How to raise a bilingual child

What strategies are there for raising a bilingual child?

I grew up bilingual, and so did my 18-month-old son. My son and I both have a Danish father and an Austrian mother. Here's what I've learned from my own life as a child and parent, and from others:

Start immediately. It is not enough to decide about it after a year or more. It has to be from the beginning, because children learn before they are born and most of them under 10 months. You have to learn the "tune" and sounds of the language, and that only works early.

You must be a native speaker or be equivalent. I've seen Austrian homes where one parent speaks poor English to teach the language. Does not work It is not enough to teach single words from picture books. It is not enough to speak what you learned in school. You need to know all the words you will ever need and you only know that if you are a native speaker or if you are immensely good at English as a foreign language. Don't even get me started with pronunciation and grammar!

Be consistent. I speak Danish with my son 99% of the time. I would say less than 90% and it doesn't start out well. I speak German with him when he is with other children / people, when I have to understand them too. But I also speak Danish with other young children, mainly for fun, but also to show that it is not a secret language.

Show, don't tell. I speak Danish to my wife 80% of the time. There are things that I can say to her more easily in German, but most of the time my son hears me speak this language to others. It's not just for him. My side of the family also speaks Danish, my wife's side German. Fortunately, we all get along.

Act normal. Speaking any language is normal. Don't act particularly if you speak a certain language. There should be no difference in the way you act in relation to the language you speak. They are both just one language.

Books and stuff. That's actually the hard part! It can be difficult to find enough material / books / toys in the foreign language of the current country. In my case we are surrounded by German stuff, but it's an effort to secure enough Danish material to keep the balance. There is media here in particular - television, DVDs, computers. Planning ahead is the best advice I can give on this point.

English is the third. In our case, we are not in an English-speaking country. The third (and fourth, etc.) language is easier for the child when the two main languages ​​are firmly established first. So don't worry about the third language in the beginning unless you are are located in an English speaking country. In this case it should of course be interfered with.

That's it from above. I could edit and add more later.


The point of being a native speaker is not supported by research. In fact, research contradicts this. I think you are merely observing cases where the parents do not make enough effort.

Torben Gundtofte-Bruun

@luis, my point is to avoid what I've seen; E.g. Austrians who have not learned English well and who pronounce the sounds and words incorrectly because they know they cannot speak well or even in full and meaningful sentences, they still try to teach their children individual words ("dog", "Cat"). . I don't think that's helpful at all. If one of the parents' language skills are "almost native" then by all means go ahead !!


@torbengd so is it an all or nothing suggestion? I'm trying to learn a second language myself. I didn't get the chance when I was younger so I want to start my kid early, but I'm nowhere near fluent so should I just give up? I'm not a beginner either.

Thomas Lötzer

@luispedro can you refer to the research you mentioned, that is, the research that suggests that even non-native speakers should raise their child bilingually?

Péter Török

+1 for summarizing most of my answers :-) A comment on the "native speaker" question: IMHO is a very important aspect of the fact that when you learn a foreign language as an adult you most likely won't get the same emotional / cultural foundation as native speakers. And children learn a lot through emotions and feelings. I know exactly what the English words "raspberry", "puppy" or "pee" mean, but to me they don't have nearly the same emotional connections and memories as their Hungarian counterparts.