12 Ways to Help Your Children Learn Your Spouse’s Language

The advice targeted to bilingual families deals very often with the things the minority language speaker could and should do to pass on the heritage language to his or her children. Even before our children were born, we had figured out lots of things that my husband Gilles (the only French speaker in our house at that time since we had chosen to each speak our native language to our children) could and should do to help with their language acquisition. First of all, he would need to talk to the kids a lot. He had to make a conscious decision to interact with our daughters and try to talk more than he would have naturally felt inclined to even though he is an introvert. He was also the one who needed to be consistent and create a need for the children to speak the language.

As the majority language speaker, I found very little advice on how I could help in this situation. Since the matter was also very important to me, I wanted an active role in all this too! Even if I spoke French, I didn’t want to use it with my children so I had to find other ways to participate in the conversation. Listed below are ten suggestions that a parent can use to help his or her spouse pass on the minority language. Many of these ideas often go unnoticed, but make a big difference.

12 Ways to Help Your Kids Learn Your Spouse's Language - Be Bilingual on Multiculturalkidblogs.com

12 ways to help your children learn your spouse’s language – even if you don’t speak it!

1. Encourage your spouse to pass on the minority language. This may seem obvious, but even in something as natural as speaking your own native language to your children (and even more so if it’s a non-native language) there are moments of doubt and frustration, so support from you is appreciated.

2. Show interest and excitement over any progress your children are making in their minority language, even if you don’t understand everything (or anything). Make sure they know you approve of and encourage their bilingualism. No need to make a big deal out of it, but don’t assume they know it if you don’t say it.

3. Address any concerns that you may have about bilingualism or your bilingual family situation. Children are very attuned to their parents’ feelings, and if they feel reproach for speaking the non-community language, chances are they won’t do so. Talking with others in a similar situation (in person or through websites such as this one) or reading books about the subject can help.

4. Give your spouse regularly some alone time with your children for activities in the minority language. Even better, work things out so that s/he can have one-on-one time with each child to benefit from a monolingual situation without the interference of the community language.

5. Look for other families who are either doing what you are doing in the same language, or expat families from your minority-language country. Organising playdates and getting to know similar families will help increase your children’s exposure to the target language (and the need and desire to use it) and take some of the load off your spouse’s back. Expat websites such as meetup.com or expat-blog.com can be helpful in locating families near you. Google your city’s expat Facebook page or other expat groups in your city.

6. Look for babysitters who speak your family’s minority language.  The above-mentioned sites can help with this.  Teenagers of expat families are a great choice!

7. Visit websites dedicated to multilingualism to get ideas from other parents who speak your spouse’s language about materials that have been useful for them. If you have teenagers, information about things their peers in the minority language country rave about (ex. artists, movies, books) is invaluable. Ask for their suggestions to subscribe your children to minority-language magazines that are suitable for their age level.

8. Help your children (if possible) to create close relationships with grandparents and other relatives in their minority language country. When our children were smaller I often traveled to visit my in-laws with them even if our French-speaking dad had to stay and work. This worked well once I learned to give the girls some alone time with their grandparents. Trust that they will understand each other and don’t hover and translate everything into the majority language for the children. For older children, the UM-service that airlines provide is a great option. When travel is not possible, make sure you install Skype and remind your spouse to use it regularly with family in the minority-language country.

9. Take an interest in your spouse’s language and culture. Celebrate traditions from his/her culture and incorporate cultural elements from both countries into your family life. The community you live in might not see your family’s other culture in a favorable light, so make sure that you do the contrary and help your children to be proud of all their cultural heritage.

10. Help your spouse stay connected with his/her language and culture. Buy them books or music from back home (you can find most things through Amazon, but check for the items also on bookdepository.co.uk to benefit from worldwide free delivery). Encourage friendships with other natives and look into possibilities to have access to TV from your minority language country.  These might include satellite or cable TV, but also using a VPN service, a Slingbox or googling ”catch up TV” for the country in question.

11. None of the above require you to actually speak the language, but at least trying to learn some would be a great endorsement for your family’s minority language. The last thing it needs to be is perfect. My role as the person who speaks imperfect French at our house helps our children identify with their French dad – after all, they all remember that the word ”cagoule” is a feminine noun whereas I never do!

12. Don’t expect your spouse or yourself to be perfect. Help him or her to make bilingualism a priority for your family, but not a source of stress.

Enjoy your family’s multilingual journey.  Please share your story in the comments below.  We would love to hear from you!

About the Author

be bilingual

Annika Bourgogne is a language teacher and the author of Be Bilingual – Practical Ideas for Multilingual Families. Passionate about family bilingualism, she is constantly looking for new ways to combine real-life parenting with the latest research on the subject. Annika lives in Helsinki, Finland with her French husband and two bilingual daughters. You can learn more about Annika by visiting her Be Bilingual website, liking Be Bilingual on Facebook, or stay updated on new tips and advice for bilingual and multilingual families by following Annika on Twitter @AnnikaBourgogne.




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13 thoughts on “12 Ways to Help Your Children Learn Your Spouse’s Language”

  1. Thank you for this post! It makes the journey towards a multilingual family feel doable, and gratifying, rather than my fear of it being stressful. Great suggestions!

  2. Hello,
    I enjoyed your article, I would love to see a piece that deals with my situation, which I don’t think is at all unique 🙂
    I am a single mom to a multi-cultural toddler (Portuguese father, not involved). I am trying to raise her with a strong cultural awareness for both sides of her genetic history, but I am at a bit of a loss with how to nurture a language that I do not speak and that is barely spoken in my country. When she is elementary, there is a local church that conducts a Saturday class in Portuguese, but that is a long way off.

    1. Hi Jennifer and thank you for your comment. First of all, good for you for wanting your child to learn Portuguese! I realize that all of the suggestions in this article are not useful in your situation, but I think you could try to look for other Portuguese speakers enlist their help. The expat sites might help or if there is a university close by you might find students who speak Portuguese either as a native or who are learning it. They might be willing to babysit or come play with your child in Portuguese. You can use Portuguese CDs with songs and stories as well as DVDs. I have also come across a great website with ideas for children learning Portuguese (it has ideas for Portuguese from Portugal and from Brazil): http://www.sonia-portugueseforkids.com/.

    1. Yes, that is a wonderful idea! Just a note, the article is by Annika. Giselle uploaded it to the website, which is why her name shows up there.

  3. I really loved the upbeat focus in your post and all the tips. I’ve read in a book about bilingualism for parents and teachers by Colin Baker that monolingual parents can still play an important role in language development through their attitude to language and other cultures, as well as by starting to learn other languages themselves. I think that it’s really helpful to focus on these issues from the point of view of both the kids’ language development and the perspective of being a couple.

  4. Hi Jonathan and thank you for your comment! I really agree that it is not only important for the children and their language development, but also for the well-being of the couple. That’s what it’s all about, supporting each other, right?

  5. I checked your tips with my husband to see whether he did most of the ways suggested in the article. He did!

    He encouraged children to learn Chinese, attend Chinese dancing class, enjoy Chinese festivals and got more and more interested in eating Chinese food. And he wanted to learn Chinese and did pick up some Chinese words from the conversation between me and children. So he presented a positive reinforcement to help children learn my language. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Best4Future Wednesday link-up party #2 | Best4Future Blog: Bringing Up Baby Bilingual

  7. In Australia we have some great resources for families with languages other than English – Victorian School of Languages offers many community languages for high school students and community language schools in Australia are probably pretty helpful too.

  8. claudia cohen

    Dear Annika,
    I am writting my dissertation on bilingual children. I am using your book as one of my sources. At the end of the dissertation I am making a table with the list of experts I am using. Would you mind providing me the year you were born?
    Many thanks,
    Claudia Cohen

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