Frequent Questions

The information provided below regards mainly the content of the handout “Raising Bilingual Children”, written by Antonella Sorace and Bob Ladd in May 2004, published by ‘The Linguistic Society of America’ (, and being fully provided on the service’s website Bilingualism Matters with the permission of the publishing house.

Sorace, A. and Ladd, D.R. 2004. Raising bilingual children. Series: Frequently Asked Questions, Linguistic Society of America.


Why do we want bilingual children?

There are many reasons that lead us to such a decision. Below we present only two reasons that are the most common:

In the first case we have what we call a bilingual family: both the mother and the father may wish to use their own language each of them separately when they address their kids. In the second case, the parents may wish to use their own language at home, while at the same time their kids are dealing with the need of communication in a foreign language-speaking society, outside home. This case is what we call in the literature bilingual: “one language-one environment”. 

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Don’t kids get confused when they hear two different languages in their immediate surroundings?

The answer is no. Kids are sensitive to the different ways in which people speak. Even when they hear only one language, they learn fast to detect the differences in the way men and women speak, the difference between politeness and rudeness etc. For children, bilingualism is simply just another differentiation in the way in which people speak!

Fifty years ago, the teachers (mainly in North America) used to encourage immigrant parents to speak to their kids in English in order to help them better integrate in school. In fact, some research findings of the time often led to conflicting results and were accompanied by the belief that bilingualism is a burden for children. However, recent research confirms that the previous statements are not true and that bilingualism not only facilitates children but also provides them with many advantages. Apart from the fact that bilingual children know and speak more than one languages, they are also flexible in their thinking and have multiple other skills. The disadvantages detected in past years are mainly linked to financial factors and are associated with the social living conditions of the underprivileged migrant groups.

It’s true that sometimes bilingualism can cause some delay in children’s language development, in contrast to monolingual’s one. This is totally normal though, they just need a little more time since they are processing and developing two languages instead of one.

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Don’t bilingual children ever mix their two spoken languages?

Bilingual children, just like bilingual adults, often use words from different languages within the same conversation or even in the same sentence. This is called code-switching. However, this doesn’t mean that they are getting confused as to which language they are consciously using at that moment! Nevertheless, bilingual children are particularly careful when they address monolinguals and only use the one language that the other speaker understands.

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How can we start teaching our kids two languages?

As parents, the most important thing we have to remember is that we DON’T teach our kids the language, in the same way we don’t “teach” them how to walk or talk. The most important qualifications that we can provide them with, in their language development, is a plethora of chances for exposure to speech and a reinforcement of their need for communication. If children are exposed to various situations of communication with many people from the moment they are born and if they feel the need to use speech (language) in order to interact with the world, they will learn both languages well.

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Do children actually learn these two languages by just being exposed to them since birth, hearing them, without any other additional effort?

Many experts promote the nurturing model of ‘one parent – one language’. This means that the mother is going to speak only in her language and the father only in his language. This can be a good start for the bilingual family. It’s not just the only possibility though, since there are also other upbringing alternatives. However, even the ‘one parent – one language’ model is not perfect…

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Are there problems with the method “one parent – one language”?

A possible problem that can be caused is the non-balanced exposure to their two languages. Children should listen to their two languages in the same quantity and in different occasions for both languages. Therefore if they never listen to their less spoken language anywhere else, except for from their parents, they are not exposed to this language enough in order to develop it naturally. In fact, when one of the two languages is mutually regarded by the parents as the “important language”, the kids start reconsidering too and they stop using their “less important” language.

In order to avoid this kind of incidents, it is essential to find more chances for exposure to the “less important” language and to create such conditions that reinforce the necessity of its use. Monolingual grandparents (granddad, grandma) are mainly the ones that can help you! Another good idea would be to delegate the childcare to one of your relatives (a cousin) or a babysitter that only speaks the ‘other’ language. Besides, it is a good opportunity for you to have toys, movies, songs and fairytales in the other language. All these can lead to the desired outcome. The most important things though are the means that focus on the interaction between the child and the ‘other’, the exchange of views, the dialogue with other people. Leaving the kids in front of a talking TV is not the solution!

Another problem is to maintain the learning of both languages in normal levels. If children feel that we pressure them to do something other than usual or absolutely normal, they will most possibly react badly. For example, it is probably a bad idea to impose obvious rules, such as “Monday, Wednesday and Friday we only speak in Albanian”, cause this could result to a negative reaction.

Another problem is the exclusion / isolation. If for example one of the parents doesn’t speak the language of the other parent at all (for instance when the Greek father does not speak the language of the Ukranian mother at all) the kids realise that when they speak with their mother in Ukranian they are isolating themselves and are excluding their father from the conversation. This can make some children to not want to speak in the language of one of the parents when the other parent is present. For this reason, if we really want to achieve the ‘one parent – one language’ model, both of the parents should know each other’s language, at least at a basic level, so as for the kids to feel equally comfortable to use any of the languages, without them feeling that they are rejecting one of their parents.

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What happens when a new baby arrives in the family?

The arrival of a new child can disrupt the balance of languages in the bilingual home. The second child is often less balanced than the first one. This happens because, as it has been observed, the firstborn child addresses the younger one with the use of the most ‘important’ (dominant) language: therefore, the younger child’s exposure to one of the languages is increased, while at the same time the sense of need for the use of the ‘other’ language in order to achieve communication is decreased. It is important for you to decide what you want to do in this case, even before the second child is born. Find a strategy that matches your situation! Moreover, it would be worthwhile to try and ‘teach’, guide the older child or children of the family so that they speak to the new member in the ‘less important’ language.

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My kids were speaking the two languages that we speak at home very well, but since they started school things have changes. What can I do?

Calm down. The simultaneous use (or else the ‘mixing’) of the two languages happens everywhere where two languages are being used. It doesn’t mean that the children will forget one of the languages, nor that they won’t be able to distinguish between the languages. On the contrary, if you pressure them to not use just the language of the school, you might evoke reactions and negative results for both the dominant language as well as for the language of the family. The best you can do is to create natural situations where the children will use the language of the family because they really need it to communicate, like for example if you call the monolingual grandparents!

You can understand this ‘mixing’ of languages if you take into consideration the nature of the linguistic stimuli that your children are exposed to and remember that the main ingredient of language development is simply the exposure to language. When the children were young, they used to listen mainly to the language of the family – whether this was for example Chinese, or Russian, or Albanian – instead of Greek. Now that they are going to school, they only listen to Greek for at least seven hours per day. Besides, in Greek they learn all these new words and concepts, as well as new ways in which they can use the language as a tool. Therefore they might not know the phrase ‘natural sciences’ in the language of the family, but this doesn’t mean that they are losing their ‘mothertongue’, the language they learned from their family since the day they were born! So, when they use a Greek word, while they are speaking the language of the family (whichever that is), don’t get upset, just tell them which is the equivalent word that you use in Chinese, Russian, Albanian or any other language of yours! And remember that even if they end up using mainly Greek, they can be perfect speakers of your language at the same time…

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Other sources regarding the subject

Baker, Colin. 1995. A Parents’ and Teachers’ Guide to Bilingualism. Multilingual Matters.

Grosjean, François. 1982. Life with Two Languages. Harvard University Press.

Harding-Esch, Edith, and Philip Riley. 2003. The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents. 2nd edn. Cambridge University Press.

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