From parents to parents of multilingual children

Parents have different motivations for raising their children with multiple languages. For some, it is a necessity. For others, it is a choice. Whichever the reason, questions and concerns are similar. (you can read more about frequently asked questions about multilingual development here). There are examples of good practices and recommendations based on research. Yet, there are no universal recipes that work for every family. We all have different ideas, things that work well for some but not for others.

Here are some stories written by parents for parents of multilingual children. Maybe some of these experiences help you with your multilingual journey.

Table of Contents

Lea`s story (Croatian, English, German, Swiss German)

Mum: Croatian

Dad: Croatian

Children: son (4.5 years old), daughter (1.5 years old)

We're both from Croatia with Croatian as our mother tongue, and with a good knowledge of English and some basics of High German. After moving to a (Swiss)German-speaking Kanton of Zürich in Switzerland, we decided to refresh and upgrade our knowledge of High German to simplify our everyday life. Our motivation? It turned out many German-speaking Swiss people outside of Police, Administration, doctor's offices, and banks were much more comfortable switching from Swiss German to High German than speaking in English. Many of them often asked if we at least understand High German, just so that they wouldn't have to talk in English. It was "Your German is surely better than my English. I'll speak in German, and you answer in English, ok?" type of communication.

So we learned High German and, with High German and Swiss German being so different from each other, I also decided to take Swiss German classes just to make everyday things like going to the grocery store more simple.

After we became parents for the first time, we didn't give much of a thought about the languages we want our child to learn. The situation was simple. Well ... The situation was anything but simple, but the choices were simple. We speak Croatian to each other, he speaks English at work, I speak High German with an understanding of Swiss German in my everyday life, but both our parents speak only Croatian. So our kids need to know Croatian well enough to be able to communicate with their grandparents without parents being present to translate. They also need to know Swiss German to be able to live, grow, and be educated in a Swiss-German environment.

I worried that my kids would never learn or understand Swiss German if I don't work with them actively. On the other hand, I can't speak or say everything I'd like in Swiss German with enough certainty I'm saying it correctly. That's why I decided not to force it with my kids. We've also received advice from people who went through this multilingualism process as kids themselves, switching from Italy/Italian-speaking Switzerland to German-speaking Switzerland at the age of around 6 and with no previous knowledge of Swiss German. They told us: "Don't worry about their Swiss German, they will learn it through kindergarten, preschool, and school, and if you stay here, it will become their mother tongue. But you have to take care of their Croatian if you want them to keep it. Otherwise, they will lose it. It may be your mother tongue, but for them it is a minority language, and you and your family are the only input of Croatian they have."

When our son was around 2.5 years old, I worried he might not be exposed to Swiss German enough with attending kindergarten only two days a week. When he spoke in German at home, it was mostly meaningless sentences with a meaningful word popping out here and there. At that time, he could clearly and correctly compose simple sentences in Croatian. We added a third day in kindergarten at that point.

By consulting with his kindergarten teacher just a couple of weeks later, I learned he functions in a Swiss German environment without any problems but also that his Swiss German improved a lot after the switch. She said one could hear he doesn't speak German at home, but he understands everything they say, and he can communicate in Swiss German well enough for his age.

He is now 4.5 years old and has no problem communicating in both Croatian and Swiss German, without mixing the languages. Sometimes, the two of us talk to each other shortly in Swiss German after I pick him up on Fridays from the kindergarten, where he just spent a couple of days in an only-Swiss German-speaking environment. I do this so that he answers my questions (primarily about kindergarten, his day, and activities) and reacts more easily to what I'm saying before making a full switch back to Croatian. With his knowledge and understanding of only High German, my husband often doesn't understand what we're saying.
I never wanted to find myself in a position where I don't understand our kid, and I knew this would happen if I didn't learn enough Swiss German if not to speak it freely than at least to understand it. I did that by taking a 1-on-1 course in Swiss German after he was born.

Nowadays, there comes a situation from time to time where my kid says something in Swiss German, and his teacher understands him, but I don't. It happens because his pronunciation is not completely clear, and his thoughts are sometimes too complicated for him to put them into entirely meaningful but complex sentences, both in Swiss German and in Croatian. They turn out to be this long mess of nouns, verbs, and everything else that can be hard for us adults to understand, connect correctly, and comprehend completely. I don't worry about it, I see it as another point in his development, where he just needs time to practice and learn to communicate even very complex thoughts more clearly.

Our plan for the future would be to do the same with our daughter, who is now 1.5 yo and just started Swiss German kindergarten three days a week. We also want to continue building our son's knowledge and understanding of Croatian so that he learns and uses it with correct grammar and pronunciation.  

Marina`s story (Portuguese, English, Italian, German)

Mum: Brazilian

Dad: Italian

Child: daugther, 2.5 years old

Hello, my name is Marina, I am Brazilian and I have lived here in Germany for eight years. My "partner" is Italian and has lived here for seven years. We have a daughter, she's 31 months old. Our daughter has been going to the Kinderkrippe (creche) since she was 12 months old, and it's a german Kinderkrippe, so there she has contact just with the German language. At home we speak our mother languages with Emilia (our daughter) and with Matteo (partner) I speak Italian because it's the easiest way since Matteo doesn't speak Portuguese so well yet.  Emilia is not speaking perfectly German or Italian or Portuguese yet, and since her Paediatrician said that's a very normal development, we're not worried about it. We read German books everyday to her and I also sing German songs (but the Kindergarten kind of songs). The important thing is that she understands everything that her Erzieherin (teacher) says to her, also  when we speak with her at home. 

Honestly, I get tired sometimes, and wish everyone could speak the same language. But I also think that having contact with three different languages everyday is a rich experience for us, specially for Emilia, and we hope that she will be able to speak all three languages without any problems in the future. 

Paola`s story (Mandarin, Italian, French, English, German)

Mum: Italian

Dad: French

Children: 2 daughters - Lisa (4.5 years old) and Clara (2.5 years old)

Our first child was born in China and she has been immediately exposed to a wide multilingualism (Mandarin, English outside the family and Italian and French at home). Mandarin has been her dominant language for the first 2 years of her life.

When she was 2 yo we moved to Munich and she was introduced to a new language. After a couple of difficult months due to the relocation, once Lisa started at day-care, she quickly became fluent in German as well. German has become the language she is most familiar with, the language she mostly uses when she plays and when we are outside around other people.

Once her little sister Clara was born, we enrolled both of them in a bilingual day-care, where they attend the German-French class. While Lisa’s French has always been quite weak, Clara has learned to master both language without much difficulty. She tends to prefer Italian for now, but I think it’s related to her age and to the fact that mum is the carer she most relies on right now.

Given the fact that they have no Italian at Kindergarten, I work on it as much as I can. We have many Italian children’s books, we spend our free-time with Italian friends, we listen to Italian audio-books and it works. Both our daughters have acquired a great vocabulary and Lisa masters difficult verb tenses. I am very proud of them!

As easy and as fancy it may sound, it is not an easy journey, sometimes I am so tired, that I just wish we would all speak the same language at home, around our dinner table, while we play board games. We are constantly faced with multilingualism, it never stops. We use some simple techniques to stay consistent:

  • OPOL : Dad speaks only French, Mum Italian
  • Even though they reply to us in German, we keep the conversation in our native language, without translating what they told, just keeping the conversation flow.
  • “Daddy says ‘pomme’, mum says ‘mela’ for apple. This has helped us a lot. Clara, the small one has grasped it very well. She recognises both languages and tells us “this is French” “this is Italian”. For her, German is the main language in day-care.
  • There are children’s books in our bookshelf that are “Daddy’s book” and some that are “Mum’s books”. We have recently started reading out loud in other languages as well though, since the kids have shown a good grasp of the difference. We just tell them “Now I will read it in French” or else. It works well for us.

We are lucky because both my husband and I are fluent in German, English, French and Italian. So that we all can understand one another. It is an exciting journey and I’ve realised how important it is to take things easy. Overthinking or over-worrying it is absolutely non-beneficial to the children’s language development. Some acquaintances struggle more, and it would be interesting to explore the reasons behind it.

Since the lock-down started, Lisa and Clara have been spending all mornings with their dad while I work, and Lisa’s French has bloomed!


Jelena`s  story (Croatian, German, English, some Italian and Spanish)

Dad: Croatian
Mum: Croatian
Children: son (10 years old), daughter (7 years old)

We moved to Germany in September 2015. Our kids were six and almost three years old at the time. We thought that both of them would go to a kindergarten and learn some German before our son starts school. We applied for two places (in Germany you do it through a platform called KiTa Finder). Sometime in December, they informed us that only Anamaria (our daughter) got a place in a kindergarten. Ivano (the son) had to start school?! First grade, second semester. I was under so much stress. I can only imagine how it was for him. 
Our daughter had to deal with going to a kindergarten for the first time. Plus, it was a foreign one – she didn`t understand any German. Oh boy, there were a lot of tears… Luckily, one of the teachers from another group there was also from Croatia. So, she helped whenever she could.
Ivano was totally lost. But, slowly, he began to learn the language. Thinking about it in retrospective, it is all foggy. I have no idea how we made it. At home, we spoke (and still speak) only Croatian. 
Ivano somehow learned German. How? I have no idea. When I think about it now, he started his second grade and didn`t lag behind. He even made some friends, and he really likes going to school. Now, he speaks German, Croatian and has English at school. Next year, he might start learning French as well. I plan to learn with him. This is going to be an exciting experience :)
Anamaria is in the second grade. I can feel that it`s much easier than when she was younger. At home, she speaks Croatian, but 20% of words are German. She says it`s easier for her this way. 
I can also understand some Italian and Spanish, but I don`t plan to teach my kids. I believe this is just enough for them. 


Gina`s story (American/Italian household, Spanish, some French and Polish)

My Perspective as a Language Teacher, a Monolingual, and an Aspiring Polyglot

As a child raised in an Italian American household, I felt quite connected to my heritage. To all of my friends, I was very Italian, having big Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ house and having people constantly mispronounce my Italian last name. Yet, the most exposure I had to the language of my ancestors was an Italian picture dictionary for kids and my grandfather’s heavy accent. Growing up around monolingual friends and family, I never felt negatively about speaking just one language because I always fit in with the narrative of an American. It wasn’t until I began my own language learning journey that I sought answers.

My mother’s linguistic upbringing has everything to do with mine. Her father immigrated to the United States after the Second World War from a small village in the north province of Asti. When he had children, he valued their American citizenship and identity; so much so that he never taught them to speak his native language. Of course, my mother was able to understand much of what was said, but never spent time actively learning how to read, write, or communicate in Italian. Keep in mind, this was New York in the early 1960s; Italians were not necessarily welcomed and bilingualism was not celebrated. My grandfather wanted the best opportunities for his son and daughter, which, to him, meant that they were American and spoke perfect English. No Italian interfering. 

Fast forward to the 90s and the story repeats, with my sister and I growing up in a typical English-speaking American household. As a teen, I studied Spanish in middle school and loved how my brain was now thinking in a completely new way. I continued into high school advanced courses and to college, where I even undertook a minor in Spanish literature. Yet, I never felt fluent or considered myself bilingual. It eventually brought frustration and resentment: Why didn’t my parents raise me with more than one language? I grappled with this feeling that I had missed out on the most amazing opportunity, one which my multilingual peers had been so lucky to receive. 

This regret carried on with me even as I pursued my teaching license and Master’s Degree in Linguistics and TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages). I was often the only person in my class, seminar, or conference who didn’t boast the title of polyglot, and hid with shame when we were asked how many languages we spoke. I had briefly studied French and Polish, but didn’t feel honest saying that I actually used these languages with confidence. After beginning my career, I realized that my own linguistic status didn’t have to define my ability to be an amazing educator. In fact, I could reflect on my own struggles with language learning to better serve my students. 

Now, I try to believe all that I tell them: they are intelligent, capable, strong, and that their hard work will be worth it. Their ability to speak another language will connect them with millions of interesting people around the world, open up career opportunities for them, and even enhance their cognition and keep their minds healthy well into old age. For parents with the noble intent to raise multilingual children, I applaud and admire you. For any struggling adult language learners, I encourage you to not give up on yourself and your desire to change your life. Good luck! ¡Buena suerte! Bonne chance! Powodzenia!