Bilingual children: what parents need to know

Bilingual children: what parents need to know

Expat parents often approach me with questions about how they should help their children with their Dutch language skills when they speak another language to them at home.

Categories of expat parents

There are three categories of parents in the expat community:

  • Most common is where one parent is a Dutch native speaker and the other is not
  • Second most common is where both parents come from another country
  • Thirdly, there are those parents who both have a different mother tongue and neither is Dutch

Types of bilingualism

There are two types of bilingualism, additive and subtractive.

Additive bilingualism

Additive bilingualism means knowing a language and then adding knowledge of another language to your repertoire. This type of bilingualism has positive cognitive, academic, social and professional consequences.

Here in the Netherlands, an additive form of bilingualism would be if the parents spoke Dutch (language one or L1) at home and the child went to an English-language (language two or L2) school.

Subtractive bilingualism

However, expat parents are often faced with the subtractive form of bilingualism. Subtractive bilingualism happens when learning another language interferes with the normal development of the other language.

This leads to language loss, attrition or incomplete acquisition and bilingualism then becomes a liability, a deficit or even a source of shame.

Raising a bilingual / multilingual child

There are a few things to bear in mind when raising a bilingual (or multilingual) child. The rules are the same, regardless of the number of languages spoken to a child. The following two sections focus on the type of bilingualism where the home language (L1) is not the majority language of the country.

Teaching bilingual children

  1. Teachers should encourage families to keep using the L1 at home or in other social situations. They should additionally encourage parents to read to the child in their L1.
  2. Teachers should never tell the parents to stop using the L1 at home so that the child can make better progress in the L2 at school. Children will eventually prefer the language of the society because it’s what their friends speak.
  3. Teachers should also allow children to talk about their different cultural background and show to their classmates how they can speak another language.

Parenting bilingual children

  1. Parents should continue using the home language even if the child doesn't want to use it.
  2. Often bilingual children are illiterate in the language that is not taught at school. Thus, they speak and understand the L1 but can't read or write it. Parents should be patient. When a child learns how to read and write at school, these skills can be transferred to the other language as well.
  3. Parents can start teaching reading and writing in the home language a few years after the child has learned the skills. What is important to realise is that without support, the skills that are practised at school will decline in the home language.
  4. Speaking the language at home is not enough for the child to gain language proficiency. Parents need to find opportunities for their child to use the language outside their home. It is important that children know that other children speak the language as well.
  5. Parents should remember that there can be great differences between siblings. Usually older ones are more proficient than younger ones. Siblings may use different methods to learn and parents should support each child in using the method most suitable for him / her.
  6. If a young child mixes languages there is no need to worry. A young child may know certain words only in one language. Once he / she learns them in the other, he / she will use them correctly. Also, multilingualism is not harder than bilingualism.
  7. Whenever a child uses the minor language, parents should remember to praise him / her.
  8. Starting to teach a second language after puberty goes against what is known about the role of age in L2 acquisition. Childhood is the best time to learn (and lose) a language.

But above all, parents need to emphasise the value of the other or home language. They should use the language at home as much as possible, read to the child and help him / her to learn words in the home language. It is good to keep in mind that even a little bit is better than nothing.

This article uses facts about bilingualism from a lecture by Professor of Linguistics Silvina Montrul at the University of Illinois.

Marja-Ilona Koski


Marja-Ilona Koski

I am a theoretical Computer Scientist turned into a Computer Science teacher. I have taught in primary and secondary schools in Finland, I have been working in the field of...

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