How to Raise Multilingual Children in a Strictly Monolingual Society

I live in a town in America in which probably 90 percent of inhabitants primarily speak English. If you were to ask any random passersby if they can speak another language, they will probably say no, almost ruefully with a shake of the head. Perhaps they might mention that they took Spanish or French in high school but can no longer speak it. A few of them might say that their family speaks another language to them, but they answer back in English. This scenario is pretty common in America. In fact, in most places, English is the dominant language that people use for work, school, and play.

So, with that in mind, how can you learn to speak a second language when you don’t really have the opportunity to practice it with people? And how can you manage to stay in touch with your family’s culture, heritage, and language when there is a shrinking window of opportunity to do so? And for that matter, how can you raise multilingual children to stay multilingual in a society that is determinedly monolingual?

Background

My parents and I posing in front of my childhood home
My parents and I

Even though I was born and raised in America, I grew up speaking English and Korean. To clarify, I spoke Korean with my mom, and English with my dad, in school, and of course, in the wider society. In fact, my first words were English and Korean. But then, due to my father being military, he got sent back to South Korea and I spent the first part of my formative years (age 1 to age 5) in Korea where I basically grew up as a Korean toddler, even going to a Korean pre-school. I didn’t see my dad as much because of the military.

But then when I was five, my dad retired from the military and we returned to the states. I started Kindergarten. I know that my mom expressed worry that I would soon forget my Korean culture and language. I remember her telling me to always speak Korean with her so that I wouldn’t forget. As the obedient child that I was, I agreed, not fully understanding at the time why she was so worried. But in retrospect, I understand her concern. Many children who come from multicultural and multilingual homes eventually stop speaking their family’s language. It is only natural as they become more immersed in the American culture and society. After all, the only time that I ever had an opportunity to speak Korean was with my mom at home, on the phone with my Korean relatives, and at the local Korean stores.

See also: What It’s Like to Grow Up Bilingual in the Deep South

When my mom passed when I was eighteen, I immediately lost that fragile connecting link to my Korean heritage. I didn’t speak Korean for years simply because I had no one to speak it with and all of my Korean relatives were so faraway. But then after my first child was born, I managed to rekindle these small little nuggets of Korean words and found that I hadn’t entirely lost the language. And I decided I wanted to speak Korean with her with the intent to not only teach her, but to improve my own skills, as well as give her the same upbringing I had growing up so that little bit of Korean culture is still with us.

In the beginning, I would say that my daughter was mostly fluent in Korean and didn’t really speak much English. Now that she has one year of preschool under her belt, I would say that she is fluent in both English and Korean. As further evidence of the fact that she knows both languages equally, she dreams and thinks in both languages, depending on the situation. But as she continues school, I am worried that eventually she will forget her Korean and even the little bit of German that she knows in a society that is mostly monolingual. In order to combat that, these are some things that I will try to do to continue to make sure that she stays multilingual in a decisively monolingual society.

How to Raise Multilingual Children in a Monolingual Society

Encourage the use of the non-societal language in the home

First, if you want to raise your children to be and stay multilingual, then you need to encourage them to use the non-societal language in the home almost exclusively. Language, as with most things that you learn, is a skill that needs to be used regularly, otherwise you grow risk of letting it get stale and stagnant. And the best way to continue to hone those skills is to continue to use the language in the home. I would even say that you should speak to your children in the non-societal language both in the home and even outside the home. This way, they won’t associate the language as being private or even embarrassing, but will have the confidence to use it in any setting.

Even if it can sometimes feel embarrassing to speak to your children in another language outside the home, you should not let them feel embarrassed. If they feel embarrassed then how will they have the confidence to speak it? If they expect to get teased simply because of the fact that they can speak another language, then they will be even more likely to not want to speak it. Always tell them that it is important to learn and keep up the language. Never make them feel ashamed for knowing how to speak it despite what society may think. Knowing any second or third language on a native basis is a skill that not everyone has and should be protected at all costs by a fortitude of strength, positivity, and love.

See also: How I Taught My Child a Second Language

Invest in movies and music in the non-societal language

Undoubtedly, the best way to learn and improve your language skills is by simply using it. But it can also help to continually develop those skills by investing in movies, music, and other forms of media in the non-societal language. As someone who grew up speaking Korean with basically one person, I found that my own skills were rather limited. While I was able to communicate back and forth with my mother and her family with relative ease, I found that when placed in a real world setting, I struggled to communicate with strangers, as well as understand the language as presented in movies. So, to avoid limiting the language skills, you should expand it. After all, with the societal language, you are exposed to a wealth of people and experiences everywhere you turn, so you should do the same with the non-societal language.

Some ways that you can seek to diversify the usage of the non-societal language is by watching movies, listening to music, listening to audio books, and watching YouTube videos. And then, to facilitate maximum understanding, you should have a discussion about the form of media. Ask your children questions about what they think about the movie or song and how it makes them feel. And most importantly, have these discussions exclusively in the non-societal language. By doing this, you will help to expand your children’s language skills so that they can ultimately use that language is nearly any setting, as well as build them up to continually improve.

Take classes to improve reading and writing in the non-societal language

Depending on the age of the child, it is also important that you teach your children how to read and write in the non-societal language. Even though I grew up speaking Korean, I did not learn how to read and write in the language until I was much older. Thankfully because the Korean alphabet is pretty simple, it didn’t take me too long to learn the alphabet. Once you learn the alphabet, it is easy to sound out the characters and read the words. But for the longest time, I could not read and write in Korean and because of this I always felt as if I wasn’t fluent enough, or was simply lacking, or was uneducated.

Reading and writing are two very important components to learning a language. As children, as soon as we begin speaking and listening, we learn the alphabet and how to write the simple words and eventually learn how to read. When you don’t know how to read and write in a language well, even though you can speak it, it does affect your confidence. It again puts a limit on your skill in the language as well as your ability to communicate effectively. Even though I understand why my mother didn’t really focus on teaching me how to read and write in it since she wanted me to focus on my English, I still wish that she had taught it to me so that I could have learned both concurrently.

Have fun and relax

And finally, when working to keep your children to stay multilingual, it is important that you have fun and relax. Don’t teach your children the language in a stiff and strict way. Otherwise, they won’t have any fun and will associate the language as boring and tiresome. Just speak to them in the non-societal language. Play games with them in that language. Dance and sing songs to music in that language. If you have fun and relax then they will too. And ultimately will treasure their knowledge of the non-societal language as a true blessing.

A family sitting on their living room floor playing a board game.
Photo by Monstera on Pexels.com

Conclusion

Speaking as someone who grew up multilingual and is also the parent of someone who is multilingual, I call tell you first hand that it is hard to stay multilingual in a society that is strictly monolingual. In America, the understood official language is English. In most places across this big, diverse country, most transactions are done in English. There are of course pockets of communities in which other languages are spoken. But unless you live in a place in which both English and your family’s language is used equally, it can be hard to keep up with it. But by persistently using the non-societal language in the home setting, looking for other forms of media to incorporate the language, encouraging critical thinking skills in the language, and most importantly, having fun in the language, it is possible to make sure that the children will stay multilingual. After all, I managed to stay multilingual after all of these years, so it is definitely possible.

Are you multilingual? And most importantly, do you find it easy or hard to keep up your languages in the society that you live in?

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Hi! I'm Helen and I am a 32 year old biracial millennial mom raising two multiracial children. I am a writer, English consultant, and social media manager. I am a self-proclaimed chocoholic.

25 thoughts on “How to Raise Multilingual Children in a Strictly Monolingual Society

  1. Such a heartfelt, thoughtful and earnest post, Helen. All three of our children learnt another language at school as it is compulsory in primary school (years 3-6) and will be compulsory up to year 8 from 2023. They chose to continue with Japanese in high school. 21% of Australians speak a language other than English at home (trending upwards) and 1% speak indigenous (Aboriginal) languages at home.

    1. Thank you! Yes, in America too, it is compulsory to learn a second language in school. But the trouble is, most people don’t keep up with it and so they end up forgetting it. I know because I took many years of Spanish — and now I can’t speak it because I never had the opportunity to use it on a daily basis with native speakers. There’s so much attempt at teaching kids to speak another language and in the end it almost feels pointless because they end up losing it. We have to give them the motivation to want to speak it & keep speaking it. Otherwise, they will just be a regular monolingual English speaker. And that is even more likely here in America where we are so isolated from other countries & most people speak English so many might not feel a need to learn.

  2. Ive seen a lot of this happening with immigrants from India to wherever they re locate. Their kids can’t speak their native language and are almost disconnected with the culture of their parents. Which is sad because they feel rootless, as they grow up.

    1. Absolutely . It is a sad thing. It is inevitable to become immersed in the mainstream culture.. but to lose the family heritage is also sad. To lose your heritage is almost like losing yourself. 🙁

  3. This is such a great post. I work with a lot of multilingual students, and all of these suggestions are spot-on. As a language learner myself, I also really enjoy listening to music and audiobooks in Spanish to try to improve my listening comprehension. It’s really helpful!

    1. Absolutely! The more exposure you have to the target language the more likely you are to attain fluency. I studied Spanish for four years in high school and now I can’t speak it anymore. One reason for that is lack of use and another reason is that I never really had the opportunity to use it with a native speaker in a daily setting. Learning a language effectively is best done when it is hands on inside of in a traditional classroom setting.

      As someone who works closely with multilingual students, what advice would you give someone who wants to learn another language but can’t because of time constraints or lack of opportunity to use?

      1. Absolutely! The more you can be immersed in your target language, the better.

        That’s a great question! I’d say it’s probably more possible to fit in language learning than you would think. If you’re going to watch a movie one night, try watching one in your target language! That could be a foreign film, or it could be your favorite movie either dubbed or with subtitles in your target language. If you listen to audiobooks or podcasts, try finding some in your target language. There are lots of options out there specifically meant for beginning language learners. If you’re going to be spending time online, you could replace social media time with chatting with an online pen pal (there are also services for this meant specifically for language learning/exchange). There are lots of little things you can do to boost language learning time. It would be difficult to become fluent with just these things, but it would be a great start! A positive attitude, open mind, and growth mindset (learning a language is hard!) also go a long way!

  4. I am actually trilingual. I grew up speaking English, Cantonese and Vietnamese. I was born and raised in Canada. My parents are Chinese and Vietnamese. I grew up speaking English in school and speaking Vietnamese at home with family and Cantonese was learned simply by watching Chinese soaps with my parents as a kid. In school I also took French and Italian and taught myself Spanish for a few years. I’ve always been so interested in language and I hope it passes down to my daughter. My daughter is a multi-racial mixed bag because my husband is French-Canadian and Ukrainian. We’re finding ways to keep the cultures and languages alive in our household but with COVID hindering a lot of the family gatherings, it’s been a bit difficult! Hoping for more family gatherings in the coming months!!

    I commend you for being cognizant about injecting a lot of your family’s culture into your child’s life, I think they will appreciate it when they get to an age where they can reflect on how unique they really are!

    1. Thanks for sharing your story! Are you still fluent in Cantonese, Vietnamese, French and Italian? If so, how do you manage to keep up with all of these languages without letting your skills diminish?

      1. I am fluent in understanding Cantonese and Vietnamese – my fluency hasn’t changed with these languages over the years. I think partly because they were learned at such an early stage in my life and continued to be in use up until my early 20s (I don’t speak these languages as much now as I don’t live at home anymore). I am not fluent in French or Italian or Spanish. I think fluency is the ability to understand multiple languages without having to translate them word-for-word via your primary language (in your head)- this is my scientific belief lol… so no, I am definitely not fluent in French/Italian or Spanish however, my foundation of the French language (it was required in school from grade 2 to grade 9) helped me learn Italian and Spanish much faster! Unfortunately, I have retained very little of these 3 languages since I have been out of school… :/

      2. Yeah same here too. I am most skilled at English and pretty fluent in Korean. But like you, my German and Spanish skills are not where they used to be when I was in school. 🙁 I still try to practice my German though by speaking to German people on social media (or rather “writing”).

  5. You’re so right! In my school, we weren’t allowed to speak any language asides English and even though my parents try to speak in our mother’s tongue, we mostly reply in English. Sometimes they’d impose it as a rule that we have to speak our language at home but they end up forgetting and go back to English. I’m working on learning more about my language and I’m also learning a bit of Korean cause I now love the feeling of being multilingual!

    1. Yeah. I mean, I understand why they would impose an only English rule… and Ive heard a lot about kids from 1st generation or multicultural families who, although they could understand the language, they just answered in English. I imagine it was just easier to keep speaking English instead of switching back and forth between languages from school to home and then back again. But what you lose in the end is so much worse as there’s a possibliity of not being able to connect fully with your parent

  6. Solid advice. Funny story: Many years after my wife became an American citizen, her Ma was in hospice preparing for her “graduation” to Heaven. We met the other sisters in Canada and the three of them were discussing all the details of the plans and medical stuff about Ma, and one sister noticed me patiently standing in the kitchen, attentive to their concerns, but completely ignorant of Cantonese. She said, “Anita, tell C.A.” So Anita turned to me and with a straight face began to explain everything they were talking about . . . but still IN CANTONESE! Her sister woke her up with a swat on the arm and said, “In ENGLISH!” 😂

    1. lol That’s funny! But it’s so true. Sometimes when you are bilingual or multilingual, you can almost subconsciously even mix up your languages and use a word in one language when you mean to use a word in another language. It’s pretty cool really.

      My dad never learned to speak Korean but somehow he can understand it. I think the years of listening to my mom rubbed off on him and he began to absorb it by osmosis. Do you feel that you might understand Cantonese (bits and pieces at least), even if you might not necessarily be able to speak it? Or you might know more than you realize and if you do decide to speak it then it should be apiece of cake to you. 🙂

      1. Anita tried to begin to teach me when we spent a summer in Hong Kong, but Cantonese has NINE times, compared with Mandarin’s four!! I have hilarious stories about my attempts, but now Anita says she is forgetting many terms through lack of use. Like Georgia, not a lot of diversity in Kentucky. 🙂

      2. Yeah, that’ s for sure. And to a native English speaker, Cantonese & Mandarin are really hard. I took a few online classes in Mandarin and it was the hardest language that I’ve ever tried learning.

  7. Wonderful post Helen! My family has always taught me the importance of speaking our language at home. Once we stop using it, we slowly start to forget and relearning can be hard. Music and movies are such a great suggestion. Watching or listening to something in your language helps with practice. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Great post! I learned French at school and recently, I’m remembering words by watching short videos with subtitles. I learned Cantonese by watching movies and listening to songs and I find that the more you practice, the more you think in another language. Sometimes, I can express an idea in one language but not another because that language doesn’t have a word for that term.

  9. I applaud you for passing along your language and culture to your daughter! It is difficult in a world where English is the dominant language. But, I know from experience how knowing a second language expands your horizons.

    English is my native language, but I also speak French. Although I live in a very English part of Canada, it’s fairly easy to keep up with French here because we have French TV, and all of our products are labelled in English & French. My French is rusty compared to what it used to be but I can still speak, read and write quite proficiently.

    I also studied German for 4 years in high school. Unlike French, there is little to no opportunity to speak German here in Canada. My best friend from high school was German. She had an old aunt, Tante Lena, who lived with them who didn’t speak English. I used to go to her house and speak German with her aunt. Sadly, Tante Lena died about 30 years ago and I haven’t spoken German since. I remember the odd word but other than that, it’s all gone. Maybe I need to brush up on Duolingo.

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