as a non-native speaker, but in this video, I want to share with you some real-life success stories to give you inspiration and motivation.

Success Stories

Story 1: An English father and South Asian mother raising his daughter to be trilingual in Mandarin, a South Asian language and English living in the UK

A few years ago, I met a little girl at our local library who was talking to a Chinese nanny in Mandarin.

London - a truly cosmopolitan city where multilingual families can thrive
London - a truly cosmopolitan city where multilingual families can thrive

The nanny and I started chatting, and what she told me was quite surprising – the little girl was the daughter of a local politician of South Asian origins who was married to an Englishman.

The mother spoke to the child in her native language, and the English father spoke to her in … Mandarin!

He learned the language as an adult and became fluent after spending some time in China. He was determined to raise his daughter to be trilingual and started speaking to her in Mandarin exclusively from birth.

The nanny was also technically a non-native speaker – like me, she’s a Hong Konger who is fluent in Mandarin.

From my brief interaction with the little girl, I would say that while her Chinese wasn’t “perfect”, she could certainly express herself adequately for her age.

It just shows that you do not have to be a native speaker of the target language to succeed.

What you do need is lots of determination.

A few months later, I ran into the little girl again at a supermarket and saw her with her dad – just as the nanny said, he was speaking to her in Mandarin.

It would not surprise me if he got the occasional comment from others every now and then, but he persevered, and it worked.

Story 2: An English mum raising her daughter to be bilingual in Spanish and English

When my daughter was still a baby, I met a mum at a local baby group who always spoke to her daughter in Spanish.

I always assumed that the mum was Spanish, but when I bumped into her again at my daughter’s nursery one day, I discovered she’s fully British-born and bred, and so is her husband!

In a subsequent conversation, she told me that she came from a tiny English town where everyone only spoke English.

Studying Spanish in Spain gave my friend the motivation to raise her daughter to be bilingual in Spanish and English
Studying Spanish in Spain gave my friend the motivation to raise her daughter to be bilingual in Spanish and English

She studied Spanish at university and spent lots of time in Spain. Being fluent in the language and now living in a wonderfully cosmopolitan part of London, she thought it’d be a great idea to raise her daughter to be bilingual.

I asked her if she sometimes found it challenging, and she said that yes, there were times when she wasn’t sure what a word was in Spanish; but on the whole, she still thought it was do-able and certainly rewarding.

She was absolutely convinced that the potential benefits far outweighed the negatives. And once her daughter was a bit older, she said, it could be fun to look words up together!

Turning a "disadvantage" into your biggest advantage

In conclusion, I think parents in this situation might even have an advantage that works in their favour: COMMITMENT and DEDICATION.

You’re probably extremely committed and dedicated to this goal and are prepared to work extra hard to compensate for the fact that you’re not a native speaker.

And the truth is this: dedication and perseverance are the key to success in raising your child to be bilingual or trilingual.

Just as being a native speaker of the target language by no means guarantees that you can pass your language on to your child, being a non-native speaker does not doom you to failure.

Far from it.

By using the right techniques and applying them consistently, you can succeed.


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