We are planning on raising our child bi-lingual. The plan is for my husband to only speak English to her and I would only speak Tagalog (a dialect of the Philippines). I have asked my parents to also only speak to her in Tagalog since she will get plenty of exposure to English. We live in the U.S.

How have other parents raised their children to retain a 2nd language?

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    See my similar question here: parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/15/…
    – Pablo
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 0:25
  • I read somewhere that knowing multiple language is something humans are basically equipped for. It should be 'relatively' easy to learn just two languages.
    – Barfieldmv
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 7:19
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    Also, consider that kids who learn more than one language early on find it much easier to learn additional languages later. Language learning works best up until around 7 years of age. After that, it does take some conscious effort. Anecdote: I learned Swedish when I was 4 and I have absolutely no recollection of learning it; I was just magically able to speak it, and still do today, 30+ years later, with very little maintenance. Commented Mar 31, 2011 at 5:40
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    One thing I would note is to not worry if the child is "delayed" speaking, at least according to standard development charts. I have a friend who is a native English speaker, married to an Arabic man, with a Spanish speaking nanny. Her child didn't speak a word until she was a little over 2 years old, significantly delayed by "normal" standards. But a little after the two year mark, she "took off" in all three languages equally.
    – Kevin
    Commented Apr 11, 2011 at 18:38
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    I was about to ask this on French Language and Usage when I thought, wait, this is a parenting question. Is there a Parenting SE? Came here, made an account, went to ask the question, found someone else already had. I love Stack Exchange. Commented Jan 6, 2013 at 18:22

12 Answers 12


I grew up bilingual, and so does my son of 18 months. My son and I both have a Danish father and an Austrian mother. Here is what I've learned, from my own life as child and as parent, and from others:

Start immediately. it won't do to decide on this after a year or more. It must be from the start, because kids learn even before birth, and most under the age of 10 months. They need to learn the "melody" and the sounds of the language, and that only works well early on.

You must be native speaker, or equal to it. I've seen Austrian homes where one parent speaks poor English in an attempt to teach the language. Doesn't work. It's not enough to teach individual words from picture books. It's not enough to speak what you learned in school. You've got to know all the words you're ever going to need, and you only know that if you're a native or if you are immensely good at English as a foreign language. Don't even get me started on pronunciation and grammar!

Be consistent. I speak Danish to my son 99% of the time. I'd say any less than 90% and it doesn't catch on well. I do speak German with him if he's around other kids/people if I need them to understand too. But I also speak Danish to other small kids, mostly for fun but also to show that it's not a secret language.

Show, don't tell. I speak Danish to my wife 80% of the time. There are things that I can tell her easier in German, but mostly my son hears me talk this language with others too. It's not just for him. My side of the family also speaks Danish, wife's side German. Luckily we all understand each other.

Act natural. Speaking any language is normal. Don't act special when speaking any particulate language. There should be no difference in the way you act, in relation to what language you speak. They're both just a language.

Books and stuff. This is actually the difficult part! It can be hard to find enough material/books/toys in the current country's foreign language. In my case, we're surrounded by German stuff but it's an effort to ensure enough Danish material to keep the balance. In particular, media goes here -- television, DVDs, computer stuff. Plan ahead, is the best advice I can give for this point.

English is third. In our case, we're not in an English-language country. Third (and fourth, etc.) languages come easier to the child if the two primary languages are firmly in place first, so don't worry about thirds in the beginning, except if you are in an English-language country, in which case it should be mixed in naturally.

That's it from the top of my head. I might edit and add more later.

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    The point about being a native speaker is not supported by research. In fact, research contradicts it. I think you are simply observing cases where the parent does not put in enough effort.
    – luispedro
    Commented Apr 24, 2011 at 17:09
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    @luis, my point is to avoid what I've seen; e.g. Austrians who haven't learnt English well and mispronounce the sounds and words, knowing that they can't speak well or even in complete and meaningful sentences, they still try to teach their kids single words ("dog", "cat"). I don't think that's helpful at all. If a parent's language skill are "near-native" then by all means go ahead!! Commented Apr 25, 2011 at 12:16
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    @torbengd so it is an all or nothing proposition? I am trying to learn a second language myself. I didn't get the opportunity to when I was younger so I want to start my kid early, but I am not anywhere near fluent, so should I just give up? I am not a beginner either. Commented Apr 25, 2011 at 18:56
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    @luispedro can you point to the research you mentioned, i.e. the research that indicates that even non native-speakers should raise their child bilingual? Commented Dec 29, 2011 at 21:20
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    +1 for summing up most of what I planned to answer :-) One comment to the "native speaker" question: IMHO a very important aspect of this is that when you learn a foreign language as adult, you most likely won't get the same emotional / cultural foundation for it as native speakers do. And children learn strongly via emotions and feelings. I know perfectly what the English words "raspberry", "puppy" or "pee" mean, but they don't nearly have the same emotional connections and memories to me as their Hungarian counterparts. Commented Jan 5, 2012 at 14:47

My wife and I have been raising our four year-old daughter exactly as you describe since birth. I speak to her in English, and my wife and her family speak to her in their native language -- even though all of us otherwise primarily speak English in our daily lives here in the US.

It has worked out wonderfully; our daughter now speaks both languages fluently.

We were initially concerned that it could be confusing to her--that she might mix languages or be uncomfortable switching. But there have been virtually no issues. Without even realizing it, she knows with 100% accuracy which language to speak to whom, and when.

We also haven't found that we need to be flawlessly consistent. My wife can fall back to English whenever necessary (e.g., when speaking with a third party) but it hasn't affected our daughter's fluency. I wouldn't worry about it, as long as you try to be as consistent as possible when it's just your immediate family.

We've also made an effort to have lots of books in both languages, so one doesn't predominate at storytime.

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    It's also worth noting that the US is one of very few nations where it growing up with only one language is the norm. Because of the social pressure to only teach one language, it's often made to sound harder than it is. Young children have an amazing faculty for language.
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 3:01
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    I have basically the same scenario. All of us speak English, but Daddy also speaks Spanish while Mommy also speaks Tagalog. Our daughter has no problem switching between the three languages.
    – user106
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 6:04
  • @HedgeMage I believe you are missing most of Europe and big parts of asia (Russia, China, Japan, the Koreas), where most children also only learn one language.
    – arne
    Commented Feb 4, 2014 at 8:02
  • @arne I recently did a study abroad in France. All the people I met there were from Europe/Asia, and most of them were bilingual becoming trilingual+. 75% of the non-French (including Asians, Russians, Germans, etc.) I met knew English fluently, and were studying a third and fourth language. And 50% of the French I met were also fluent in English, and were studying a third or fourth language. For a statistical comparison, about 3% of my (American) university takes foreign language (I work in the department), and 5% of my American friends know another language apart from English. Commented May 23, 2014 at 16:03
  • @ChrisCirefice I was talking about "growing up" with a second language as a young child. In Germany, English is typically taught from fifth grade on. You're right however that most Europeans learn at least one foreign language in school. I'm a little astonished that Americans don't, actually.
    – arne
    Commented May 26, 2014 at 5:56

I live in Australia. My wife came to Australia 12 years ago from China. I can speak fluent Chinese.

My 4 year old son goes to childcare 4 days a week and my parents look after him 1 day a week. So Monday to Friday during the day he speaks English.

Here is how we help him to learn:

Be consistent: He already spends plenty of time speaking English at school so we constantly speak to him in Chinese at home. He then knows the distinction of when he should speak English and when to speak Chinese.

Friends: We have a network of friends who speak Chinese and they and their children speak Chinese to my son. Having this community allows my son to use his language socially.

Family: Help your child to communicate with family members in other countries. You can do this by using Skype where both of you can talk to family overseas at the same time. They don't have the stress of holding the telephone and having to speak by themselves.

Books and DVDs: My son likes certain TV series. We make an effort to get the Chinese equivalent when we travel to China. TV series like Thomas the Tank Engine or In the Night Garden.

Be cultural specific: Provide them with something they can identify with from that culture. It can be a particular food, TV show or activity that is only specific to that culture that they enjoy. This helps them to have an attachment. My son likes a particular Chinese food that only Chinese people eat so it doesn't have an English name.

One important thing I've found was teaching him to be able to say in either language 'How do you say this in English' or 'How do you say this in Chinese'.


Since you asked for "strategies" plural:

  • The best way to raise a child who is fluent (and literate) in Tagalog despite growing up in an English-speaking country is for both parents to always speak Tagalog at home. Reserve English for interactions with the outside world — school, work, playmates.

    • Don't even bother teaching the child English at first; wait until she's old enough to want to speak to friends, or perhaps even until she enters preschool. Since English will be inevitably all around her (unless you lock her in the basement or something), she'll get plenty of exposure to its sounds/melody, so she'll have no trouble learning it fluently.
  • If the above approach is not possible (that is, one of the parents only speaks English), the other major strategy is the one parent – one language approach. This is much harder, especially as the child gets older and it becomes uncool to speak the minority language, but it can be done. You still need to concentrate much more on teaching Tagalog; English will happen whether you want it or not.

    • If at all possible, interact with other Tagalog speakers - find a Philippine church or social group, "import" the grandparents, get a Tagalog-speaking babysitter or nanny, etc.
    • Try to teach the English-speaking parent some rudimentary Tagalog, so at least things like feeding and dressing can happen without needing to involve English.
    • Get reading and viewing materials in Tagalog. Consider disallowing English-language television.
    • Send the child to the Philippines for as many summers as you can afford. Failing that, find (or organize) a Tagalog-language summer camp.
  • If both parents speak the minority language, but nevertheless you find yourself unable to be so strict about keeping English out of the home, it is still possible to raise bilingual children. However, you will need to employ many of the strategies listed in the one parent – one language approach: as much Tagalog interaction as you can muster, language-immersion vacations whenever possible, lots of books and videos in Tagalog, etc.

Note that no matter what strategy you use, there will come a time ([ahem]teenagers[/cough]) when no matter what you do, your child will refuse to speak Tagalog, or will only do so if specifically prompted. Keep insisting, and remember that this too shall pass, and eventually your child will thank you for raising her bilingual.

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    Note to editors: if you want to suggest something so entirely different than my answer, please write your own answer.
    – Martha
    Commented Jul 7, 2012 at 20:23
  • Highly +1 for suggesting that "eventually your child will thank you for raising her bilingual". It is hard for parents but worth it
    – oezi
    Commented Mar 9, 2013 at 21:01

You are all missing out! AUDIOBOOKS! We all spend time in the car, we all need to concentrate on driving... Get audiobooks in the languages that your kid needs more exposure too. It turns out their language skills develop further if they hear the same language in several voices, rather than just your own...

  • This is a really awesome suggestion (easy to do, helps fill time in boring car rides). Do you have a citation/source for the language development improving with several different voices?
    – Acire
    Commented Jan 23, 2015 at 12:41
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    Yes, @user3617271, here's some research suggesting this: [research] (apa.org/monitor/feb05/encoding.aspx)
    – Fix.B.
    Commented Mar 15, 2015 at 21:45

We're both Israeli/Americans. We grew up in Israel and immigrated to the U.S. in our 20's. Our kids were born here. The children are exposed to english constantly and it's their language of choice, spoken among themselves. At home we are trying to speak hebrew too, but find ourselves often revert to English without even noticing.

Still, even with little but constant Hebrew exposure- both kids can understand and speak Hebrew and they do so quite well. Our little one, 3.5 years old girl isn't even aware of the concept of "being bi-lingual" - she speaks hebrew with visiting relatives who speak hebrew, and English with the rest of us. She knows there are (at least) two languages, but thinks it's natural for people to speek many languages.

One day she'll just realize she's bi-lingual, namely, when she finds out there are people who only speak one language.

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    +1 for adding the idea that kids think it is perfectly normal to be bilingual.
    – Rachel
    Commented Jul 10, 2012 at 20:02

I was raised bilingual by circumstance. (Live in states, family speaks french) My parents spoke to me in french probably 99% of the time. My aunt would ship some french books and my mother would read them to me before bed time. I acquired English primarily through tv at first, and then from kindergarten to university. I have a rather good memory and I can say that I have no recollection of ever knowing one language before another. I did go through a phase from about 1st grade to 6th grade where if I didn't know the word in french I would say it in English. And my parents would tell me what the word was in french.

I can speak and listen to french no problem, my writing ability is lacking as I need more practice. So I can recommend you trying to foster interest in your child to read a book in Tagalog, but it's up to you how to do so.

As for English, well that is my language of expertise. It's not perfect but it is the language I choose to express myself in.

All in all, I would say not to worry so much about English if you live in a culture primarily driven by the English language. (although I would still recommend to encourage your child to read a book in English too)


I don't have personal experience of this but I've taken a professional interest in this over the years. My understanding is that the minority-language parent (in this case that's you) has to work incredibly hard to sustain the project. Harder than you might think. Anything less than total commitment to not-speaking-English to your child and the project is doomed.

You may find it harder than you think to speak the minority-language at all times when spouse, friends and so on are all speaking the majority language (English in this case).

For example, I have read that only speaking the minority-language in private with the child, (out of politeness, because you don't want friends and colleagues to think you are excluding them, when you are in company) can be a problem, because the child learns that speaking it is somehow "private", even "secret".

For this reason, having your parents adding their input will be hugely beneficial.

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    I don't find it "incredibly hard". I just speak Danish like I always do, and German/English when I'm at work or with friends. Not hard at all. Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 6:09
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    I completely agree. My wife speaks the majority language to our 5 kids and so do caretakers. TV is in majority language, books are in majority language, friends speak majority language. It is easy for me to speak my language when they are under 3-4, but seems to get harder as they become more involved with other parts of society and culture as they turn 4+ years old. I speak my language, but they consistently respond in the majority language so I end up slipping. I try hard, and I've been pretty successful, but I agree that its challenging.
    – J.J.
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 6:41
  • I think it is much harder if the father (unless he is the primary caregiver) has the minority language. No child will have trouble learning the mother's (or primary caregiver's) language. Even with a nanny.
    – bangnab
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 7:56
  • @Liutaurus two languages. sorry you didn't like my answer.
    – hawbsl
    Commented Mar 30, 2011 at 21:53
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    @Rhea, the best bet is to find some more people that speak your language to hang around with if family is not in the area. My mother was an immigrant from Yugoslavia. Most of my cousins speak Croatian pretty well because the family all pretty much stayed in the same area and had each other to talk to so the kids picked it up easily. But my Dad was military so we moved around a lot and my mom had nobody to speak Croatian to. We (my brothers and sisters) know the names our favorite food, the word for Granmda (at least what we called her) and not much else.
    – Kevin
    Commented Apr 11, 2011 at 18:43

Basically you are already doing the main thing: you speak your native language, while you live in the US.

Don't worry too much that (s)he will mix languages. First, (s)he probably will mix them anyway from time to time, especially when (s)he starts talking. And second, kids pick up language extremely easily, so if you will be consistent and talk Tagalog to your kid, (s)he eventually will be bilingual.


We are Americans in Israel, we speak English at home and they get Hebrew at school. This seems to work. My two older kids who have lived in Israel since they were 5 and 6 are fluent in both. My 4 year old mostly speaks English (as much as he speaks anything) but does have a bunch of Hebrew words. We will see where he is in 2 years.


My husband and I also utilize the 'one parent, one language' approach. He speaks only Danish to our son (soon to be 3), and I speak only English. We speak both English and Danish to each other at home, and we live in Denmark.

My son understands everything I say to him in English, but he doesn't always want to respond in English. I'm working on that.

Matthias also had a bit of the 'language lag' behind the other kids as he sorted out the different sounds, but now he's just about on par with the other kids he plays with. I do a LOT of reading to him in English since he's not speaking it back to me as much as I'd like.


My wife is from Taiwan and since my sons have been little she talks to them in Mandarin, I speak to them in English, so they've grown up hearing both. They tend to be more fluent earlier in Mandarin than English, as they spend more time with my wife, and I notice this moreso with my youngest. We also teach some sign language, this helped my oldest more as he did not talk until late, he was about a year and a half, we were suggested to have a speech pathologist come and check him out - we knew the rationale was the boy was probably figuring out what language to speak. Turned out we were right, he was fine all along, just a late talker but since then he has made up for it!

My oldest goes to Kindergarten, but also goes to Chinese School once a week, he gets 3 hours of language instruction and comes home with homework to practice writing. We also celebrate holidays from both cultures so there is exposure, as well as family members who mostly speak Mandarin. My wife reads bedtime stories in Chinese, also has some Chinese DVD's and CD's so the kids can hear Chinese songs and watch some Chinese TV - when they get to watch it. Getting the kids to speak, listen, read and write is something my wife both agreed on so we push for all three on my oldest, and my youngest will get the same. I don't like the idea of being able to speak and hear a language without being literate in it as well.

As it is my oldest is better than me, I took some language classes for a couple years and know a little Chinese but my son has a better ear and speaks better than I do. For me that's good, he can translate for me later.

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