Which difficulties can arise when raising bilingual children and how to deal with them?

What influences success or failure with raising bilingual children

Julian Takeshi Ogata
Updated on
April 26, 2021
10 min read

Which aspects are especially difficult to deal with for parents? The focus will be placed on situations that influence success, based on experiences of binational couples. 

How consistent do you have to be?

Many counselors for bilingual families and scholars agree that successful bilingual education requires truly consistent practice of methods and principles.

The first field report was written by a German mother named Monika. She lives in Greece with her Greek husband and their two children. Monika speaks German and her husband Andreas Greek with Vassilis. Monika reports that their method of education, which is commonly called One Person - One Language (OPOL), went completely smoothly: Both parents consistently used their mother tongues, which, in her opinion, was the crucial point. Vassilis had been aware of his bilingualism from the age of three, and functionally separated the two languages. This means that each language is assigned to its specific functions; it has its particular task, role and field of application. Monika emphasizes that consistency is especially important at this age of language acquisition.

However, despite maintaining consistency, children may prefer the use of the stronger language.   

The next report was also written by a German mother who lives in the Netherlands with her children and Dutch husband. As in the first report, it is the same constellation. She speaks German with her three-and-a-half-year-old son. Although he understands everything she says, he often answers in Dutch. She considers it a problem that her son tends to correct her in Dutch, even refusing to speak German.

Why is the language being refused? 

The phenomenon of refusal of a language is related to various factors. By means of an account of the experiences of a German-Polish family, I would like to present in this section the close connection between language refusal, language prestige, and ethnic identity.

The following can be seen as an example of presumably failed bilingual education.

A German wife lives in Germany with her Polish husband who has knowledge of German. She is considering speaking German with her unborn child, but her husband has no intention of passing on his language to the child, as he or she should learn German as their only mother tongue.

It can be assumed that the refusal to pass on Polish is related to the prestige of its language.

  1. Language prestige

The husband exclusively speaks Polish with his parents and other Polish compatriots, but in his opinion, the child could learn the language later as a second language. As the grandson of a German refugee, he had never been considered Polish, and his Polish roots were not important to him. Therefore, he is probably critical of his country of origin, and does not feel it to be urgent to pass on his primary language to the child. It is conceivable that he feels it to be more urgent to adapt to the host country as if he had always lived there. It is possible that the husband lacks the will and conviction to pass on his language. Even if he would consciously use a method of education, it would demand a high degree of consistency from the parent concerned, consisting of the conviction to do the right thing.

  1. Ethnic identity

The more the ethnic identity of the foreign parent is focused on the home country, the greater the chances of success of bilingual education. The child already forms an own attitude towards bilingualism in the course of preschool age, and success also depends mainly on this attitude. In this case, however, it would be conceivable that over time the child develops a negative attitude towards the non-local language, and the prestige is not highly valued. Eventually, it will most likely refuse the non-ambient language.

What can parents do?

As a summary, those following points should be kept in mind:

1. Parents should be consistent in their education method they choose and as to who represents the non-local language. This depends on the
circumstances, like where the family lives.

2. In order to maintain the OPOL-Method, parents should pretend during the first years
that they do not understand the partners’ language, so that the childs becomes aware of the
function of each language. (e.g. mother: German, father: Japanese)

3. Parents should only speak in their mother tongue and have a strong will to pass on
their ethnic identity.

References (in German)

Mahlstedt, Susanne (1996). Zweisprachigkeitserziehung in gemischtsprachigen Familien – Eine Analyse der erfolgsbedingenden Merkmale. Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, New York, Paris, Wien: Peter Lang.

Kielhöfer, Bernd; Jonekeit, Sylvie (2002). Zweisprachige Kindererziehung. Tübingen: Stauffenburg Verlag.

Zweisprachige Erziehung - Erfahrungsberichte

Sohn korrigiert mich in seiner Sprache

Deutsches Elternhaus, polnische Großeltern?

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Julian Takeshi Ogata

Julian was raised bilingually in German and Japanese. At university, he studied Multilingual Communication in English and Spanish and lived in Chile for 8 months. His Bachelor's thesis dealt with successful bilingual education and he loves to communicate with international people.

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