Almost Fearless

Growing Up Bilingual

So much has changed in the three years since I had Cole.  I had him in the States, too nervous to consider a birth overseas.  This time we’re in Mexico, where I’m receiving amazing care, and at a tiny fraction of the cost (our birth will roughly cost the same as what we paid just to hire a midwife in the States — even if I end up with a c-section).  In the last year I’ve been working on my Mandarin and Arabic, and Cole has started learning those languages too.  So as I’m approaching a month left in this pregnancy, I’m thinking about what else I’ll do differently.  I’m much more confident about having a bilingual child — I didn’t know what it would look like or how hard it would be, but kids really do “just pick it up”.  It hasn’t confused Cole, and looking back, I wish I had started sooner (although we still have plenty of time).  So with the new baby, I thought: okay let’s do it.  Let’s raise the baby bilingual from the start.


The most popular method is called “one person, one language” (OPOL) and it basically means one parent speaks in one language, the other parent speaks in another.  The child learns both languages at the same time.  They grow up bilingual.

I never considered doing it before, because even though I have workable Spanish, I’m not bilingual.  I’m not even close to fluent.  But the more I researched, the more I found that you can do it, even if you don’t speak the language perfectly, especially if you’re committed to it, and are willing to keep learning.  So I’ll speak Spanish and Drew will continue to speak English.

So where do you start?


Well I already have one child, so I don’t think it’s a good idea to just flip his language world upside down, so I’m going to ease into it.  Over the next month, I’m slowly going to start introducing more Spanish.  The first thing I’m switching is our bedtime stories.  We bought several really nice books in Spanish — dinosaurs, sharks and fish — his favorite subjects and it’s nicely illustrated with lots of names of each animal written out.  Normally we go through this ritual where I read a little, then he points to things and asks me the names of them.  I do a lot of “naming things” so now I’ll just do it in Spanish.  It makes it easy for me because I can just read the name off the book, and I’ll be learning with him.

When the baby comes, it’ll be easy to speak with her in Spanish (“hola bebe!”) but with Cole I’ll just continue to slowly transition, letting the context of the situation be my translator and researching/looking up vocabulary as I go so I have everything covered.  I want to go fast enough that I don’t get stuck in a half-English / half-Spanish world but not so fast that Cole gets unduly frustrated.

Anyway I wanted to share my initial approach now, so when I update later, there’s something to compare it to.  I am curious to see how it works out, but much like learning Arabic and Mandarin, I think it’s more about watching Cole and adjusting to him, then any top down approach I might have.  He’s so quick to learn!  It’s really amazing how much they soak up, and while it’s a little scary to me to make this leap (I’m not super confident in my Spanish so I worry about that), I think he’ll have the easier time of it.

Have you raised your kids in two languages?  Or would you?

Christine Gilbert

I’ve been dragging my husband around the world since 2008 always with the promise that, “Yes, Drew there will definitely be hammocks there.”



  • We’re working on this. We have a friend at our son’s school who speaks 4 languages, Thai with his mom, Norwegian with his dad, German (country of residence) with his sister and English with my son. Kids are pretty unreal with language.

  • I definitely want to and while my Spanish isn’t what it used to be and my husband doesn’t speak it, it’s really important to me to raise my child to speak another language. My mom is Mexican and my dad is white, but we never grew up speaking Spanish. I learned Spanish through school and study abroad and I wish it was just part of my upbringing.

  • My husband and I really want to raise bilingual kids (when we have them someday) and I can’t wait to hear about your progress and techniques. Good luck and keep us all posted!

  • we are. it’s tough when takota begs me to read spanish bedtime stories and I can’t, but it’s the right move. in sept. he’ll start at la escuelita, a bi-lingual school on the upper west side.

  • “When the baby comes, it’ll be easy to speak with her in Spanish (hola bebe!)” so it’s a girl then?

    When did you find out or is that wishful thinking?

  • I’m really curious to see how it will go. While pregnant I wanted to speak in English to the baby, but then we choose to take away English from her life (long story, but English is everywhere and in each school, no way to study something else in a French school, even if you already speak it).
    But I discover that talking to my daughter was not something you think about it. All the sweat name/sound I know are mainly in French. But all the songs are in English (I worked for years as a baby-sitter/au pair only for English speaking families).
    Just, I’m wondering if (and how much) it’s possible to avoid the language in which you are link to your own childhood and I’m waiting to learn more thanks to you. I’m sure that Cole will be really helpfull.

  • I don’t have direct experience, but I’ve met several people who do the “one parent one language” approach. What they said was “It works really well.” “Kids will get mixed words sometimes between languages.” “They may learn to read/write just a teensy bit slower than a monolingual child.” and “They learn English (what parents speak to each other, and what is around them) the fastest.”

  • My niece’s children are growing up bilingual. English/Spanish. I’ve been throwing in some German and Tibetan whenever I spend time with them, but they want to concentrate on the English/Spanish. I wish I had that opportunity when I was growing up, and I highly recommend it to everyone with children. I would also highly recommend taking them out of the country on trips if possible at a young age as well.

  • Noah’s is growing up hearing 4 languages. I speak English to him ( but I am Colombian) my husband does the German part, my parents the Spanish and as we live in Barcelona he learns Catalan at the nursery. He is not speaking much right now (19 months) but he understands all 4 languages perfectly!

  • Raising up in a multi language environment means so much inspiration for a kid as every language has a different approach when it comes to humor, topics, emotion (or even swearing)!

  • Going bilingual or multilingual is always a good idea, for the parent(s) and especially for the kids. And definitely since you guys travel around so much! Knowledge is always good to have and learning a new language is very inspiring and practical a goal, even if the new lingo isn’t immediately used. A whole new wolrd awaits wherein sights and sounds and people are made more relatable when you, the culture explorers, learn a new language. Kudos to you for going down this path for yourself and the kids. I fully plan on doing the same with my future kids, traveling or not. 🙂

  • There’s not a single downside and any temporary confusion will subside, unremembered. Knowing more than one language is a gift easiest given to young children. We enrolled both our kids in a Spanish immersion elementary school and they became painlessly bilingual. Conor’s adding Arabic as a high schooler and Caroline’s minoring in Spanish and majoring in Internatl Studies concentrating in Latin America. I’m so happy we had the chance to offer them that opportunity since Craig nor I speak anything other than English. It’s great for brains to learn language! Lucky Cole and Baby Gilbert.

  • My kids (now 15 and 18) attended a Spanish language immersion program through Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland (the DC suburbs). From the day they started kindergarten they were taught only in Spanish. They did not have an English reading class until they were in the second grade. It will come as no surprise that they learned the language effortlessly – and their accents are near perfect. At the time, neither my wife or I spoke a word of Spanish – so we couldn’t help them with homework. But they thrived academically and became effortlessly bilingual. (My son is now learning Arabic, also in a public school). It’s too bad that more U.S. kids don’t have the opportunity to start a language at an early age, when it is so much easier to learn and they are not self-conscious about speaking. I’ve known many kids to have gone through our public school language immersion program, and the vast majority have had a positive experience that contributed to their continued schooling. There is a ton of academic research on this subject, and it indicates many academic benefits for kids to learn a language early.

  • Kids are like wonderful sponges, and from experience, I can tell you that learning a second language as a kid, versus as an adult, is a world of difference! So much easier to do so as a kid, so I think your idea to start early is great.

    One thing that I heard is to make sure that, if you’re angry, you don’t switch to a particular language (ex: always when angry, switching to English), or else kids start to associate that language with anger and upset. I don’t know if there’s actual merit to that suggestion…But in theory it makes sense.

  • Yay for bilingual, bi-national children. You really are giving your children the world.

    My Bestie is an American living in Scotland, married to a Venezuelan/Portuguese man. Their son is being raised bilingual by the method you’re going to use and it’s brilliant! He is nearly two now, and doesn’t say much (which is normal for children learning two languages at once – to take longer to speak) but he understands and communicates perfectly well with both parents/languages.

    I plan on doing the same for my kids. But first to: A. Find a husband. B. Ensure said husband speaks a language other than English. C. Have kids. D. Implement. Shouldn’t be too difficult. 😉

  • Happens here a lot. Kids will speak arabic to a non-english speaking person and translate to english to their parents. Nikos is also the same, his mother can’t speak english at all and he will translate for the two of us. I think it’s great (both multi-lingual child thing and nikos’ mother not speaking english) :-p

  • Great approach and fantastic that you are taking advantage of this opportunity. My SIL who is British and married to a Swiss guy and living in Switzerland, is doing this. Her kids are 2 and 4 and completely bilingual in both French and English, though she is already thinking about strategies to make sure their written English is as strong as their written French as they progress through school. She says it’s easier because in Switzerland, English is a “cool” language to speak. My cousin OTOH is American but married to a Panamanian and they also use this approach and are having a tougher time because their boys think Spanish is not cool, for some reason, so they don’t want to speak it even though they understand 100%. Kids do definitely just pick it up – our son is in Spanish immersion elementary school and is the only Spanish-speaking member of the household. It was incredible to watch him transform into a Spanish-speaking little boy in front of our eyes. Looking forward to progress reports!

  • That method failed miserably for us 🙁 My husband doesn’t speak English so he only speaks Spanish to her (she’s now 5 years old). She was almost 3 years old before she started talking at all which was the norm we were told for bilingual children. Due to the fact that we lives in the States and I’m the only bilingual one in the family, she has gone from understanding both languages perfectly but only speaking English to now she appears to be losing her Spanish understanding and unfortunately her ability to communicate with Dad. We’re looking to move to a spanish speaking country for a year so she can learn to speak it fluently. Even spending a month in Mexico did no good, she only spoke English and I had to be the translator between her and the family.

  • My daughter (almost 4) is bilingual. I speak Polish to her, my husband speaks Finnish. So OPOL, BUT there is the third language- me and hubby speak English between each other. So lil’ one understands almost everything we say in English, but she doesn’t speak it (yet, I should say). We live in Finland, country which has two official languages (Finnish & Swedish) and raising kids bilingual is strongly encouraged and supported by the state. Lots of people we know are multicultural couples and raising kids bilingual (or more).

  • When I was a kid, I begged my parents to send me to Concordia Language Camps in Minnesota. I wanted to learn French and eat baguettes. They said no and sent me to Japanese camp in town.

    In high school, I wanted to start French. My parents said no, and instead forced me to enroll in Spanish. I found that I had a knack for it, choosing to minor in the language in college and study in Spain. Unsatisfied, I moved here to perfect the language and ended up married. My partner and I disagree on many levels, but on raising our kids bilingual, we’re completely in tune. What a treat for your kiddos – I would have loved to learn more languages when I was young.

  • This is great, starting early is the best way, it’s so important to be proactive about this stuff. maybe even have native spanish speakers as nannies or to come over and talk with them occasionally. I wish I had this growing up, instead I lived for 3 years in Spain and had to refuse English to anyone to get somewhat fluent. Buena suerte 🙂

  • Even just 20 minutes a day of speaking a foreign language to a six-month-old baby is enough to tell the baby’s brain that it has to learn the sounds and rhythms of that language. So you might not need to do it full time, unless you want to of course.

  • Yay, it’s a girl! What an amazing gift you are giving your children, and yourself since your Spanish will most definitely improve in the process. I really want to be able to get to a working level of Spanish this year, but I have terrible discipline! If only I had been raised bilingual…

  • My children are bilingual. We live in Sweden and my husband is Swedish and I am American and speak English with them. I also speak Spanish but have not introduced it to the children, not because I don’t think they could handle it, but because my mother tongue is American English and my culture is American and I really want to impart that to them.

    They get Swedish language and culture elsewhere. It would feel very unnatural to me to speak anything but English to them. If you are comfortable with and interested in speaking only Spanish that sounds great, but cut yourself some slack if it is making life harder or uncomfortable for you. You can always switch to English at home and Spanish outside the home (at least while you are in Mexico), or some people use the other language for certain activities (e.g. mealtimes or reading) or on certain days or in certain settings or with certain people. For children to become truly bilingual, about 1/3 of the language input needs to be in the second language; it doesn’t have to be 50% if it is not natural for you. Good luck!

  • Here in Montreal, bilingualism is what most parents want, and is the official goal of the public school system. (Although some Francophone parents have philosophical problems with that.) The only real problem I’ve seen or heard of comes when children are older… Some Anglo parents freak out when their kids are 8, 9, 10 years old and can’t read or write in English very well. It’s not an issue for all kids, some of them pick up reading in English outside of school, but some don’t.

  • Very inspirational post! I would totally raise my kids bilingually. My fiance Han grew up in the States and I am from Shanghai, China. We both agreed that we should totally teach our kids Mandarin in the future assuming the kids will grow up in the States too. We also consider to let our kids learn enough Shanghainese so that they would be able to understand it. (Shanghainese is spoken by 20 million people here, so it could be considered as a whole different language.) But we haven’t figured out a way about how we are going to do 3 languages simultaneously. It might be a little early for us to think about this topic, but it’s interesting and also fairly important…

  • Do you worry you’ll want to say something, but not know how in Spanish? Or because its a baby you don’t worry about it?

    • That will definitely happen while we’re transitioning.

      For example, if we’re out playing and Cole is about to hit the dog with his truck, I have to say something but I don’t know all the Spanish. I might say in English, “Don’t hit el perro, por favor” then write that down or make a note of it on my phone that I need to figure out what word I’ll use for ‘hit’ and how to say ‘truck’.

      Then next time I have the Spanish. “No pegues el perro!” or “Dame el camión por favor!” Then I might over time learn there’s a better way to say it, because I’m in Mexico, I’m saying these things in Spanish on the street and people either correct me or I overhear other mamas use different expressions. So I slowly learn and refine my language skills as I’m using the language more with Cole.

  • Thanks for sharing your insights on having a baby in another country and teaching your children another language. Very interesting about the “one person, one language” method. That seems like it would be less confusing for the child.

  • I am pregnant with a girl now too! We are planning on moving to Nicaragua in 1.5-2 years. My hubby and I both speak english, but my spanish is pretty good. Considering that kids become bilingual just from going to immersion schools at age 5, I was thinking that it would not be necessary to do the OPOL thing with soon-to-be-Alice, and hoping that just being in a community where everyone else speaks spanish and we speak spanish to everyone else would be enough for her to learn both languages. I plan on having a local babysitter (a luxury I could not afford in the states) for only spanish time, as well as encourage friendships with local children. I will speak spanish to her also, but at the level of total immersion you are at, I dont think you will need to be too rigid about it. And assuming he spends lots of time interacting with locals, I bet even Cole will be speaking better spanish than you by the end of the year!

  • We are raising are kid to be bilingual via OPOL. Though if we were both fluent in the minority language then we probably would have spoken the minority language inside and the majority language outside instead. Since our kid is only two I am sure we will shift how we do things depending on where we are living.
    The important thing that I have heard is that the minority language requires 25 hours a week otherwise it will lag the majority language. As such (and since it is a lot of work) we don’t intend on adding any languages that we aren’t going to maintain for the duration since kids forget languages just as easily as they pick them up

  • I would definitely try to raise our (future) kids in two languages (or more, depending on the circumstances). If we raise our kids in an English-speaking country, we will both speak in Spanish to them (our relationship is in Spanish anyway). If we have them in Spain, or any other Spanish-speaking country for that matter, then I will speak to them only in English. If we raise them in a country where neither English OR Spanish is spoken, well, then D-Man will speak Spanish (his native tongue), I will speak English (my native tongue), and the child will pick up the country’s language at school and with peers.

    I have an Italian friend who was raised in Italy and speaks PERFECT English, because her mother (whose native tongue is Italian as well), only spoke English to her, while her father continued to use Italian at home. My friend is now an English teacher, and loves to talk about the benefits of having grown-up bilingual, even if her mother’s English wasn’t perfect, my friend eventually perfected her own English later at school. 🙂

  • I think this idea of teaching your kids two different languages when they’re still young is a brilliant idea for I notice that babies can adapt to it easily because they’re on the stage of adjusting themselves.

  • I wanted to do this, but I’m very maternal and didn’t have all the sweetheart words my Mom would coo to me as a baby, so we’d read to them in French and listen to French music with them. Then we put them in French school and eventually moved to France. One is now trilingual, the other quad (incl mandarin).
    Its hard culturally when its not your native language. For example, no Spanish person wld say, don’t hit the dog, por favor. They’d just say, don’t hit the dog.

    • Sylvia — To your point: “For example, no Spanish person wld say, don’t hit the dog, por favor. They’d just say, don’t hit the dog.”

      I don’t expect that I will be culturally Spanish or do it perfectly ESPECIALLY in the beginning. In the first few years I’ll be learning so much, but eventually I will become fluent in Spanish, just from using it every single day for years on end. Those mistakes will disappear from the language. But you’re right, there is the cultural piece, I’ll never truly be able to replicate even if my grammar improves.

  • I learned three languages when I was growing up, and I’d say I am bilingual.
    My parents both spoke to me in the same language, Maltese, then at school we had some classes in Maltese and some in English, so I am bilingual without my parents needing to speak a language each to me.

    Added to that, I really liked watching Italian television. While I can’t really speak it confidently because I don’t have lots of occasions to, I can understand 100% of what’s going on when I am watching Italian TV or listening to Italian people chatting.

  • One of my best friends here in Paris is an American married to an Argentinian, so her child will grow up speaking English, Spanish, and French without a second thought; and my 9-year old piano student already speaks English and French and is currently learning Mandarin. I envy these kids, it comes so naturally to them — I know Shanghainese as that’s what my parents spoke at home, but I had to go to China for a year when I was 18 to study Mandarin!

  • I so wish my mum had chosen the OPOL route with me. My mum speaks fluent Finnish and Swedish so why only speak to me in English?

    Languages open up the world in more ways than any other, i think it’s great what your doing. Cole (and new born) will be so thankful.

  • How are you learning Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic? Does your husband know Spanish? I’m currently using Pimsleur for an upcoming trip to Nicaragua, and curious if you have any tips.

  • To add to the great comments above, three points:
    – my sister and I grew up multilingual, albeit different languages at different times of our lives for me and a mix for my sister. I never formally learned Spanish and now regret it, because it is so much more difficult as a busy adult who is not constantly in touch with Spanish speakers. Learn all the languages you can when you are a kid! Even if you speak imperfectly!
    – my spouse’s mom in Cameroon used the OPOL method, and all 5 children learned her language, plus their father’s language, plus Pidgin English and French.
    – I was guilty when raising my own child and did not force him to learn English… fortunately we moved to the US when he was 8 and now he speaks, writes, as any educated native-born speaker.

  • OPOL is the key to success, it does take a lot of persistence and you will be challenged by your kid if he hears you speaking English to your husband.. He will realize you DO speak English and this is probs easier for him.

    You must stick to your guns.. however, haaving said that, if you have him in Nursery, nanny as you did in China or playgroups the Spanish will come naturally..

    I speak Spanish to my son, he has a Spanish nanny and he was listening to Spanish most of the days except for weekends when his dad spoke in English to him. As soon as he started nursery his English became better than his spanish. I am baffled as to why but he will never ever speak to me or the nanny in English

    All the best

  • I grew up speaking only Spanish at home. I was the first Spanish speaking child in my school. I received what was called a bilingual education with a head on blast of full inmersion English. I wasnt fully fluent in it until almost the end of 2 grade. I am now fluent in 3 languages, (French also) and learning it was easier and very different than the way I learned English. As an example because I had no one in the beginning to teach me and my extremely limited communication skills I was left alone and just mingled for most of my early school days until one day someone who I understood appeared and was there everyday. And I was eager to learn. But even now I still remember the first word I learned in English: Stupid. I was 5.

    When my son was born my husband and I agreed that my side of the family and I would only speak to him in Spanish. He is 7 now. Fluent in both languages. And bilingual in every sense of the word.

  • Dear Christine, We are raising our kids (9yr old twins; boy and girl) with 3+ languages: English (my mother tongue), German (my husband’s mother tongue) & French (one of the main languages of the country where we live: Belgium). The “+” comes from the fact that I am also fluent in Spanish and my son has asked me more than once: “Mama, speak to me en español!” The first time he voiced that request was when he was about 2 1/2 years old. My husband felt it was too much to have them try to learn four languages. At that time, I agreed. But, when we moved to New York in 2007 and he asked me again, I told my husband that I thought I should speak to him a bit. If he’s asking me, it’s because he’s interested and we should encourage that interest. And, clearly, he has a gifted ear for music, languages and sounds, in general. Ever since, his Spanish comprehension is slowly growing and he’s able to say a few sentences. I’m pretty certain he’ll nail it as a fourth language before he’s finished with High School. I wanted to add another comment linked to your approach of “…watching Cole and adjusting to him…” I couldn’t agree more with this method. Every child is different and, while, in general, small children do “soak languages up” like sponges in what appears to be an effortless process, it’s important to tailor one’s approach to the child. Not all children have “the gene” (if you believe that theory!) or the facility at acquiring and mastering foreign languages. Not all generalizations apply. My kids are a perfect example of that. The commonly held belief that girls are better at languages and communicators, in general, is broken to pieces by my son and daughter. It’s my son who excels in the verbal realm and my daughter who is less expansive on that topic. Nevertheless, she’s still mastered three languages and, that, in and of itself is just one of the precious gifts I’ve given to her and her brother. Good luck with everything. Your life in Mexico and other places sounds very fulfilling. Kind regards, Megan

  • My brother just and a baby, and he’s in Belgrade, so I guess he’ll be learning both English and Serbian. He’s going to have the most mixed blood line I think Ive heard of – English, Scottish, Maltese, Lithuanian, Italian, Serbian. It’s unlikely he’ll learn Maltese, Lithuanian, or Italian, but you never know. He’ll start off with English and Serbian I think. I heard that as many languages as you teach a child before the age of seven, he or she will learn. After seven we apparently dip seriously when it comes to language acquisition… I live in Malta, where people grow up speaking English, Maltese and Italian, so everyone takes it for granted that they’re basically trilingual. It’s nuts – I’m from England – not the most linguistically adventurous of peoples. We can pretty much say ‘I am (insert name here)’ in French, and possibly German, but that’s about it :). If you’re ever in Malta, let me know – I run a language school and we could do with some lovely blogging about it!! – you’d like Malta too – strange little island in the Southern Mediterranean which boasts the oldest temples on earth. Which is nice. We also have sunshine. Good luck with the language training – I’d also look into those studies which say that if you make your kids listen to classical music they grow up to be better at maths and art – that one sounds promising too.

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