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The Reality of Raising Bilingual/ Trilingual Kids – 5 Brutal Truths No One Would Tell You!

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In this blog post, I want to show you the raw reality of being a multilingual family.

99.99% of you don’t know me in real life. Based on my videos and blog posts, you might get the impression that we’re a perfect trilingual family, where everyone gets along in perfect harmony and the kids speak, read, and write all three languages effortlessly.

If you think that, you could not be more wrong!

In this blog post and the accompanying YouTube video, I want to burst that bubble and reveal to you the raw reality of raising trilingual children, sharing with you 5 brutal truths that no one would tell you!

But at the end, I’ll tell you why, despite this reality, there’s one single reason why we're not giving up...

Let's dive in!


Truth 1: Family Tension/ Drama

Before we dive into brutal truth number 1, let me tell you about a domestic argument my husband and I had last week.

It was 8 pm on a weekday. By that time, both my husband and I had worked for a whole day, prepped dinner, done a million chores around the house… I was so, so ready to put my feet up with a glass of wine… Well, not so fast!

My husband still had to read a Russian book with our son!

My daughter and I were reading a book in one bedroom, while my son was reading in another room with my husband. When I heard my husband raise his voice with our son, probably because our son wasn’t concentrating enough, I rushed to the room and yelled at my husband: stop yelling at him!

He went, stop interfering! We’re reading our Russian book!

And in that moment, I just lost it. I blurted out: Jesus Christ! Is reading in Russian that important?

Ouch. That did not go down so well.

It might just sound like a typical domestic row between husband and wife, but this incident actually reflects an underlying tension within our family that directly results from having to juggle three languages. While my husband and I are 100% in agreement that we want to raise our kids to be trilingual and that, in theory, the two minority languages i.e. Russian and Chinese, are of equal importance, when we’re in a crappy mood, usually because we’re tired, or when there’s a conflict in terms of resource allocation, these underlying tensions can explode!

As I explained in a previous video, my husband tried to make me speak Russian when all three of us were together, but I got so fed up and frustrated that we’ve pretty much given up on that.

My mum can also get a bit tetchy when my husband speaks to the kids in Russian when all of us are together, making “jokey” comments like, oh, you’re really training them to speak Russian to be spies, aren’t you?

So yeah, even relationships with the in-laws get affected by this whole trilingual thing! If you’re about to embark on your own multilingual parenting journey, don’t say I haven’t warned you…

My advice to all parents out there is this: you and your partner need to agree on the exact implementation of your family language strategy – watch my video where I explain the three main strategies if you’re just starting out – you need to agree on when and where to use each language and make sure that the boundaries are clearly defined.

If in-laws are involved, please make sure that they’re on board with all this as well, that they know what to expect, and that they respect your family’s language set-up. Trust me on this one!

Download my free family language planner so you can put an actual strategic plan in place. Setting clear expectations and boundaries will go a long way towards a more harmonious multilingual home!

Now, the next BRUTAL truth!

Truth 2: It’s SUCH HARD WORK

Let me tell you a little anecdote from our trip to Germany last summer.

We spent a week with my cousin’s family in August, and had the most amazing time ever – the kids played nicely together, communicating in Mandarin, and all the adults got to enjoy each other’s company, drinking lots of German beer and eating lots of hearty German food, everything was great.

Then on day 3 or day 4, after enjoying a long lazy breakfast together, my husband whipped out some Russian workbooks and said, it’s time for zanimatsya! Which means to do homework.

My cousin and her husband were shocked – wait a minute, aren’t you guys on HOLIDAY?

My husband’s reaction was deadpan. "Well, they can’t go a whole week without doing homework!"

My husband quickly earned the label of “tiger dad” and we all had a good laugh about it…

But why am I telling you this anecdote?

One BRUTAL truth that people won’t tell you is this: raising your kids to be bilingual or trilingual is such hard work! Especially if you want to teach them to read and write in the target language as well!

As I explained in some previous videos, we have a daily reading and writing routine: half an hour in the morning, and half an hour in the evening. And my husband and I do this ourselves – so basically, it’s another hour of “work” added to our full-time work day.

To put things in perspective, I know this might not sound like a lot if you grew up in an educational system where an hour of homework a day would be considered normal, like I did.

But we’re doing this on top of the children’s actual school work, with both of us working full-time and with no domestic help. It is a lot of effort, especially in the evening when all I want to do is lock myself up in my bedroom with a glass of wine and a book and tell the world to leave me alone. I find myself asking, what on earth are we doing this for? Why are we making life so hard for ourselves?

Because it’s worth it.

We’re absolutely convinced that juggling three very different writing systems has been extremely beneficial in our children’s development. While speaking three languages already gives your brain a huge boost, reading and writing just turbocharges these benefits.

And it teaches the children discipline and grit. It teaches them that sometimes, we have to do things that are “hard” and not always enjoyable.

Mind you, though, we do try to make it fun as much as we can – I use Chinese Disney storybooks that have entertaining plot lines that the kids find enjoyable, and we make up our own stories too, basically anything that makes the session more fun and less of a chore.

But the main takeaway from this brutal truth is this: raising multilingual kids is harder than you think. It does not happen automatically; maybe for some people, it does, but more often than not, it’s the result of tons of hard work behind the scenes.

And even if the speaking happens automatically, the reading and writing never does!

Still, I don't want you to be put off.

I want you to embrace the challenge, and I want you to know that teaching your child to read and write in a different language will be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things you can do for your child and with your child.

The benefits for them will be immense, both in terms of cognitive development and character building.

Remember: hard work will always pay off, even if in unexpected ways.

Now, let’s get on to brutal truth number 3.

Truth 3: Hostility/ Racism

Have you ever been in a situation where you were speaking your language in a different country, and people around you gave you weird looks?

Amazingly, this almost never happened to me until last year, when we went to Bognor Regis for a family getaway. For those of you who are not in the UK, Bognor Regis is a seaside town in southern England, known for its coastal charm and the Butlins resort  – I reviewed this place on Google, so I won’t do it here now!

Anyhow. I was walking around with the kids in Bognor Regis without my husband one afternoon, doing a bit of shopping. We were speaking in Chinese, as we always do. But for the first time, maybe ever, a middle-aged/ elderly man actually glared at us in a super unfriendly way. He might as well have said out loud: Speak English, you’re in England!

But you know what, I actually don’t blame people like this man in Bognor Regis for feeling this way. It’s human nature to divide people into in-groups and out-groups – people like us and people who aren’t like us – and language can be a powerful marker of your group status.

So, this man’s reaction just shows he’s human.

And, of course, this is something many migrants in other countries would have experienced. We’re extremely fortunate in that this sort of thing has rarely happened to us, but as I pointed out in another video about why raising bilingual kids can attract negative reactions, speaking a foreign language with your child in public can provoke racist verbal responses and in more extreme cases even physical attacks.

Shocking, but true.

What can you do about it?

There’s no easy answer to this question. While I do think that speaking to your child in the target language at all times is the best way to achieve fluency, you’ll have to judge for yourself whether it’s safe for you to speak your language in public.

I know, it’s insane that we’re actually talking about physical safety, but that’s the reality for some.

In my case, I just choose to ignore unfriendly looks. You can’t please everyone. Whatever you do – and I mean in life in general – someone won’t like it. But if you decide that something’s worth doing and is the right decision for your family, don’t let some judgmental looks from people put you off.

So, Bognor Regis man – sorry, not sorry.

Truth 4: Envy

Now, we’re moving on to brutal truth number 4.

A few years ago, the kids, my husband, and I were in our local playground when I started chatting with another mum. By the way, have you noticed that 90% of my stories take place in the playground? Welcome to my life! – she heard my husband speaking to the kids in Russian, and she started telling me about her daughter. It turned out that this mum was also from Russia, but her partner was English.

Her daughter was at the time already in school, while ours were still in nursery, so she was a year or so ahead of us.

The mum told me that her daughter had been perfectly bilingual when she was younger – but then something changed. Her daughter gradually lost Russian as she started pre-school and then big school.

With a mirthless smile, she gave me a stark warning:

“YOU JUST WAIT. You just wait till they’re in school. You’ll see that they won’t speak your languages anymore – they’ll only want to speak English.”

And this is, dear reader, shocking truth number 4: you’ll inevitably meet people who want you to fail, who can’t stand the fact that your children can speak more than one language.

In short, envy and jealousy.

To be honest, I didn’t think much of this subject until one of my readers emailed me. She and her partner are raising their kids to be trilingual in Germany, and she asked me for advice on dealing with people’s envious and jealous reactions, especially from people who speak the same language as her but haven’t managed to pass it on to their own kids.

Her email made me realise that this is actually a very common and universal problem!

What can you do about it?

Not much, unfortunately. One thing I’ve learnt over the years is that there’s little point in getting upset about what other people think about you… You literally have no control over that. I really try to live by the Stoic principle of not concerning yourself with things that are outside of your control. Other people’s envy and jealousy are precisely things that you literally can’t control.

My only piece of advice is to tell yourself to let them be. They’re in control of their feelings, not you.

Truth 5: People making fun of your child’s speech

Now, the FINAL BRUTAL truth.

I’d like to begin by telling you a story of regret.

A couple of years ago, we were having a regular playdate with our neighbours, who were a Hungarian family. Their child was a bit younger than mine, but we all got along really well. The mum was really nice—I really liked her.

But then, on this particular day, we were having this playdate in their apartment, the kids eating junk food and playing with their toys on the floor, me and the other mum sipping tea on the couch just chatting… and one of my kids said something to me in Chinese.

It wasn’t the first time that this mum had heard the kids talking to me in Chinese, but for some reason, on this occasion, she decided to say something.

She started giggling, and said, “Oh my god! It’s HILARIOUS how your kids talk to you in Chinese! They talk like this!" And she started making "Chinese sounds".

I was pretty shocked. And upset.

But I said nothing. I smiled along.

And I’ll always regret this: I should’ve called her out on her comment. Surely it’s not okay to say things like that, especially when my children are right there in the same room?!

Let’s do a quick poll here: do you think this mum’s comment was unacceptable? I really want to know if I’m just overreacting, or if her comment was out of order. Please share in the comments below, I’d love to know what you think.

Back to the story… This comment was especially unexpected coming from her, as her child only spoke Hungarian at home. I wonder how she would feel if someone mocked her child for speaking their language?

Honestly, if you’re raising your child to be bilingual, be prepared for this. Inevitably, someone somewhere will comment on or straight-up LAUGH AT how your child speaks. I’ve made a promise to myself – in the future if someone says something like that to me in front of the kids again, I’ll politely but firmly call them out. 

OK, so these are 5 brutal truths about the reality of raising multilingual children, at least for us!

You’ll fight with your spouse.

You’ll be totally knackered.

You’ll get dirty looks from strangers.

People will be jealous of you. They might even hate you.

People might laugh at your child.

So... Are you ready to sign up?

ONE Reason Why It's All Worth It

Now, I want to tell you why, despite all these challenges, there is a very simple reason why my husband and I haven’t given up, why I think you should never give up or be put off.

This is our world.

Made up of 195 countries, home to 8.1 billion members of the homo sapiens species who speak 7,000 different languages.

You might be reading this post from Bangkok or Beirut or Berlin… Wherever you are, you live in a tiny corner of this unimaginably vast world, as do we.

By raising your child to speak more than one language, you’re expanding their horizons, broadening their minds, and reminding them of the sheer vastness of this world, and the diversity of the people with whom we share this little blue planet.

You’re sowing the seed in their mind that people have different perspectives and that there’s more than one way of looking at the world.

Although we live in a sleepy suburb in Hertfordshire, England, we hope that by equipping our children with two additional languages, we’ll empower them to venture further, to embrace the world in all its wonderful richness, to connect with people who are different from them with more confidence and grace.

Ready to sign up for life as a multilingual family? If you’re just starting out, check out my blog post and video, where I share top tips for raising bilingual babies, as the baby years are so crucial.

And my family language planner will also help you get started - check it out!

Thank you for reading and see you in my next blog post! x Ka Yee


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