Raising Polyglot Kids: What If I'm Not Fluent?

Jonty Yamisha from OptiLingo shares how you can teach your kids a language that you're not completely proficient in.

Jonty Yamisha
Updated on
February 10, 2021
5 min read

In an increasingly globalized world, a growing number of children are bilingual. The number is estimated at 20 - 25% in the United States and 35% in Canada. So it's no wonder that more and more parents are interested in raising bilingual (or even multilingual) children. One of the most common questions I hear from parents is this: Can I raise my child to be bilingual if I'm not fluent in a given language?

Before I get into the answer, we need to address the concept of fluency. I've written extensively on the topic of fluency, so I won't rehash the topic here. But if you're asking the question, chances are that you're not fully confident in your language abilities. So I'm going to answer this question as someone who began raising multilingual kids at a time when I was not fully fluent in two of the languages we use in our household (Circassian and Russian). The short answer is: It's possible, but with a lot of work. Let me dive in and explain why. Most often, when I hear discussions on this topic, I hear comments like: You can't raise bilingual kids if you're not fluent in the second language. Your kids will develop odd accents. Your kids will make grammatical mistakes. I'm not convinced of any of those arguments. But those are minor issues.

The bigger issues are these: To raise multilingual children, you need to adhere to the One Parent One Language rule advocated by experts like Tetsu Yung. This means that there needs to be a dedicated person who speaks *exclusively* in the target language to the child. If that person is you, and you're not fully fluent, you're going to run into some challenges. Do you know how to say "potty" in your target language? Can you sing children’s' songs or tell fairytales in your target language? Can you say things like "itty bitty" or "pitter patter" in the target language? Do you know how to say things like "fart" or "tickle monster" or "pee pee"? These are rarely words learned in a formal classroom environment, but these are terms that little children use almost every day. If you don't know how to say things like this, you're going to run into a wall real fast.

Then, there are some emotional components to the challenge. In my household, my wife is a native speaker of both Circassian and Russian. She can convey the absolute fullest spectrum of her feelings in either language. I'm no slouch, but there are times when I want to console my children or share their sheer excitement, and I find limits to the range of vocabulary, grammar or expressions I can draw upon to do so.

Finally, there are some practical concerns as well. If your child is rushing into a busy street, can you speak well enough to find the words for, "Stop! There's a car coming!" in a half second? Can you explain why or how a child should avoid hot water, a burning stove or a barking dog? Native speakers often struggle to find the right words in moments of stress. This challenge grows exponentially if you're struggling in your target language.

Now all that said, this is still doable, so long as there's a dedicated fluent speaker in the picture. In my case, that's my wife. It could also be a caretaker, sports coach or family friend. But even if you don’t have access to any of the above, there are still opportunities to raise your children with some multilingual benefits. They may not end up being fully fluent, but you’d be surprised at how much small children can pick up.

For a while, we were trying to introduce our children to Arabic. This is a language I spoke a bit when I was little. I still understand quite a lot, but I’m not confident in my abilities to teach it to my children. So we brought in a part-time caretaker who would play with our kids exclusively in Arabic. Due to the pandemic, we’ve had to discontinue those activities, but nearly a year later, my children can still count to 10 in Arabic, and they know a few dozen basic phrases. The bottom line is this: If you’re interested in giving your children the gift of language, then you should do whatever you can to make that happen. If you’re completely fluent and confident in your speaking abilities in your target language, then speak exclusively to your child(ren) in that language. If you’re not, then do the best you can and try to supplement with additional resources or people.

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Jonty Yamisha

‍Jonty is a lifelong polyglot and founder of OptiLingo. He is the proud father of four children. He and his wife are the proud parents of polyglot children.‍

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