Do multilingual children automatically become multilingual adults?

Everyone is talking about multilingualism. Until recently there were still many concerns about a multilingual upbringing – it was feared that children would not be able to speak one or the other language ‘properly’ (whatever this means!) – we now know that multilingualism has all sorts of positive effects on speaking, thinking and acting.

It is no longer difficult for parents-to-be to find information and specific advice on how to raise a child with multiple languages. However, the vast majority of guides, academic projects, and articles on multilingualism focus solely on the toddler and preschool years. Most of the guides encourage parents to maintain and support the family languages. They should also not be intimidated by advice that suggests to prioritize the use of the local language over the family languages, because the first few years are oh so important for a solid language acquisition.

The older the children get, the fewer advice from professionals one can find. It seems that multilingual exposure that needs to be supported especially in the earlier years of language acquisition, is completed once children start attending school. Or as if it is assumed that a good start leads to lifelong success.

Many families manage to support their family languages at home, sometimes with the help of babysitters or friends who speak the same language. But as soon as children start preschool, kindergarten or school, where they are increasingly exposed to the community language, many parents begin to doubt whether and how they can keep their family languages up to speed. Some let teachers and others convince them that the language of the community or school is now more important for their child to fully integrate in school and society, and be academically successful.

The fact that this goes to the expense of the family language is considered by many families as a natural consequence of linguistic and cultural integration. Others, who have the intent to preserve the family language, do not see enough opportunities to do so in everyday life and are looking for help.

Weekend schools are a popular solution.

Once a week, children can immerse themselves in their family languages outside of the family, and learn to read and write. Families who cannot afford these extra hours per week or who are not offered this opportunity either come to terms with a decrease or gradual loss of family language, or they revert to their own resources. Some parents become language teachers – with varying degrees of success.

Additional family language lessons work for younger school children, but the older children get, the more these lessons compete with sports and other hobbies. Furthermore, once children are in secondary school, there is simply no more time for extra lessons – not to mention the adolescents’ diminishing desire for attending them.

Many parents and teachers turst that the language skills children learn at school can automatically be transferred to the family language – this has been mentioned in research since the 1970s (see Jim Cummins Linguistic Interdependence Hypothesis and subsequent studies). The fact that language skills – understanding, speaking, reading and writing – are transferable skills is not an issue. However, the required active participation of parents and teachers in the school for this to happen is often underestimated.

Children improve their school language skills enormously as soon as they start their education. They learn to read and write in the school language, they learn spelling rules, and they learn to tell stories and to write in a coherent manner. While the focus is on the school language, the linguistic goals in the family languages tend to be neglected. Children are encouraged to read in the school language and although many of them were eagerly read to in their family languages when they were preschoolers, they do not reach for a book in the non-school language once they start school. The step from being read to to independent reading is not a given. The pace of language development in the non-school language slows down early on. Elementary – or emergent to early-fluent – reading and writing is usually also possible in the family language, but children’s literacy skills often do not go beyond a short letter (or email) to grandma or a short text message.

The support schools offer in the family languages varies considerably. International schools offer lessons in some family languages for native speakers; other schools offer foreign language lessons. Even if one’s family language is taught as a subject, the language goal is often to be expected at the lower level of competence. Furthermore, the same teaching material is used for native speakers as for second language learners, which means that native speakers experience their family language as unappealing and boring, and drop the subject. Other students fail because of the teacher’s insistence on memorizing grammar rules or translating verbatim – but simultaneous bilinguals are not translators, they ‘store’ their languages separately and use them in different contexts.

Reading and writing a language does not come naturally like understanding and speaking. As Dr. Louisa Moats emphasizes: learning to read is rocket-science. Marianne Wolf (2008: 222) explains this difficulty with the emphasizing that brains are not wired to read: 

“Each brain of each ancestral reader had to learn to connect multiple regions in order to read symbolic characters. Each child today must do the same. Young novice readers around the globe must learn how to link up all the perceptual, cognitive, linguistic, and motor systems necessary to read. These systems, in turn, depend on utilizing older brain structures, whose specialized regions need to be adapted, pressed into service, and practiced until they are automatic ”.

Parents who raise their children multilingually should ask themselves the following questions:

  • What are the short term and long term goals of a multilingual upbringing?
  • After the initial enthusiasm when fostering your family languages with your babies and toddlers, what exactly do you want to achieve in the end?
  • Who can support your children (and you!) to attain their linguistic goals?
  • Do you find it sufficient if your child can converse with relatives in your home country?
  • Would you like your children to be able to function in two or more languages as adults, i.e. to be able to write and read in such a way that they can cope with their studies or professional life?

If the latter is the goal, this is hardly possible without appropriate instruction. After all, the school language is also a school subject from the first to the last day of school – here we do not assume that it suffices to hear, read and speak this language everywhere outside of school.

Why then should the use of a family language be enough to achieve full competence in all language skills? Only because you have learned to argue in language A does not mean that you can do the same in language B, even if you use language B as naturally as language A.

We know from Dutch students who after completing their education in the Dutch school system start studying in English, that even if they have successfully completed their school English lessons and at the corresponding CEFR level, they find it difficult to formulate in English as precisely as they could do in their mother tongue*. – How should this even work in a language that they not even received formal instruction in? 

What solutions do we suggest?

  • It is important to decide at an early stage who is part of our multilingual village and to establish in a realistic way which language goals are possible for the children in the social and linguistic environment in which they grow up.

“We need a multilingual village to raise a multilingual child” – Ute Limacher-Riebold

  • Parents should continue to cultivate their family languages, i.e. not only speak, but also carry on offering their children the opportunity to expand and deepen their language skills. If not otherwise possible, with the help of weekend courses and other activities in the family language. It is equally important for young people that parents set a good example: that they maintain their family language themselves, for example by reading or watching a film. One should also not forget the culture that is closely linked with the family language. The love for a language can go through the stomach – with typical dishes, typical celebrations etc.. Holidays in the home country or countries of the parents can intensify the young people’s knowledge and connection with this country.

“Language doesn’t stand alone. A language always includes a culture that is conveyed along with the language. ” – Katja B. Zaich

  • Teachers who have native speakers or bilingual speakers in their foreign language classes can accommodate these students with just a few resources. Most of them have little trouble with understanding, speaking, and reading, but with a little guidance they could improve their writing skills tremendously. Given their existing language skills, they benefit more from grammar in context than from memorized rules, lists and tricks. Although they need to expand their vocabulary, there is little point in dealing with bilingual vocabulary lists. This does not mean any significant extra work for the teachers and can be a valuable asset to the lessons for everyone.

Therefore, if we want our children to stay multilinguals, i.e. keep on improving their language skills in their home languages, we need to set clear and realistic goals, and find the right support throughout their childhood (and beyond).


Dr. Katja B. Zaich is a Germanist and lives as a language trainer, translator and author in the Netherlands. For years she has been teaching bilingual primary school children as part of a “weekend course” in their mother tongue, German. She is the author or co-author of several German textbooks for (adult) Dutch-speaking learners. She has two bilingual teenage daughters.

Dr. Ute Limacher-Riebold is a linguist and offers professional support and advice to multilingual families at Ute’s International Lounge, with the aim of promoting family languages and efficient communication in multilingual families. Her S.M.A.R.T. Family Language Plan© can be tailored to suit any multilingual family. She currently collaborates at a EU project PEaCH, which aims to “preserve and promote the European language and cultural heritage by strengthening bilingual children and families”. She is the co-author of the guide “How to raise a bilingual child” which was created as part of the project, and of “The Toolbox for Multilingual Families”. She has three multilingual teenage children.

* We use the term mother tongue as “person has grown up speaking from early childhood” / “their most dominant language”/ “the language they are most fluent in” .

Mentioned in the article:

Cummins, Jim, Linguistic interdependence and the educational development of bilingual children, Review of Educational Research, 1979, 49, 222–251. (and many other studies that followed!)

Wolf, Marianne, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, Harper Perennial, 2008. 

Louisa C. Moats, is project director, Washington D.C. site of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Early Interventions Project, and clinical associate professor of pediatrics, University of Texas, Houston, Health Sciences Center. Louisa C. Moats is a nationally recognized authority on how children learn to read and why some fail to learn. Widely acclaimed as a researcher, speaker, consultant, and trainer, Moats has developed the landmark professional development program LETRS for teachers and reading specialists (find out more here).

– This article has been published by the authors also on LinkedIn – in German, Dutch and English. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *