Raising a bilingual child

A conference led by Julia Boulanger, founder of minibilingual.com

On Saturday February 25 we welcomed Julia Boulanger, Consultant in bilingual education and researcher and lecturer at the University of Fribourg.

For this conference, we discussed how to pass on several languages to our child(ren) and discovered the ingredients that allow a child to become bilingual or multilingual.

L’écoline is a bilingual (Fr/En) childcare and school welcoming more than 15 different nationalities and cultures. While nurturing our relationship with families and children, we realize that questions about language – at school and at home – is a concern for parents. With this conference we were able to have a good overview on expectations and to do’s for our children to become – and maintain – bilingual or multilingual.

Here is a (non exhaustive) summary of what we discussed:

Exposure to languages

Consider the time your child is exposed to a certain language: at school, at home with each parent, for activities. With that you can define the majority language (usually the one of the country you live in, or the school language, and other languages are minority languages).

For kids to be bilingual, they have to be spoken too. Parents exchanging in English but not interacting in English with the child will prevent a child to talk. For children to unlock the bilingual key, they need to be spoken too. A screen (watching movies, playing games) doesn’t help to speak, but it’s a complimentary tool to assess a language.

The more languages you add in a child’s life, the less time you have for each language to be learned. Usually, it’s 80% in one language and 20% for minority languages.

If both parents speak their own (different) language, check if every parent is with the children the same amount of time as this will influence the learning process.

It is good to create habits associated with languages. For example, by defining one particular language only at home.

Note about passing on a non-native language: there are two rules : 1) be able to connect emotionally with your child (talking about feelings for example) and 2) have other people who are native in that language around, in order to ensure the vocabulary/grammar.


It’s important to consider where you live and what the common language is. Majority languages are usually the ones of the country and/or the school, and then the rest are minority languages.

Need to speak

Does my child have to use each language to express her/himself?

It really helps to have children exposed with monolingual adults (grand-parents? holidays?) if you’re speaking a minority language. That way they will have to express themselves in the minority language.

Learning to speak: children do it naturally by interactions with them. You don’t need to sit down and make them repeat words in order for them to learn, but rather through play and regular interactions children.

If a parent doesn’t understand the language of the other parent (for example they communicate between them in English, but speak their own language to the children), it is worth for the parent to learn the other parent’s language. In that way, everyone can follow the family conversation, and everyone can answer in their language. 

Language valorisation

By associating positive things to a minority language, you can encourage its learning. By bringing culture and fun, may be celebrations, holidays, food, music, books, movies… you bring a language to live fully in your family, and entice children to use it.

Child’s age

Starting earlier the better, but sometimes the reality doesn’t allow for it. Childhood (before teenagers) is definitely the best moment for children to actually be fluent (native like).

Research shows that babies from a few months old can already understand there are different languages, ones they understand, strangers ones not.

Child’s preference

Being aware of what children prefer and which language they use most helps to reflect on how to guide them..

And about maintaining bilingualism…

It is very important to maintain the language and to not focus only on learning. Preschool children are flexible but most keen to lose the language. At 9yo and beyond, children won’t lose it that easily but it does need maintenance.

Audiobooks and exposing them to a lot of vocabulary helps children develop the language beyond childhood years.

Learning to read in a minority language prevents children from losing the language (for example after a move). It is however seen as a more “school” situation as reading and writing require children to repeat the process. It is advised to do it after they master the majority language’s reading and writing, for example.

If you want to know more, you can contact Julia Boulanger : https://minibilingual.com/ for coaching sessions.



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