How to raise multilingual kids overseas

An early start to language learning has been shown to enhance cognitive flexibility, thus helping children become better communicators and creative thinkers. It also offers the potential for broadening a child’s horizons later in life.

As a result, a 2009 study shows that one in five parents-to-be plan to bring up their child as bilingual, while more than nine in 10 parents believe in the importance of teaching children languages in today’s globalized societies. However, parents worldwide face many difficulties when raising children as multilingual.

Modern-day challenges

In multi-language education, there are several hurdles for parents, especially interracial or immigrant families who are unfamiliar with the local language, as well as parents who are hesitant to speak to their child in their mother tongue if isn’t widely spoken locally.

American writer and creator of Bilingual Monkeys, Adam Beck, explains the difficulties of raising bilingual kids in Japan: “If there isn’t sufficient exposure in the minority language, the child’s development will rapidly fall behind the relentless progress of the majority language.” Because Beck’s wife only speaks Japanese, he has to be a hands-on parent with his two kids when it comes to learning English.

Corey Heller, an American mother and founder of Multilingual Magazine shares a similar experience in raising three bilingual kids in Germany. “The problem with raising children in a non-native language in a country where the language is not spoken, is that things can get difficult—very difficult—if you aren’t keeping up with the language yourself.”

Hence, parents play a vital role in their children’s language education, whether they are living in their home country or elsewhere.

Tips for parents and parents-to-be

1) Maximize exposure to the minority language.

Great communication starts at home. From day-to-day conversations to family gatherings, speaking in the minority language can greatly benefit the child. Ana Mumy, a trilingual speech language pathologist, adds that “Children need to hear both quantity and quality language input to have strong language skills. Parents are the primary individuals who can provide the language input needed in the native language.”

Similarly, a study conducted by UNESCO about multi-language education reiterated that, to retain their mother tongue while living overseas, children whose first language is not the medium of instruction in that country must continue having interactions with their family in their first language. At the same time, ongoing formal instruction is necessary for the development of the child’s reading and writing skills in the minority language.

If immigrant parents want their children to master the local language, they need to devote time and effort to learning and practicing the language at home, too.

2) Be creative and make learning fun.

The child’s engagement should be a priority. They should see the learning process as a fun way to spend more quality time with their parents. Set some time every day to read books, tell stories, play games or listen to music in the second language.

Bilingual Monkeys suggests many imaginative ideas and tips, such as captive reading or placing suitable text or stories around the house. Having an effective 30-minute homework routine, such as writing short letters or daily journals, could also make a big difference in your child’s learning progress.

3) Be supportive and don’t give up!

Helping a child learn a second language can be an overwhelming task. Don’t take it personally if your child starts losing interest. Instead, keep encouraging them and give concrete motives for learning. According to UNESCO, parents’ positive attitudes are vital in maintaining the mother tongue for cultural identity. Particularly when living overseas, speaking one’s native or majority language can strengthen the family’s bond.

Multi-language education is a valuable gift parents can give their children. The long-term benefits of learning a language far outweigh the challenges and can often provide children with a lifelong advantage.


Jenie Gabriel

The author

Jenie Gabriel

Jenie creates and coordinates content for Gengo's marketing team. Originally from the Philippines, she was an advertising creative in Singapore before moving to Tokyo. In her spare time, you’ll find her wandering around the city or planning her next escapade.

  • Miguel

    I’m raising my two daughters in Japan. While I speak to them exclusively in English, they only ever answer me in Japanese (unless they want something). This has me worried that they’ll never gain any real proficiency in English. To their credit, they speak with their Canadian family members exclusively in English, which is a huge relief for me, since communication with family is my primary goal for only ever talking to them in my native tongue. That said, reading and writing is a different story. I work two jobs, so I’m rarely home in the evenings, and the weekends are busy, but I know the only way to make any headway will be to sit down with them and do the hard work, while trying to make it fun.

    • Irina Martinez

      Hello, I think you are right to worry that your kids respond to you always in Japanese, although they understand English. They need as much practice speaking English as possible so they are comfortable speaking it. I have been dealing with it by patiently and persistently translating what my daughter says to me (“you said ……”), until she switches to my native language, too. I am very careful not to pressure her, we don’t want any stress or drama associated with speaking the other language. It takes a lot of patience, indeed, and it is increasingly hard as the conversations become more complex, but it is, probably, the only way to do it.

  • Cinzia Rizzotto

    Thanks for the tips :-)
    I’m Italian and I live in Spain, since the first day I talk to my child in Italian, play with her in Italian, read stories in Italian, put cartoons in Italian on the tv, etc etc.
    Daddy does the same in Spanish with her. In the kindergarden teachers do it in Catalan.
    Now our child is a beautiful trilingual 3-year-old princess :-)

  • Thanks for your input. Very good suggestion indeed!

  • Bob Myers

    As the parent of two perfectly bilingual kids, I think you left out the single most important thing, which is to organize your childrens’ lives so they spend meaningful amounts of time (I mean years) in both countries at various points while growing up.

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