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Nurturing Bilingualism in Children

The strategies used to help children become bilingual

Post written by François Grosjean.

Even though many children "just become bilingual", an increasing number of families develop strategies to ensure that their children become bilingual. They also consciously nurture their children's languages over time.

Of the three most used strategies, the first, and probably the best known, is the "one person-one language" strategy. The child becomes bilingual because each parent speaks his or her language exclusively to the child. The approach has many advantages, one of which is that parents can use their dominant language with their child. A problem that can arise with time, however, is that the minority language (e.g. Chinese in the United States) may suffer as the child interacts increasingly with the outside world where the other, stronger, language is used (see here for more information).

In the second strategy, only one language is used at home, usually the minority language, and the other language is used outside the home. This guarantees that the home language receives a lot of support as the parents use it exclusively as do other family members. The other language (usually the majority language) is acquired when the child ventures outside the home. It is a very successful strategy but it does mean that one parent has to agree to speak his or her second (or third) language to the child.

The third strategy - a variant of the second - is to use solely one language, inside and outside the home, and then, at age four or five only, to introduce the other language. This was the strategy used by the parents of Einar Haugen, a well-known bilingualism specialist who was brought up in Norwegian first. He wrote many years later: "[My parents] took the position that I would learn all the English I needed from my playmates and my teachers, and that only by learning and using Norwegian in the home could I maintain a fruitful contact with them and their friends and their culture."

To these home strategies, we should add an educational strategy that is used with older children and that is increasingly popular. It is to enroll one's child in a bilingual program (immersion, dual language, etc.) where the language of instruction is at first, in part or in whole, in the other language (e.g. Spanish for English speaking children).

Of course, as the child grows up, the strategies evolve and parents have to keep monitoring matters to make sure that the child continues to have a real need for the two (or more) languages. As noted in an earlier post, if the need for a language is present in order to interact with others, study, play with friends, and so on, then that language will continue to be acquired and retained. To the need factor should be added enough language input and use, positive attitudes towards the language and culture in question, as well as the support of family and friends.

As time goes by and children stabilize their bilingualism, it is important that they find themselves, occasionally, in a monolingual mode in each of their languages, that is in contact with monolingual speakers who do not know their other language(s). This is because it is simply too easy to only use the stronger language in a bilingual environment where parents and caretakers are themselves bilingual. When this happens, the weaker (usually minority) language will slowly be replaced by the stronger language, most often the language outside the home.

An additional challenge for families concerns the cultural changes that children or adolescents go through when they have moved from one country or region to another. Many of them experience culture shock, as do their parents, and they need to be helped and advised during this transition phase.

It is comforting to see just how seriously some parents take the nurturing of bilingualism in their children. Many read articles and books on the subject, join support groups, as well as visit websites that offer posts on the topic. They are present when the going gets difficult and frustration occurs due to such things as a communication problem, an unkind remark by an adult or a child, a bad grade in the weaker language, and so on.

With this kind of support, there is every chance that bilingual children will retain their bilingualism and become adults who know and use two or more languages.


Zurer Pearson, Barbara (2008). Raising a Bilingual Child. New York: Random House.

Grosjean, François. Family strategies and support. Chapter 17 of Grosjean, François (2010). Bilingual: Life and Reality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

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