How to raise bilingual children as a non-native speaker

I have the pleasure to introduce you to Amy from @amy_ourmlhome, she is a Mom, who raises two trilingual girls in English, Spanish and French. Amy holds a Masters in Law. She writes a blog about raising bilingual kids, called “Our ml Home”. Her multilingual and multicultural story, as well as her work, is mesmerizing

“I was very lucky, my dad was visionary for his times: we moved to Spain and he deliberately enrolled me in a British international school so I could become trilingual. Later on, life took me back to Paris where I met my Spanish husband-to-be. We speak Spanish between us and since I ask quite a lot of myself, I have him correct my speech but also my posts for SpanglishEasy.
So as you can see, Amy was born in Paris with French as her mother tongue. She learned English in an academic context and Spanish in an immersion context.
.I leave you with this wonderful blog that Amy prepared for us.

How do you start raising bilingual when you are a non-native speaker?

When you look up raising bilingual children on the internet or in books, you might find a lot of information on language strategies and useful resources.  More often than not, it is aimed at native speakers.  However, in concrete terms, how do you start raising bilingual when you are a non-native speaker?  With my hindsight as a non-native mum raising trilingual kids, here are my hands-on tips to help you get started on this amazing journey!

The 4 steps to the “How”

Whether native or non-native, bilingual education requires some prior thought, which can be summed up in 4 steps:

  1. Define your linguistic aim – Before making any plans as to how to get there… make sure what your destination is!  Are you aiming at raising a child like a little native whom you also want to be biliterate (i.e: who has literacy skills in both languages), or do you simply want your child to be familiar with the minority language? This is a key point as it will help you determine how to get there.
  • Make sure you have your partner’s support – The bilingual journey is a long challenging ride.  Better make sure your partner is up for this, even if s/he does not speak the minority language.  Support can come in any size and shape and it will be most valuable in difficult times.
  • Define your language strategy – At this point, it is the right time to determine what strategy to use!  With your partner, decide on how to use the minority language in your home: One Parent One Language (OPOL), mL@Home (minority Language at Home), Time & Place or MLP (Mixed Language Policy)? To make the right decision, bear in mind:
    • The level of exposure to the minority language each method provides – the higher your linguistic aim, the higher the level of exposure you will need. To give you an idea, ml@home will usually provide at least twice as much exposure as OPOL, since both parents will speak the minority language compared with one parent in OPOL.  
    • To opt for a method that is sustainable for youAdam Beck’s key advice to make your project feasible: create a sustainable habit for you. The risk being that you might grow frustrated and give up if the stake is beyond your reach.  Remember that what works for others might not necessarily work for you.  You have to adjust the method to your personal circumstances.
    • The higher your aim, the more committed you will have to be and the more efforts you will have to produce.

Go for it!  Don’t overthink it either, and enjoy the ride!  This is an amazing adventure that you will not regret.  In fact, I have never heard of any parent repenting nor of any bilingual child feeling unhappy at having been reared so.  

Hold on! What about being non-native?

Believe it or not, raising bilingual as a non-native speaker is not as drastically different from native parents!  The 2 things that will make you differ slightly from native parents are:

  1. Having to always work on strengthening your minority language – the weaker your level in the minority language, the stronger your commitment must be to improve it.  Language is a lifelong process, even for natives as no one is born with a perfect knowledge of their native language; there is always something to discover.  Day after day, your level will increase to the benefit of your child.
  2. Putting up with a little more nay-sayers just under the pretence that you are not a native – There are a lot of nay-sayers out there.  People who are not familiar with bilingual education, who have heard the many myths that are going round about bilingualism.  Native parents are regularly confronted with them.  As a non-native parent you will experience this too, and maybe a little more intensely as people might not understand your choice to raise in a language that is not your own.  Keep cool, stay strong and keep going.  From my personal experience, these comments strangely disappear when your child begins talking and they witness your child using the minority language… 😉

The only very tangible difference will be if you do not speak the minority language. In that case, not only will both of the above apply, but you will also have the challenge to learn the language alongside your child.  Three suggestions to do so:

  1. If your journey starts from babyhood – A great option as you will learn alongside your baby, starting with simple baby vocabulary, without any pressure. 
  2. Learning progressively by allocating a certain time of the day to speaking the minority language (e.g: mornings).  As your minority language grows, increase your minority language time slot to eventually reach full time.
  3. If your journey starts with an older child – Make your child your language partner and start with Time & Place to learn it together on a regular basis through games, flashcards, activity books, crafts, songs, stories and cartoons.  Over time, as your family’s minority language level grows comfortable, you might even wish to transition to ml@home/OPOL.

Aim for the moon, even if you miss you will land among the stars!

So after all this, remains a last question: when should you start?  Well, why not now?   Research demonstrates that the sooner the better!  

Apprehension is normal but do not let it stop you.  Though things might feel rough and bumpy the first year, they get easier over time.  Nothing is perfect from the start.  We learn along the way, and the journey is long enough to improve whatever needs to as you go.  A few final empowering tips I wish I had known when we began our journey 8 years ago:

  1. Persistence pays off – even if your child continues to reply in the Majority Language and you feel like quitting.  Try to make your language strategy a family rule and not an option.  If you are unsure how to go about it, why not try the Flag Technique?
  1. Be creative – Look for ideas and inspiration to grab your kids’ attention but also to find solutions to the challenges you encounter along your journey.  Social networks are great for that.
  2. Look for support online and in real life – Try to build your own bilingual community, whether real or virtual.  It will become a life saviour in times of challenges.  Follow other bilingual families on social media, they will provide you with inspiration and support.  These are essential for your journey.
  3. Keep informed on the topic of bilingualism – It will help you fight off your worries and all the doubts some nay-sayers will try to instil in you.

Let me leave you with my favourite quote when it comes to raising bilingual kids: “Aim for the moon, even if you miss you will land among the stars” (Oscar Wilde).  What is there to risk? Even if the bilingual journey does not exactly go according to plan, your child will always come away with something from this experience. At best, an active ability to use the minority language, if not at least a passive ability s/he can activate later in life. 🙂

You can find Amy´s blog here she has amazing tips for you.

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IG: amy_ourmlhomeTwitter:@Ourmlhome1


#raisingbilingualkids #bilingualeducation #ninosbilingues #mehrsprachigeerziehung #nonnativebilinguals #canalsoraise #bilingualkids

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