Can my child become bilingual?

Yes, of course your child can become bilingual. Everyday demand or need to use different languages usually will push children toward bilingualism. That’s the easy answer.  The more complicated answer has to do with how to create an environment at home in which children CAN become bilingual.

There are a number of blogs and books on bilingualism. Some examples are listed here:

I recently read a very interesting article by De Houwer that informs this topic. She studied about 1800 families and their patterns of language use.  These families lived in Flanders (Belgium) where Dutch is the majority language. The families represented in this survey spoke 73 different languages. This first result is similar to areas in the U.S. where many different languages are spoken. In Los Angeles, CA there are about 224 different languages spoken, and the school district lists 92 different languages represented by the children enrolled in schools.

De Houwer asked what language(s) parents spoke and what language(s) children spoke. Then she looked at the patterns of parents and children with respect to use of the home and host language (in this case Dutch).  Among these families 75% of the children spoke both the home language and Dutch. The other 25% of the children spoke only Dutch. So, why do some children learn two languages and others learn only the majority language? I think the patterns of usage shed light on this question.

De Houwer looked carefully at whether one or both parents spoke the home language and/or the host language. This analysis allowed different configurations:

  • both parents monolingual in home language
  • both parents bilingual in home and host language
  • one parent monolingual in home language one parent bilingual in home and host language
  • one parent bilingual in home and host language and one parent monolingual in host language
  • one parent bilingual in home and host language and one parent monolingual in host language
  • one parent only used the host language and one parent only used the home language
  • single parent used only host language
  • single parent used both home and host language
Looking at only the families with two parents when both parents spoke only the home language, children were very likely (97%) to speak the home language. Children were also likely (93%) to speak the home language if one parent used both Dutch and the home language and the other used only the home language. But, there’s a drop-off when both languages are used by both and even a larger drop in child use of the home language when only one parent uses the home language.  When one parent used both the home and host language and the other used Dutch only 35% of the children learned the home language.
What does this mean for raising children bilingually? The best chances of helping children to learn the home language is to consistently and almost exclusively use the home language at home. When both parents used both or one parent used the home language and the other used the host language the success rate of learning the home language was 74 to 79%. So this model can work as well. If only one parent speaks the home language it needs to be used very consistently with the child. I think this is where sometimes you can see “slippage.” If the parent using the home language is actually bilingual it’s easy to start using both. This usage however pushes the balance between the two languages to favor the host or majority language and with all the societal and school demands for the host language exposure and demand for the home language drops further resulting in fewer children learning the home language.

So, yes your child can become bilingual. Home patterns of language use will be highly influential in learning two languages. 


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  1. #1 by expertmanagement on February 20, 2009 - 1:49 pm

    Hi Elizabeth,
    I would totally agree with the findings discussed here. I have just written an article on my blog that is complementary to your info. I look at bi- and trilingual upbringing at the family level, in particular a few things everybody can do to make it easy for his or her child to acquire a second language.
    I would like to hear what you think about it.
    Un saludo

  2. #2 by Ana Lilian on March 1, 2009 - 4:17 pm

    I´m so excited to have found your blog. Very resourceful. I´m a Latina mom trying to raise a bilingual/bi-cultural daughter. In practice it´s not as easy as I thought it would be considering the overwhelming exposure to English, even living in LA. I´m amazed at her learning process at the moment. It´s just natural to her that every object has two names and she´s already good at knowing who understands which word. a friend and I started SpanglishBaby as a way to encourage other parents going thru the same bilingual journey to find their own method, but to never give up. Yes, your child can become bi and multi-lingual…just be patient, loving and consistent.

  3. #3 by Elizabeth Peña on March 1, 2009 - 7:07 pm

    Katja and Ana Lilian, thank you for your comments. I agree that consistency is key here. I’ve seen the one language for each parent work well in two situations among my family and friends. The way they made it work was consistency by the parents. In addition, both these families made efforts to regularly connect their child with the non-host language through extended family and friends– their children were of course exposed to the host– or majority language with no extra effort necessary. I think that the consistency and extended connection to the language their child was learning was a key to their success.

    Katja– I’d love to read the article you referred to, but I could not find it.

    Ana Lilian– keep up the good work, I think a lot of the information people hear about bilingualism (in the U.S. anyway) is just wrong and paranoid.

  4. #4 by expertmanagement on March 2, 2009 - 12:54 pm

    Dear Elizabeth,
    Sorry, this reminds me big time that I have to put a link on my site!!!

    I hope this helps!

  5. #5 by diegevedwal on April 5, 2009 - 9:04 am

    Great site this and I am really pleased to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor 🙂

  6. #6 by Jennifer Stokes on July 6, 2011 - 6:34 pm

    Hey! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after checking through some of the post I realized it’s new to me. Anyways, I’m definitely delighted I found it and I’ll be book-marking and checking back frequently!

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