Almost Fearless

How to Raise Bilingual Kids for Busy Parents

I know it’s not surprising, since I just wrote a book about it, but I think everyone should raise their kids with two languages. It helps kids academically, it makes them more conscious of other cultures and improves social skills, it increases empathy and when they are all old and wrinkly it protects their brain from dementia for years. Some people say it’s like doing crosswords. No. It’s like getting a bionic crossword puzzle brain boost. It’s massive. And at their tender age it’s easier to learn without studying. Plus and here’s the best part that every one of these articles brushes over: they will SPEAK A SECOND LANGUAGE. I mean truly, it’s a super power. I don’t care what my European friends say – especially those who grew up with three languages so it’s so-not-a-big-deal – it is a big deal. It’s awesome. It feels magical. And you can give it to your kids.

Here’s the truth of it: it’s relatively easy to do. I mean, once you figure it out.

But where do you start? I will give you the short cut… I’ve read dozens of books, hundreds of research studies, talked to many, many experts, and studied Mandarin, Arabic and Spanish with my toddler son. I did it the long, painful way, so you don’t have to…

Here we go:


You need about 30% input in the second language. That’s what the research indicates is the threshold. So if you figure your kids are up at 6 AM and in bed by 8 PM, that’s 14 hours a day, so about 4.5 hours a day should do it. As a minimum.


There has to be a need to speak it. So basically someone talking at your child probably won’t work, but someone engaging and playing with your child in a dialog would work. (For example, reading a book out loud in Spanish is less effective then reading and pointing to things, asking questions, naming the pictures, etc – get the child involved).

kidtvIt can’t be TV or DVDs or CDs. Sorry, researcher Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington tested this theory out with babies and it had zero effect. None. Nada. Zilch. Toss those Baby Pimsleur CDs right into the trash.


It takes a long time. If you start at birth, they might not really speak the language until they are 4 or 5 depending on how much input they get and their local environment. It’s simple: consistency plus demand to speak the language gets faster results (for example if Grandma only speaks French, and that’s it, the kids will figure out how to use French with her faster than if Mom reads French bed time stories every night). This is why immersion works so well with kids, if they want a snack they have to figure out how to say it. But don’t worry, they all still learn.

parentbusybabyYou probably will doubt that it’s working. Just know that everyone feels like this until it does start to work… how hard is it to speak to a newborn for six months in a foreign language and not feel a little crazy? Of course when their first word is “agua” all that goes out the window.

fluentYOU DON’T HAVE TO BE FLUENT! If you can speak the language at all, you can teach it to your child. You can suck. (Ask me how I know.) If you can read children’s books, even if you don’t understand everything but you can pronounce the words – then you can learn with your child.


ZERO TIME INVESTMENT: Do you use any childcare at all? Can you get someone who speaks that language? Can you find a bilingual preschool or school in your area? Then you’re job is done. Boom. Easy. Just hire someone to speak to your child in that language. They’ll grow up fluent in it. Swear to god it’s that easy.


EQUAL TO SCHOOL TIME INVESTMENT: If you have a school age child, do they have dual immersion programs in your area? I’m especially impressed with the research happening in California about 90-10 immersion programs where they start in kindergarten speaking 90% of the foreign language and 10% English. Then each year they do less foreign until they hit 50/50 blend. The schools are mostly Spanish-English but the reports I’ve read show that it’s working out great for both the native English and native Spanish students. Of course your child will have homework in that language you’ll have to assist with.


2+ HOURS A DAY TIME INVESTMENT: Okay so no bilingual options in your area, can you speak the language? It’s really not as bad as it sounds. Here’s what you do… first, think of a way that works for your family to split up your days in language 1 and language 2. Maybe you just use the second language for dinner and evening time. That means from 3:30 PM until bedtime you speak only the second language in your house. Make it a rule. Make it playful but enforce it. Play dumb if they slip back into English.

Start with 15 minutes.


1. Create a list of very simple things that you routinely say like: let’s see, give me, thank you, please, what do you want to eat?, where is x?, can you x? watch out, be careful, no jumping, no hitting, and so on. Translate them. This is where you start.

2. Start using your new phrases during this time. Keep a notebook nearby and write down words you needed to translate. Food is a great way to start using the language.

3. If you need to slip into English that’s okay, just keep it going and go back as soon as you can.

4. Use bedtime to read in the target language. Don’t just read at your child!! Read a little, then point out things on the page. You can cheat and translate words ahead of time and write them ON THE PAGE. It’s your book! “Oh look, it’s a cow!” you say in perfectly terrible Spanish as you read “vaca” scribbled helpfully in the margin.

5. It’s just talking. You can do this!

Slowly increase the time each month until you’re at 4.5 hours a day.

Month 1: 15 minutes
Month 2: 30 minutes
Month 3: 1 hour
Month 4: 90 minutes
Month 5: 2 hours
Month 6: 2.5 hours
Month 7: 3 hours
Month 8: 3.5 hours
Month 9: 4 hours
Month 10: 4.5 hours

You will not FEEL much different. This will not be a chore because you will very slowly learn the language at the same time. Adults are much quicker at learning vocabulary and grammar than small children because we have an innate internal grammar already developed. I promise at this speed it will never feel like you’re studying. You’ll get so good at saying certain phrases that come up over and over with your kids, that you’ll start thinking those things at other times of the day.

And voila, once you’re at 4.5 hours a day in that language you are at the 30% threshold. If your kids pick up your accent that’s okay, it will correct if they get even a little exposure to native speakers (I know, I had this happen to us with Spanish).


-Find a playgroup in your area that speaks that language or start one.
-Go to the ESL (English as a Second Language) school or department at the local college to find native speakers to work with your child.
-Try to plan your next vacation somewhere that speaks that language.
-Start watching movies together in that language.
-Make your own friends in that language! Do Skype language exchanges.
-Incorporate the second language culture into your life.

The thing is that this all happens over years. You just start with one bilingual children’s book and go from there. There is zero rush. You can’t get there faster… they just absorb, learn and grow up, bit by bit.

Have questions? I have a small bilingual parents group on FB:

And if you’re curious about how it worked out for us, you can read the full story here.

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.”