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Top 5 Mistakes Parents Make When Trying to Raise Multilingual Kids

Many parents assume that raising bilingual/ multilingual children should be relatively effortless – surely if you speak to your child in your language day in, day out, they will just pick it up, won’t they? Aren’t children meant to be "just like sponges”? The “children-are-just-like-sponges” cliché alone probably merits a separate article but… Well, I’ll leave that for another article, another day!

Yes, for some children, speaking more than one language just happens naturally. From the time they speak their very first words, they can already name objects in more than one language, and these first words evolve into short sentences, then longer sentences, then… Bingo! The child is already a certified bilingual/ multilingual by age two or three. This pretty much describes the linguistic progression of my second child, who was talking in complete 4 or 5-word sentences in two languages by age two, and could say lots of words and shorter sentences in a third language. But with my firstborn, it was a totally different story. By age three, he understood three languages perfectly well but would only speak… English.

It was frustrating.

It was bewildering.

We thought we were doing everything right, using the One Parent One Language strategy… So why wouldn’t he speak Russian and Mandarin? Wasn’t he meant to be a sponge that would somehow just soak it all up?!

Now, a year and a half later, my firstborn is fluent in English and Mandarin; his Russian is also getting much, much better. With hindsight, I can see some of the things that we weren’t doing right back then, and would like to share some hard-learned lessons with you. If you too are struggling to make your child speak a second/ third/ fourth language, read on!

1. Not using the target language consistently

Based on my own experience and observation of other families, this is the number one mistake made by parents who struggle to raise their child to speak more than one language.

You might think you’re speaking to your child in the target language all the time – so did I! – but in your next interaction with your child, actively monitor your use of the target language. You’ll very likely be surprised by how much English (or whatever the majority language is where you live) you’re using with your child. It might be an English word here and there; quite possibly, you’re saying complete sentences in English without even realising it!

When I started to consciously monitor my use of the target language versus English, I realised that I was using Mandarin perhaps only 60-70% of the time. Quite possibly less. When you’re trying to establish the target language, and/if you’re struggling to get your child to speak the target language, you really should aim to be using the target language exclusively with your child. OK, almost exclusively, because we do live in the real world and sometimes it may not be possible to avoid using the odd English phrase here and there. If I had to give a figure, I’d say you should aim to use the target language 95% of the time when you’re talking to your child. Once the target language is firmly established, this rule can be relaxed a little but in the beginning, it’s really super important to be consistent.

An anecdote I heard from an experienced nanny really stuck with me – she told me that the family she was working for at the time was so strict about using only Swedish and German at home, to the point where she’d never heard the mum say even one single word of English to their child. Ever. And as a result the children were perfectly trilingual. Of course, there are plenty of bilingual/ multilingual families out there who are a lot more relaxed about using English, and their children’s fluency in the target language still doesn’t suffer. But if you are struggling, err on the side of caution. The more consistently you use the target language, the more quickly your child will become fluent in the target language.

2. Not enforcing the need for the child to speak the target language

So let’s say you’re fairly certain that you are using the target language at least 95% of the time with your child. Your child can understand the target language very well but always replies to you in English. What are you doing wrong? Let me ask you a question. Do you create conditions at home that make it necessary for your child to speak the target language?

That sounds a bit abstract so let’s look at some real-life examples. When your child asks you for a cup of water in English, do you give them that cup of water straightaway? When your child demands your attention and says, “Mummy! Look here!” Do you run to them and ask them what they need (or even worse, you might even switch to English at this point)? When your child wants to have a conversation with you and talks to you in English, do you acknowledge everything they say, and continue that conversation, with you speaking the target language, and your child speaking English in parallel? I'll be the first to admit that I was guilty on all three counts!

Now pause and think about it. If your child can have all their needs met – grabbing your attention, getting physical things they need, getting their point across – without having to speak the target language, why would they? Would you make life harder for yourself if you can avoid it? Remember, at this point, speaking in English is their default mode and is the most effortless way for them to communicate. People – children and grown-ups alike – are on the whole a pretty lazy bunch and generally always take the path of the least resistance. Unless there’s a genuine need for your child to communicate in the target language, they will not do it. The onus is on you, the parent, to enforce the need.

Next time they ask you in English, “Mummy, I want water!”, instead of responding to the request straightaway, say to them: “Did you mean to say… [repeat the request in your target language]” And make them repeat the request in the target language. Be firm. Do not give them the water until they manage to say the request in your target language!

Sounds harsh? OK, I guess you could describe it as a kind of “tough love”. But is it any harsher than sleep training or potty training? Learning any new skill is hard. Just as breaking the habit of weeing and peeing in their nappies is hard for your child, breaking the habit of speaking to mummy/daddy in English is also hard. But once you’ve got through the initial hurdle, it gets much easier. It becomes natural. Of course, use your judgment and trust your instinct as a parent – if your child is in genuine distress, discomfort or – god forbid – danger, of course you should give them that cup of water or whatever it is they need at that moment. But emergency situations aside, there’s no reason why your child cannot make requests in the target language, if you create the right conditions and enforce the need for them to do so.

3. Not giving your child enough exposure to the target language

This mistake is closely linked with mistake number 1 – if you’re not consistently using the target language with your child, you’re effectively “depriving” your child of the all-important exposure to the target language. Back to my pet peeve mentioned in the introduction – how many times have you heard people say “children are sponges!”? Sounds very intuitive, doesn’t it? But I’ve noticed that this phrase is thrown around mostly by people who don’t have any experience raising bilingual children, or people who try to convince themselves that if they start talking to their child in the target language every now and then, the kid will just soak it all up, just like a “sponge”.

Of course, children do pick up languages more easily than adults do. That’s an observable fact. If it were as easy to pick up languages as adults, I don’t think people would necessarily feel the need to raise their children to be bilingual from a young age. But even sponges need to be fed. A LOT. Human beings – children and grown-ups alike – require a huge amount of linguistic input in order to acquire a language.

It’s perhaps necessary to get a little technical here – the linguist Stephen Krashen developed “The Input Hypothesis” in the 1970s and 1780s, stating that language learners improve in a language when they are given language that is slightly more advanced than their current level; the emphasis is on “comprehensible input” that the learner can understand. This makes sense – no input, no output.

So, how much exposure does a child really need to become fluent in a second/ third/ fourth language? There’s actually no consensus on this but it is often claimed that a child needs to be exposed to the target language 30% of their waking time in order to achieve fluency. Depending on your child’s schedule, this equates to about 25 hours a week, or 3.5 hours a day. If you’re a full-time working parent, 3.5 hours a day is pretty much all the time you get to spend with your child on a typical workday! Make sure you maximise your child’s exposure to the target language during those precious hours in the morning and evening by spending lots of time talking to them, reading with them, singing to them – and remember, spending this kind of quality time together is not only good for language acquisition, but is also highly beneficial for your child’s emotional and social development, and will strengthen your parent-and-child bond. Don’t squander that time away by staring at your Smartphone while feeding your kid.

Another thing to bear in mind is that you should aim to broaden your child’s sources of language exposure. In practical terms, this means trying to give your child the opportunity to use the target language with people other than mummy or daddy, in as many different settings as possible. Why is this important? Your child becomes fluent in the majority language through interacting with a countless number of people on a daily basis, all of whom have their own quirks when it comes to their pronunciation, word choice, sentence patterns and so on. From this rich and varied input, your child acquires the majority language in the most natural way and is capable of understanding a variety of speech in that language. You want to replicate this process as much as possible in the target language.

If possible, try to make friends with other families in your area who speak your language. Explore weekend language school options. Enlist your parents’ help, if you’re lucky enough to have them close by. Ideally you want your child to really understand that mummy/ daddy is not the only one in the world who speaks this language; that lots of other people use it too in lots of different situations.

4. You started a bit late (although it’s never TOO late)

Another common mistake parents make is introducing the target language a bit late, when their child is already in nursery/ pre-school (around age 3 or 4), and is fully proficient in the majority language. Of course it’s still doable, but the child is likely to display quite a long of resistance, which is a totally understandable reaction from the child’s point view – “Why is mummy saying these strange words to me?! What on earth is going on? Wait… She expects me to actually start talking like this??? N.O. W.A.Y.!!”

If you find yourself in this situation – don’t despair! Please read on for some "bad news" but also "good news".

So let's start with the “bad news”. What’s the best age to start introducing a second language? The answer is simple. The earlier the better; if you can start while your child is still technically a fetus, even better!

Most experts agree that the very earliest stages of language acquisition occur before a child is even born – around week 25 or 26 of pregnancy, babies in the womb have been shown to respond to voices and noise. One study clearly demonstrated that, in the later stages of pregnancy, unborn babies could not only differentiate their mother’s voice from other people’s voices; they could also distinguish their native language from a foreign language. So babies begin to make sense of language and make their first baby- steps towards speech and socialisation before they’re even born. By 6 months of age, infants already display preferences for phonemes in their native language over those in foreign languages, and by the end of their first year no longer respond to phonetic elements peculiar to non-native languages. When you think about it, this is pretty staggering – before a child can even crawl, they already have a preference for the dominant language of their environment.

This is all great news if you’re still planning your language strategy for an unborn child or a newborn. Just start speaking to the baby (born or yet unborn) in your language now! But what if your child is already slightly older, say two years old? Is your quest already doomed? Do not despair!

Here comes the “good news” bit. Even though the mantra of “The sooner you start, the better” is generally true, fortunately young children are extremely good at learning languages and indeed, any new skills. Opinions vary among experts, but it is generally thought that up to the age of 10, children can acquire a new language and achieve native-like fluency and pronunciation. So please don’t assume that your child is too old. I know plenty of people who started learning a new language as adults and became genuinely fluent, with minimal “foreign” accent. So, no, your four-year-old is really not too old.

So if you're considering introducing the target language now, when your child is already in pre-school - stop dithering; no more ifs and buts. Start talking to your child in the target language now, today! You can either go cold turkey i.e. start using the target language with your child exclusively from Day 1; or you can take a more gradual approach by adopting some version of "Time and Place Strategy" (see my article on the Big Three Strategies for more details). For example, start using the target language exclusively at mealtimes. Once your child begins to develop a passive understanding of the target language, gradually build up your use of the target language until you're using it almost exclusively in all situations. Then start encouraging your child to speak the target language.

As long as you start now, it is not too late!

5. Not making your child produce output in the target language

In point 3 above, I discussed the importance of giving your child lots and lots of input in the target language. So you’re doing everything right – you’re talking to them in the target language 95% of the time, you’re spending lots of time reading and talking to them, you’re meeting up with other families who speak the same language… If you’re doing all these things, your child should be able to speak the target language. But what if they simply refuse to talk to you or reply to you in the target language?

This seems to be an extremely common problem for parents trying to raise bilingual/ multilingual children. Typically, the child understands the target language very well, as they get plenty of exposure to the language. In linguistic terms, this is referred to as the child’s “receptive language”. When it comes to the acquisition of the majority language, a child normally progresses from acquiring “receptive language” to producing output (what linguists refer to as “expressive language”) naturally, without any special effort or intervention. However, when it comes to the acquisition of the minority language(s), some children struggle to make the transition from input to output. Why does this happen?

Firstly we need to rule out certain possibilities. One possibility is that the child may simply be too young – if the child’s grasp of his strongest language is still very rudimentary, the child may simply not be ready to produce output in the target language yet. If that’s the case, just continue focusing on input and don’t worry about output for the time being. As the Chinese saying goes, you can’t “pull up seedlings to help them grow”. Another possibility is that the child may have genuine developmental delay issues, in which case specialist help would be needed. But if the child can converse at an age-appropriate level in their preferred language (usually the majority language), there’s no reason why they cannot produce output in the target language, given the right conditions.

What are the right conditions? You guessed it right. There needs to be a genuine need for them to speak the target language! You, as the parent, have to encourage them to produce output.

So how does this work in practice? I can share with you my own experience helping my son overcome this hurdle. When he was just over three years old, I started “training” him to reply to me in Mandarin by first “translating” his English sentences into Mandarin for him, and – this is the crucial bit – making him repeat it. Before I implemented this “training programme”, I was already doing the first bit of “translating” his sentences into Mandarin, so he could receive the correct input. The technical term for this is “modelling”. However, he still would not speak in Mandarin. But once I started making him repeat his utterances in Mandarin consistently, we really started chipping away at that passive-to-active barrier. A few months later, he was consistently talking to me in Mandarin and now, a year and a half later, he always talks to me in Mandarin exclusively, even when I address him in English occasionally!

I've consolidated this technique into what I call "The Bootcamp Method". In my book, I discuss this "training" method in much more detail so if you're struggling to help your child become an active speaker of the target language, check it out!

I hope you’ve found the advice above useful. For more practical tips, advice and a step-to-step guide to helping your child become bilingual/ multilingual, check out my book, available on Amazon!


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