Bilingual parenting in the early years

When raising kids in multiple languages, what are the chances they’ll remember them in later life? Source: Getty Images

The first few years of bilingual parenting can be an anxious time, especially when your children don’t seem to be talking much. Perhaps your child is hearing one language at home and another at daycare. It’s natural to wonder: are they getting confused?

As we’ll learn in this first episode of My Bilingual Family, children have the capacity to learn any language. Some kids may take their time but when their language explosion happens, it’s unstoppable.

Also, if you are raising your kids with lots of languages, what are the chances they’ll remember any of them in the long term?

In this episode we talk to speech pathologist Anne Huang and Dr Loy Lising, a senior lecturer in Linguistics at Macquarie University.

Bilingual parenting in the early years
00:00 00:00

My Bilingual Family is hosted by Dr Elaine Laforteza. Produced by Masako Fukui and Sheila Ngoc Pham.

Follow My Bilingual Family in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or the SBS Radio app for more.

Music used in this episode: Fantasy and Denouement, Sunset Stroll into the Wood by Podington Bear 


Episode Transcript

We would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the land we’re broadcasting from today, and we pay our respects to the Cammeraygal people of the Guringai Nation and their elders past and present. We also acknowledge the Traditional Owners from all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lands you are listening from today.

[Elaine and her daughter playing]

ELAINE: That’s my daughter, and recently at her kindy, parents were asked to fill in a questionnaire - ‘does anyone in your home speak a language other than English?’.  I ticked ‘yes’ because I’m trying to bring up my two kids in Ilocano, a language from the Philippines. Next question - ‘how often is this language spoken?’ - and the options were multiple choice: rarely, sometimes, often, or all the time. I ticked ‘sometimes’, but you know, I felt frustrated, because my family situation can’t be reduced to a few tick boxes.

I do speak Ilocano to my kids ‘sometimes’, but when my husband’s around, I’d have to say ‘rarely’, because then we use English. With my mum, I speak Ilocano ‘all the time’. So, filling in this simple form made me realise how messy…and complex language use can be in a bilingual home.

[Elaine reading in Ilocano]

And I began to wonder…should I just be speaking my mother language to my kids ‘sometimes’? Maybe I should be speaking to them ‘all the time’?

[Elaine reading in Ilocano]

Because once they start school, English will dominate, and does that mean my efforts to teach them Ilocano will be quickly lost or forgotten is it all worth it?

Welcome to My Bilingual Family, a podcast about bringing up kids bilingually. I’m your host, Elaine Laforteza, and I’m so happy you can join me as we explore questions and issues raised by families - like mine, and maybe yours - bringing up kids bilingually.

In Australia, we speak around 300 languages, and despite this diversity, parents share surprisingly common questions and anxieties about bilingual child rearing.

In this podcast, we’re searching for answers to these questions by consulting experts like linguists, speech pathologists, counsellors, as well as experienced parents…I have heaps of questions, so I hope you can hang out with me over the next six episodes, and maybe some of your questions will also be answered.

Our first episode is all about early childhood, when kids go from often nonsensical, but so totally cute babbling…to words… to sentences. And in terms of language acquisition, these are the ‘critical’ years, and kids at this age are like sponges.

So let’s start at that important age when we first see our kids’ language abilities begin to blossom, usually around two.

[Maram in Arabic]

ELAINE: The very first mum we’re going to hear from is Maram, senior digital content producer and podcaster at SBS Arabic24, you may know her as the host of the hit podcast Australia Explained. 

We’re so lucky to have SBS producers sharing their language stories with us….

[Maram in Arabic]

Maram is Palestinian-Jordanian, and her husband is from Egypt. And at home, they speak in Arabic, as well as in English. Their daughter is now five years old.

[Maram in Arabic]

Maram:  My daughter took a bit longer to speak. Like she’d mumble, and she actually went to childcare when she was four months old, so she was exposed to English really at such a young age. And we spoke Arabic at home. We never had a time that me and my husband speaks English because you know we both speak Arabic fluently. Two years old, you know, and she only says…like she calls us mama, baba and that’s it. So no conversation. So I had a very good friend of mine, she’s a speech pathologist. And we were just discussing with her, like we were like, ah she’s not you know, saying any words in Arabic or English. My friend, the speech pathologist, she said, ‘well, try to just stick to one language and obviously, you know you guys work, she goes to childcare, she’ll hear English most often. So try to speak to her in English only, just for her to start communicating, and then you can start switching again, like between languages. Like outside English and inside Arabic. And see if this works.’

And we did it, we started speaking to her in English, and it was like a miracle, she started speaking. Like you know, you never thought she would. She started saying words, feeling happier, expressing herself. And we were very happy and relieved.

I think we thought because you know like I’d speak to her in my dialect, her dad would speak to her in his dialect, and then she goes to childcare and she speaks English. So yeah, I think it was a little bit overwhelming for her. But then as soon as we started speaking English, she started speaking and, you know, even saying words in Arabic as well. So, it just, you know, smoothed out the way for her to speak words in Arabic and English.

ELAINE: I totally get Maram’s anxiety. My two year old isn’t really speaking. Admittedly he does a lot of grunting and yelling and is super fluent in shouting ‘no, mummy’!

[Elaine’s son saying ‘no mummy!’]

It’s a contrast to my older daughter, who was talking in sentences by the time she was two. So Maram’s story sparked my curiosity, and I’m consulting speech pathologist Anne Huang for some insight. Anne’s bringing up her two small children bilingually, and she’s also a PhD candidate.

Anne: and my PhD is looking at how speech pathologists and interpreters work together to help manage adults from a culturally and linguistically diverse background.

Elaine: I did want to ask you Anne, because in the situation that Maram describes, how speaking to her daughter in English triggered speech, which Maram felt was slow to develop. Is that typical with the families that you see?

Anne: I would say no. That was a really interesting case, Maram’s story. If a bilingual child is not speaking as soon as you expect them to, it’s important that they’re still exposed to the language that the parents feel most comfortable with. I know in Maram’s case, her daughter started speaking, and that was fantastic, that her daughter’s been able to communicate and she’s happier, and she can probably learn Arabic when she wants to. My daughter’s trying to grab my earbuds, and she thinks it’s very funny…

ELAINE: That’s Anne’s younger daughter flexing her bilingual babbling muscles…

Anne: So I guess, from a speech pathology point of view, I would always tell my clients to speak to their child in both of their languages, it’s not like they’re delayed, they’re just figuring things out. So give them some time. There is such a thing called the ‘silent period’, for kids who have a home language, and then they learn another language after that. And it’s just kids trying to figure out both language systems. Maybe they’re perfectionists and they’re just trying to work it out. And then bam, they’ll be out with both languages, and speaking and talking and you won’t be able to stop them then.

ELAINE: I’m not sure about the BAM, but I’m relieved to know that my son might just be biding his time before his ‘language explosion’. Just hope it’s nothing like his nappy explosions!

The ‘silent period’ Anne mentions is not common. And child language experts agree that bilingual kids do not experience speech delay. Of course, every child is different, but the age range when monolingual kids start speaking is the same as the range for bilingual kids. There’s obviously more going on in a bilingual kid’s brain because there are two or more languages.

And there are so many variables that influence when any child actually speaks, like the language environment in the home, or individual factors like shyness.

Ask any speech pathologist and they’ll tell you that kids have a phenomenal capacity for language learning in these early years - they are like sponges! And I think it’s safe to speculate that Maram’s daughter was probably just about to experience her language explosion when her parents switched to English.

But the anxiety for Maram, and for me, it’s real. And it doesn’t help that this myth that bilingualism delays speech is still so persistent.

Anne: My conceptualisation of this issue is probably more of a systemic issue. The fact that we live in Australia where there is only one dominant language. We live in a country where it’s not surprising that people are told to stick with one language, and that is English. If Maram and her husband are both Arabic speakers and it has a strong cultural and linguistic significance to them that they want to pass it on, for their child to have that would be very useful for later on when they’re trying to figure out who they are in life, trying to figure out their identity and where they stand. Being exposed to your home language and the language that your parents are most comfortable, has the strongest cultural link for them is important for your identity in the future.

[Baby babbling]

ELAINE: The future can feel rather distant though when you’re dealing with the everyday tasks of child rearing, let alone bilingual child rearing.

And even if you sail past year one, two, and so on, there could be more parental anguish - especially when kids start preschool or school.

And here’s a mum who’s experiencing just this kind of anguish…let’s meet Ying…

Ying:  My name is Ying and I am a mother of two young boys aged three and five. I'm from China. I’ve lived in Melbourne for 20 years, and my boys were born in Australia. My husband's actually from Indonesia so we are quite a multicultural family.

When my kids were still babies and toddlers, my mom and my aunt, they look after my kids for about a year or two. So during that period they only heard Mandarin. So I thought that was a pretty good start to expose them to my mother tongue. Since my mum and my aunt returned to China, I was very very conscious of teaching of my kids Mandarin as my mother tongue. So I bought books, downloaded mobile apps, and watched videos with them on youtube in Mandarin-speaking programs.

My elder son Alex, he officially started Kinder at the beginning of 2021. At the end of term one, we had a parent-teacher interview, and the teacher raised a flag that Alex couldn't understand much English in the class and he couldn’t respond to instructions. So that’s the moment that we were advised to speak more English at home. 

From term two, I spent four months training my other kid English exclusively, like I hardly spoke any Mandarin for four month. And by the mid-term three I got an updated report from his kinder teacher and we were told that his English skill has improved a lot, so that was a big relief.

Most of the time of 2021 was spent improving Alex’s English skill, so his Mandarin skill has quite dramatically gone down quite a lot. I’m getting a bit worried as well, I’m also a bit baffled. I don’t know what I could do. It’s like I have two tasks right in front of me: one is to improve his English skills, and then the second task is I don’t want to lose his Mandarin skill completely. I have to put more effort into both.

ELAINE: When I grow up, I want to be just like Ying, she’s such a conscientious and committed mum, and I’m baffled too. So is sociolinguist, Dr Loy Lising.

Loy: When Alex went to kindy, it’s amazing how after term one, you know the teacher flagged that Alex couldn’t understand. I mean of course he can’t understand right, if he hasn’t been exposed to English. So I think we have to situate that story in that context of the boys growing up in the first five years largely monolingual in Mandarin.

ELAINE: Loy is a Senior Lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, and like me, hails from the Philippines. And she confirms my suspicion - that even if bilingual kids don’t have the same competency in English as the other kids when they start school, that’s no cause for alarm.

Loy: Generally what the research has shown is that children do pick up language with the capacity to be able to pick it up like it's their first language up to seven years old, and then your ability to pick up language - and by that we mean grammar and the vocabulary and the phonetics - slowly decline with age. And the key there is the quality of input.

Elaine: And that’s really interesting Loy that you've said it's that first term where the teacher flagged Ying’s son wasn't picking up English. But three months isn't that much time as well. Perhaps we do need to change our assumptions of how quickly someone picks up a language. And I'm also really interested in what you said, ‘the quality of input’ - what does that mean?

Loy: So If you think about the social domain, so domain is a term that refers to specific everyday context we have where language is used, right? So for the boys, that would be mostly at home. But once you enter school, the quality of input varies, the range of that input varies, so that we’re now talking about you know, educational context and so the vocabulary shifts. So school conversation is very different particularly in the context of the classroom, and it’s also yet again quite different in the playground.

ELAINE:  Isn't it amazing that kids' brains know how language shifts depending on the context? And this connection between the language and context is what makes our first language, our ‘mother tongue’ so significant.

Loy: All babies across the world really have the capacity to learn any language. When a baby only hears one linguistic system, that's the language system that they become culturally accustomed to. Once they have that consistency of input and exposure then they develop their familiarity and they acquire that language and that's what becomes their culturally determined language.

Elaine: Mmm. It's so fascinating to me Loy when you say babies are just taking it in and learning the grammar of the language, and also by doing that learning I guess the narratives of their family home and their cultural heritage. Because when I'm speaking to them in Ilocano for example, I'm teaching them about who I am. And for me, it becomes the grammar of our heritage and it becomes complicated though when it is bilingual. So when kids learn two languages, do you think that kids learn it at the same time, or successively, or do kids become confused with that?

Loy: So I think that question is predicated on the assumption that our brain is wired only to learn one linguistic system at a time, which is not true. So if you have a baby and you expose that baby to three, four, five languages, right? So I grew up with four languages at home, right? Of course you go to school and I learned Tagalog alongside English and Spanish.

Elaine: Oh wow, okay.

Loy: Studies have actually shown that there is no set number of languages that the brain is programmed to learn. So keeping in mind you know what we've been saying earlier about how language is about the phonetics, the sounds of it, the vocabulary, The words, the semantics and the grammar. If the quality of input of those aspects of the language is rich and consistent across however many languages there are, then you know a child is able to learn those. You know, so the answer to that is there is no limit in the child's brain as to the number of languages that they can learn, so long as there's rich and sufficient quality input.

Elaine: That's so fascinating, and it reminds me of Marian’s story….

Marian: (Self introduction in Spanish) We have almost four year old and a seven year old. My husband speaks with them consistently in Catalan, and I speak to them consistently in Spanish. And I myself went to a German school when I was in Barcelona so I sent my children to a German school as well. The eldest for some years; and now the youngest is still in the German preschool. He also goes to a Jewish preschool and he's exposed to Hebrew as well, which we don't know a word of. While the eldest was at the German school, he also did a little bit of, learn a little bit of Mandarin in there. I’m not an expert but I think it creates a lot of networks in your head, in your brain.

Loy: I love it. I love her. I love her passion. I love her passion!

Elaine: I know, it’s amazing. Yeah.

Loy: It's amazing how her passion is supported by action. You know the kids are enrolled in German school?

Elaine: Yes. You know what I got from Marian is that her younger kid is learning Hebrew at daycare and she said we don't know a word of it, but she's so excited by the fact that that's a possibility for her kid. Like that is awesome.

Loy: So you know, if you think about it, as a multilingual, every day you're confronted with having to shift in your brain different linguistic systems. So for you Elaine, you've got Ilocano, which is completely different structure with English right, and phonetically as well. That kind of mental ability to shift things has been established that it has that mental benefit of making you better at executive control and so multitasking as an example.

ELAINE: So Marian’s right, speaking multiple languages does create ‘a lot of networks in your head’, and she has a question for Loy…

Marian: I don’t know, I wonder and I guess here comes my question, you know to what extent that they’re going to remember some of that once he moves back to a setting in a public school where he’s going only be taught in English, yeah…

Loy: So it’s one thing to acquire the language, it’s another thing to also use the language. So language acquisition pretty much is like a muscle, you exercise it, right. So the way in which the children will remember the languages that they have depends on the depth of acquisition. So how much of it they've learned, and the richness of the context of use for those languages.

ELAINE: So there you have it! Language acquisition is like a muscle, so Marian and her husband just have to continue providing a rich context for their kids to exercise Catalan, Spanish, Hebrew, Mandarin, German and English muscles…that’s a lot of working out!

Chances are her kids will have Catalan and Spanish forever as they’re spoken every day at home, but Hebrew, for example, would be difficult to maintain, unless Marian finds another context after daycare where the Hebrew muscles can get a regular workout.

I’ve learned so much listening to these bilingual family stories and talking to Anne and Loy…and I especially want to remember what Loy said - that the critical period for language acquisition lasts until kids turn seven or thereabouts, and so far, I think I’m doing okay with my kids.

[Elaine and her daughter]

But I still worry. That’s why seeking professional help is so important, especially if you’re feeling anxious about your child’s language use in the early years. Which is what bilingual mum Maggie did.

Maggie: Self introduction in Macedonian.

ELAINE: So Maggie’s bringing up her son in her mother language Macedonian and also Italian, her husband’s heritage language. But she felt her three year old was ‘a bit behind in his speech’, so they started seeing a speech therapist at the beginning of last year.

And I wanted you to meet Maggie because we’ve spoken to so many parents, and they’re also worried about their child’s speech development, but unlike Maggie, didn’t seek help because almost all of them assumed their child’s speech was a bit delayed, because the kids were being raised bilingually. But this is a myth.

So the message from speech pathologist Anne is, seek an assessment just in case there’s an issue that needs intervention. In Maggie’s son’s case, it turns out there was an issue, and ear nose throat surgery after he turned three, has helped him get back on track with his speech development.

But in most cases, there’s nothing to worry about, as bilingual kids are just processing languages in their brains; you just need to wait for that language explosion.

The other important message is, try to find a speech pathologist that specialises in multilingual families, because the assessment is a very different process compared to monolingual kids. But multilingual speech pathology is still a relatively new field, so finding a specialist might mean a fair bit of searching.

Many parents told me that when issues arise, they often just stopped speaking to their child in their language. But it’s better to keep going, and that’s another reason I wanted you to meet Maggie. She’s constantly coming up with new ways to pass on Macedonian as well as Italian to her little boy.

Maggie: When he was a tiny baby I think I was a bit more forceful or a bit more idealistic and you know I translated some books into three different languages so he would know the word for car or for butterfly in three languages. Toddlers, they have a very short attention span and we can’t expect them to sit down and just be lectured. Ah so since then I’ve learnt to sort of make it as natural as possible. It’s just a part of our everyday interactions. So I suppose it's a bit of repetition and it's just normalising it to him through our everyday interactions. So I'll say ‘elevamu’, which means ‘come over here’. Or I'll praise him in Macedonian so it's something that just comes up. Yeah, in a non-structured sort of way I guess, I don't have a very concrete and very scheduled way of doing it, maybe I should.

ELAINE: I’m with Maggie on this, I’m a bilingual mum in a natural, unstructured kinda way, but yeah, good question Maggie, is that the best way? What are the methods to ensure you pass on your mother language to your kids?

A meaty topic to delve into next time we meet on My Bilingual Family. Or as a vegetarian, a tofu-rich topic to explore next time, so I hope you can join me.

And in the meantime, we’d love to hear your stories or comments, so if you want to get in touch, please send us an email at

Thanks to everyone who shared their stories with us, and a very special thanks to SBS Chinese producer Helen Chen for introducing us to Ying, and to Tamara Lazaroff for introducing us to Maggie.

Looking forward to exploring more stories and questions with you next time. Until then - maraming salamat! Thank you for tuning in!


Coming up next

Bilingual parenting in the early years 21/02/2022 28:03 ...
It takes a village to raise a bilingual child 28/03/2022 29:33 ...
How global forces shape bilingual family life 21/03/2022 28:14 ...
Overcoming prejudice and developing pride as a bilingual parent 14/03/2022 26:16 ...
When the going gets tough with bilingual parenting 07/03/2022 29:08 ...
The different methods of raising bilingual children 28/02/2022 28:40 ...
Introducing My Bilingual Family: a podcast about passing on language to kids 15/02/2022 03:46 ...