Raising Multilingual Children

With a background in Spanish Education, I always find it fascinating to hear stories of real families who are raising multilingual children. And I’m impressed by the tenacity of many people who continue to pass along their heritage and culture through their mother tongue.

Of course, there are many factors at play and so many diverse family scenarios that raising multilingual children does not always happen, even for parents who speak more than one language. Take my family as an example. My husband is Filipino and his first language is Tagalog. I am a certified Spanish teacher. Although we each speak two languages, only one is common: English. Despite our idealistic (and sometimes good-humored) dream of raising trilingual children, the reality is that we speak predominantly English in our household. It is very challenging to teach our daughters a second language that the other parent does not understand or speak well. (Kudos to parents out there who are doing this in spite of the challenges!)

Let’s be real: capturing a decent family photo is hard enough… Raising multilingual kids takes effort!

So if we aren’t raising bilingual or trilingual kids based on our own language abilities, what can we do to expose them to other languages? There are obvious answers such as enroll them in language classes, purchase software or utilize online programs… even access free apps like DuoLingo and FluentU. These are all wonderful resources and ideas, but there is another essential way we can help our children become multilingual: exposing them to other cultures and languages through good, solid children’s literature.

Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book by Muriel and Tom Feelings is an outstanding example of good children’s literature that will teach our children something basic while setting a foundation for a multilingual future. Although I doubt many of our kids will grow up to study and speak Swahili fluently, they will undoubtedly be more eager and open to learning a new language when they are exposed to many languages and cultures in a respectful manner. And don’t let your inability to speak Swahili (or any other language) hold you back from reading it to your children or students: this book contains straight-forward phonetic clues for pronunciation, as do many other books like it.

So are you ready to set a multilingual foundation through children’s literature?

Check out my other posts for another Caldecott Honor book and great ABC book. To read more about the reasons that learning another languages is useful, click on this link from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).

Best Ages: pre-k – 2nd grade

For Parents:

  • C is for Chakula (food)- Use magazine pictures or grocery store ads to create a collage of the foods that your family likes to eat. (Bonus points if you include embe or mango, which also appears in the book!) Write the word “chakula” in Swahili somewhere on the paper and practice saying it. And for more gluing and grocery ad fun, check out a wonderful blog post by Angela at MOMtessori Life… With a great explanation of how kids learn through the use of glue sticks!

For Teachers:

  • H is for Heshima (respect) – Use cut-outs of colorful paper handprints to have students write one way that they show respect to others in our school/community. Create a respect bulletin board and include the Swahili word “Heshima” for other students to see.
  • J is for Jambo (hello) and K is for Karibu (welcome)-  As a class, brainstorm other phrases we use in English to greet one another, then think of words we use to say goodbye.  (Include non-verbals such as waving.) Ask for student volunteers to demonstrate kind and polite ways to greet one another and say goodbye.
  • R is for Rafiki (friend) and W is for Watoto (children) – Get together with another class at your grade level to play group games together at recess or a free period in the day.

10 thoughts on “Raising Multilingual Children

  1. I love this. I have always wanted to raise multilingual children and pass on my love of languages. I am working really hard to become fluent in German (I speak it at an intermediate level) before we have our first baby. I worry because my husband doesn’t speak German, but I’m determined to expose our kids to German as much as possible, and hopefully to other languages as they grow!


    1. That’s a wonderful goal! If you know others who speak German and can interact with your child, that will probably help to keep up the language skills even if your husband doesn’t speak German. Thanks for visiting the blog!


  2. I’ve always wondered about this, especially because my boyfriend speaks Polish, and I only know about 20 words. If we were to raise our kids with both Polish and English, I will have to learn right along with them!


  3. I’m a trained Spanish teacher with Spanish being my 3rd language. I’ve only taught my two youngest children a few words and phrases in French and Spanish. (The oldest two went to a couple of years of grade school in France.) We did a bit of a crash course in Spanish shortly before we went to Puerto Rico in an effort to at least introduce the kids to the language they would be hearing all around them. But languages require practice in order for it to stick; my daughter thinks it’s fun, so she periodically says things in Spanish and expects me to answer in Spanish.
    I also remember one year when I taught Spanish to Kindergartners. The first two weeks they stared at me, clueless to the fact that there are other people in other parts of the world that don’t speak like they do. Then it suddenly clicked.
    The following year, these same children had maybe 3 new classmates who did not have the leisure of staring at me for 2 weeks because obviously all the other kids knew what I was talking about, so it must be okay! 🙂


    1. Thanks for sharing your language experiences as a parent and an educator! When teaching Spanish at the middle school level, I strived to speak in Spanish for 90% of the class period. For the first week or so, the students are in shock but they quickly warm up to it… And catch on more quickly than they ever thought possible! So fun to watch children grow, whatever the age and environment.


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