Single parents can raise a bilingual child

Although most of the literature about bilingual or multilingual children has a traditional family setting in mind, it is about time to focus on other kind of families.

What about patchwork families, part-time families (where one parent lives in another country and the one living with the children is in charge of all the languages), single parents where the partner is present occasionally, and single parents with no partner etc.?

In my workshops and talks I use the term of family in a very broad sense, more with the meaning of “micro-speaking community”. The members of this family don’t need to be present all the time, but they need to be in the picture somewhere, with some consistency to be part of the inner circle

Even if the father or mother of the child is not part of the every day life of the child, they have a presence that is necessary. Even those who left forever shouldn’t be forgotten – but I won’t focus on family dynamics and all the different possible situations.

Let’s focus on situations where one parent is with the children most of the time and is responsible for all the languages.

Can a single parent raise a bilingual/multilingual child?

The answer is: yes. If we are a single parent and speak both languages, we can opt for a Time and Place (T&P; I like to use the term “time and context”) strategy.

For example we would speak one language when we’re alone with the child and the other one in societal contexts, i.e. when speakers of the other languages are with us.

This is easy when the “other” language is the community language. If the other language is not the dominant language in the community, we need to find a group of speakers to create a “full immersion” situation for us and our child, at least from time to time (some choose Saturdays or Sundays for playgroups, coffee mornings and later on, more guided learning of the language in “weekend schools” – especially if the language is not supported by school and society).

It is a matter of language ideology: which language is more important for us and our child at that moment, and in the context we’re living.

To make an example, if I speak Italian and Swissgerman and live in the Netherlands where I have a great community of Italian speakers, but only a few Swissgerman speakers, I would probably choose to rather speak Italian with my child.

If my child needs to be able to communicate in Swissgerman with grandparents I would also try to foster Swissgerman, but the daily need for me and my child would rather be to speak Italian – and the local language, of course… We only have a limited time per day to foster our childrens’ languages, so, I usually recommend to carefully assess the personal situation in order not to let language acquisition and learning become a burden.

A single parent can pass on also a language that he or she is not that fluent in, the same way a non-native speaking parent can raise a child with that “other” language. One needs to be very aware of what we can achieve when we have different levels of fluency in the languages we want our children to speak – and that they need to learn. – There are many other aspects to consider that would take way more space than a (already long!) post like this…

  

When I get asked if a single parent can raise a bilingual child I always ask questions like:

  1. What is the reason for you to add this language?
  2. How well do you speak this language?
  3. Who else, in your community (friends, extended family etc.) speaks that other language?

The answer to the first question might seem obvious as many parents want to pass on their partners’ language, and when this partner is not present, they want to make sure the children maintain the other language as it is a heritage language for them, that one day they might need more.

It is very important to set realistic goals and be honest about ones time and available resources, as consistency is the key. Also, it is important to set clear short and long term goals about all the languages the single parent wants to foster.

Depending on your response to this question, you can choose to either speak both languages from birth (simultaneous bilingualism) or you can start with one language first, and add the second one later (sequential bilingualism). But first and foremost you need to know what languages your children need. Your answer also depends on what stage of their development they are. 

In the first months or year, the main focus of language is about forming connections. You use the language to sooth your baby, your little one learns to take turns, connect with you through gestures, behavior and he/she learns that her/his basic needs are met etc..

Later on, children learn that languages can be used to communicate their intentions – requests, protests, rejections etc. – and it is an important part of the childs’ sense of belonging that the language(s) used with him/her are not constantly changing.

The second question does NOT imply that if you don’t speak it at a nearly-native level you won’t succeed… – on the contrary! I have seen parents pass on a language they weren’t fluent in at the beginning (A2, B1 level) in a very successful way, as they were committed to improve their language skills whilst speaking it with their children, reading to them and learning to write it. It was a pleasure supporting them because whilst they grow their passion for the other language, they were a true inspiration for their children to do the same! – Never underestimate the power of role models!

The third question is related to the second one, and is particularly important if you want your child to become fluent in the other language and maintain it through childhood and beyond.

If this is your goal, you need a village, a village that speaks this other language and your language, in order to foster them all in a way that is “healthy” and encouraging for your child. 

I always say you need a multilingual village to raise a multilingual child, therefore, find people in your community, among your friends, find peers for your children who speak all the languages you want them to acquire and learn. Especially if one or both of your home languages are not the community language, you will need to find people making it necessary and pleasant for your child to use the languages!

What is the role of the partner?

You can speak two or more languages with your children and help them grow up bi/multilinguals, but like with everything else, they need more people to speak these languages with.

If your partner is present in your child’s life, it is important that he/she accepts and agrees on his/her role as the person who is responsible for his /her language.

One important aspect that I can’t stress enough is, that parents – no matter if they are living together or not – need to support the partners’ language!

Language can become the scapegoat between contending parents and the victim is always the communication with the child. 

Our partners should at least try to learn the basics of our language and always (!) be supportive. This behavior doesn’t only reflect positively on the children’s language learning, but it is the healthiest environment for a child to become bilingual in both parents’ languages. This is even more relevant when one or both (!) of the parents’ languages are minority languages in the community the children grow up in. – If you are having troubles of getting your partner agree on this, you are very welcome to contact me.

I have set up a Family Language Plan© for this reason, not only because every family deserves a person tailored solution, but because:

A goal without a plan is just a wish (Ute)

It is very helpful to have a common goal and to design clear steps on how to achieve it. In this case it is for the benefit of our children…

Once you have found your answers to my first 3 questions, you may want to find a language strategy that works for you. I won’t list up the many different solutions there are – I mentioned two here above, just as examples. I’m always happy to help with finding the most suitable solution, so, don’t hesitate to contact me or leave a comment here below.

One last tip and hint: be prepared to talk, sing and read a lot with your child. If you are not used to talk much, you may find this difficult, but I can promise you that you won’t regret it!

– Are you a single parent raising a child with more than one language?

Then, please, leave a comment here below. I’d be happy to know more about what kind of support, advice you need and I’m very curious to know what works for you and your child.

I invite you to also watch my video about this topic.

 

21 Comments

  1. I am a single parent and raise my daughter bilingual do she can stsy in touch with her father on the rare occasion he calls. It’s been a journey, with more issues from the judgement u get from outsiders asking what u speak another language then the native one…

    • I am sorry to hear, Miriam, that people make it so hard for you to maintain your daughter’s father’s language! Please don’t listen to them, or find a way to “brush it up”. I know how difficult it can be to deal with judgments, non solicited advice etc. You’re doing your daughter and her father (!) a great service! Can you maybe share how you manage to transmit both languages? Do you follow a certain routine? And how is your daughter responding? It would surely help other parents in your same situation! 😉

  2. Hello!

    I am married and my husband and I are now raising a 19 month old. I am Dominican and my husband is from Chile, so we are native spanish speaker, that are now living in Norway and planning to live here indefinitely, which means my son will learn and live in a Norwegian speaking country.

    I have always been bilingual since I started learning english at 5 years old, and find that english is a very important language because you can communicate world wide with it, but I also find Spanish to be very important because my family and my husbands family speaks that language and it’s heritage.

    With my son, I’ve been speaking both english and Spanish since birth, and as me and my husband were in corona situation, we soend his entier first year together, so he qould speak spanish and i would speak just english to him.

    But now that corona is over, my husband started to work and he works at a restaurant which means he works from 12pm til 12am. Which also means that he doesn’t really see our son on the weekdays, only 2 days a week and not in the morning.
    So we can’t keep on one parent on language because it would mean he would only learn english and our order of importance are first spanish, second english and third norwegian (which we don’t really worry on this one because he will learn it for sure).

    So what I’m doing now is speaking one language per week. Meaning I switch between one week spanish speaking only and the next week english speaking only. The next spanish.. next english… next spanish…

    My question is, would this work?
    Is this a good plan?
    Or should I try something else?

    Also when he turns 6 and goes to school he will be taught english there so I will focus more at home with spanish.

    Let me know what you think and thank you for your time and sorry for the bother ☺️

    • Dear Jay, thank you for your question. It is indeed not an easy situation for you all. I understand you were able to keep a OPOL situation during the COVID restrictions, and now it all seems to be on your shoulders: to transmit Spanish and English with your son. How is he reacting to the fact that you switch language every week? The Time and Place solution can be effective with children of his age, when there is a reason he can understand. I wonder if it would be ok for you to speak English as a family language during weekends – when the father is there too: that would be a clear sign for him and make sense – and Spanish during the week, with you?
      The alternating weeks work for some families, and usually we only find out afterwards. As I don’t know how your son reacts to the weekly shift of your language use, I am cautious to give you any advice.
      An other solution is really also to stick to Spanish only at home, as, like you said, he will have English at school one day. It pretty much depends on what you, the parents, can do right now and what your goals are.
      I’m happy to discuss this with you in a free consultation if you wish (you can book it here: https://utesinternationallounge.com/book-a-consultation-with-ute/).
      I wish you all the best and am looking forward to hearing from you. ~ Ute

      • Hello. I have an 8mo baby. I am a fluent spanish speaker with an english speaking partner in an english speaking country. I really want to try and pass Spanish to my child but find it really hard to do this without other spanish speaking folks around. So it’s easier when family visits. I often find myself speaking in english and then repeating in spanish to my baby. I spent his early months using mostle english and i am worried about confusiing them emotionally at this point although i sing read and sometimes talk to him in spanish. Is it too late to switch to spanish when alone with baby (time and place suggestion is great) without affecting his connection to me?
        That could work since i revert to english when my partner is around.
        Thank yoi

        • Hi Pilar, I understand that you have been mixing Spanish and English with your child since the beginning? Do you think you could stick to Spanish only when with him? Maybe start with short moments, focus on Spanish when you are interacting with him when you are both alone, that should be easier, and then expand also to when your partner is around. When you are all three together, interacting (at the table, at a meal for example) then English is probably the language you prefer? Does your partner also understand or speak Spanish? How is the connection between you and your son? And what language is easier for you to be spontaneous in?

          • Hello. Thank you for answering my questions. My partner understands Spanish pretty well. Our connection is great, i just have been living an using English as my main language for over a decade so I sound weird to myself when I speak Spanish especially with no other people to speak Spanish with around. English comes spontaneously (I always say I sound weird in Spanish now) unless I am with my parents for example.
            I can totally start to use Spanish in alone moments with my baby. I was just worried about confusing them emotionally…

  3. Hi Ute,
    I have a 10 month old daughter and we live in the United States. I speak Russian and English, her father speaks Spanish and English and Italian. I was speaking ing English with her since everyone around us speaks English but recently I switched to Russian and she seems to like it and even understand some things I say already. Her father works all day so he can’t really teach her English. I was wondering how I can teach her both English and Russian? Also, when can we add other languages? Next one would be Spanish as we are thinking about moving to a Spanish speaking country but her father is also in love with Italian and wants to teach her Italian. So we have 4 languages to teach. For now it’s Russian and English. How should I continue with this and when should we add the other languages? Thank you! Looking forward to your response.

    • Hi Dominika, thank you for your comment and for sharing your situation here. I understand that you started to speak Russian with your daughter just recently and used to speak English with her before.
      Which of the two languages is the “main” or “primary” language you speak to her right now? Which one is the language you speak with her when one on one?
      It would be important to have one main language to speak with her when one on one, especially at her age. Later, when she is around 4 years old – that’s also when children are usually more conscious about their language use – you can also add another language at given moments. Of course, she will hear you speak English and other languages too, but if you would if you could stick to Russian right now for example when you are one on one, it would be clearer for her as she will understand that “when alone with mum, it’s Russian, when someone else is there or we are out and about, it’s English”.
      If your partner is not around very often: who else can be the person to provide a rich language input? Maybe a nanny, a babysitter, a neighbour? Someone who plays with her regularly?
      As for Spanish: when are you going to move to a Spanish speaking country? You can start with exposing her to Spanish songs, sing those songs with her as you sing Russian and English songs. What is great for children is to accompany songs with gestures. Have a look at this video I made about this: https://youtu.be/QOFKyoOpugA
      As for language strategies, this video might help you: https://youtu.be/HRpSVjBy9Iw
      Please let me know what you decide, and if you wish, we can meet for a free meeting (you can find the link to it in the menu of my site)

  4. Hi Ute,

    It is really nice reading your blog about raising bilingual child as single parents.
    However, i have a question.. my background is Indonesian. I speak english, a little bit Dutch and indonesian. and my husband is from The Netherlands speaks english and dutch.

    Between my husband and I, we speak english and I would like to teach our son 3 languages in the future. We think that he will pick up english from us and school later.
    I so far speak Indonesian to him and the father speaks Dutch to him. But the problem is my husband is always away for 2 weeks at that time and will be home for 2 weeks in a month.
    So what is the best we can do for him ? (we live in Netherlands).

    Thank you!

    Looking fwd to your response

    Gr,.tina

    • Hi Tina,
      Thank you for your kind comment. May I ask how old your son is? The reason I ask this is because our very little ones benefit from different languages coming from different people as they still need to learn to differentiate between the languages. As you are living in the Netherlands, what about a neighbour, a babysitter or anyone else – maybe from extended family? – providing the Dutch input for your son? You keep speaking Indonesian when one on one with your son. I understand that your husband doesn’t speak Indonesian? Does he understand it a bit? Just asking, as it is always helpful if the parent who speaks the majority language also supports the “minority” language; furthermore in the long run, when your son will be attending school in Dutch and/or maybe English, his exposure to Indonesian will decrease – unless you have a community of Indonesian speakers that can help you foster the language.
      When your husband is away for such a long time: try to meet Dutch speaking families outside home or, as I said, invite a nanny/babysitter/other family member to visit regularly. Depending on the age of your son, your husband can also make sure to call often – maybe facetime? – so that the contact with the father has a certain regularity also if he is geographically distant.
      I hope this helped?
      Groetjes,
      Ute

  5. Hi Ute,
    I’m a German-Israeli Londoner, living in Luxemburg. My child will be born in February, and I’m planning on speaking both German and English with him. I actually happen to be an English teacher, so naturally, I’m very interested to learn more about how multilingual language acquisition works, when you’re a single parent.
    He’ll also be half Indian, so a bit further down the line, I want to expose him to the Indian culture and Hindi. He’ll be going to a crèche where the primary language is Luxenburgish, though, which will be a challenge not to confuse with German.
    Grateful for any advice!
    Other Miriam 🙂

    • Hi Miriam, thank you for your comment! What exciting times for you! I would like to invite you to have a look at our free guide for parents and you could also follow my online course ENJOY raising children with multiple languages for parents of 0-4 year old children.
      Transmitting two languages or more is not the problem. It is possible to transmit them also through one person, the only thing to consider is that young children – up to age 3ish or 4 – separate languages by person, this means that if you switch from English to German and back constantly, chances are high that your baby would consider it one language. This is why OPOL or One Person One Language is very effective with babies and infants. It can also come through a babysitter, a neighbour that comes over regularly, or through the daycare. Your baby will anyways hear you speak different languages, that’s not the problem or point, it’s rather for your child to understand “where one language starts and where the other one ends”, which is easier to understand for older children who have a sense for time and place (Time and Place being one strategy that helps also transmit several languages at home for example).
      The confusion between Luxemburgish and German shouldn’t be a big problem, again, unless the two languages are regularly mixed in one sentence or setting, used by the same person.
      I hope this makes sense? You are very welcome to meet me for a free consultation to talk more about this. Auf alle Fälle wünsche ich dir schon einmal alles alles Gute!! – Ute

  6. So glad that I came across your blog! I’m a single mum by choice that speaks English and at least intermediate level Spanish and French. I had read a book that said that I basically couldn’t be a single parent teaching two languages and was so glad to read your blog…I threw the book away!

    I’m fortunate to have family that speaks Spanish (we’re Panamanian but I was taught Spanish till I was two and my parents gave up when we moved to the US out of fear that I would mix the languages!) So I’ve been teaching myself Spanish from high school and college along with speaking to tutors weekly just to improve my Spanish since it is highly important to me and for my 8 month old daughter! I do plan on enrolling her in the bilingual school near us!
    I am also wanting her to learn French as well (I’m a language lover but French was a language I studied in college for three years but haven’t kept up with it).

    Is it possible to have a trilingual single parent household?

    • Cataleya, I am very glad to hear that my post was/is helpful!
      I understand that your daughter is 8 months old – congratulations to your daughter by the way 😉 !
      As she is still very young, I would rather stick to one language for the moment and maybe use Spanish when you are with friends, but not to her yet. She still has to figure out how the primary language you speak with her works, so the “one person one language” makes more sense to her. She will understand though that you use “another” language when speaking with other people, your family for example. Maybe someone from your family is ok to take on the “responsibility” to be the Spanish speaking person in her life? Or more than one person? Maybe one of them can babysit her on a regular basis and sing with her, play with her – talk a lot with her?
      To answer your other question: you can add French too, yes. If there is no immediate need for her to use French at the moment, then keep in mind that you can add it also later. Maybe you can start already with letting her listen to some French songs – without expecting her to use it though, again, unless you have an important person in your life who speaks French with her and where she needs to learn it to connect with the person.
      I wish you all the best and, please, let me know how it goes! Kind regards, Ute 🙂

  7. I am as good as a single parent because my partner works fly in/fly out and rarely is at home. Also I am a non-native speaker of English and the community language is Russian… But I try to speak English with my kids as much as possible. My older one usually answers in Russian, but she understands a lot. The younger one speaks English not so good as Russian, but I am proud of her results anyway

    • Hi Elena, when we are “in charge” with transmitting two languages to our children, it is always good to have some support from someone else, just to not feel it like a burden. I’m curious to know how old your children are. I ask this, because transmitting two languages through one person to very young children (babies and toddlers up to age 3 or 4) can become a problem if we don’t separate the languages in a way that it makes sense for them, i.e. they understand that in a certain setting and circumstance, the “other” language is used also with them.
      As both your children already speak, I suppose they are a bit older?
      How is it for you to switch languages? How do YOU keep motivated?

  8. Hi Ute!

    This may be premature, but me and my partner just had a baby 10 days ago. We currently live in Iceland- I am Icelandic and he is Scottish. We speak to each other in English whenever we are together and around other people as he does not speak Icelandic. In a month’s time he will be relocating to the Netherlands for work as an expat (he will hopefully be able to come back to Iceland every 2-3 weeks for a few days) and we will be going to the Netherlands for visits when I feel comfortable enough to travel with a new baby. In about a year’s time we will then move to be with him full time.

    He is starting to worry that while he is away and us living in Iceland for so long without him that she will lose out on the English and become more familiarised with Icelandic. Are there any good options for me so I can speak to baby in both languages without it being confusing- to alleviate dad’s worries. It is important to me that she learn Icelandic as well as English (my partner works in construction and for the next few years we will probably live in multiple countries for his work- so thinking when time comes- international nurseries/schools where main language is English, so in the future her dominant language will most likely be English- and I will be gatekeeper of speaking to her in Icelandic- but until then, what would my options be to help dad not stress about no or little English being spoken to the baby while he is away

    • Hi Brynhildur, congratulations for your new baby! I understand your situation and it surely is not one of the easiest ones – on many levels. Is there any possibility that you can relocate to the Netherlands with your partner, or maybe earlier than in a year? It would make things much easier for you all. For such young children it is important that they get the language input from the respective person, so, Icelandic from you and Scottish English from your partner. Would it be possible for you to at least call each day for your daughter to hear her dad? She is too young to face-time but it would be helpful to hear him sing songs to her, talk to her “one on one” in some way.
      Is there someone in the community in Iceland who speaks English, Scottish English? Could that person speak with your daughter each day? Would it be an option to hire a Scottish au-pair for the time your partner isn’t there? You mention that English will become your daughter’s dominant language anyways in a few years due to your frequent relocation.
      If you wish, we can talk about this at a free consultation (you can find the link in the menu on my website).

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