The most important thing in bilingual parenting…

… is that the child becomes bilingual

Twelve years ago, I was thinking about what to study for my PhD. It was definitely going to be about bilingualism. It was going to be in my subject area: sociology of family and migration. It would have to be about learning, as I worked at university in an Education Department. 

Most importantly, it had to be something that could be turned into an effective help for bilingual families. 

My job back then was to be a Social and Educational Research Methodology lecturer. I was fed up with a particular dysfunction of how we run our universities and the research profession. Hundreds, thousands, of studies are being published all the time, and the knowledge is hardly ever used for any practical purpose. What of waste of human intelligence and endeavour! What a waste of society’s resources! 

No. This had to be different. A PhD project is the only time in a researcher’s life when it is possible to go free range for real. Such an opportunity could not be wasted. I was determined to design a study that would lead to a real breakthrough in how parents can learn skills to help their children become bilingual.

In social phenomena there tends to be one single thing that makes the difference between outcome X or outcome Y. (1)

What could be the one lever that would switch between success and failure in bilingual parenting? 

Finding the one thing

To start with, my mind was fuzzy. The field of bilingualism studies is vast and varied. It spans many academic disciplines and methodologies. For a decade I had been filling my brain with the literature.

I had grown to believe in prior research quite uncritically, although the field was disorganised, under-theorised and unpractical. My thinking was ingrained in that thought model. 

Yet at the same time the sociologist in me was screaming for a reality check. Because there was another side to this coin: the actual life of bilingual families and I knew quite a lot about that!

The reality in bilingual homes is often in stark contrast with the rosy picture of the popular imagination. 

Bilingual parenting is simple isn’t it? If the parent just speaks their language to the child, then the child will learn two native languages. Children are like sponges. What could go wrong?

Well, guys, about everything could go wrong. About everything goes wrong, frequently. 

I had seen time and time again how raising bilingual children turned out to be a losing game. In the UK. In Italy. Among Finns. Amon Germans. Among Turkish families. Everyone seemed affected. 

Useful advice?

There was another beast to deal with: bilingual parenting advice in the public domain. Bilingual parenting advice tends to assume that bilingual adults want to raise bilingual children.

Bilingual parenting advice tends to assume that separating languages rigorously and bombarding children with more and more language is the holy grail. 

Much of bilingual parenting advice says that if you do certain things (consistency, exposure, input, OPOL and other jargon) then everything will be hunky-dory and, no matter what tribulations may come your way, in the end all will be fine. 

Different reality

It just so happens, that the actual experience of migrant communities says otherwise. 

The majority of children born to immigrant parents never become bilingual. We have no reliable statistics of this because the necessary large-scale longitudinal data has never been collected.

Immigrants just live it on their skin day in day out. 

It is also true that many families don’t try to raise bilingual children even if they could attempt it. 

There are many reasons for that: one is migrating to leave the culture of origin behind; another is trying to assimilate as a protection against racism; a third reason is that the whole thing is not that important to everyone. 

Among those who do begin to parent with two languages many give up sooner or later because it becomes too onerous to keep up. 

When you really take the time to talk about this with all the generations of a migrant community, it becomes clear that surprisingly few families succeed in raising a bilingual adult. 

It is so rare that it is incredibly hard to find adult native bilinguals to be interviewed for a sociology of migration study.  

Migrant communities know this. Bilingualism researchers know this. Sociologists of migration know this. 

Why don’t we change the bilingual parenting advice to reflect this reality? 

Yet exceptions do exist and they are stunning. There are rare adults who grew up with multiple native-like languages, people who pass for a native speaker in two or three different languages. 

Why don’t we design studies to find out what is different about those rare families where bilingual parenting appears to be easy and children grow into confidently bilingual adults?

Would it be possible to find out what is special about the rare successful families and teach it to everyone else?

What if we could discover the secret of success?

What if it were possible to discover the secret behind the rare success stories of bilingual parenting.

What if by comparing real-life interactions in different families we could tease out the practical actions that make the difference? 

It does all boil down to one thing after all: the outcome. In other words, what really matters in bilingual parenting is whether or not our child actually becomes bilingual. 

What’s the point of raising bilingual children if by adulthood the children are left with a regret – or even a sense of failure – for not having learned their other language? 

What is the point of raising bilingual children, if home life is a constant stress because of bilingualism? What sort life is that? 

The one thing that would change everything for the better, would be to take away the stress and replace it with more successful bilingualism.

Raising bilingual adults

My task then became to find out why some children’s minority language keeps growing and why other children’s minority language fades away? 

Everyone says they do the same thing. What are the parents doing unwittingly to bring about this difference? 

Why would I assume it would depend on the parents?

Well, any sociologist of family would know that parental behaviour plays a gigantic role in children outcomes across the board.

Also, Barbara Zurer-Pearson says so in her 2007 article “Social factors in childhood bilingualism in the United States”.

A gap in research

The trouble was that back then bilingualism studies that had looked at intimate family communication between parents and children had focused on pre-school children. 

Even in studies with 2-3-year-olds the other researchers had found a lot of problems in bilingual parenting and many children could not keep speaking the minority language even up to their 3rd birthday. 

It’s a long way from a 3rd birthday to adulthood!

For one thing you have to go through the entire schooling process.

Surviving school

From educational studies with school-aged children and from ample real-life experience, we know that those bilingual children who still speak a minority language when they start school, will jolly well drop that extra language soon after. School is good at killing bilingualism.

Schools were originally designed – among other things- to standardise language use. Like so many 19th century inventions, schools do extremely well the things what they were originally designed to do. Schools are superb at eradicating linguistic diversity, including bilingualism. It is structurally built into the school institution. It happens as an automatic by-product of the standard way we do schooling. 

Nowadays most educators are not aware of these structural obstacles when they try to implement today’s diversity positive educational thinking. 

Coming through compulsory education while still being bilingual is no minor achievement for a child. The school years are an acid test of bilingualism. Those who can keep bilingualism up through the long school years are remarkable.

For this reason, I decided that I would study natural parent-child interaction in school-aged children. 

The one thing that matters – to who?

There was one more thing that I wanted to do differently in my study. For me the heart of it all was how children feel about their life with two languages. 

For goodness sake!

Why are we doing this at all if the children don’t enjoy it?

Why are we doing this if we don’t enjoy it as parents? 

Happy families are more important than bilingualism. Happy childhoods matter more than bilingualism. 

Hence, I decided that everything in my study would be about happiness of bilingual children and their families. 

Harmonious Bilingual Development

Right at the beginning of my PhD study I read Annick DeHouwer’s book called “Bilingual First Language Acquisition” (2009). It was just out back then. In that book to my great relief DeHouwer was writing about the same concerns that had been burning me for years.

Why do so many bilingual children and families have a negative experience of bilingual childhoods? 

Why don’t we see more Harmonious Bilingual Development? 

That was the cherry on the top. That was something I could get fully behind. 

The purpose of my study became to discover what exactly leads to Harmonious Bilingual Development and how those skills can be taught to adults. 

Bilingual Potential is built on the findings from this study that took me through four life-changing years with the bilingual families of the Finnish community in London.


1) For a fellow sociologist who that might, weirdly, be reading this: I’m thinking about Glasser and Strauss, Discovery of Grounded Theory, the original classic book, and in it the study about dying in hospital. The same principle here – it is possible to find the one thing that changes the whole experience a person has of a life situation.