Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa
General Q & A on Raising Multilingual Children - 2006

General Q & A on Raising Multilingual Children - 2006

11 Mar 2015

Background Information:

Ed.M from Harvard University in Education
PhD in progress in “Neuro-Education” (brain-based learning)
Professor of Education at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, Ecuador
Head of Teacher Training
Director of the Educational Development Center

Author:Raising Multilingual Children: Language Acquisition and Children (2001); The Multilingual Mind: Questions by, for and about people living with many languages (2003); Multilingualism Across the Lifespan (in progress, due out in 2007).


    1. Let’s suppose we have a family living in the United States that wants its children to learn both Arabic and English. The mother is an American who speaks only English, and the father is from an Arab country and speaks both Arabic and English. What is the most effective strategy the family can use to make sure the children speak both languages? Can the children become fully fluent in Arabic while living in an English-speaking country?

      There are a variety of strategies possible, the most common of which rely of person, place or time.  Related to person, the one-person-one-language strategy has the most literature behind it, but not because it is any more effective than other strategies, but because it is the easiest to be consistent with. In this example it means that the mother would speak English and the father Arabic. If one should slip up and mix languages, it is easy for others to pull them back into check. Other people strategies include playgroup friends are in one language, while family is another, etc.

      Related to place, some families decide to use physical space (school versus home; grandma’s house versus home, etc.) as a way to help them separate their languages.  In this case, as English permeates society, Arabic would have to find a special place, as in a relatives’ house, a mosque, a restaurant, etc.

      Other families rely on time: Dinnertime or story time is designated for certain languages. For example, depending on the parent’s work schedules, dad could set aside the evenings for story time with his son, reading to him only in Arabic.

      While this question focuses on strategy and consistency, I think it’s also important to consider that there are eight other key factors that influence successful bilingualism and multilingualism:

      1. Timing and The Windows of Opportunity
      2. Aptitude for Foreign Languages
      3. Motivation
      4. Strategy
      5. Consistency
      6. Opportunity and Support (Home, School and Community)
      7. Language Typology and Similarities
      8. Siblings
      9. Gender
      10. Hand Use

      What if the situation is reversed – in other words, the father is an American who only speaks English, while the mother is from an Arab country and speaks both Arabic and English…would the strategy used by this family be any different from that used by the first family?

      As mentioned above, there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for families. A collective decision must be made in such a way that allows all players to be consistent in their language roles. Having said that, in this case one option would be the one-person-one-language strategy. If the mother stays at home with the child and is the primary caregiver, it would be ideal for her to speak Arabic only with her son as this would guarantee quality language input several hours a day.

      What if both parents know both languages?

      Depending on whether or not the parents prefer to use person, place or time to determine their strategy there are a variety of ways to manage this.  However, of the hundreds of families I have worked with over the years, I have not met a single person who made their language choice cerebrally; that is, most parents decide what to speak to their child from a gut instinct. One mother told me despite knowing English, Swiss German and Czech (her husband spoke Afrikaans, English and Swiss German); the only language that came out naturally when she spoke to her newborn was Czech. Her husband said he felt it was right to speak Afrikaans to his baby. So they decided that their strategy would be that the mother would speak exclusively in Czech, and the father solely in Afrikaans. To make matters more complex, the father had two children from a previous marriage and the family lived in Zurich. These kids spoke Swiss German and English only.  So they decided that the stepbrother and sister would speak to the baby exclusively in Swiss German.  The family language, however, was the only common denominator: English.  So, this newborn baby had three different languages spoken to him from birth, and passive exposure to English.  This was six years ago. For a variety of logistical reasons the family decided on an English-Swiss German school. The child is doing splendidly and speaks English, Swiss German, Czech and Afrikaans at an age-appropriate level.  The key here, and in all family cases, is a family strategy, which was consistent.

    2. When should parents start teaching their children two or more languages? Is it ok to start at birth, or should they wait until later? Is there an age when it becomes “too late” to learn a second language?

      While people can and do learn foreign languages throughout the life span, the child lucky enough to be brought up bilingual from birth has an edge over other children.  In my book Raising Multilingual Children I write about certain windows of opportunity, the first of which is from birth. Neurological studies of babies show that we are all born universal receivers of language sounds. That is, up until about 7-9 months of age babies have different electrical firings in the brain for each sound, independent of the language.  After that time, babies begin to become selective and only recognize the sounds that are in their environment. For this reason, people brought up bilingual from birth have no accents (in order to be able to pronounce a language clearly you need to be able to hear it first). Additionally, studies have shown that the auditory cortex narrows between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half years old, meaning both the brain and the physical ear become more and more limited as we grow older. 

      A second window of opportunity is between four and eight years old, but it has nothing to do with neurology or physiology, but rather on psychology.  Small children have small egos and treat language as a game. By the time a child is five he generally has all of the syntax and grammatical rules of an adult. This means he has a very strong foundation in his mother tongue, which contributes to the child’s ability to learn the second language. So if a child is not brought up bilingual from birth, the next best time would be in this window (which can extend past eight years old, depending on the personality of the child).  Having said all this, it is fascinating to note that adults are actually more efficient at learning foreign languages than children, if and when they spend the same amount of time on the task.

    3. Does learning more than one language “confuse” children? Why or why not? Is it wise to introduce a third language?

      Most of the world is bilingual (though not biliterate).  If the above statement were true, that this would mean that multilingual nations, such as Canada, Switzerland, and India would demonstrate more “confusion” than monolingual nations (smile). Children may appear confused because they mix their languages, which is absolutely normal between two and three years old when the child is brought up bilingual from birth. They may also mix their languages because they have parents or teachers who do so (lack of consistency). Without good models, children take far longer to achieve proper syntax.

      Physically speaking, there is evidence that second, third and subsequent languages learned after about nine months of age have far greater right-hemisphere activity. (Research at the University of Basel in Switzerland has some great brain scans on line if you are interested in this.)

      In Europe there are several schools that require at least three languages for graduation.  The European School model in Brussels requires four. Children are given time to dominate their mother tongue, and an “international” language (English, German or French) is introduced through play. After literacy is taught in the first language, then formal lessons begin in the second, at which time the third language is introduced through play. After two years of literacy in the first language, literacy in the second is begun, and classes are started in the third language, etc. By graduation, these children can take university exams in any of the four European languages they have chosen.

      The key to multilingualism is taking advantage of the ten key factors in each individual child’s case, and a school system and society that value the gift of tongues.

    4. Are there any benefits to being bilingual, especially with regards to cognitive development?

      There are cognitive, social, economic, personal, communication, cultural, and academic benefits to bilingualism. In concrete terms, this means enhanced higher thinking skills (metalinguistic awareness, creativity, sensitivity to communication and increased curriculum achievement as there is a spin-off effect on other subjects); integration, appreciation of other cultures; marketability of bilingual skills, government- and business- recognized need; psychological well-being, self confidence, sense of belonging, enhanced identity with roots; literacy in more than one language enables access to a wider variety of literature and a wider communication network of family, international links; greater tolerance, less racism, bigger intercultural sense; and to top it off, the more languages you learn, the easier it becomes to learn an additional one. easier to learn the third language,

    5. Does learning multiple languages ever “hurt” children? If so, how?

      There is only type of bilingual child who is hurt by his languages, and that is the one who never learns to speak either completely. In some poor migrant families there is evidence that children with poor first language skills who are dropped into a second language school environment fair poorly.  This is not due to the number of languages, but the fact that the child does not have a strong foundation upon which to build new language skills. (This is known as semilingualism and is rare.)

    6. What if a child refuses to speak or study one of the target languages? Should he be forced or punished?

      There are two basic pairs in motivation: positive-negative and intrinsic-extrinsic.  A child can have a personal (intrinsic) motivation for learning a language, such as a deep love for the person speaking it. He can also have extrinsic motivation, such as forceful parents or teachers who insist he learns.  Masked upon this are positive and negative feelings.  The best way to learn anything (not just a language) is via the positive-intrinsic channel. Parents and teachers have to find ways to make the child own this process and want the language.  Forcing a child to do speak a certain language or punishing him when he doesn’t do so is simply bad parenting. A concrete example involves taking something a child already loves (dinosaurs, cars, music) and use language as a vehicle towards it.  Maybe the child does not want the English (Arabic/Spanish/Chinese, etc.), but he can’t wait to get his hands on the book about dinosaurs, which happens to be in the target language.

      Parents and teachers need to be tuned in to why the child refuses to use language as well. Some children are perfectionists and do not open their mouths until they express themselves perfectly. Other children are missing key vocabulary and have been ridiculed when they try and communicate. Yet others are embarrassed to speak the non-dominant language in certain settings (in front of their friends, etc.). Very rarely does a child stop speaking a language because he dislikes the language; it is usually more complex than that.

    7. What are some common mistakes parents make when trying to raise their children as bilinguals?

      I would say one of the most common errors is in mixing their languages. When parents mix their languages and understand each other, children have no reason to understand that there are two separate languages, and they begin speaking the mix as if it were its own language.

      A second error is to make their goal their children’s.  Maybe parents know that speaking more than one language is beneficial, but the child may not give the same value to the experience.  It is up to the parents to help kids see why their languages are valuable (e.g., “Won’t it be great to speak to cousin Jalil when he comes?”).

      Finally, a third error is that parents may determine certain language goals, but do not take the necessary steps to achieve them.  For example, they want the Arabic and English, but dad forgets to speak in Arabic with the child.

    8. Do you have bilingual children? How do you encourage them, and what advice would you give to parents who want their children to speak multiple languages?

      I have three children, 14, 11 and 9 who have been raised multilingually.  I speak to them exclusively in English, my husband in Spanish, and they attend the German school.  Their first years of formal education were in Geneva, Switzerland, and as such they were exposed to French for five-and-a-half-years. They love their parents and therefore their parents’ languages, and they have attended German School since the start (each semester we ask them if they want to continue in the system and they wouldn’t have it any other way…they say they feel very close to the German friends they have).  I think the simplest words of advice are to practice what you preach: If you want them to love their language, you have to do so.  This includes demonstrating a deep respect for the cultures that the languages represent.

    9. How have attitudes towards bilingualism changed over the years in North America?

      I think American demographics have forced a re-think on bilingual issues.  The 2000 US Census showed some interesting statistics that I am currently writing about in my upcoming book.  Let me quote from it: “Americans are more diverse than ever. In the long tradition of immigration to the US, between 1990 and 2000 there was a 57% increase in the number of foreign born citizens; more people are immigrating to the US than ever before. Whereas migration from Europe was more common at the turn of the 20th century, at the turn of the 21st century Latinos account for the greatest number of new citizens. This puts an interesting angle on American’s unspoken language policy as 78% of the students who are English language learners (ELL) speak Spanish at home . One in five Americans speaks a language other than English at home  “About three-fifths of this group speak Spanish at home (59.9 percent), another fifth speaks another Indo-European language (21.3 percent) and almost 15 percent speak an Asian language. Overall, foreign-language speakers grew by about 15 million during the 1990s, with new Spanish speakers contributing about 11 million people and new Asian speakers almost 2.5 million” .This group is not only on the rise, but on the move, no longer limited to big cities like New York or Los Angeles. This has been a growing trend for years, but it seems to be catching up with us as if by surprise…..Other studies have actually blamed the lack of language skills for complete and open communication and point the finger of blame at the English linguistic hegemony . It has even been hinted at, not so subtly, that American’s language limitations are to blame, at least in part, for the problems with countries in parts of the world such as the Middle East .

      On a positive note, I believe these changes will force decisions, which have evaded the American public for at least the past 40 years.

    10. How is it possible for people to keep three or more languages in order? Does the multilingual individual have something special that others don't?

      The brain is an amazing organ and three languages are no more trying than one if kept in order (there is actually room to spare!).  In our family’s case, the school language was different from the mother and father tongues, respectively and this has proven successful in our case.  I believe if parents can consider the ten key factors that influence multilingualism BEFORE they begin on the venture, there is a far greater possibility of success. Parents must also remember that each individual is unique and that what they plan for one child may not serve the second and they must be flexible in the strategies they adopt.

      I also believe that a love of languages reflects a respect for the cultures they represent.  Without this love, cultivating the language itself will be pointless and stressful. One of the ten factors is “aptitude”, however this accounts for only roughly 10% of the talented multilinguals in the world.

    11. Additional thoughts or comments on this topic?

      For a better understanding of this topic I recommend my three books….Thanks!

      I will be in California visiting my family between Dec, 22-Jan 7th if you need to talk in person.  My dad’s phone (Dec. 22-Dec.29; Jan 3-7) is 707 647 1192 and my sister ‘s (Dec 29-Jan 3) is 619 602 0845.

Important: Do I have permission to use your name and quote your words in an article on bilingualism that is scheduled to appear in Southern California InFocus, a newspaper based in Anaheim, California?

Yes, on the condition you send me a copy of the paper my references are included.


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About Tracey

Tracey is a globally recognized educational leader who professes the philosophy that change starts with one: one student, one teacher.


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