9 common questions about kids and bilingualism


Rosie Byrnes


Curious about whether your child is on the path to becoming bilingual? Here are nine common questions parents ask about kids and bilingualism.

1. My child just started learning a new language in school. Are they bilingual?

Not yet — but they may well be on their way. Learning basic vocabulary (such as colors, numbers, and animals) and grammatical structures (like asking a question) are great stepping stones toward learning a new language — but most experts agree that basic-level language skills don’t constitute true bilingualism.

A person may even be able to hold a basic conversation in their second language, but they wouldn’t be considered truly “bilingual” until that language comes naturally to them in multiple different contexts.

2. Does my child have to be perfectly fluent in two languages to be considered “bilingual”?

Nope! In fact, most kids aren’t “perfectly” fluent in even one language — think of all the grammar mishaps and strange sentences that all young children display from time to time, even in their first language. Making mistakes is part of the language-learning process, so don’t worry if your kids’ fluency isn’t adult-level. It’s not supposed to be!

Most people who are bilingual also tend to have a dominant language: one in which they are more fluent, or one that they are more comfortable using most of the time. This can change over time depending on the learner’s environment, social circles, and developing skills — but having one language that’s dominant over the other doesn’t make a person any less bilingual.

3. How will I know when my child is bilingual?

Again, even the experts have a hard time agreeing on this one. There’s no one milestone to mark whether someone is bilingual or not, because being bilingual is so much more than just knowing another language. But as a general rule, it’s okay to assume that anyone who feels bilingual is bilingual!

In other words, you may notice your child naturally switching between both languages more often, or showing signs of becoming more and more comfortable using their second language. This is a good indication that their language skills are improving, and they may be getting closer to feeling truly bilingual.

4. Can a child living in a monolingual home become bilingual?

Yes! Many children who live in monolingual homes are able to become bilingual. For some kids, being immersed in another language outside of their homes (such as living or going to school within a culture that primarily speaks a different language than their parents) is a natural way to cultivate bilingualism. Other kids learn a second language through their social circles, or by studying and becoming immersed in other ways outside of the home.

If you are a monolingual parent and you’re hoping to help your child become bilingual, there are lots of ways to support them. Aside from giving them time to learn a second language outside of your home, try to immerse them in their new language as much as possible. Provide plenty of books and entertainment in their new language, and encourage them to use their new vocabulary in real life.

5. I am a bilingual parent. Which language should I use to speak to my child?

Whichever you feel most comfortable with! Some parents feel obligated to speak to their child in the “new” language more often, because they feel it will accelerate their child’s learning. Others use the one-person-one-language approach (i.e. Mom speaks only English and Dad speaks only French). But these may not work for every family, and it’s always important to keep positive relationships and open communication as a number-one priority.

If you feel more comfortable speaking one language over another, that’s totally okay. If you want to speak both languages with your child — or even use code-switching to mix the two together — that’s fine too! Communicating in a way that is comfortable and natural within your family is the only “best” way to set them up for learning success.

6. I’m worried that my child will get confused learning two languages at once. What should I do?

A lot of parents feel this way about encouraging their kids to learn multiple languages. And let’s be honest: learning a new language can be a little complicated or confusing at times, for both kids and adults. But there’s no evidence to suggest that learning two languages can confuse a child beyond repair. (In fact, being bilingual may actually help develop other amazing functions in the brain.)

You might notice that bilingual children occasionally mix their two languages together as they’re learning. This is perfectly normal, and nothing to worry about. In fact, this is actually a good thing, as it means that they’re learning to switch seamlessly between languages in order to best communicate what they’re trying to say.

And, just like with any new skill, it’s okay to take a break or try something different if you notice that things just aren’t working. Learning a new language should be exciting, so if your child is more frustrated than enthusiastic, it might be time to switch things up and make language learning fun again!

7. I’ve heard that learning two languages can cause a speech delay in kids. Is that true?

Not exactly. While it is true that some children who learn two languages simultaneously may take a little longer to start talking, these children still begin talking within the normal range of speech development, and will often experience a “language boom” shortly afterwards.

In other words, bilingual kids may not always begin speaking as early as their monolingual peers — but when they do, they’ll typically have a perfectly healthy timeline of speech development in both of their native languages.

When bilingual children develop an issue with their speech or language development, it usually becomes apparent in both languages — not just one — and it’s almost never related to the fact that they’re bilingual.

8. Is it too late to start teaching my child a second language?

Definitely not! While certain aspects of language learning come more naturally to younger learners, anyone can learn to be bilingual.

Different ages and stages of brain development all have different benefits when it comes to learning a new language. This means that there’s no way to “age out” of becoming bilingual — and there’s no perfect time to get started (other than right now)! With enough practice and dedication, even adults can learn to become comfortably fluent in a new language. Why not learn a new language along with your child?

9. How can I help support my child’s bilingual learning?

As is the case with all learning, one of the best indicators of your child’s success in learning a new language is the support they have from you. There are so many ways to help encourage and empower your child on their language learning journey — and to have fun in the process!

For now, remember that the best way to support your child’s language learning is to give them plenty of opportunities to see, hear, and use their new language. And whether they’re just getting started on their language learning journey or they’re already starting to feel bilingual, there’s always a way to make language learning even more fun and engaging!