The different methods of raising bilingual children

The 'one parent, one language' strategy can be difficult to maintain. Source: Getty

Raising your kids with more than one language is easier said than done for many of us. We may have every good intention starting out but soon find it hard to keep up. There are many different strategies you can use. So what is the best approach?

Families take many different approaches to raising their children with language. 'Sequential bilingualism' is common, where children mainly hear the family language at home until they attend daycare and school. Mixed-language families often follow 'one parent one language'.

In episode two of My Bilingual Family we discuss the idea of having a family language policy, as well as how to develop realistic strategies at home which emphasise fun.

Plus children have a mind of their own, so what do you do if - and when - your kids start to push back on your efforts with language?

The different methods of raising bilingual children
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In this episode we talk to Dr Anikó Hatoss, a senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of New South Wales, and Katerina Skoumbas, a mother raising her two kids with Greek and Indonesian.

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.

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.

Leah: Hello. My name is Leah and I am a radio presenter and producer working for the SBS Korean program. And when I first heard about this podcast I thought right away it is a story of my family and our ongoing challenges.

Well, let me introduce about my little family. My husband's Victor. And Victor is a Chinese Australian. We have three lovely children, one boy and two girls; the eldest Tasman, nine; Adelaide, five; and Victoria, two. Yes, Victor and I love Australia so much that we named our children after places in Australia. In terms of the languages, four languages have been running in our little house. My Korean, Victor's Cantonese and Mandarin, and English for all of us.

I did my research about how to raise multilingual children and tried to follow that method, which was making the most natural environment to learn multi languages. When I had my first child, I talked to my child in Korean all the time and sent him to two different childcares. One is English-speaking language childcare centre and the other is a Korean speaking family daycare centre. It seemed very successful. My eldest it seemed obvious he was a bilingual boy, but only until he started primary school.

ELAINE (host): Hello and Kamusta from me, Elaine Laforteza, welcoming you to another episode of My Bilingual Family. So glad you can join me.

When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I was a lot like Leah - you know one of the first things I did was to search for books and seek advice to help me raise my child bilingually. I spoke to her in my mother language as much as possible, which is Ilocano from the Philippines, while my husband spoke to her in English. Like Leah, I wanted to create a natural bilingual environment.

But I can't help stressing about whether I'm doing the right thing? Should I be mixing my languages? Should I be stricter? Am I too strict? Many parents feel like this.... so let's see if we can find the best methods to pass on our languages.

And just as there are many ways to parent, there are many ways to parent bilingually.

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.

Remember Ying? We met her in the first episode. Ying follows a pretty structured approach to raising her two boys in Mandarin.

Ying: Oh yeah, yes. I've been scheduling like weekly activities. So the plan I have is to have routine Mandarin lessons with them. So I teach them from Pinyin, the Chinese alphabet, the pronunciation, teaching them how to recognise Chinese characters. I bought books. I have mobile apps. I have a lot of resources and it has to be routine, so every other day. Or hopefully three times a week. So they need to have constant exposure to Mandarin, probably an hour each session.

ELAINE: Ying seems super organised, which is great given she has really high aspirations for her boys.

Ying:Yeah, my goal is to have my boys be able to speak English and Mandarin as the first language. I need them to have two first languages rather than English as first, Mandarin as a second. So I will take every opportunity I can to get them to learn Mandarin up to the same level as the kids in China.

ELAINE: This bilingual fluency Ying aspires to is referred to as 'double monolingualism', in other words, native speaker level in both languages. That's major levelling up! But it's not impossible to achieve, especially in places where lots of languages are used daily, though in Australia, this is an extremely high bar. But it's not just Ying...anyone who's consciously raising children bilingually needs to have high expectations.

Leah reading Korean book to kids

Leah: Ah, well, I am a Korean language presenter and I always want my children, listen to my show. And I don't just want them to say, 'yes, the voice on the radio is my mum, she's speaking Korean, but I don't know what she's saying.' That sounds really sad to me, because then they won't be able to understand my lifelong passion for broadcasting and journalism, then they can't fully understand their mum. That's why I have tried so hard to teach our children Korean.

My goal is not just for our children to understand the content of the language, I want them to feel the cultural context in the conversation and I want them to read between the lines. Yeah, um, maybe my expectation is a bit too high.

Anikó: I think it's really good to have high expectations because we want to fulfil our essential parenting duty to raise our children in our language to the best of our abilities.

ELAINE: That's Dr Anikó Hatoss, a senior lecturer in linguistics at the University of New South Wales, and we're so lucky to have her join us. She's been working in the area of language maintenance in migrant families for nearly twenty years, and she's also passing on her mother language, Hungarian, to her nine-year-old son.

Anikó: Of course, we have to understand that these children are growing up in a very different environment from their home country environment. A lot of parents feel this way, that if they cannot raise their children fully bilingually, they blame themselves, or they perhaps feel guilty for not being able to give them that language input. They might feel depressed or there can be other family conflicts as well.

So I think it's really important to have high aspirations but it's also important for parents to realise that they just need to do to the best that they can, because it's unrealistic to expect these children to be as proficient as native speakers in their home country, and I think this is really important for the wellbeing of the family.

ELAINE: That makes a lot of sense - aim high but be flexible enough to be realistic. Because there's not much point blaming ourselves and feeling bad or going mad, then getting sad, sagad, baliktad, agalwad. How's that for multilingual rhyming? Pretty crap I know...

So, how do we ensure it's not too overwhelming? Well, setting ground rules can be a great help - what experts refer to as 'family language policies'. The one that's most well known for mixed language couples is what I've been trying to do ....One Parent One Language...

Anikó: One Parent One Language where each parent would be using only one language, that two parents use different languages with their children; the success rate of children actually actively speaking this minority language is only 75 percent. So the sharp differentiation between the two parents and the two languages is very hard to achieve especially in families where the other parent doesn't understand the minority language. These families often engage in the dominant language more and more so as children grow up.

ELAINE: One Parent One Language is difficult to sustain. I mean, I break out into English when my husband's around, because he mainly speaks English...or I just end up mixing languages, and that kind of defeats the purpose.

It's not just me, lots of parents struggle with the One Parent One Language method...

But there's also this method called 'sequential bilingualism'. It's for parents who only speak the mother language at home. That is, until the kids go to daycare or school, where they encounter English for the first time. And this describes Ying's situation.

Ying was told by teachers that her son needed to improve his English when he started preschool. That was really interesting for me. It confirmed how quickly kids pick up languages in early childhood. And really, Ying's son's understanding of English was no longer a problem after just a few months.

No matter which bilingual parenting strategy or combination of strategies we use, there's every chance English will quickly take over anyway - and this is where Leah is at with her eldest son, who now answers back in English, even when Leah speaks to him in Korean. So, is the shift towards English unavoidable once kids start daycare or school?

Anikó: This is kind of inevitable. It's because it's easier for them. Even in those families where both parents speak a minority language. I think it's important to not kind of feel like a failure if we cannot stick to the language policy, because language use is quite dynamic and children from the age of two are very consciously choosing their languages according to the context. And therefore forcing language choices onto these children who are naturally developing their language socialisation in a way that would incorporate different languages for different contexts, I think that that would not be a preferable way.

ELAINE: Forcing our kids to do anything is rarely a good strategy and can backfire - I've learnt this the hard way!

But the struggle is real! The way our kids might shift towards English and maybe actively reject our efforts to pass on language is a real fear for many parents, and can be distressing.

Ying: When I ask my kids, come on, let's have a Mandarin lesson, let's watch a couple of cartoons in Mandarin, let's read some Chinese characters...and luckily my kids are quite happy to do that, they're not reluctant to say, 'I don't want to speak Mandarin'. They haven't reached that age yet. But I've already heard stories from other parents that the time will come that they will tell you that don't want to speak Mandarin. I do not want that to happen.

Katerina: (Self introduction in Greek)

So I just basically said, hi, my name is Katerina Skoumbas. I have two kids, I've got an eight year old, whose name is Leda, and a six year old, whose name is Femi. Both girls.

ELAINE: Katerina's parents migrated from Greece and she was born in Australia, so it's amazing that she speaks Greek almost as fluently as she does English... a message to Ying...'double monolingualism' is possible, but it's rare, and Katerina is quite exceptional. She's one of those mums who's very thoughtful, and here's her response to Ying's question - what do I do when kids start rejecting my efforts to teach my language?

Katerina: I think we need to reframe it so that it's not about it being rejection. It's that idea of meeting the kid where they are. I'd rather have happy kids than anxious kids that can speak Greek fluently. So I don't know, they want you to switch back to English, let's say. You can be resistant and kind of explaining to them, 'this is really important for me, and I actually really love reading in Greek, for example, and it allows me to practice, so would you just let me do it?' You know, in that kind of way. So that for the kid, it's like, okay, something she really wants to do; it's not something that they're trying to push on me. So I think the trick is to make it their thing, right? And make it a game.

So it's kind of like, if you've got two kids, it's like, 'ooh! Who knows the word for 'tree' in Greek?' You know, and it's the first one that gets it. All kids love those games. Kids want things to be fun, you know? And if homeschooling has taught us anything, it's that, right? You can't sit down on a serious note and try and make your kid do stuff. It's just not going to work. So, I would say it's not rejection; it's the kid trying to make it easier for themselves. Yeah, switching it up, so it's not about, I want to do this and you're going to do it because I say, so. It's more about, hey, what can we do that's a shared common and joyful experience?

Anikó: I had a game with my son. We used to drive to school in the car and of course I tried to use Hungarian with him. We had this agreement that if I switch to English he will get a coin, and if he uses English to me, then I get a coin back. And we have been counting these coins and... but what it does, actually, is that it becomes more conscious. We become more aware of our language choices, and I think these kinds of games are very good for that reason.

But what we should not try to do is break down in tears because our child responds to us in English. Although I myself felt like that a couple of times. It is really important to be persistent and even if they respond to us in English, we continue to address them in the minority language, and of course, they are learning even then.

Elaine reading to her daughter

ELAINE: So, many parents and grandparents persist in speaking in their mother language, even if their kids answer back in English. And we all mix languages, it's natural, and we'll even switch mid-sentence when communicating with our kids.

These days I speak in a mixture of Ilocano and Tagalog, another language of the Philippines. I speak a kind-of Taglocano, if you will. And English gets thrown in too. It's no wonder my eldest gets a bit confused about which language I'm speaking.

And I totally get why some people worry that mixing hinders language acquisition, and as a result, children may not speak any language properly. Is this the case?

Anikó: There is some kind of a myth about keeping the languages separate and pure. We know from research that switching practises are part of the repertoire of a bilingual speaker. So there shouldn't be some kind of a fear from these children to be disadvantaged in some way. Of course, parents want to make sure that children acquire the proper grammar in each language, and research clearly demonstrates that the heritage language acquisition is dependent on the exposure in the family and that is the crucial factor, to what extent do the parents use the heritage language with their children.

Elaine reading to her daughter

ELAINE: And this is our every day challenge, right? Finding new ways to 'expose' our kids to our languages.

But if my kids know I'll respond immediately to 'mummy I'm hungry', why would they bother saying 'mama, mabisinak?', which is the same sentence in Ilocano.

And this is where the video game Minecraft becomes useful....

Anikó: Give a reason for the language. Sometimes children when they don't see the reason why it is useful or important they just drop it.

Even my own son who often tells me that he doesn't want to use Hungarian because we're in Australia. We use English.

He has a Hungarian friend, and he has maintained this friendship through playing Minecraft online and when he speaks to this boy he runs out from the room and Mum, how do you say this? Mum, how do you say that? So there is an immediate need to know the word. There is an immediate purpose and the motivation is high because the other boy doesn't know English.

I'm not such a big fan of Minecraft but I realise that when they connect through this game, it's an excellent opportunity for him to practice his Hungarian and he is much more willing to do it than with me. Because he of course knows that I speak English; children always revert back to the easiest solution. So the easiest solution is to speak English with mum.

ELAINE: I love how Anikó's son is practising his Hungarian through an online video game. And this reminds me of what she said earlier - that kids are already making conscious choices about what language to use and in what context by the time they're two.

And I think this makes the family language policies and the aspirations we have for our kids, even more meaningful. Because all that thought, and effort, and time we put into this, it's not just about the language. It's really about passing on the gift of ourselves, our histories, our stories.

Leah expressed it perfectly when she said that if her kids can't understand what she's saying on the radio in Korean, they can't fully understand their mum, the radio presenter. So whether I'm speaking Ilocano or Tagalog, or my Taglocano mash-up, I'm constantly sharing my heritage. And I think my kids will get this, because kids instinctively know what's important to mum...

Katerina: Kids really pick up on that, when you light up. When you're doing something that's bringing you joy. They absorb it immediately and they want to know more because that's like, 'oooh, juicy parts', you know. I think at any age, it's really important to be authentic with your kids, you know, and sharing language and culture is part of that, you know, so you have to decide for yourself, how important is this for me? Who am I doing this for? Am I doing it for the kids? Am I doing it because everyone's speaking English in the world, and we're losing language? You know, that's a real, ethical, kind of social reason to do it. Why are you doing it - and let that motivate you but in a positive way, so it's not a burden. But it's something you're giving as a gift, as a piece of you know, sparkle that your kids can actually understand, you know, and appreciate as they grow older.

Katerina talking to her kids

Valeria: (Self introduction in Indonesian)

ELAINE: This is Valeria, her mother language is Indonesian. And she's been trying to follow the One Parent One Language method. And I feel like her family is a very typical Australian bilingual family....

Valeria: Like first when we had Georgiana I tried to adopt a setting where I would speak Indonesian to her, and Hamish would speak English to her, and then when we're as a family, we'd speak English. It's become challenging now when Anders sort of came round, and Georgiana would speak to Anders in English. I would speak to both of them in Indonesian, and when Hamish is home, my husband's home, then it's English, sometimes a little bit of Indonesian. So it's a little bit difficult. And the children don't necessarily answer in Indonesian.

In terms of why I haven't been as forceful in getting them to speak Indonesian back... probably just for convenience, I guess. I don't know if later on in life, we could explore that, maybe I could ask them to speak back in Indonesian, and sometimes I do ask them to speak back in Indonesian, but yeah, but not pretending not to understand; I've tried that once or twice. And they said, 'mummy, you're just pretending not to understand'. (Laughter) So that didn't work out so well for me.

Valeria talking to her kids

I would like to, I would like to be a bit more strict. I want the kids to remember Indonesian, I don't want to stop. We will travel to Indonesia to visit extended family, so it's important for me, for them to know, and hopefully be able to speak Indonesian. So yeah, I'll keep going, I'll keep going. I don't think we'll stop...

Valeria talking to her kids

ELAINE: Did you notice how Valeria keeps talking in Indonesian even though her kids are speaking English, and she had to be flexible with her One Parent One Language policy when her second child came along. Because family dynamics change with the addition of siblings, as the kids will often speak to each other in English.

I feel like Valeria's family language journey mirrors mine and a lot of bilingual families. There's heaps of trial and error, but to me, the most important thing Valeria said is that she'll just keep going.

And to do that, we need all the encouragement and help we can get. Whether it's Minecraft or Peppa Pig....

...and let's not forget language schools...

Katerina: And I think that's why the Greek school is good in a way because it gives you a bigger playing field of vocabulary. And so you find yourself reaching for those words that they've just learnt at school, for example. You know they've just learnt the sky is blue, and so you can say, you know, 'There's a blue ball. Can you grab it for me, or something like that?' And you can. Yeah, but it's a lot of thinking around it and I think that's what's really hard for parents these days is that extra mental load when you've already got so much to consider. The language seems to fall away for us. Personally, that's what falls away.

ELAINE: Like Katerina, bilingual parents who are consciously passing on language are dedicated and conscientious. And while the language environment inside the home is crucial, it's just as important to find support and resources in your community.

Because we do that with other aspects of parenting, don't we? It's just that passing on our languages is often not seen as important in Australia.

Just why is that? We'll come back to this in later episodes.

But that's a wrap for this episode of My Bilingual Family. Thanks so much for your company.

Thank you to all the people who shared their stories, and special thanks to SBS Indonesian producer Tia Ardha for interviewing Valeria and Jutta Bussche for introducing us to Marian.

Do drop us a line, at

I'm Elaine Laforteza, saying paalam, goodbye for now, and maraming salamat! Thank you for tuning in.

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