What It’s Really Like to Raise Bilingual Kids

What It’s Really Like to Raise Bilingual Kids

It’s true: kids are annoyingly good at picking up a second language. But raising bilingual children comes with its fair share of surprises.
“You guys are so lucky!”

I hear when people find out that my children are growing up speaking two languages.

My usual response is, “I get jealous of them too.”

They’re six, three, and six months and the oldest two are equally fluent in English and German.

But raising bilingual children is an adventure that’s a little more complicated than it might seem when you see us juggling languages in the playground.

We have misunderstandings, and there are gaps in our knowledge.

And there’s also the concept of “heart language” that everyone seems to forget when they’re telling you that kids’ brains are linguistic sponges.

(I’ll delve into this in a moment.)

I’m Scottish, and my partner is English, but we live in the part of Austria where they shot The Sound of Music.

We’re making the German/English thing work, but that doesn’t mean that it works every day.

This is what I’m learning.

In this article: 📝

  • How do you raise a child bilingually?
  • So how do I raise my kids with two languages?
  • What no one ever tells you about raising a child bilingual
  • Both and, not either or

How do you raise a child bilingually?

In theory, there are two ways to take your child from a babbling baby to an adult who’s equally comfortable speaking, reading, and writing two languages.

First, there’s One Person One Language (OPOL), the default for bilingual families where each grown-up uses their mother tongue with their kids.

Then, there’s Minority Language at Home (MLH), which is usually how things go for immigrant families like ours.

Here, you speak the main language of the place you live when you’re out in the world, and then you speak your mother tongue at home.

But do you want to know a secret?

The rules may not be as strict as we once thought.

The people who first wrote down these methods of raising bilingual kids drew definitive boundaries around which adults spoke which languages with which children and when.

But more recent research seems to show that kids can learn to speak a language perfectly even when a family chooses to mix things up.

This is good news because I’m not sure if the people who wrote the books had ever actually met a preschooler.

As far as I can see, there are three main problems when theories meet my very sweet, very loud, very opinionated children.

1. Kids are stubborn.

They know what language they feel like speaking.

German only at the dinner table?

Wird bei uns nicht klappen.

(Translation — “That’s a hard no”).

2. Parents are tired.

Even — maybe especially — if you’re bilingual, you have inexplicable days when your brain just doesn’t want to speak the language it’s supposed to be speaking.

3. We all have a “heart language.”

Most importantly, neither approach takes what my German friends call “Herzsprache” into account.

What is Herzsprache?

Literally — ”heart language.”

I like the German phrase better than “mother tongue” because it belongs to the person rather than being something they inherit.

Herzsprache is the language you choose when you want to express love, create, laugh, cry, or talk about your history.

When you talk to your kids about the big stuff, it’s important to speak your heart language, no matter where you are.

It’s natural, authentic, and about more than just the words you use.

But your job as a parent is also to help your child figure out what their heart language is going to be, and that comes from the culture and the social life that they’re soaking up as much as it comes from new words.

What surprised me most on this journey is that I’m not completely sure what my children’s heart languages will be.

So how do I raise my kids with two languages?

How are my kids learning German?

We’re lucky enough to be surrounded by the language, so they get to use it every day just by being kids.

We have English-speaking friends and German-speaking friends

My little linguists get shy if they have to speak a different language with someone that they’ve already sorted into a box.

We’ve been known to disappoint German (and even bilingual) families who’ve wanted their kids to practice English with ours on play dates.

If they know each other from Kindergarten, they’re calling their game Verstecken, not Hide-and-Seek, no matter what the grown-ups say.

We signed them up for daycare earlier than the Austrian average

This means they could spend a few hours a day surrounded by German.

Apart from that:

We take our lead from the kids.

We usually speak English in public and sometimes speak German at home.

We have a “family vocabulary” where some of our words have crystalized auf Deutsch.

My two oldest kids said “Auto” before they said “car”, and that’s still our default word.

My daughter’s first “sentence” then turned out to be “big Auto”, but it wasn’t long before she sorted out the difference between the languages.

What no one ever tells you about raising a child bilingual

My kids have it easy because they’ve been playing, negotiating, and problem-solving in both languages for as long as they can remember.

I know how lucky this makes us, and I am so proud of how much they’ve learned.

Still, some things about living away from my home culture are hard.

I could see the ocean from my window in Scotland, and being landlocked makes me antsy.

I well up when I hear bagpipes.

I’ve also been known to get unreasonably sad when Austrian milk makes my tea taste wrong.

And now, these feelings that I don’t fully belong here are compounded by the fact that my kids don’t have the same weight of attachment to the place I grew up in because they’ve never spent more than a holiday there.

If we’ve had surprises already, it’s nothing in comparison to what’s coming when they get older, start school, and really start to decide what makes them them.

Already, I’m asking questions that I never thought of before they were born.

If they turn out to be bookworms like us, are they going to read for fun in English or in German?

When I overhear my daughter playing by herself, her dolls are usually speaking in the Austrian dialect she hears at kindergarten.

Will that extend to the stories she reads and imagines?

Are they ever going to understand the old movies I was looking forward to watching with them?

Right now, the dialogue is too far removed from the English they hear from me.

I can take them to the village from the opening scene of The Sound of Music in 20 minutes, but they don’t know what Julie Andrews is saying.

Am I going to have to hire a tutor so that they can read and write in English just as fluently as they can speak?

Both of their parents have worked as English teachers, but is it going to cause too much family drama if we’re the ones trying to teach them where commas go?

What’s their sense of humor going to be like?

My knock-knock jokes are bombing right now, and German comedy is very different from the comfort shows I watch when I’m feeling homesick.


Both and, not either or

I’m trying to focus on the extras we get by living across two cultures instead of the things we might miss.

My daughter loves wearing her Austrian dirndl dress and she knows all about the different parts of the Scottish kilt we just bought for her dad.

On Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday, we make pancakes for dinner, like all good Brits.

And we do it after we’ve worn silly costumes and eaten Krapfen donuts all day, like all good Austrians.

We celebrate Austrian Christmas on December 24th, and have our British Christmas dinner on the 25th, and Nikolo (A.K.A St Nicholas) comes on December 6th to fill their shoes with candy.

As they get bigger, they’ll figure out what traditions they want to hold on to.

That bit isn’t really up to me anyway.

Raising bilingual kids is an adventure.

I have no doubt that my kids will speak better German than me within the next few years, and so I fully expect the goalposts of our family language to move again.

Like all things parenting, I’m going to try and roll with it.

You have to take things as they come or, as we say in Austria, don’t worry about the eggs before they are laid.

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