How to Raise a Bilingual or Multilingual Child 2

June 10, 2011


Our blonde daughter dresssed in chinese clothes at 3

This is a continuation of my series on language learning for kids, starting from the womb, that is focused on raising bilingual, polyglot and multi-lingual children. Catch the first of this three part post, How to Raise a Bilingual or Multi-lingual Child where I talk about why to learn languages, can a monolingual raise a multi-lingual child, beginning in the womb, the one parent, one language method and much more.

The photo is our daughter dressed in traditional Chinese dress ( cheongsam) when she was three or four and fluent from birth in Mandarin, Spanish and English, when we lived in California. Since we are monolingual parents, this is very unusual, but we prove it can be done. Now that she is a fluent trilingual/triliterate at 10 1/2, we're grateful that it has worked so well since the many benefits are already clear.

Don't forget to read the comments in that first post as they are filled with more important information. You might also like our post Kids, Friends, Travel on The Ultimate Family Adventure where this all began as well as our FAQ's.


"Learning to speak another language means taking one's place in the human community. It means reaching out to others across cultural and linguistic boundaries. Language is far more than a system to be explained. It is our most important link to the world around us. Language is culture in motion. It is people interacting with people" Sandra Savignon

"Our linguistic and cultural myopia is losing us friends, business and respect in the world" Fulbright

Family world travel is an amazing education , a world school opportunity and I think it would be sad to miss the language learning opportunities that can so benefit children. It's been one of the best choices in our family world trip. Language learning and travel are a perfect combination.

"We are educating children to have safe secure jobs in 1950.” Kiyosaki


My husband only spoke Spanish to our child from pregnancy until she was 2 1/2. At that point she was so very fluent ( more so than him due to the other things we were doing) and verbose, that he felt his lack in Spanish was confining and affecting their relationship. He could not always say the things he wanted to say to her due to his lack of vocabulary.

I also found out that the parent who doesn't speak the language/s the child is learning is left out sometimes. I will always be left out of her Spanish and Chinese life until I become fluent. Sometimes that is frustrating or sad, but mostly her gain just makes me happy and I think that a child that is best in the family at something like languages or musical instrument is empowering for the child.

"Children most definitely do need to hear an existing language to learn that language, of course. Children with Japanese genes do not find Japanese any easier than English, or vice-versa; they learn whichever language they are exposed to" Pinker


During pregnancy and early childhood we also listened to lots of Spanish music and watched Spanish TV, looked for outside opportunities to immerse. I was trying to get my Spanish better and it was good for the whole family. I'd watch it with English subtitles to try to learn as I watched. We don't watch TV normally,  but made an exception for this. We had native speaking friends in Mandarin and Spanish that helped so much too.


The key to learning languages is speaking them, hearing them, reading them, writing them. The more you are immersed in them the better. The more exposure and use, the better the fluency. Children's brains are geared toward learning language  and leanring languages supports many other things like math and reading and divergent thinking.

Abstract thinking happens much earlier in bilinguals, they're proven to be better problem solvers and bilingual students scored 23 to 34 points higher than their monolingual peers in both the verbal and math sections of the F-CAT. Dr. Bialystok, a New York University linguistic expert, found that children who are exposed to a second languge early in life learn to read sooner than their monolingual peers.

"Research has shown that after 10 or 12 years old the brain handles language differently because until then it is constantly making neurological connections. As children we process language in the frontal lobe of the brain. But if we learn a language as a teenager or adult, the brain has to 'scramble' to find storage spaces somewhere else. So in simple terms, learn languages as a child and the brain absorbs them readily, after that it becomes much harder work. ...Exposure is the key." ( National Literacy Trust)

Learning another language in an all English dominated culture ( or any dominant language culture), takes concentrated effort because it's a lot easier to falll back on what you know. So one must create immersion within that environment.

"Language is not a genetic gift, it is a social gift. Learning a new language is becoming a member of the club --the communtiy of speakers of that language" Frank Smith

" We want to raise our children so they can get a sense of pleasure in both their own heritage and the diversity of others...." Mr. Rogers

"A different language is a different vision of life" Fellini



We did it at home daily (LOTS)  with :

• One parent only talking in the other language

• Playing music in the other language/s

• Reading books outloud  in the other language/s

• Watching TV/movies  in the other language/s

• Playing tapes of the  parent who speaks the language when they are away

• Making sure she was always responding back, not just understanding

• Helping her know how to respond if needed

• Reading and writing daily when the child is old enough

• Have friends talk to her only in the other language/s

With a ten year old, we are still using most of these and continue to re-immerse regularly and keep up all three languages/literatures, although it is less intense now than when she was young. If languges and musical instrument practice is not kept up for many years, they can be lost, even the mother tongue.

Our daughter working on Mandarin daily, here in Jordan at Four Seasons Amman


At 15 months Mozart had figured out the code, because kids just learn language and said in an ah ha moment, "Daddy say's concina and Mommy says kitchen". I am not sure what is the average age that children come to understand they are learning more than one language, but probably varies with each child.  I've heard of many that realize around 3 or 4 years old. The process simply seems normal to the child if that is all they have known.



We did immersion outside the home ( LOTS) :

• By going to library story times in Spanish starting at 6 months

• Joined a Spanish play group from birth with all native speakers from many Spanish speaking countries for weekly immersion and made native speaking friends for regular playdates with families with similar spanish immersion goals

• Only hired help who were fluent  native Spanish speakers  and asked them to only talk Spanish to her and make sure that she was speaking Spansih back to them. If she did not know how to, they were instructed to help her to know how to answer back and to make her repeat it.

• Went to a Sunday school an hour away that was all Spanish speaking with all native speaking kids.

• Hired a nanny for a few hours several times a week, just to work with her in Spanish while they played. I found her at a playground and she happed to be an excellent elementary teacher in Columbia who was ahead of their Spanish/English bilingual probram.

• Sent her to a Montessori preschool that had assistants who only spoke Spansih to the children

• Hired a tutor before we went to Spain to help her with Spanish school terms and prepare for that. We've used both online and in real life native speaking Mandarin Chinese tutors to help. ( Yes, those costs have been included in our 23 dollars a day per person travel budget since 2006).

"A man who does not know a foreign language is ignorant of his own" Goethe

"When you know another language, you suddenly realize there is a multitude of worlds. You can become a member of EVERY club." Frank Smith

"The direction in which education starts a man will determine his future life." Plato


Coming next we will have part 3 on our raising a bilingual and multilingual child post series, where we will discuss how that will affect when they talk if started from birth, how to keep a balance, what if you do not speak a word of the other language you want to teach your child and more.

Please add any questions and join in the discussion! Are you raising a polyglot or do you want to?


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Wow, this is such a great step by step tool. I loved the quotes too. I´m with you guys, I think teaching more languages is one of the bests things a parent can do to a child.

I´ve done a lot of that to my now 4-year old too. We are from Brazil and I´ve been giving her contact with English and Spanish since pregnancy.

We are now living in Costa Rica, where she goes to a bilingual kindergarten in the morning.

It´s really rewarding to see your child speaking in other languages.


a very nice post jeanne!
i really admire you taking so much time to find activities that would help mozart immerse into a foreign language.
Myself,i love spanish.there isn't a day that i wont speak spanish or think in spanish.i grew up in a non spanish speaking enviroment but i always knew i liked it.
so when i was about 10 i got my first computer and i started searching spanish shows to i'm 20 and everyone thinks i'm a native.exposing yourself to music,television and mostly other native speakers is the key.
i find the meaning of my life through learning languages.i cannot be happy expressing myself in one language.Because there are just some things that one can only say in a certain language.
People who dont know me think i'm weird since i switch back and forth words from 3 languages mostly while i m super excited trying to describe something.
But i don't care..i feel so happy!
Knowing languages makes the world have no barriers.
a big kiss from greece!you guys are my role-models!


I love the specific bullet points, outlining what you did inside and outside the home environment. Very helpful. I also like the links to the other resources about language acquisition and one parent one language method. It seems like a lot of work, and I know it was, but I think/hope once it is made part of daily life, conscious choices and new opportunities make the journey (seem) easier. Nowadays, with the advent of Meetup or similar groups, it is easy to connect with people from other cultures in our own backyard (or nearby park). I also found it easy to find items, like CD, DVD, toys to help with the exposure. I've ordered in the past from Amazon France (they also have an online store in Germany and Italy) and it was very easy to get the items. We already have some "foreign speaking" toys from our relatives in Germany and plan to get some more this summer. I figured, every little thing can help and my daughter won't even know it she is a polyglot :-). Thanks again.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Marilia - So glad you liked it and good for you for raising a child with several languages and using your travel to help!

Your challenge will be more the English since Spanish and her mother tongue are in the same language family, but luckily you speak it!

Our good friends are doing that with Italian, Spanish and English, but they have two parents who speak them so that helps.

The good news too is today it is easier than ever to find help, especially in dominant languages. We lived in a small town for her first 5 years and still managed to find MANY resources although no one else was doing them like we were.

I can relate to your many lofty goals! ;)

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Elena- Thanks and I love your story! Truly, being motivated and committed is the most important thing in learning a language!!

It's back to my fave saying...if there is a will there is a way...and you are a perfect example!

No one else in our small town was doing the many things that we did...but I was just always looking and motivated to find ways to support my child. I knew those early years were so important to get it while that window is open.

So cool that you did it on your own starting at 10!!


Your story is very inspiring! Do you think it is still possible to teach a 3 and 5 year old a second or third language? My husband speaks only English and I am bilingual (Filipino/English). Our recent trip overseas finally opened my eyes to the benefits of them learning my language. On the other hand, my part-time babysitter speaks Spanish so i thought that we could also use that to our advantage. Thank you. Your thoughts are appreciated.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Violeta- yes that it the way to think. There are many more resources out there than most people realize.

I will do a post on specific things as I get time.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Louisa - I am not a linguistic expert, but I think you can.

Try to find other examples of people who have done that online to help guide you.

It is hard to get in the habit and the kids might have some resistance at this age, but if you are determined, I think it can be done.

Linguist would probably have told us our goal was impossible, so don't always trust the experts. ;)

Good luck!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

BTW, if you did some extended stays in the those countries with no access to English for a while, that would help a LOT. ;)


Interesting info! We are raising our 3 children trilingual so I always enjoy reading about how others are faring along.
This feels very familiar:

"At 15 months Mozart had figured out the code, because kids just learn language and said in an ah ha moment, "Daddy say's concina and Mommy says kitchen"."

It's amazing how quickly kids can figure out that mommy speaks one way, daddy speaks a different way, the neighbor speaks yet another way... and it's nothing to be confused about!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks Stinkylittlefeat,

Kids are amazing with language, aren't they? They make it all look so easy from birth because brains are geared to learn language.

Still it's amazing how many fluent bilinguals don't raise fluent bilinguals despite wanting to do that.

So it doesn't happen without a lot of intentional work, commitment and exposure by the parents for many years.

I was quite surprised that ours talked so much in the early years in Spanish and even though Daddy spoke it to her and we worked on it in many ways, she still was hearing MUCH more English.

I love the fascinating study of linguistics! ;)

Adeline - {r}evolution apparel intern

Such an inspiring post that I hope shed light to many other parents! Growing up, my parents had the choice of teaching me Spanish and Tagalog. But for numerous reasons (including how the second parent wouldn't know the third language), my siblings and I are monolingual. So when I read this post, I was elated to see that you didn't mind the fact that your child's fluency in a language surpassed your own. I'm glad you and your spouse made a life-changing decision for your entire family. Carry on!


Is Mozart learning traditional or simplified characters?


Hi Jeanne,

Six months ago,i was asking your opinion about learning another language for my 3 and 5 year olds. We've been in the Philippines for 3 months and they are now having conversation in my native language :) It is amazing how they learn so fast! When the school starts in June, they will start chinese school, I am excited that they are learning a third language (Mandarin). We are happy to be here and kids thriving in their language and cultural immersion!

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