How to Raise a Bilingual or Multi-lingual Child 3

June 24, 2011

language learning toddler with native Spanish speaking babysitter


This is a the third post in 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.

Already a trilingual at birth, Mozart as newborn baby at home santa cruz, ca

Part Two of How to Raise a Bingual and Multi-lingual  Child includes what are the challenges, how to support your child's language acquistion, the key advantages, how to create an immersion environment inside and outside the home and more.

"El que habla dos lenguas vale por dos." ( The person who speaks two languages is worth two). Spanish proverb

"In the real world, convesations with sympathetic native speakers who are willing to help the acquirer understand are very helpful." Steven Krashen

The lead photo is our daughter around two in our Santa Cruz home, with Margarita our native Spanish speaking teacher who was the head of bilingualism at her school in Columbia. I happened to just meet her at a playground because I heard her speaking Spanish, so I approached her and asked for her help.   Always keeping one's eyes out for resources is key, as most in our small town in California didn't take advantage of many things that we did.

You might also want to read the comments, especially 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 post series all began as well as reading our FAQ's.



We were surprised that Mozart actually spoke more Spanish at first than English and was an early talker. Bilinguals and trilinguals are usually late talkers because they have more to process, but there are exceptions. I am very verbal ( you might guess by my long posts) so she heard MUCH more English than Spanish, but we learned that Spanish is an easier language than English, so it's not uncommon to have Spanish more dominant at first.

Mozart spoke her first words at 6 months including a 5 sylable word in each language ( cockle-doodle-doo in English and Bbiliotecha in Spanish). That was a big surprise to us as well since we expected her to talk later because of the trilingualism and also because she started walking at 6 months ( crawling all over at 4 months). Often early walkers and multi-lingual kids are a little later on language, but there are always exceptions as babies have their own timing and there is a wide range of normal.

She did speak quite a bit of Mandarin as a baby, toddler and preschooler and was exposed to many other languages. As is typical for young polyglots, she would sometimes mix languages when very young, but soon that phase passes and it's normal. It was clear even inutero that she already understood some of the languages by hearing them daily.

our American girl working with her Dean of Studies from Mandarin Asia school while in Barcelona via webcam 3x week


Since neither of us parents speak a word of Mandarin Chinese, that was a much more complicated language for us to give to her, thus it is still her weaker language, but she is catching up very quickly, I think in part to the work we put into it in the womb and early babyhood and childhood.

Luckily, we had a friend who was a native Mandarin speaker and we also taped her and played that regularly. We also used Mandarin music and  lots of Mandarin learning videos and various things online lke Youtube. Later we used online teachers, Johns Hopkins University CTY virtual classes, Mango and  tutors that come to our home.

Now that she is immersing deeply at a Mandarin Chinese high school in Asia and reading/writing/speaking/hearing Mandarin every day even when we are away traveling, she is becoming very fluent again and mastering the reading and writing like a native speaker. She reads, speaks and writes in all three langages daily. We are thrilled that her Dean of Studies at her Chinese school in Asia is working with her online three times a week while we are away so she can keep up with her class until we return.


We had planned to send her to a Mandarin International preschool but it was an hour's drive away over a difficult highway, so we decided to let that goal go as we were juggling many things by that time ( violin at 2 and piano at 3) so didn't want to over schedule her. It's a great idea, but we lived deep in the countryside, so just driving to things became more time consuming than expected.

I hadn't realized how much work the practice in all these things would take when I first came up with these ideas. Sometimes reality, dictates what can stay and what must be left behind. Because I approach life with a totally "can-do" spirit, I am notorious for underestimating how much work something takes from first good idea to completion.

The reason why many fluent bilinguals do not raise fluent bilingual children despite wanting to be able to do this, is because it is hard work and a very long commitment. Nobody can give everything to their child, so it's important to find ways to keep a balance that you can keep for many years. What is easy as a baby, can become more challenging with a toddler, preschooler or tween.

Certainly going to a local school in Spain for four winters was a huge benefit for us language-wise, learning reading and writing Spanish like a Spaniard. Finding the right Mandarin school in Asia is also a godsend that allows her to get Mandarin reading and writing as the locals do with first, second, third and fourth grade curriculum in two years, even though she started at 10.

Our child's 4th grade lengua ( language) book in Spain


There is a myth that says a child who is proficient in speaking a language is fluent, but this is just not so as there are different levels to being "fluent" in a language. Proficiency in face-to-face communication doesn't imply proficiency in more complex academic language needed in a classroom or in life.

Very few if any people are fully and equally fluent in each one of their languages. Even expats that spend many years away from their native tongue lose proficiency in it. Languages must be kept up.

Our goal has always been to have her as proficient and as close to a native speaker in all three as we can get. That would allow her to go to a University or work in any one of these primary langauges and that high level of fluency also makes it easier for her to add more languages later if she wants. Your goals may be different.

Working on written Mandarin while at Madrid airport waiting for a flight


We also went to all the cultural fairs in our area as we wanted to encourage multi- culturalism and languages even before we did any travel. We read many, many books from birth that demonstrated positive  multi-culturism, played world music and have friends from around the world.

We started traveling with her at two weeks old, but chose not to do international travel until she was five, reading well and could remember it. We went to things like the Japanese Fair, Greek Festival, Cinco de Mayo, Renaissance Faire etc every year .

She also knew bits of several other languages ( including Japanese and Greek) to share the beauty and wonder of languages, but we focused primarily on her three languages. We took her regularly to operas in other languages starting at 2 1/2 as she loved them for some reason as well as watching operas from the Met on DVD's. We didn't really do the operas for language but they're just another possible source for some language immersion. I think the early music training also happpened to help  give her a very good "ear", and complimentary code-breaking abilities  but wasn't meant for that purpose.


Please leave them in the comments and I will address more in upcoming posts!

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Hello! I have enjoyed reading your blog and articles on learning languages. My daughter and I live in NYC and I was just hired to teach at an international school in Shanghai. THe school is bilingual so that all classrooms have an english teacher as well as a chinese teacher. I am nervous about learning the new language!! My daughter is 7 so I hope that she picks it up quickly!


"Bilinguals and trilinguals are usually late talkers because they have more to process..."

That was certainly the case with my brother (who is 14 years younger than me) who, in addition to being exposed to my family and regular environment's three languages (of Hokkien, English and Bahasa Malaysia), had an ethnic Indian nanny who spoke to him in Tamil as well as Bahasa Malaysia.

My brother didn't start talking until he was 23 months old -- a situation that worried my parents to no end. But all's well as he's grown up into a happily married man with two degrees (the first in finance and IT, the second in mechanical engineering) and a job he likes. And who regularly speaks at least two different languages still. :)

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Meghan- Thanks! Boy that is exciting! Good friends of mine are headed to Bejing to teach too, but I hear Shanghai has less pollution, so that's good for you two. ;)

Sounds like an exciting opportunity! We plan to visit there this coming year, so maybe we can meet up!

I think your daughter will probably pick it up faster than are amazing. ;) The hard part in Mandarin is the writing, but not least not for daughter seems to make it look easy.

Enjoy your stay there!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

YTSL- thanks so much for sharing your story and commenting! Welcome to our blog!

Yes, I have heard many stories like that and know it is frightening to parents often. But it does seem to always work out.

We were totally shocked when our daughter started talking early, because we expected her to talk late. We also never had that early of a walker in our family and both hubs and I walked around a year, so she was full of surprises. ;)

With your brother learning 4 languages at once from birth, it's not surprising at all that he took a while to talk.

I think that pattern is more common, so that is why I mentioned it ...and he is also a great example on why not to worry. ;)


Wow, your story is so amazing! I want my 7 year old son to become bilingual in English and Korean. I've been studying Korean for a couple of years but I am not proficient---lack of time on my part. My husband doesn't speak it at all. My husband and I both work full time so language learning is an after school/work activity for us. My biggest difficulty has been finding resources for teaching Korean as a second language. Just about all the materials available for kids assume that they are growing up with native Korean speakers as parents. Even the Saturday Korean language schools focus on writing with no focus on speaking or listening comprehension. I managed to find a tutor for him for the summer(harder than I thought it would be), but once the fall semester starts, I'm afraid the tutor will be too busy to continue (she's a full-time MA in ESOL at a local university). I wish there were a Korean immersion school I could send my son to, but as far as I know, there aren't any in the U.S. But still, I am determined to do my best to help my son learn Korean despite the difficulties of finding resources for a lesser taught language. Please keep blogging!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks Courtney and welcome to our blog! Good for you and all your efforts. I know it is especially hard trying to learn a less major language like Korean.

Are you Korean? Have you tried to find other parents who have the same goal? Even if it is online that will help get you more resources perhaps.

If you can have playgroups with kids and parents that have the same goal and have them speaking Korean only would help.

We did that with Spanish from birth and it was hard for me because I was isolated with my lack of Spanish amongst all native speakers, but worth it for my child.

You might also want to do visits and extended stays in Korea. Or even do a skype or online exchange with a family there that wants to improve their English.

Good luck! It's not easy raising a multilingual kiddo but well worth the effort!!


Hi Jeanne,
My husband and I adopted our son from South Korea. (We are both Westerners.) When we decided to adopt from Korea, we were determined to expose/give our son as much of the culture as possible. For us, the most important part of culture is LANGUAGE, hence my determination/obsession for us to learn Korean. An "internet friend" of mine did start a private Face Book page for Korean resources for parents. (Most of the members are other adoptive parents.) It's a really useful site b/c we all exchange information about books, web sites, DVDs, etc. and support each other. Just being in regular contact with other parents in the same situation has made me feel that I'm not alone and that I'm not (completely) crazy!

Sarah @ Bringing up Baby Bilingual

Hello Jeanne! Thank you for dropping by my blog and introducing me to your family's fascinating story.

I like your emphasis on multiculturalism in this post, for the target languages but also other cultures in general. I agree that it is so important to expose our children to the richness of other cultures, especially if we can't travel internationally with them!

I would love to "interview" you for my blog--this would involve your answering about a dozen questions about how you have raised your daughter multilingually. You've answered some of them in this three-part series, but it would be great to have all your strategies and ideas in one place!

If you're interested, take a look at the "profiles" tag on my blog and then email me at babybilingual (AT) gmail (DOT) com, and I will send you the list of questions.

(This offer is also open to your readers who would like to share their family's story about raising kids with more than one language.)

Sattvic Family

I am telling you, your daughter is an incredible role model, especially to our family. I agree with what you said about fluency as well: I speak French well, but not fluent. I lived there about 18 years, aka it is my home, but my family and I spoke in English together, and I went to school in the US for a number of years. I can't read Camus in French, but can read advanced works of literature in English. Thus, I am not fluent in French. It is just a clarification I like to make when people make assumptions. lol Mozart has such a gift, with her being trilingual. I have no doubt she can probably understand things in other romance languages as well. And her being able to speak Chinese when China may be the world's superpower one far ahead of other children she will be. An incredible gift.

Rachel Denning

My husband spoke Spanish to our children from birth. They could understand it, but they really became fluent (able to converse) once we immersed ourselves in the language when we traveled to Central America and the Caribbean.

I love it that they can understand another language - so many benefits. We want to do Portuguese when we get to Brazil.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Courtney- Ah, makes perfect sense. You might also want to try to match up with Korean families that want to learn English and maybe even do home exchange or visits to each other and skype calls.

There is a HUGE interest in learning English in Korea.

There a TON of Koreans that come to Penang to learn English and also Mandarin ( much cheaper for them than in Korea) for their kids, so that's another place for you to connect possibly.

Some parents are a blend ( ie one parent is Caucasian) so that type of family might be a great match for you as well as you are both blending cultures.

Good luck!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks Sarah! Happy to see you here and glad you enjoyed this.

I always have a huge back log of guest posts, but I'd love to add you to the queue! ;) It's an important topic!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Aw thanks, SF! I think I will do a post just about what is fluency and how huge the range is on what different people call "fluent".

Most people do not realize that one can be a fluent bilingual ( under some definitions) and not be biliterate.

Adding the reading and writing does add a lot more challenge...and again I think it is best done young.

That is one reason why I always differenciate and say trilgual/trilterate.

It sounds like your French is fantastic after 18 years there, but it is a bit sad that you can't read Camus in French..because reading the literature does tell us much about a culture doesn't it?

Still, you enjoy the benefits of the language, so much more than most folks and none of us can learn every language and literature.

Because it does take a lot to become fluent and literate, I think it is smart to pick dominant languages that will give one more bang for the buck, so we chose Spanish and Mandarin for that reason.

They are dominant languages and different family of languages. If she wants to add some romance languages ( like she does with French) or tonal languages ( like possibly Japanese) will now be much easier for her.

For us the heritage language of Spanish makes sense, but my heritage language of Gaelic did not for us. Not that we don't appreciate it, but we focus on what makes the most since for us.

Mozart loves Harry Potter which is of course written by an English author, but her ability to also read them in Spanish gives her deeper insight into Spanish as well as the literature. She gets to take it in too like a Spaniard.

She reads books in Mandarin, but is not yet at the Harry Potter level...but will be soon.

There is a reason so many Asians are making sure their kids know Mandarin and I do indeed think it will be a very important language for our children's future.

I hope she also adds an Indian language for my future Grandchild...;)

I am sure we will continue to have good things to translate, but being able to speak a language directly to a native speaker will always have advantages...especially in a dominant language.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

That is so cool Rachel...good for you guys!! I would highly recommend keeping it up and adding the reading and writing as you have time.

The deeper the language, the more benefits and so much easier to get this gift in early childhood.

Spending extended time where the language is dominant is so helpful. As an unschooler by nature, I am not into schools, but I think local schools are really the best way for deep immersion.

More than conversational from the environment, one gets to learn the written language as the natives do and be fully immersed in the culture like a local.

It's hard for non-native parents to give that kind of fluency to their children and in fact, is actually hard for native speakers to do that.)

If their Spanish is very fluent, the Portuguese will be pretty easy for them to add. Mozart does quite well with Portuguese friends we meet on the road or in Portugal and she has done no study of it.

I must say though, that the two written languages look more similar than the sounds.

Good luck and enjoy!


I thought I would share some of the links I came across these past weeks and I have found helpful for the multilingualism plan for my daughter. They either have articles on the topic, or sell/recommend resources (eg books in foreign languages, CDs, DVDs, parenting books about the topic, etc). I hope some of your readers may find these links helpful or inspiring.


This response is for Courtney, I know these comments are old now but I read about her looking for dual immersion schools in Korean. There are two I know of in Glendale, CA:

Here is another list of some in Los Angeles and San Francisco:

Perhaps even if you don't live near these áreas you can contact the schools for resources? Good Luck!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks Violeta and Jessica!


My name is Zineb, i am from Morocco and I actually speak 4 languages ( Arabic, French, English and turkish since my husband is turkish.)
We are currently living in Turkey and have a 9 months baby. I would like to have some advices from you. I would like him to talk Arabic and French to be able to talk to my family. and at the same time learn English because his dad and I are speaking English only to each other. and we are living in Turkey so turkish is important as well. I am speaking to him French and aRABIC. My husband Turkish and i am reading stories to him in English. IDK if i am doing it wrong or right but i am scared that I am making it hard for his brain.
Please I really need your advice
Thank you

jeanne @soultravelers3

Hi Zineb! Hard question & I'm not an expert, just a mom who did this. 4 different languages will make this more challenging..and it is a YEARS long effort.

I think it is a bad idea to speak to a child in a language that is not native. I've seen whole countries where they learn English from teachers who learned it as a second language, and it is NOT English.A native speaker just understands a language better.

So I'd talk to your child in your native tongues, maybe split your Arabic and French so you speak just one on half the week and just the other the other half.

Some families do this with success.

I'd get a native English speaker to talk to your child in English, perhaps you can exchange for your languages.

And join groups that have native English speakers for kids and moms.

He will also pickup some English from when he hears you two talking at home.

He will pick up the Turkish the easiest through your husband and the environment, playing with kids.

It will be harder once he is 3 or 4 ( kids like to speak the dominant language) so work hard at getting in the Arabic and French before then.

Have lots of books in the house of the different languages. Read in your native tongues and hire an English native to read in English.

Take extended visits to your family and do not let them speak anything to him ( or respond to him) except Arabic or French.

There is a good chance he will take longer to talk ( but not necessarily) so be patient.

And talk, talk, talk to him and always make sure he is talking back in the required language. ( This kids more challenging at 4 ish).

Hope that helps. Good luck! It is hard to raise even a bilingual, for years, so stay disciplined.

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