My Bilingual Family

It takes a village to raise a bilingual child

My Bilingual Family

Multi-ethnic multigenerational family preparing food at kitchen counter

Extended family are the first place many parents look to for help with bilingual parenting. Source: Getty

Published 28 March 2022 at 9:32am
By Masako Fukui, Sheila Ngoc Pham, Dr Elaine Laforteza
Source: SBS

Nowadays we don’t always live close to our families and communities where our languages are spoken. So how can we create opportunities for socialising to help our children speak our mother languages?

Published 28 March 2022 at 9:32am
By Masako Fukui, Sheila Ngoc Pham, Dr Elaine Laforteza
Source: SBS

Having bilingual children highlights just how important it is to have support from family, friends and community.

Valuing your language and culture might inspire you to reach out to new people who speak the same language to create a community. You could start a school together, undertake shared cultural activities and find new ways to congregate. These days you could even join a virtual village with parents from all around the world.

In episode six of My Bilingual Family, we meet researchers Sun Jung Joo and Ana Sofia Bruzon to discuss communities like churches, as well as transnational family connections.

Given all the technology we now have easy access to, there are more ways than ever to stay connected with each other.

It takes a village to raise a bilingual child image

Nowadays we don’t always live close to our families and communities where our languages are spoken. So how can we create opportunities for socialising to help our children speak our mother languages?

SBS English


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

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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: Kamusta! Hello from me, Elaine Laforteza, welcoming you to My Bilingual Family. And I hope you’ll find the stories in this episode inspiring, because this is our very last episode! 

So, let’s get going, with our first bilingual family story…

Chorong: My name is Chorong Park, I'm Korean, I’m the mother of three, working in Canberra, work as a registered nurse. My husband is Australian, who has five convict ancestors. All my parents, family in Korea, I’m here by myself.

I spend so much time with my first child speaking Korean. Let him listen all the Korean animations. He did it so well. But, by the time second child born, was 20 months apart, I got severe postnatal depression. As soon as my husband come home, I was so desperate to speak to him because he was only grown up I can talk with. So I naturally speak English and then become a habit. And then one day I speak Korean to my children in the dinner table, and my husband constantly miss out on the conversation. So I decide to stick to the English, especially dinner table. So it’s become natural to think in English and speak in English to me now. 

ELAINE: Just like Chorong, most of us have a lot going on in our lives. And of course, we want to make our lives easier. Which is why we go back to the language that everyone understands.

This is why we all need help, it really does take a village. So in this episode, we’re focussing on one of the most important aspects of bilingual child rearing - finding communities of support. 

And when it comes to support, the first people most of us look to is our extended family - grandparents, uncles, aunts, to provide that exposure to language through real human interactions.

Well, let’s hear the rest of Chorong’s story, because she found support from an unexpected source…

Chorong: My English-speaking mother-in-law, she was far more effective than sending to Korean school. And she’s been to a few Korean courses. Beginning with Canberra Korean school, and then that motivate her a bit more, and then she been to like two weeks Korean school in Ewha University. 

But while they’re learning Korean with their dear grandma, they progress quite a lot. 

Ana: Hello, my name is Ana Sofia Bruzon and I'm a PhD candidate at the Department of Linguistics at Macquarie University. I speak Spanish, Italian and English; Spanish is my native language. I have a small son that is five years old, and he just started kindy actually, so a lot of these topics are very relevant also for me on a personal level.  

In this case, right, if the mother has to work then she perhaps doesn't have time, it is absolutely great that her mother-in-law even went to university, and now she is helping her. And I think this example shows that language teachers don't have to be native speakers. It also shows that if you value your home language and your support system sees that and they can help you, they will. So I think it's a fabulous example. 

ELAINE: It really is amazing… but of course, not all in laws are as supportive.  

And we’ve actually received a question from one of our listeners. Anna in Adelaide asks: “how can families cope with in-laws or extended family who are not supportive when you try to speak to your child in your mother language?” 

Ana: I think in this sort of situations perhaps, it would be helpful to explain why the nuclear family has decided on a particular family language policy. And sometimes you know, if you explain your motivation behind why you do things, people are more willing to understand. So I think it's trying to open that dialogue and explain why you do what you do.

ELAINE: Do you remember in episode two we talked about family language policies - like the One Parent One Language method? Being clear about which bilingual parenting strategy you’re using definitely helps you as a family, but can also help enlist support from your extended family members.

Also, in episode two, we discovered that kids will most likely switch to English once they start school. And if the kids are speaking English, the grandparents might prefer speaking English too, instead of the shared home language. Because, you know, they probably value that immediate bond with their grandkids, more than the longer term goal of passing on language. And you can’t really blame them… but I know it can be frustrating. 

And this brings us back to that piece of advice we’ve heard so many times in this podcast - we just need to keep speaking our languages as much as we can, including with our extended family members. Because this gives kids more opportunities to hear the language around them, and a chance to experience what experts refer to as an ‘immersive language environment’.

Ana: The metaphor that one can use to explain immersive language environment really is this metaphor of bathing in the language, and creating this opportunity for the child to listen perhaps peers of their own age, cousins, other family members speaking the language. And they see the language as not only this language the parents speak, but as a language that has meaning beyond that, which I think is very important.

ELAINE: I really like this idea of ‘bathing in a language’ - and there are many different ways to bathe.

Remember in episode five, we heard from Julia who made sure her kids’ art and piano teachers both spoke Korean? 

Combining art and culture with language learning works. It gives kids a different context outside the home to experience a language being used, exposing them to new words, new ideas, new people to talk with. 

And this is why Nirat and her husband Greg are actively involved in a Thai classical dance and music group in their local area.

Nirat’s mother language is Thai, and their eldest daughter, who’s 16, began music and dance lessons about 10 years ago. Now, their second daughter, who’s 8, is loving these classes. Here she is practising a Thai instrument called the khim (KIM) in her bedroom…

Nirat: The music teacher himself, he speak Thai, the teacher not teach them in English at all, he teach them in Thai.

Greg: I think as Nirat said, the teacher he’s quite passionate about younger people learning the old Thai traditional ways. So that’s the benefit where they get to have that, you know, weekly definite concentrated time in learning the language. 

Proud that, yeah, they’ve got the ability to have the second language and all of the culture.

Nirat: Like my culture, I like them to learn and know how I grew up and things like that. It’s a small community, it’s not just to practise the music. So the parents would get together. So after the practice, especially on Friday, all the parents would come to join, they bring the dish. We have dinner together. And the kids kind of grew up together. They went to the same school, they practice the Thai music, go to the event, that is something for them to grow together as well. 

ELAINE: And what about dad Greg, does he speak Thai? 

Greg: Oh, not very well at all, I can order some food and ask where the toilet is and few other things like that but not have a conversation…

ELAINE: That’s Greg playing the drums at a Spring festival event. Apart from drumming, Greg reckons that the non-Thai speaking, mostly dads, are pretty handy at helping carry all the musical instruments. So he may not have conversational Thai, but he’s still an integral member of this language community. 

And this is what’s great about this Thai music group. It’s inclusive of all family members. And that’s especially important for mixed language families, where one parent may feel left out if they don’t speak the same mother tongue. 

Nirat: You know for me, for them to be able to communicate to my family that is my goal you know. Because none of them speak English. Nowadays, we have the phone, we connect with them. Even just say hello, how are you and things like that to them in Thai. Make them very happy because it’s not often they can see them, especially now we haven’t been back for three years. So they are mid-eighty, when their grandchildren talk to Thai to them, that is something you know… have a tear in their eye. Yeah. 

And then when we go back there, every time my parents tell them to do something, and then they understand, they say, ‘oh, they know Thai!’, like this, they were so surprised at how much they know Thai.

ELAINE: Let’s leave this rich musical environment now, and go to another environment that’s also rich with music…

Korean church singing

These are the voices of a Korean church congregation in Sydney. And isn’t it wonderful to be embraced by these voices?

So why have I taken you to church? Well, religious communities play an important role in maintaining some of our languages in Australia. And to talk to me in more detail is a PhD candidate conducting her research into Korean churches… 

Sun: My name is Sun Jung Joo. I have a Korean background. In my project I look at Korean migrant families in Australia, whether their religious affiliation is related to their motivation or thoughts about maintaining Korean as a heritage language. 

So Korean migrants, they started coming to Australia in the 1970s. Despite their short history of migration, they have built around 260 churches across Australia. And affiliated like Catholic, Presbyterian, Uniting, and Anglican. Most of them perform their ministry in Korean language.

More than half of Korean-born Australians were Christians. That figure is almost twice higher than percentage of Christians in Korea. So I believe, when they newly arrive in Australia, more people get interested in religion, especially in Christianity, because Korean churches devote themselves to assisting new arrivals, help them to settle in Australia well.

Elaine: That's really interesting. It becomes like a community thing doesn't it because when you come to this country and then a Korean church will help you settle, find community, teach you about different resources. That's amazing. So I can see why so many Koreans would want to be a part of the church. But how involved are the churches in teaching language?

Sun: Korean churches play an important role in providing community language education. I have statistics here. In New South Wales there are 31 Korean community language schools, and 22 are church-based. And their congregants normally volunteer as a teacher. 

Elaine: Is this a free service that's given to anyone who's interested? 

Sun: Some of the language teaching program in our church are free, absolutely free, but some charges the parents, but the price is very low. Almost free (laughs). I can say almost free. Yeah, Okay.

Elaine: And I really like it when researchers have lived experience of the research that they’re doing. But, you being a part of the church community, do you think that it's helped you and your family maintain Korean?

Sun: So I have two kids, the first daughter is in year nine and the other boy is year seven. My husband is working as a church pastor. So church is for them like a social network. They can learn how to speak with other Koreans of different ages or different backgrounds. For example, they can learn how to say politely to older people, and how to care for young children. So, yes, definitely the church can help them to maintain their language.

Elaine: I really liked what you were talking about there Sun, about your children going to church, where they even learn not just the words, but the formal ways in which you use them to older people, how to politely greet them. In my language for example, we have those words inscribed in our language. So there's a different way that I would speak to my mum or my Auntie or my grandma, for example. Do you think that in the church and with heritage language learning, does it help your kids know the rules, the cultural codes, and not just the words.

Sun: Yes, yes, yes. I believe textbook or a classroom or a parent cannot teach all the expressions that are used in different social contexts, so they need another authentic environment, that should be real, that should be safe, beyond the classroom or textbook. 

ELAINE: This idea Sun talks about is really important - the need for an authentic, safe environment for language learning. 

Korean churches are not the only religious institutions that can provide such an environment. In Australia, we have Arabic language schools and they are often affiliated with Islamic organisations. And the Greek Orthodox Church helps keep Greek alive in many communities around Australia. 

And of course, you don’t have to go to church to learn Korean, but it’s tempting to pay a visit, just to hear that beautiful singing…

Korean church singing 

ELAINE: It’s amazing that we’ve managed to get to the last episode of our podcast without once mentioning Coronavirus… but when talking about communities, it’s impossible to underestimate the impact of the pandemic. 

Schools, travel, visits to grandparents have all been affected. Which is why connecting virtually - skype calls, zoom, facetime, has become key to our lives today. Especially for people with transnational family ties.

Ana: Transnational families have been defined as families that maintain a significant contact with two or more countries. This has been also called doing family across the borders. By extension, transnational grandparenting is the maintenance of these intergenerational ties across borders. 

Grandparents back in the country of origin can play a really important role in heritage language maintenance. For instance, in my own family, we connect with grandparents almost on a daily basis. This is for me an important linguistic opportunity for my son. And even sort of doing this through screen. 

ELAINE: And Ana’s five year old son and his grandparents' transnational play  dates are often accompanied by Spiderman.

Ana: They have little figurines of Spiderman, yeah. Yeah. Well, it sort of happened naturally because, you know, my son will bring things and show to them, and then they will realise, oh, he really likes this. And one day we were talking with my parents and with my mother-in-law and we were like why don't you guys buy some toys that draws his attention, and then they can start a conversation about it. And those conversations that happens exclusively in Spanish, where my son is sort of forced to speak because he knows that grandpa, for instance, doesn't understand English. So it is sort of playing through the screen. What they cannot do in real life, you know in the flesh, they do it through the screen.

La Granja de Zenón (YouTube in Argentinian Spanish)

Ana: Children engage a lot with technology, so what not use the technology for language learning? In a safe environment, obviously. But it’s really changed my own perception of how to use technology with my child. 

Well, before I was not against the ‘screen time’, but I had this idea that for younger kids there was sort of you know I wasn't sure if there was much benefit or not. Now that my child is growing, and we are going through different experiences I realise there's a lot of positive aspects and it's not this idea that screen time is a negative time or is passive time. For instance I enrolled him in online Spanish classes during the lockdown and before I would have never thought that that would be something useful for a five-year-old. But that actually turned out to be positive and another environment where he can practise.

La Granja de Zenón (YouTube in Argentinian Spanish)

ELAINE: It’s great that there are so many more movies, shows, stories, or classes online now. And that’s partly a response to the pandemic. 

Ana advocates that we watch shows together with our kids, because that’s another opportunity for us to talk to them in our mother language. That’s something we can easily encourage grandparents or aunts, or uncles; anyone who shares our language to do as well. But where do we go to find out about the latest videos or the newest apps?

Well, increasingly, bilingual parents are relying on social media networks. And some enterprising parents have even created their own networks, like my producer, Sheila. And she’s here to tell me about her facebook group Vietnamese Bilingual Parenting.

Sheila: (Self introduction in Vietnamese) So my name is Sheila Ngoc Pham, and I have two kids. A five year old girl and a two year old boy.

Elaine: It's so beautiful to hear you speak Vietnamese as well Sheila but I know you're a bilingual mum and we have kids of similar ages. But the reason I'm talking with you today is because you run a large Facebook group dedicated to Vietnamese bilingual parenting. And it has, and I'm so amazed by this, 2000 members. How did this all come about?

Sheila: Yeah, how it began was during 2020, I guess life became increasingly lived through online and at some point I also connected with a mother who lives in San Francisco. She had come up with a Vietnamese bilingual board book for kids. So that's how our relationship began. She said something like, ‘you know, maybe it'd be great to have a Facebook group’, and the first two members was me and this woman Tam, in San Francisco. So it's this incredible like international community that has come together through Vietnamese bilingual parenting.

Elaine: But I just wanted to know, how did people find out about the group?

Sheila: Basically the reason why we are so large is because we're relying on other Facebook groups. So these days it's part of the diasporic experience is to congregate in these online spaces. Because people will often bring up the fact that they're trying to raise a child in Vietnamese, and then someone inevitably goes, ‘why don't you join the Vietnamese Bilingual Parenting group?’ There is a real need for information as well as support. 

There's a popular hack that comes up from time to time about Netflix. There's a mum who's always saying, ‘you’ve got to go to the settings and then you change it to Vietnamese,’ and so those kinds of tips and tricks are really helpful. And then the other important aspect of the group is emotional support I would say. A lot of us raising children in the diaspora, we really struggle with trying to pass on language, especially if we’re second generation. 

Elaine: It's like it just makes me think it's diaspora done digitally, right? But have there been any challenges with managing such a large community?

Sheila: There certainly are challenges actually. There was a thread the other day where someone brought up the issue of pre-1975 Vietnamese versus more contemporary Vietnamese. You know when I'm teaching my daughter the word for apple I use bom as well as tao. Because the bom is actually people who speak Vietnamese who are more French-influenced than the other one is more kind of indigenous to Vietnam. And anyway, sorry now this is way too nerdy! But, yeah, but there are lots of nuances to Vietnamese which I think other Vietnamese parents can understand and I think that's where a group like this which is quite specifically focused on Vietnamese language is really helpful.

Elaine: I love that it can run on its own. That's fantastic, because you do need that village to run on its own to be able to feel supported.

Sheila: Yeah, I mean I suppose I didn't realise the possibilities of this. I'm actually a member of a couple of other groups that I have found really helpful as well. So what I've done recently is now that the pandemic has calmed down a little bit, I've booked a trip to go to Vietnam at the end of the year, and it's through that other Facebook group, Saigon International Families, that it gave me the idea that I could actually go there and then put my kids in part-time care for a few weeks just so that they get a feel for being in like a Vietnamese language environment. I wouldn't have never had that idea if I hadn't seen people talking about it. It's been such a source of inspiration for real life bilingual parenting. It's given me a lot of ideas for what I can do in the future.

ELAINE: Sheila’s not the only one planning a trip to the home country. So many parents we spoke to in this series are doing exactly that. And if it’s possible to visit the place where your mother language is spoken, that’s the best of all immersive language environments. 

You might remember we talked about how kids are like linguistic sponges in our very first episode. They pick up languages really quickly, so Sheila’s trip feels like a sound bilingual family plan. 

Well, we’re almost at the end of our series. But before I say goodbye, I’d like to thank all the listeners who wrote to us, including Anna from Adelaide, whose question we referred to earlier. We’ve received such great feedback, so thank you! And I just want to share some of this feedback with you. 

This is from Shirlaine in Melbourne, and she writes:

‘My parents are native Cantonese speakers but my native tongue is English and I'm not very fluent in Cantonese (I speak like a 9 year old). Now that my daughter’s three and talking about quite complex ideas, we’ve really struggled to speak any Cantonese - we ourselves simply don't have the language or the brainpower or the sleep!

Are we destined to lose more and more of our second languages with the passing of generations?’ 

Well Shirlaine, yes, it’s so much more difficult for the second generation, and as we discovered in episode five, the trend in Australia is for migrant languages to disappear after just three generations. But some people, like Katerina, who we met in episode two are still passing on their languages to the third generation.

We also received an email from Vig in Melbourne. Vig’s family is trilingual - Tamil, Marathi and English. And we’re especially pleased to receive a comment from a dad, because Vig’s one of the very few men we’ve heard from. You might’ve noticed there are not many male voices in My Bilingual Family. 

And that’s because across all language groups, women do most of the bilingual child rearing tasks. Mums are often the primary caregivers in those early years, so that’s partly the reason. But passing on language seems to be gendered work. Definitely another topic worth exploring more.

I’ve learned so much listening to all your stories. And I have something exciting to report: you may remember that at the start of this podcast, I said that my two year old wasn’t speaking in sentences yet. But now, he’s started stringing words together - and his first sentence was a bilingual one!

I have to thank my mum nag ganas ag sao ti Ilocano, ag chismis with you. And to my husband and children for being on this language journey with me. 

Thanks of course to all the people who shared their stories in this episode, and to SBS Korean Producer Leah Hyein Na for interviewing Chorong. 

I’d also like to thank Claudia, Phil, Jiva and Hagar for their input. 

Finally, to my two producers Masako and Sheila, it’s been so great creating My Bilingual Family together.

We’d love to hear what you think of this podcast, so do drop us a line at

I’m Elaine Laforteza, signing off for the final time. Maraming salamat and agyamanak. Thank you so much for listening.