Raising a multilingual family. How do you do it?

Raising a multilingual family. How do you do it?

Multilingual upbringing: often called a present for your child. But how do you do that? Wendy van Dalen gives us some tips!

‘’How do we keep our mother language alive in our family? Do you have any tips?’’ One of the many questions I get at my job. Of course, there are tips, theoretical explanations and references to research. However, nothing beats experience and practical tips. In this article, I briefly discuss some theoretical backgrounds, followed by several experiences and tips from parents.

Conditions for learning a second language

Children learn a second language the quickest when they are frequently around the new language, and it is also high-quality and tailor-made. It is also good when they are involved in the interaction as well. This is usually the case at their new school and, for example, at (sports) clubs.


The social factors, the degree of interaction, the age, but also the motivation and attitude towards the country of the second language all play a role. People do not always realise this, but it is of great importance. It motivates children more to commit to the second language if their parents are positive about the new country and the language. A positive attitude about multilingualism gives them the message that they can be themselves.

What does it mean, being multilingual?

Multilingualism usually means that someone can speak more than one language fluently in different situations. Individuals are also called multilingual if they have the competence to understand and produce more than one language or if they regularly use multiple languages (Van den Branden, 2010).

The strategies for multilingualism

The best-known method is the One Parent, One Language (OPOL) method. This method works as you'd imagine. Each parent speaks one language with the child. For example, the mother speaks Dutch (her mother tongue) and the father speaks English (his mother tongue) with the child.

Another popular strategy is the One Language One Environment method. This is a good method for parents who speak the same language amongst themselves, which is different from the local language they speak. These parents could then choose, for example, to have the child speak Dutch at school and English at home.

It is important to be consistent, regardless of the method you choose.

How do parents experience multilingual parenting?

How do parents experience multilingual parenting? What were the tips they received and what are the tips they are now giving you? A call amongst expats and immigrated parents provided a source of practical information and very good tips:

  1. Keep talking to your children using your mother tongue. Even if they switch to a different language.
  2. Just do it.
  3. Keep up with your mother tongue through daily use and a "non-school approach".
  4. Lots of reading aloud and leave many reading books lying around.
  5. If you are a little insecure as a parent, arrange mother tongue lessons for your children.
  6. It is very important that parents have faith in their children and school is not the most important thing; if children come along socially, they will also pick up the language quickly.
  7. Please note that as parents you often use the same language repertoire at home. Children need expansion in their vocabulary.
  8. Choose which language you speak with them and be consistent!
  9. Teach your children your traditions.
  10. Speak their mother tongue with them so that they can talk to their grandparents or speak the language at work later.
  11. Do not be afraid of a language delay due to multilingualism. Children can handle this.
  12. Don't stress; children pick it up faster than adults.
  13. Speak your mother tongue with your child right from birth.
  14. The harder it is for you, the harder it is for the child.
  15. Look especially at your child, at what works and what doesn't. Familiarising a language must feel good and must happen naturally. Then, the child will enjoy learning the new language in the long term.
  16. Consider which language your child will use at school and then focus on the basic things such as numbers, forms or whatever you want them to learn before they go to school.
  17. For expats who go abroad for a shorter time, I have the following tip: Keep up with the native language through a curriculum and lessons; that makes it easier when re-migrating.
  18. Support each other as partners.
  19. Don’t correct too much, just make an improvement by saying something back correctly. Keep it gezellig, don't turn it into a school situation.

Quotes and stories

"It felt so much more natural to speak my mother tongue with my child," says a proud mother from Malta. Her child is a polyglot. He is fluent in Dutch, English and Arabic and has taught himself Spanish. That this differs per child is clear to his parents. The other children in the family have a poor command of Arabic.

Another mother, whose family speaks three languages, writes: "It is good to be able to talk to your child about sensitive topics in the language closest to your heart."

Wendy van Dalen


Wendy van Dalen

Dutch lessons for (expat) children and their parents, tutoring, Remedial Teaching and homework support. Also language and culture support for parents. Please see or

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Shirley Heuveling 11:41 | 20 July 2019

Having a network of friends with other kids speaking your mother tongues really helps. My kids also go to the Fondation en Famille where they can play in French and experience the French culture which really helps them to be confident and make them realise that French is not only mum's language. It gives them a positive image of their French background.