Confessions from Parents Raising Bilingual Kids

If you are raising bilingual kids, you have no doubt been through some difficult times to try and get your kids speaking the target languages. There are many challenges for multilingual families. Whichever language strategy you are using, no family is perfect.

While I try to promote traditional bilingual parenting methods, I am also guilty of a few unconventional methods which although may seem crazy at first, they have actually helped us.

No judgement here please.  We are all fighting our own battles and sometimes we need to do what we can to get results.

Below you can find some of my confessions, as a mum raising bilingual kids. For context, we lived in Italy until my kids were 3 and 5 where they spoke more Italian. We then moved to Australia where they now speak more English.

1. Bribes

I have bribed my kids every now and again. I think it is quite common, but many parents won’t admit it. When we lived in Italy and the kids were young, they preferred to speak Italian. My Italian was pretty terrible initially so I always spoke English with them. I used to sometimes bribe them with little treats if they spoke English words with me.

We are living in Australia now, their stronger language is English so we try to keep Italian the home language. I sometimes bribe them with screen time if they do their Italian homework. They don’t go to Italian school so I brought books back from Italy. Each chapter they complete I usually let them have an hour on the playstation or computer games afterwards.

2. Hiding Things

My kids have always loved books. But we have a bigger selection in English so I started hiding the English and leaving out the Italian books so they would choose those instead.

I also changed the language on our Netflix to Italian, so it is the default language.  I told them that is how it is, not everything is in English, so if they want to watch that particular show, it is only in Italian.

3. The Secret Language

When we moved to Australia, we decided to speak Italian at home, and keep English for with family and school. It hasn’t been easy and I am not always consistent but I try my best. The kids would sometimes get embarrassed speaking Italian in public with me so I told them that it is like a secret language we have together, that can talk about anything and anyone, and nobody will understand us. They think it is exciting, and now they like to speak Italian with me out in public when they don’t want anyone to hear us.

4. Money

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I know this is probably going to be the one that gets the most judgement, but I will say it anyway. I started paying my kids to read in Italian, and it worked.

My older son loves to read, and didn’t have an issue reading Italian books, his reading skills transferred over with no worries and he became fluent quite quickly. However, my younger son was a little more challenging. He refused to read in Italian.

One day I offered him $1 to read a short Italian book, and he got so excited he sat there and read the whole thing to me (even if he needed a bit of help with pronouncing some words). I was so proud. I said to him each book he read I would keep giving him $1.

Within a week, he had about $10 with the short stories so I made it a bit more challenging and we started choosing longer books. He cleaned me out of coins week after week, but after a while he started to enjoy reading in Italian himself without any rewards so I stopped giving him anything. For me, it was a good investment, cheaper than Italian school!

Others confessed too!

When I mentioned about this post in our Facebook community group I asked if anyone in the group had a confession to make. Turns out there were quite a few. Here are some of the responses!

Eva from the US: “I let my child watch French cartoons on Youtube way before the recommended age of 2 years old.”

Kinga: My son was 8.5 when he started reading the Harry Potter saga in his primary language. He read the first two volumes and was begging for the third one. I bought it, of course, but in the minority language. And the forth one as well. Since then (he is 10.5 now) he reads in both languages with pleasure, it makes no difference for him.

Eva: “I told my kids their new baby sibling only understood our minority language, so we all had to speak it with him.”

Andrea: “I described Spanish as a secret language that daddy can’t understand, so we can make fun of him without him knowing.”

Liba: “When my son was younger, about 6 years old, he would sometimes read in the car out of boredom. I would want him to read so much that I often drove a 5 mile circle around my house. Not great for the environment!

Kate: “Sometimes I offer my 7 year old money for reading to her 3 year old sister in French.

Steph: “We remind ourselves we are super heroes and our super strength is speaking 2 languages and we giggle when daddy makes a mistake when he tries to speak in Rrench and we then correct him to help him learn”

Mckenzie: “My parenting style is like a ride on the hot mess express. My soon to be three year old is a picky eater. She will sit and pick at her dinner, not eat, and the second we get into bed she’s asking for a snack. So I started having her sit with her dinner about 20 minutes longer than normal dinner time and she hated it. The third night at dinner she caught on that she was having to stay longer even if she wasn’t eating.

She out of the blue says in perfect Spanish ‘ no gracias mama, no tengo hambre’. She had never said that phrase or any of those words previously except for gracias. I almost spat my food out and clapped I was so excited! Now whenever I am telling her to sit longer she pulls out her “magic trick” Spanish phrase. She thinks it’s like a cheat code or something.

Sylvia from London: “Our 7 year old daughter started reading and writing Dutch mainly during lockdown. I gave her a bit of pocket money when a book was finished. As she is a perfectionist, she didn’t speak much so told her that other people don’t know if she says it right or not as they won’t understand Dutch. Now she is turning it to her advantage asking for ice cream or other treats in Dutch so I can’t refuse as she is trying hard to make full sentences.”

Kate: “If my son really wants to do something or have something that I am not that keen on, I make him either ask in the minority language or I have him perform tasks in the min language (like find 5 red things or similar)”

Dominique: “My mother wouldn’t respond to my requests when I was younger until I asked in her language. It worked! I don’t think it is bad but a few would disagree.”

Raising Bilingual Kids

We all face a huge challenge raising bilingual kids. Every family is different, and we all have our ways of coping and facing this journey. What is easy for one family may not be for another. I often see people criticizing and it is sad because we are all just trying to do our best. Let’s not judge other families, if it is working for you, well done!

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Confessions of parents raising bilingual kids