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How to Raise Bilingual Kids as Non-Native Speakers: A Three-Step Guide

Updated: Feb 1



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2023 was the year when I realised just how many parents around the world are raising their kids to be bilingual as non-native speakers of the target language themselves!


In the spring of 2023, I was invited by a British/ Italian mum who had read my book to do a Q&A session with a group of Italian parents who had one thing in common - they are all native Italian speakers living in Italy, who are fluent in English to varying degrees but are all trying to raise their children to be bilingual in Italian and English.



A small but growing number of parents in Italy are raising their children to be bilingual in English and Italian despite not being native English speakers
A small but growing number of parents in Italy are raising their children to be bilingual in English and Italian despite not being native English speakers

In the summer of 2023, I had a catch-up with an old friend of mine from Hong Kong, who told me that a significant proportion of young parents in our home city are also trying to raise their children to be bilingual in English and Cantonese, despite being non-native speakers of English themselves.



Many young families in Hong Kong are raising their children to be bilingual in Cantonese and English
Many young families in Hong Kong are raising their children to be bilingual in Cantonese and English


That's when I realised the scale of what seems to be a truly global trend - despite predictions of the demise of language learning due to the rise of AI and other technologies, a growing number of parents worldwide are making a conscious decision to raise their children to be fluent in more than one language.


And that includes me, too - as some of you may already know, my husband and I, who live in the UK, are actively raising our children to be trilingual in Mandarin Chinese, Russian and English, despite my not being a native speaker of Mandarin.




So in this post, I'd like to offer a simple, beginner-friendly three-step guide on what you need to do if you intend to raise your child to speak a language of which you’re not a native speaker.


Step 1: Overcoming Psychological Barriers


As I touched on in my previous post and video, parents trying to raise bilingual kids as non-native speakers may face significant psychological barriers.


While this practice is becoming more and more common across the world, it is still relatively rare to meet parents who are trying to raise their kids to be bilingual as non-native speakers.



Overcoming psychological barriers and fear of judgment is crucial when raising bilingual children, especially as non-native speakers of the language yourself
Overcoming psychological barriers and fear of judgment is crucial when raising bilingual children, especially as non-native speakers of the language yourself

As with any unusual practice, social prejudice could exist; and, just as importantly, you as the parent may feel awkward doing it, and you may worry about what other people might think.


So the first step for parents in this situation is to recognise any internal resistance and fear that you might have and try to overcome that.


I've made a video and blog post exploring the wider issue of negative reactions potentially faced by parents raising their children to be bilingual or multilingual - check it out if you're interested in that side of bilingual parenting, which is not very often discussed.





Always bear in mind that other people’s judgement is never as important to you as the potential benefits that being bilingual can bring to your child, if you decide that that’s what you want to do.


Step 2: Choosing a Strategy


To achieve any goal, you need a strategy.


So, in step 2, you need to choose a language strategy for your family. If you're new to this concept, you can watch my YouTube video or read a previous blog post I wrote on this subject.





For the purpose of this post, I’ll give a brief summary of these strategies.


The first main strategy is the One Parent One Language (OPOL) strategy, where one parent speaks to the child in language A, and the other parent speaks in language B.


The second main strategy is Minority Language at Home (ML@H), in which both parents typically use the same minority language with their child at home.


The third main strategy is the Time and Place Strategy (T&P), where the parents would separate the languages used with the child either by time or by place (or both).


Let’s examine how each of these strategies might work in the context of parents trying to raise their child to be bilingual as non-native speakers.


Case Study


Let’s imagine a family in Hong Kong.


Both mum and dad are native Hong Kongers who speak Cantonese as their mother tongue. They wish to raise their child - let’s call her Amy - to be bilingual in Cantonese and English.


Using the OPOL strategy, the mum can speak to Amy exclusively in English, while the dad can speak to Amy exclusively in Cantonese.





One Parent One Language OPOL strategy for a Hong Kong family raising their child to be bilingual in English and Cantonese
One Parent One Language OPOL strategy for a Hong Kong family raising their child to be bilingual in English and Cantonese

Using the Minority Language at Home strategy, the “minority language” in this case would be English, so both parents would speak to Amy in English.


The Minority Language at Home strategy for a Hong Kong family raising their child to be bilingual in English and Cantonese
The Minority Language at Home strategy for a Hong Kong family raising their child to be bilingual in English and Cantonese

Using the Time and Place strategy, perhaps mum and dad would speak to Amy in English only when they’re physically at home, but they would speak to her in Cantonese when they’re out and about.


The Time and Place strategy for a Hong Kong family raising their child to be bilingual in English and Cantonese
The Time and Place strategy for a Hong Kong family raising their child to be bilingual in English and Cantonese

Any of these strategies can work as long as you apply them consistently.


So, choose a strategy based on your family’s needs and stick to it.


Step 3: Applying the Strategy Consistently


That leads us to step 3: applying the strategy consistently.


In my opinion and experience, consistency is absolutely the number one key in raising bilingual, trilingual and multilingual kids.





This applies whether you’re a native speaker or a non-native speaker.


As I said in a previous video, consistency, perseverance, and determination are what will make or break your goal of raising a bilingual child.


I’ve seen so many cases where both parents are native speakers of the target language, yet their child only speaks English.


Why?


Because they do not use the home language consistently; because they gradually give up when their child starts school and starts losing the home language.


In contrast, even if you’re a non-native speaker, if you really commit to using the target language consistently with your child and do not give up when the going gets tough, you can succeed.




So here it is - a beginner-friendly three-step guide for parents out there who want to raise bilingual children as non-native speakers!


In another blog post and video jam-packed with useful information, I offer lots of practical tips and tricks to help parents raise their children to be bilingual as non-native speakers - check it out!





And don't forget to check out my book for more tips and advice!


Thank you for reading, everyone. As always, please like, share, subscribe and comment - if you’re trying to raise bilingual kids as a non-native speaker right now, we would love to hear from you!


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