How To Raise a Multilingual Child: MUSTS, BESTS & BOOSTS

God is German.

At least that’s what I thought when I was four. By that age, I’d heard more prayers in my home in German than in English (prayers over the food, at bedtime), which was just part of my parents’ method of keeping their second language active and inspiring us kids to some day crack the Teutonic code. We all eventually did.

Then we moved to Austria the year I turned fourteen. I found myself plunking through Mozart piano duets and small talk in German with an instructor whose German (even my adolescent American ears knew this) had an accent. I just couldn’t pin it down. And I wasn’t nosey (or fluent) enough to get into an involved conversation about where she was from.

It was only decades later, after having mastered German better than Mozart, that I discovered this piano professor had been American (a transplant from Minnesota), and that my parents had conspired with her to make those hours at her Steinway not only about hammering out scales but also about nailing down German verb conjugations.

Mom and Dad knew intuitively what I’ve learned throughout over twenty years of raising four children in eight countries while learning five languages. To achieve close-to-native fluency, you must have three things:

3 MUSTS: Opportunity, Necessity and Community

“Opportunity” can be a foreign residency, as I was lucky to enjoy many times in my youth, and as my children have been given due to our globally nomadic lifestyle.

But not everyone has that kind of opportunity. Take heart! There are others: A parent might speak a foreign tongue. Or there are neighbors/relatives/friends who speak another language. There are immersion classes at school. There is someone somewhere in your neighborhood or circle of acquaintances, I promise this, who fluently speaks a language other than yours. “Opportunity” comes in all sorts of variations of contact with another language.

Still, none of these opportunities –  foreign residency included – can guarantee that you or your child will learn the language. Proof of that is seen in every immigrant community where the members stick in their native tongue cluster, never becoming functional in the language of their host country.  Have you witnessed this anywhere? Everywhere I have lived in the world there seems to have been an expatriate “ghetto,” where folks function (sometimes for years, even decades) without learning the language of the people surrounding them.  That’s what we call a lost opportunity.

So clearly opportunity alone won’t unlock the doors to speaking new a language. What else does one need?


There must be opportunity + necessity, so that the brain kicks into gear and latches onto a language in earnest. We’re talking a modicum of desperation. Often, if we know there’s an escape from the difficulties and pain and humiliation of learning a new language, we’ll quickly swerve into that exit. We’ll revert to our mother tongue. We’ll wave off the pesky role-play, giggle, and speak English to the piano teacher.  Or we’ll simply go silent and retreat.  It takes the pressure of real need to heat up those brain cells and stoke our motivation to learn. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of language.  Including your or your child’s next foreign one. You’ll need to create a situation where your child has no choice but to speak. That is half your battle.

Necessity + Community

I recall smiling so broadly one day, I nearly strained a cheek muscle. We were less than a year into our new home in Norway when I happened around the corner near the play room and overheard a conversation between our five-year-old Parker and Maria, the friend he’d invited over that afternoon to play. I couldn’t tell who was Norwegian and who was not.  Parker had crossed over.  Maria, with her white curls and sparkly blue eyes had been a major language magnet for our boy. Yes, we lived in Norway.  (Opportunity). And luckily, our son desperately wanted friends. (Necessity). Just as fortunately, Maria – along with kindergarteners and teachers, and our church, soccer, skiing and neighborhood friends – wanted to be our on-site language technicians. (Community).  We all fell right into linguistic stride. Parker – and the rest of us at the time – learned to speak fluently, and we’ve worked at keeping that language alive ever since.

Beyond the ideal situation of enjoying a foreign residency as we did in Norway and other countries, what can one do to approximate opportunity, necessity and community?

3 Bests: Parents, Domains, Schools

Inna is Russian and Joseph is French. They live in Germany. Their work requires that they master English.  They are raising their two children quadrilingually, with each parent consistently speaking his or her mother tongue. German, the children learn in school. English, they learn at church.

1) Speak it! If a parent speaks a foreign language as a mother tongue, that must be his or her language with the child. That practice must be consistent and should begin at the child’s birth. Science has found that until the onset of puberty, children’s brains are able to absorb and order several foreign tongues at once. The earlier the start, the easier the acquisition, and the better the chances of learning with greater facility more languages later in life.

2)Earmark domains.  For Inna and Joseph’s children those domains are 1) home, 2) school and the community at large, and 3) church. Seek out or create domains – places (Spanish-speaking grandma’s on weekends, summer vacations to your Japanese family), activities (soccer in Portuguese, flute lessons in Polish), or relationships (the Italian uncle with whom you Skype, the Swedish cousin to whom you telephone, the Korean pen pal) that will be completely and consistently immersed in the target language.

3)Formal Instruction.  Even the very best course isn’t going to promise native fluency. But a great instructor can give your child an excellent departure point.  Insist that your foreign language teacher be a native speaker, and that he/she teaches the natural approach, which emphasizes in those earliest stages especially verbal interaction and listening comprehension over dissecting the mechanics of grammar. Classes should be taught in the target language, not in the student’s native tongue with mere interjections of the foreign language.  Ask about teaching methodology, favoring classrooms with creative and interactive musical, theatrical, tactile and kinesthetic programs.  The more play there is, especially for younger children, the more effective the language learning will be.

3 BOOSTS: Exposure, Media, Incentives

1) Foreign Exposure. Can’t go to a foreign country? Can’t send your teen on that summer immersion to Montreal? Can’t see sending your twelve-year-old to that week-long Spanish camp? Then bring foreign to you in the form of foreign exchange students. Or how about encouraging Skype exchanges with a Beijing student? Or find local cultural festivals where you can sniff out new friends and customs and simply hear the language floating around you.  Scour your local papers for events/connections in the target language.

2)Media. Listen to the target language in music, DVD series and in television programs (especially those with your native language in subtitles. This is a major key to how Scandinavians and the Dutch learn English so well and so early. Their imported television programs aren’t dubbed, but are subtitled in their native language. The French, in contrast, impose French dubbing.) For older children, there are multiple resources via the Internet where your child can actively converse with true native speakers.  I have purchased audio books and the corresponding hard copy, so that my reading children can listen and read along simultaneously.

3)Incentives.  Heidi, whose children have learned Norwegian, English and German, paid them for letters written to grandparents in all those languages.  Irina, who speaks five languages in her home, rewarded her boys for acing their French and English exams.  When our own children have done something as simple as ordering food at a restaurant in the target language, or something as substantial as giving a public address in that tongue, we’ve rewarded them well and openly.


Whatever your methods of encouraging multilingualism, be prepared for brain fatigue and resistance.  It is enormous mental work to assimilate the complex codes of a new tongue. When Randall and I were newlyweds, we instructed German both on the university level as well as at one of the world’s leading language immersion centers, the Training Center for prospective full-time volunteers for our church, known as the MTC (Missionary Training Center.)  The university setting was a typical academic one, three classes a week, so far from total immersion, although we taught our classes primarily in German.

Our missionary daughter, Sorella Bradford, and other missionaries serving in Italy

Our missionary daughter, Sorella Bradford, and other missionaries serving in Italy

The MTC was closer to a total immersion experience. As of the first week, our classes of young volunteers were challenged to SYL – Speak Your Language (or speak nothing at all) – although they’d only spent a record 76 hours within the MTC walls. Period.  It got very quiet right about then.  And our students got headaches!  It is hard work to pry out the mother tongue (let’s say it’s English) and replace it with another (there are 52 language taught at the MTC).

But what was astounding and gratifying was to experience moments of serendipity and excitement, when the student felt the shutters of her mind and her world being flung wide open.  When you offer this to your child, you will experience along with her the out-and-out thrill when she discovers not just a new language, but a new world and a new self it that world.




What have been your experiences with learning another language? What worked? What didn’t?

How have you offered opportunity+necessity+community to your family so that they have learned another tongue?

Can you share a story that illustrates the agony and the ecstasy of gaining fluency in a new language?

And really. . .Why bother with other languages, anyway?

34 thoughts on “How To Raise a Multilingual Child: MUSTS, BESTS & BOOSTS

  1. Melissa, thank you so much for posting this! It’s been on my mind a lot lately. I want so very much to be able to teach my child English so that she can become fluent, but I feel like one lone person in a canoe paddling upstream since we live and Germany and speak German at home. She’ll hear German everywhere. Every TV program, all her friends and relatives who live nearby. She’ll only hear English from me. I’ve thought about supplementing with DVDs in English and asking all those who can to speak to her in English. I’m just worried it won’t be enough to promote fluency. Understanding, certainly, but fluency requires something more. As you put it, community. Thank you for the encouragement and the wisdom of your experiences. Love you and miss you!

    • Hi, Michelle! And that little daughter is coming any day now, if my Swiss calendar is right. Yes, your dumpling will need a community, but the huge advantage with English is that you can coral in a real or virtual community quite easily: movies, Internet, music– so much in the virtual world is governed auf Englisch. Still, she’ll have to have living, mouth-watching community to really keep it active. Your consistent use of the English language will be paramount, however. Reading, singing, writing, chatting about everything you can in your mother tongue. I’ve watched this over and over again, and it works. But it will require lots of extra effort and strategy on your part. Viel Glück, Freundin!!

  2. I remember it blowing my mind when I was in the MTC learning Hungarian and I first learned that something other than the letter “S” could be used to express plurality. I had taken a little bit of French in Jr. High and I knew a few phrases in Spanish. Both those languages use “S” so, I thought, it must be a universal innate quality of human language: S = more of something.

    But then one day I learned that Hungarians use “K” or “vowel + K” for plurality. It seemed illogical, impossible, incorrect! But there it was. I had many moments like that as I learned my first foreign language and became immersed in it, not just grammatically, but idiomatically. When you meet an older woman in Hungary you say to her, “I kiss your hand.” And then she says, “I wish you a good day.” And of course on the street it could get truncated so that you say, “I kiss!” and she says, “I wish!” Isn’t that great? In America we just say, “hi.”

    There are countless little linguistic gems that one finds in learning other languages that expand the mind, provide a new perspective on the world around us, humble us, and give us more capacity for love and understanding. I can think of a few things better to do with one’s brain than to learn a new language. It illuminates the terra incognita of our mind.

    All this reminds me of a quote from Voltaire:

    “Je ne suis pas comme une dame de la cour de Versailles, qui disait: c’est bien dommage que l’aventure de la tour de Babel ait produit la confusion des langues; sans cela tout le monde aurait toujours parle francais.”

    “I’m not like a lady of the court in Versailles, who said it was unfortunate that the adventure of the tower of Babel has produced confusion of languages; otherwise everybody would always speak French.”
    -Voltaire in 1767

    …man, I need to learn French!

    • Man, you need to come visit Geneva!! Oh, Nate, this is wonderful comment, and I love the Voltaire quote. (You know I’m partial to him, since his château is right there, out my window….Oops. Was that braggy? I just think it’s strange and funny.)

      To your thought that learning another language illuminates the terra incognita of our minds: Absolutely. My personal belief is that unless you visit other countries, you never fully know your own; and until you try to speak other languages, you never fully know your own language, nor do you really know any country in which you live. The way to a culture’s heart is not through its stomach, but first through its mouth–its language.

      Interesting: only in Viennese German does one greet a woman with “Küss die Hand”, or “kiss the hand.” This doesn’t exist in other areas of German-dom, and is proof of the vestiges of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Of course.

      So, Nate…”I wish!!”


      • I didn’t know that about Viennese German. That’s great! And I agree with you about language being the key to understanding another culture.

        I will definitely try to visit Geneva this year. I have some other good friends out there too (the Taggs) and so I have many reasons to go!

      • Melissa, the Czech men (not sure for a young people, but it is a very nice expression) say to greet a woman “Küss die Hand gnädige Frau” (rukulibam milostiva pani) which is, as you say, the vestige of Austro-Hungarian Empire too. And the Polish men say it also (and they do it !).

      • Irina! So glad your voice has entered this conversation. You are the epitome of thriving multilingualism, and I hope to showcase your story so that we can all learn and be inspired. You have been, as have I, a teacher of language as well as a speaker of multiple tongues, and a mother who has passed her passion for The Word (and for the cultures of the world) on to your three beautiful sons. I’m learning all the time from you.

        In Vienna, the older generation has shortened the “Küss die Hand, genädige Frau” to “‘de Frau.” And my senior citizen friends use it, bowing slightly, taking my hand, and leaning as if to kiss my hand.

        And. . . why not? 🙂


      • I’ll just throw this in: one says “I kiss your hand” to older women in Romania, as well. In Mediterranean cultures it is customary to kiss the hand of one’s father literally. Now I’m wondering where this tradition started–Roman?

      • Richard, The Master: I say we leave it up to you to research that one. My hunch is that it is Roman in origin, like kissing the episcopal ring? But, okay, as long as we’re all here…over to Wikipedia:

        “The practice originated in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Spanish courts of the 17th and 18th centuries. The gesture is still at times observed in Central and Eastern Europe, namely, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Russia . .”


  3. Melissa, this is great! I’ve been thinking about this a lot as a bilingual person. I would be sad if my children were raised monolingually (but I have time to prepare, right?). I hope you never take this post down; I want to use it when (some day) I get married and start a family!

    This brings up the question: am I too old to use similar approaches to help myself learn a third language? I know you picked up Norweigan after you were done with university (I believe French was as part of your singing career, right?). What did you do as an adult to encourage similar growth? Same tactics?

    [If you can’t remember me, think: Elder Emery, Paris, Winter 05/06.

    • Grant, Well of course I remember you. Never forget you. We’ve sung duets together, friend! So glad to find you here.

      All these rules of acquisition apply to adults as well as to children, although some of the methods might change somewhat. The biggest differences lie in self-consciousness and becoming literate. By that I mean that children don’t recognize social limits, and will plunge into language without having to preserve their egos (as adults do). And once you become a reading/writing person, you will want to learn language like that: with visible symbols, not just the aural cues. (This is one reason Mandarin is so tough for me: I cannot read the characters, and so I’m limited. I only know it aurally.)

      Here’s hope: I’ve learned all my languages (but German) as a crusty old lady. Into my 30’s. I learned Norwegian and French in that decade, and took up Mandarin in the next decade. Anything’s possible, Grant, with opportunity, necessity and community.

      Much warmth to you!—M.

  4. Pingback: Vacations 2013 – Part I | Dew Drops

  5. Pingback: Vacations 2013 | Dew Drops

  6. I really liked your insights about raising multilingual children. However, I would like to point out one thing that I discovered from my own experience that I think you should point out. That though you should definitely create opportunities for your children to learn and master several languages, it is important to have balance while teaching and exposing your children to new languages. Otherwise you run into the danger of falling behind in fluency in perhaps an important language.
    For example, when my family was living in Switzerland, my brother and I attended the local school where we learned “Proper” German in the classrooms and Swiss from our friends on the playgrounds. On top of that we spoke English at home with a smattering of Chinese and French here and there. While we were there, our system seemed to work. Yet when we moved back to the States several years later, we discovered that my family had forgotten to balance our language experience. We had put such a priority on learning other languages that we forgot to emphasize English as our mother tongue.
    Sure, we could speak and understand English, but only at the level at which we learned when we left the US. For me going to 7th grade, I had the vocabulary of a beginning 3rd grader. I was completely lost. However, I was more fortunate than my brother who’s English was so bad he had to attend ESL while I didn’t. The only reason for that being due to the fact that I read voraciously in my native language while in Switzerland. Thus reading wise I was above or at the same level as everyone else in school, which allowed me to make up for my lack of speaking skills at the time.
    So I would encourage parents to really pay attention to the language learning system that they decide to implement. That they make sure not to allow their “foreign” language out rank their “native” language. Otherwise you could cause your children to suffer academically somewhat.

    • Jennifer, True, true, true. What an important scenario you describe here. And strangely so timely. What I mean is: I spent the morning at the studio recording two more chapters of Global Mom for the audio version, and those chapters were about this! We got that odd surprise when, upon arriving in France after 5 years in Norway, and enrolling just our oldest two in an English language school (thinking we’d only be in France a couple of years, and we needed them to speak grade-level English), we discovered we’d done a great job of getting them fluent in Norwegian, (reading, writing, speaking), but their English was not at grade level. It caused a crisis. And we had to work hard and fast to get them up to level. Stressful. (At the same time, we were working hard and fast to get our then-youngest, Dalton, functioning in French.) I get sweaty just thinking about it.

      So you are right on. Promote the 2nd or 3rd or even 4th language, but not at the total expense of the 1st language.

      Great comment. Thank you!


  7. Pingback: “How many languages are too many for a child?” (InCultureParent) « expatsincebirth

  8. Pingback: “How many languages are too many for a child?” (InCultureParent) | circletimestudio

  9. Pingback: Anyone can learn a language, but not always in a classroom | Loving Language

    • Thank you for this reblog! I’ll gladly stop in at your blog, too, since we have so much common ground. Watch for my upcoming posts, where I’ll drill into language that much more. And of course my book, Global Mom: A Memoir, releasing in July. Plenty of language acquisition in thost pages 🙂 Warmth to you!–M.

  10. Pingback: Awesome language classrooms create a foreign environment | Loving Language

  11. Pingback: Challenges about raising bi/multilingual kids… | 3rdculturechildren

    • Thank you 3rdcluturechildren, for the reblog! I hope Global Mom: A Memoir, releasing in days, will also appeal to your readership. There is chapter after chapter of a frank interior view of what international nomadism means to a family.
      Best to you-


  12. Pingback: The endless challenges of raising multilingual kids… | 3rdculturechildren

  13. We’re having our first child in April and will raise him trilingually. We live in England and speak English amongst ourselves, but my mother tongue is Dutch and my husband is a native Japanese speaker. These tips are really valuable and reinforces our beliefs about raising our son trilingually :).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s