Internationals struggle to pass on their home languages

Families who live internationally, i.e. who spend several of their children’s developmental years in another country, and whose home languages are different from the communities they live in, usually struggle to pass on their home languages. Especially if these are not English. – This is not an assumption, this is a fact.

I observed this in my friend’s families when I grew up in Italy with German parents, I experienced it first hand when I refused to speak my home language at home as a teenager, and I experience it now with my own children who are the second generation living abroad, growing up with home languages that are not supported by the community we live in.

This also happens with my friends and clients who are in a similar situation: they speak languages at home that are not spoken in the community they live in, and that don’t receive the expected support from schools. Although more and more schools are becoming language friendly and include children’s home languages into the daily activities at school, most families don’t get the necessary support for their children to maintain their home languages to the desired extent.

One of the main reasons parents decide to move abroad is to offer their children the opportunity to experience life in another country, get to know another culture and understand that “things can be done differently and can have other meanings than the one we think” and that “the other language is worth to be learnt”. The latter one is, unfortunately only true for so called “prestigious” languages, such as English, French, German, Spanish, Chinese.

One could assume that if you are a family who speaks one of these languages at home and lives abroad, chances are high that your children will grow up as “perfect bi-/multilinguals”. – I would rather say they might be “more likely to become bi-/multilinguals and even multiliterate” (i.e. speak, read and write in all their languages), but there are many aspects that one needs to consider. These are the main two ones:

– Is the community you live in supporting the home languages in a way that you are allowed to speak your home languages in social settings?

– Does the school support and encourage your child to use the home languages in school – throughout the whole school curriculum (from day one until graduation)?

This all sounds very idealistic. If you live in a community where you can say yes and give examples to the two questions above, please share in the comment area.

Maintaining home languages becomes increasingly difficult if the home languages are ex. Polish-Finnish in Germany, Hindi-Spanish in France, Greek-German in the United States, Farsi-Norwegian in Austria etc.

Children are not like sponges. Not at every age and surely not if the language input provided to them is poor and inconsistent!

Many families tend to talk about the same kind of topics at home, limiting their children to what is called “kitchen language”. And every person transmit their own idiolect*, i.e. their individual’s unique use of language, including speech. This unique and personal use encompasses vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. 

Parents usually want only the best for their children and many internationals start on the multilingual journey by following the best advice they can get from the internet, from friends etc., and they have a stellar start.

When I read comments like “my 3 yo child is perfectly fluent in 3 languages”, “my 8 yo child reads in 3 languages”, or “my 10 yo child speaks 5 languages, writes and reads perfectly in 2” I can not but wonder: do you really think that at that young age a child can already be “perfectly (fluent)” ? A 3 yo can not be “perfectly fluent” in 3 languages because this child is still acquiring the languages, and on average it takes 8 years (!) to become nearly natively fluent, if one is consistently exposed to the target languages. All children can reach the expected level of fluency at that given moment, and usually it’s the parents in these chat rooms who determine what is expected, desired and needed for their children.

What about the same children a few years later, when they are schooled in another language and the parents – who still have the best of the children’s interests in mind – shift their focus on the school language because they need to function academically?

What I observe is this:

© Ute Limacher-Riebold 2019

This chart shows an average development of a multilingual child. After the non-verbal phase, when the child is acquiring the home languages (in this case indicated in blue and green lines), the child becomes verbal in both languages, if the exposure to both languages is consistent.

At some point, this child will attend daycare or school in another language (read line) and will be required to acquire and learn the school language as quickly as possible – see the exponential development in the school language.

Once our children start attending school in a language that is not one of our home languages, the exposure to the home languages decreases and in most families, the main focus shifts on the school language. This is a very natural and, for many years, expected shift to take place in international/expat/immigrant families.

In the past, governments discouraged immigrant families from keeping their languages, as to help them assimilate as quickly as possible to the host society by learning the local language. The main objective being for immigrants to fit into the society and adapt to the local life, culture and language. – But assimilation often goes hand in hand with abandonment of the previous language and culture, which will has a negative impact on the identity and sense of belonging of the children and young adults.

In recent years, research has emphasized the importance of maintaining the home languages and contributed to a major shift in education, which leads to more language inclusive schools that, for example, adopt translanguaging pedagogies, are allowing children to speak their languages within the school premisses and use resources in their home languages to prepare school subjects etc.

Home languages play a major role in the overall wellbeing of international children*: they are necessary to bond between generations – children and their parents, and extended family – and connect with heritage cultures. Furthermore, the fact that home language skills can be transferred to school, which had been emphasized by Prof. Jim Cummins in 1979 (!) already, has proven to be more successful and important than focusing on the school language only for foreign children, especially, when home languages are consistently fostered throughout childhood.
* international children= I mean all children who are growing up outside of their parents countries of origin, independently of the reason for this upbringing. These can be refugees, immigrants, expats etc.

Thankfully, more and more parents are aware of the importance to maintain their home languages, independently of the “prestige” their languages are attributed to either by society or the parents themselves.

Especially the burden put on international parents who are in charge of providing not only the necessary input for their children to become verbal in their home languages, but also the teaching for them to become bi-/pluriliterate, can become an immense burden, especially when this all leads to rejection.

In my practice and in my personal experience, I have observed that this rejection of the home language can lead to attrition and, in the worst case, to language loss.

Based on my own experience with my rejection of my home language as a teenager and my children’s personal choice of languages, I completely agree with Dr. Sabine Little, a German linguist at the University of Sheffield, who recommends to “let children forge their own emotional connection to the language”.

Like her son, I gave up on German for several years, before returning to it. Like Sabine Little, my mother let me determine when I would speak it together with my German family and friends (with whom I share other languages too). 

The measures Sabine Little took with her son won’t work with my children – his time on YouTube is restricted, but he is allowed more if he watches in German: this is something my teenage children would not do consistently – but, like I say to my clients, there is no one solution that fits all and every multilingual family deserves her personalized solution!

Our languages are an intimate part of our identity. For us parents it is wrenching to try and fail to pass them on to our children**.

But, once again, I advise to carefully define our success: for some it is enough that our children can speak our languages with extended family, for others it is important that they can also read and write to a certain extent, and then there are those who want their children to return to their countries of origin for study or work, and therefore have higher expectations concerning their level of literacy.
Success has many facets and it is interesting to see how what we would define as such when our children are toddlers can change over time and still be our personal success when they are young adults.

I always invite international parents to
• define the language goals for their children,
• divide them into small achievable steps and
• re-assess their situation every now and then (once a year is a good average),

to make sure to keep goals realistic, celebrate the small achievements and make sure to remain consistent in the long term goals.

If you have any questions related to this topic, contact me at (or find more about my services as Family Language Consultant here)

Please find more of my articles and posts about raising children with multiple languages here and join my facebook group “Multilingual Families“.

(*) The term idiolect is etymologically related to the Greek prefix idio- (meaning “own, personal, private, peculiar, separate, distinct”) and -lect, abstracted from dialect, and ultimately from Ancient Greek λέγωlégō, ‘I speak’.

(**) I got inspired to write this post when I read this article on the site.

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