Raising bilingual children

Mummy says chocolate, Papi says schoggi

“Mummy! It’s alle gone leer!” My three-year-old daughter is waving her empty plate at me. Livia and her twin brother Rocco can be more difficult than most toddlers to understand because sometimes they muddle up the two languages they speak. “Alle gone leer” means something like “All gone empty” and doesn’t make complete sense in either English or Swiss German.

My family of four (two kids from one pregnancy is enough for us, thanks) is one of New Zealand’s growing number of bicultural/bilingual families. My husband is from a tiny Swiss village, and we’re currently living in Switzerland, but I’m from Nelson, and our children were born in and lived their first two years in Wellington. I understand (some) Swiss German, and my husband is fluent in both languages. For us, it seemed natural to raise our kids bilingually, especially since we weren’t (and are still aren’t) 100 percent sure where they would grow up.

A 2013 report by the Royal Society of New Zealand shows that my kids are far from unusual. Popular with immigrants, New Zealand is now a residence for speakers of 160 different languages, a whopping figure for such a small, geographically-isolated country. Although that’s only a tiny percentage of the estimated 6500 languages in the world, it’s enough to make us officially ‘super diverse’. According to the 2013 census, a quarter of the population was born overseas. Our four most common languages are now English, Maori, Samoan and Hindi, which edged out French to become the fourth.

Although bilingualism is increasing, raising bilingual children in a largely monolingual society still poses many challenges. A lot of parents cite a lack of support as the main reason for giving up. I once thought that if I spoke to the kids in English and my husband spoke to them in Swiss-German, then the children would just magically end up bilingual. Turns out that’s not completely true. Bilingualism is a complex process, and although it is incredibly worthwhile for the children, it does take a lot of effort from both the children and the parents. Francois Grosjean, an international bilingualism expert and author of the book Bilingual: Life and Reality, stresses that the biggest challenge for families is creating a need for the minority language in your children’s minds and lives. “The need factor is crucial,” he says. “Without it, a child may simply not acquire a language.”

Children, as we all know, are little ‘clever clogs’ who quickly work out what they need to know and what they don’t, so a bit of cunning pays off. If, for example, they know that mummy speaks French, but that she also understands and speaks English, and nobody else around them speaks French, they may stop speaking French. On the other hand, a Skype call to their cousins who speak French, but don’t understand or speak English, tells them they need French. Or a friend or a relative could be, for example, the designated French speaker; as far as the children are concerned this person does not understand a word of English.

Putting bilingual children into situations where they can only be understood in one language is worthwhile, particularly if they’re prone to mixing up the languages, which small children often do. Telling me a story recently in English, my daughter could only think of the word for duck in Swiss German. She paused for a moment, thought hard, then finally found it in English. “I mean duck, Mummy. See, I can speak English!” For a parent who understands both languages, it’s hard sometimes to sit patiently and wait for their words to come, especially when your to-do list is a mile long. The payoff is when the child, dealing with a situation where only one of their languages is understood, manages because they don’t expect to have the words put in their mouth.

Apart from language mix-ups, one of the biggest challenges comes when bilingual children start school. Particularly when they reach that age when they really start to care what other kids think about them, and they don’t want to be the odd one out. This is the stage where parents must continue to create a need to use the language if they want their kids to keep it up. As Grosjean says, “if they can find ways of ‘holding on’ until the teenage years, there is every chance that the minority language will find its niche and the bilingualism of their children will be stabilised”.

Now don’t worry, not all children and bilingual families struggle during the school years. Wellington mother-of-two Michelle Kempthorne, 31, comes from a Dutch family and spent some of her early childhood living in the Netherlands and Belgium. Her family spoke Dutch at home and, at school in Auckland, she liked being a bit different. “I felt good at school. I was proud of my Dutch heritage.” Now a successful lawyer, she is still bilingual and uses her skills to translate for Dutch clients. Michelle and her Kiwi husband are raising their daughter mainly in English, with Michelle’s parents teaching her some Dutch.

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and that’s particularly relevant for bilingual families. Mariana Wilkinson, mother of Lucas, 4, and Thomas, 3, is from Brazil, her husband Karl is a New Zealander, and they are currently living in Singapore, where students learn in English. She credits Wellington’s strong Portuguese-speaking community with helping her sons develop Portuguese during their years living in New Zealand. Interacting with other families bringing up bilingual kids helped create that ‘need’ to speak Portuguese. “My biggest challenge,” she says, “is making sure I speak only Portuguese to them, especially if they have spoken in English to me.” Now that the children are getting older, Mariana’s starting to think about teaching them to read and write in Portuguese.


The kind of support needed often depends on what the minority language is and how it’s valued by the wider community. A few (luckily not many) people still wrongly believe that bilingualism can cause stutters and is a disadvantage at school. In his book A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism, Colin Baker reassures parents that “bilinguals are neither immune nor more prone” to stuttering than monolinguals.

In education, current thinking suggests bilingual children have some advantages over monolingual children. Not because they are smarter, but because having two words for something increases the brain’s ‘elasticity’. Baker explains that, “There is a tendency for bilinguals to be ahead of monolinguals on tests of creativity and divergent thinking.” Meaning, for example, if you give a bilingual person a hat and ask them what it could be used for, their answers might include ‘to carry a bunch of grapes in’ or ‘to jam the door open’.

However helpful bilingualism is for the brain, bilingual children can face some practical problems. They often have gaps in their vocabulary, because they learn different things from different people. In our case, I do lots of baking with the kids so from me they learn the words for measuring cups, beater, rolling pin etc. Unless their father has a sudden and shocking change of habits, it will be a long time before they learn these words in Swiss German.

And once school starts? Teachers need to understand that sometimes your children might have holes in their vocabulary. It’s a good idea to talk to the school before they start so that you all understand each other (no pun intended). Once the child’s been at school a while, a big question for bilingual families is whether or not to teach reading and writing in the ‘weaker’ language. The answer, like most things to do with parenting, is very personal and depends on issues such as having access to good resources, and the time and patience to teach your children. It takes a special kind of patience to be able to teach young children – maybe especially your own.

As Colin Baker says, reading and writing experiences need to be fun. His advice is to concentrate on making learning relevant to the child’s experience of life. Or, in other words, focusing on the small stuff like a trip to the doctor, or a tea party with a friend. Of course, different children will respond better to some teaching methods than others. Baker also reminds parents to have realistic expectations of biliteracy. Remember that our reading and writing skills develop through all our 13 years of school. Although some skills will overlap, it’s a really big commitment to try and equal that at home. By all means persevere, but don’t force it. As Grosjean says, “Bilingualism should be a source of joy.” If it becomes too hard or causes stress, rethink and readjust your expectations.

For us, still in the early years, our children’s bilingualism has been in turns hilarious and frustrating. We’re fascinated by the way they switch from one language to the other when playing. We feel sorry for them when they are trying to explain something to someone who doesn’t understand. We laugh when they correct us and we marvel at how they learn.

So here we are again, back at our kitchen table. The conversation goes a little like this – Rocco asks, “Mummy, can I have a brötli?” Livia answers “Rocco, mummy says ‘bread’ and papi says ‘brötli’.” Rocco replies, “Oh, yeah! Papi, can I have a brötli?” Trying not to laugh, my husband reaches over to butter a roll for Rocco. The kids’ conversation continues with Rocco informing us that, “Mummy says butter and papi says also butter,” which is true, although the pronunciation is different. Rocco pauses for a second then asks (for the umpteenth time), “Why do I speak English and Schwiizer-duutsch (Swiss-German)?”

“Well,” I begin, “You know how when you were a baby you lived in New Zealand?” He nods. “In New Zealand people speak English, but in Switzerland people speak Swiss-German. And you and Livia are really lucky because you get to speak both.” Simple, right?

Tips for keeping the minority language alive

  • Find resources like books, DVDs, apps etc. in the minority language and use them as a family. The more interactive the better (yes, books are interactive when someone is reading aloud). Perhaps relax the rules around computer/iPad usage if you can find some high quality apps/games such as Gus on the Go, Little Pim and Dic-Dic.
  • New Zealand-based cultural clubs sometimes have small libraries or facilitate book swapping for members.
  • Let’s hear it for delegation! In larger areas and for more common languages there are some after-school language clubs for children.
  • Try to designate times where only the minority language is spoken, such as in the car or at the dinner table.
  • Tie together the language and the culture. Teaching traditions and celebrating festivals is so much more natural in your mother tongue and children will absorb this.
  • Make bilingualism part of your family’s story. Kids love to hear stories about themselves and their parents from ‘when I was little’. Make it sound like a fairytale (a happy one).