What does it take to raise bilingual children?

File. Source: AAP

How are plans to raise children with a second language tested by day-to-day stresses, teenage resistance, lack of motivation or bereavement?

This story is part of a five-part series about bilingualism and language education in Australia

When Kathy Karatasas's husband George died at the age of 44, she was left with four children to raise on her own.

Before his death, Ms Karatasas and her husband had worked together to raise their children speaking Greek, as their parents had done with them.

"Both my late husband and I had Greek migrant parents and Greek was their main language," she said.

But it hadn't been easy.

"We wanted to embed the language into the kids but the opportunity to do Greek school was either a church-based Greek school that I had gone to as a child or alternative, one-on-one [teaching]," she said. "And I didn’t want the Greek school because I thought it was very old fashioned and too conservative and not culturally broad enough."

The couple decided to speak Greek to their children at home where they could, and arranged for a tutor to teach their eldest son once a week.

"We tried to speak to the kids in Greek in their first few years and they probably did pick up on a little bit more but by the time they got to primary school, English was their primary language," she said.

"We struggled to keep speaking Greek at home. We just defaulted to English as our first language."

Today, the children speak conversational Greek but Ms Karatasas is acutely aware of how circumstances can impact language learning.

"The challenge for me was that their dad passed away when they were very young," she said. "My eldest had just started high school, my youngest was still in preschool and the others were in primary school. So I didn’t want to push them while they were going through that grief."

Kathy Karatasas and her four children.
Kathy Karatasas and her four children.
SBS News

Hard work

Susanne Thiebe has a firm approach to language learning.

"I speak German to my kids, even when other kids are around. I just don’t care," she said.

"If the other kids don’t understand – tough. I speak English to them but I speak German to my kids."

She and her husband came to Australia from Germany 20 years ago. They have three school-aged sons, who are all fluent in German. 

Ms Thiebe said her eldest son Max learnt German first and English later but her second two children learnt English and German simultaneously. None of them started talking before two.

"All my kids were relatively late speakers compared to monolingual kids but it never really bothered me because I asked someone at the early childhood centre and they said, 'That happens,'" she said.

If you don't teach them, you miss a chance.

Ms Thiebe said it took dedication to raise bilingual children - their approach was to speak German in the home while English was the out-of-home language - but she never loosened her stance.

"If you don't teach them, you miss a chance," she said. "It's a huge chance you’re giving away." 

Max, now 17, said he appreciated his mother's approach.

"I've seen a lot of families that have lost their language," he said. "Because it's so difficult to maintain it, you've got to be strictly regimented at home and say, 'At home we’re going to speak this language.'" 

Play language

Ms Thiebe believes that bilingual and multilingual children benefit from interaction with each other, as a way of advancing their skills and building a community.

While her children were growing up, she started a playgroup for other German children, which has now expanded to offer German lessons, but she said bringing children together didn't necessarily mean they would be strict with each other.

"I have German kids over here for play dates for my youngest one and they both can speak German but they always speak English," she said. "And then you remind them and they say two sentences in German and then they go back to English.

"It has nothing to do with there being other English kids around, that's just the play language."

She said many of the parents who brought their children to lessons had different approaches to language learning, including some who adopted the "one-parent, one-language" model where the bilingual parent speaks in their native tongue and the monolingual parent speaks only in English.

She said the attitude of parents did impact their children's learning.

"I know Australian husbands who are on the same page [as their bilingual partners]. They don’t even understand their own dinner conversations but they are very supportive of having bilingual children," she said. "And I know others who aren’t – and that’s when the language goes."

I speak German to my kids, even when other kids are around. I just don’t care.

She said it cost a substantial amount in the early years to send her children to German lessons and parents often had to wear that, among other things, to get their kids fluent.

"Sticking to it and doing it all the time is the most difficult part," she said.

"My little one doesn’t read German because his friends don’t and I hope he's going to grow out of that. You have to find that fine line, especially with teenagers: encourage them, pressure them - it's hard work."

Dr Mark Antoniou, a bilingualism expert with the University of Western Sydney's MARCS Institute, is currently researching what makes language learning easier for some people and not others.

He said that while the project was in its "infancy", early findings showed that one size does not fit all.

"In the same way you’d get a suit tailored for a perfect fit, language learning needs to be tailored to fit in the need of individuals," he said.

Susanne Thiebe and her three children in 2012.
Susanne Thiebe and her three children in 2012.
SBS News

Finding a balance

Ebadullah Amid and his wife decided to hold off teaching their young daughter a second language straight away after seeing a young relative struggle at school with English.

"We had a big discussion around this because we were concerned about our child's development," he said.

The couple, who came to Australia from Afghanistan in 2008, instead brought up Makeez (5) speaking English.

They are now trying to teach her Pashto - one of Afghanistan's two official languages - following the birth of their son.

"We decided to tell our daughter that [our son] doesn't understand English and we have to speak to him in Pashto," he said.

But the transition hasn't been simple.

"She's not picking it up quite well," he said. "TV, internet, iPads and everything is in English."

"My aim is for her to speak and read and write in Pashto. But I'm finding it very hard."

Ebadullah with Makeez, Ayan and his wife Wajma in Sydney.
Ebadullah with Makeez, Ayan and his wife Wajma in Sydney.
SBS News


Kathy Karatasas's father lives next door to her family's home in Sydney. He can speak English but has reverted into speaking mostly Greek as he got older.

Ms Karatasas said her children Peter (20), Stefano, (18), Harris (16) and Zoe (12) visit their grandfather regularly and enjoy his company, even if communication can be a challenge.

"The kids are engaged but there’s a sense of, 'Oh god, I’m not understanding pappoús, what's he saying to me? Is he telling me off? Is he asking for something?'

"They get the importance of life and how fragile it is and they get that their grandfather is old and his life is not that long, so they want to be connected to him. That's a driver for them - they want to have a relationship with him."

You have to find that fine line, especially with teenagers: encourage them, pressure them - it's hard work.

Ms Karatasas said that for many parents, passing language on is as much about culture as it is about the language itself.

"I think there's a lot of value for kids in learning and speaking another language," she said. "They connect to family, they connection to culture, and the fact that the language can embed another aspect of their identity that has a life-long value."

"I appreciate that every family is going through different issues but I would strongly encourage it."

She said travelling to Greece two years after her husband died had been a turning point for her children, exposing them to the their history and experiencing the language spoken first hand.

"It was important to make that effort because we wanted to do that as a family when he was alive. I talked about that with the kids and they knew that it was something we had planned as a family and I think they appreciated that.

"That holiday was really helpful and there was a connection to their dad too because he had wanted to do that."

Next in SBS' bilingual series: Language learning in schools: Are we wasting our children's potential?

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