For weary parents of bilinguals

A very pregnant Nae chased me around the park. She had overheard me speaking to the kids in French and was looking for tips.

Encouragement, really.

Nae had stopped speaking German to her daughter because her teachers felt like the three year old girl wasn’t speaking enough English. Nae had believed the age-old myth, that bilingualism would lead to devastating speech delays.

We’ve all heard it before, but it’s different when someone says your own kid is lagging behind.

The family ended up reverting back to English as their family language. Now, while little Lina could still understand some German, she no longer cared to speak it. Her English skills eventually blossomed. How to revive her daughter’s German skills at this point, Nae wondered. Deep-down, I think she simply longed for hope and a reset. She had grown so weary from the setback.

I promised Nae, she isn’t the only one. Even the most passionate of linguists grow weary. Especially when we are isolated and fighting alone, far from a multilingual community or affordable bilingual schools.

Let’s face it, teaching a minority language to newborn baby was easy when he slept in his crib and never talked back to us.

Now, we’re sleep-deprived.
On a normal day, we’re pushed to our limits by testing children.
Minds are fuzzy, wondering why again it was that we added language learning to the already full parenting plate?

Or, we’re faced with the dreaded “language erosion” we’d vaguely heard about, attacking the minority language. Like a highly contagious virus, the majority language spreads beyond our control. Every visitor, every playdate, each interaction with strangers, each school day strengthens the majority language, and weakens the other(s). Before you realize it, siblings are speaking the majority language together. Kids respond in the ‘easier’ language. Now, we feel like we’re climbing a mountain that keeps growing before us. At times, the quick descent feels more achievable than reaching the summit.


Like Nae, I’ve been in that weary state. I lose sight of the bigger picture. I too need another multilingual cheerleader family to reassure me that losing steam is absolutely a normal part of the language marathon. That they’ve straightened up their shoulders and made it to the other side unscathed. That they found fresh ideas and a renewed vision for multicultural and multilingual living.

I recently read a clever little book called Le Défi des Enfants Bilingues sent to me by surprise by my dear friend Caro. Towards the end, Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer describes both the natural tedium that sets in and the language erosion that forces its way into most all multilingual homes.

So, beyond realizing that these things are normal, how do we find renewed energy to carry on?

After miles and miles of running (which is when I do most of my thinking these days), I’ve thought long and hard about how I dig my own self out of the language dreariness ditch. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. I remember the vision.
I find someone to remind me why the heck we decided on a multilingual home in the first place. How thrilling is it to give our children a new way of seeing the world! Apart from the obvious career or relational opportunities, how incredible is it be for them to have tools to become bridge-builders, peace-makers, global advocates? Still, we have to be reminded of the goodness now and for the future.

2. I rekindle my first love.
I remind myself of my love of languages by listening to inspiring music, radio, an audiobook. Other ideas might be to watch a vlog, read an engaging book, Skype an old friend in one of your target languages. The key being to do that for ourselves and not focus on the kids at all.

3. I take a step back and relativize.
As hard as it is, I remind myself that equal bilingualism is extremely rare. Despite the media spotlight on people having a perfect mastery of each language, bilingualism is more often than not about ebb and flow. One language gets stronger during this playdate. One gets stronger during those travels.


4. I adjust our goals to fit our family.
I try to realign our language goals, not in step with what other families are doing but in light of our life-phase and environment. How realistic is it for us curate an intensive language camp with a newborn and squabbling preschoolers? Maybe we are satisfied with passive bilingualism. Or are we aiming for bi-culturalism and bi-literacy? What will it really take to reach our goals? Is it worth the real sacrifices to achieve our goals? Is it worth planning a trip to that country? To move there? Or maybe to get them into a particular school? Or do we need to scale back?

5. I write down what we are doing month by month.
When I am weary, I’ll try to remind myself of things we have done to encourage language growth. For me, it’s helpful to jot down different sources of language input in a little calendar. I have one of those nifty little family calendars where I can document different input for each kid. Somehow, seeing instances of language input written down in a given month is encouraging and it motivates me to find more sources. If you can’t focus on this task much this week, that’s really okay. Try to plan a fun language-building activity for next week. Some input is always better than none.

6. I try to find new ways to bring back the joy.
As I face setbacks or plateaus in our minority language – a kid who refuses to speak to me in French, more English language impostors in conversation – I try to make a point to bring back life into the process. We might watch a special show in our minority language with a special snack. Or, I’ll put my ear to the ground for simple, easy activities and crafts that infuse newness into the process of strengthening a threatened language. Our Alliance française just started a series of story-time in French at our Children’s Museum. As did a local hip bookstore. Score!

7. I keep a journal about the progress along the journey.
I find encouragement in documenting progress, big or small in each kid’s journal. My oldest son has come so far and it is fun to look back at the small beginnings. My 2 year old daughter who might normally say “maman, sit riiiiiiight hea” (here) has started to say “maman, sit riiiiight là”. Given her language mumble-jumble, that tiny stepping stone is counted as progress. Over time, I do see so much improvement. We’ve come so far! If you aren’t such a fan of the written word, I love dictaphone type apps like Voice Memo, which are great for recording the moment to look back at later.

8. I try hard not to be a lone-ranger.
I try to seek out community to support me with encouragement and resources along the way. If you can, share with your spouse how he can support your family’s language growth. Research is all over the success found in families where both partners are committed to the process. Find a friend on a similar path and plan standing playdates or meet-ups if you can. Failing that, connect virtually with kindred spirits. We get to live in an era of fantastic online groups (like Facebook pages for raising bilingual children) and other online resources (such as Bilingual Avenue podcast).


How do you battle the normal weariness that sets in over time on your language journey? How would you encourage other weary bilingual families not to give up?


*Malencontreusement, après l’enthousiasme des premières années, où chaque mot produit par le petit enfant était soigneusement noté, une certaine lassitude s’installe. Insidieusement, l’acculturation a fait son travail : la langue majoritaire entre de plus en plus à l’intérieur de la famille. Les enfants sont les premiers à refuser le changement de langue en rentrant de l’école (…). – Le défi des enfants bilingues

5 thoughts on “For weary parents of bilinguals

    1. I am really pleased to see that this resonated with you, Kali! I continue to underestimate how much it is WE who need a recharge. Also, kids just love to do what we do, right? Besides, copying mama (or papa!) is so contagious as I continue to see in my own kids..

  1. This was a great read. We are living overseas and our children are learning the local language in school but our home language is English. I was really encouraged to see the Children’s museum doing a French story time and the bookstore. We are actually from Denver and will be there this summer. I’d love for my boys to see that their French skills that they are working so hard at are something that are important in America too. When we are home I always hope there is something we can do that is in French or Arabic for the kids. We are friends of your parent’s by the way!

    1. Hey Natalie, thanks for stopping by! We had the same set-up as your family growing up with English inside the home and French outside. As far as your summer plans go, there is a partially active local French meet-up group that you could join and an Alliance française with weekly activities for all ages. If you really were afraid of them getting rusty, I know of intensive language immersion camps each summer as well. I don’t know all of your circumstances but I’d personally be inclined to allow some English to infiltrate your kiddos’ days as they are stateside as they have the chance. There are SO MANY incredible activities available to kids in the USA and in our city. Let me know if you need some ideas!

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