How Bilingualism Can Fail in Multilingual Families

Raising bilingual kids, if nothing else, involves commitment. Bilingualism isn’t automatic.
Long before having children or meeting my multilingual husband, I knew I wanted to raise bilingual kids. I was not brought up bilingual and learned the majority of my languages as an adult. As a result, I wanted my kids to have the gift of bilingualism from childhood. I assumed my future children’s second language would be Spanish, since it is the language I am most fluent in after English. I also imagined the likely possibility of raising trilingual kids, since I suspected my future husband, whoever he would be, would also speak more than one language, as that was the type of person that attracted me. I assumed that with each parent speaking a different language, our budding bilinguals would comfortably slip between languages, with no effort needed on our part. Bilingualism would be organic and natural.

The reality, I have discovered, is very different. My husband, a native Arabic speaker, has since day one spoken to our children in Arabic. We decided on the one-parent-one-language (OPOL) method before we even knew the official term for it. Our first child (now five-years-old) was born in Germany, so speaking Spanish to her as I had always imagined, seemed unnecessary as she would grow up trilingual with Arabic, English and German.

We moved back to the U.S. when Jasmin was nine months old, somewhat unexpectedly. My husband continued speaking Arabic to her, but when she was two, she had yet to speak. We remained confident in her bilingualism, as we had diligently committed ourselves to OPOL. By the time she was two-and-a-half, she still didn’t speak much and began receiving intensive speech and developmental therapy, after a diagnosis of dyspraxia. At one of the many evaluations any kid receiving early intervention services has to undertake, a speech therapist recommended my husband stop speaking Arabic to her since she was struggling so much with speech. We luckily knew enough to ignore her ill-conceived advice.
By the time Jasmin finally started speaking clearly and regularly, we were surprised that she really didn’t speak Arabic at all. Her father has been around a lot during her early years and was even the stay-at-home parent for a period. It was clear she understood and followed directions in Arabic, but spoke no words beyond a few. We were puzzled.

Initially, we were also juggling life with a second child from the time Jasmin was nineteen months old. With very little help and no family around, managing two under two became all about survival, especially when my toddler had become that child, the one parents in playgroups shun and whisper about, the one you think will never be your child—the hitter, hair puller, screamer and rockstar tantrum-thrower. Nurturing my children’s bilingualism was like offering a free pedicure to someone suffering from malnutrition. Between auto-piloting through the day on little sleep, cleaning my rebellious toddler’s poop or diaper cream off the carpet/sheets/walls (yes, even walls), learning how to breastfeed an infant with one arm while making lunch for an ear-piercingly loud, shrieking toddler with the other, speech therapy appointments and redoing my cooking repertoire based on another discovery about my oldest—a gluten intolerance—I didn’t give much thought to whether their bilingualism was on track. I just assumed it was.

At one point during the haze of that year, I made a feeble attempt at Spanish and founded a Spanish-speaking playgroup that I never once attended, unable to get both children fed, dressed and out the door on time. In another endeavor, I brought “Goodnight Moon” home from the library in Spanish. When I began, “En una gran habitación verde, arropado en su cama, está un conejito” instead of the usual, “In the great green room…” my trying toddler threw it across the room. We also owned the Little Pim Arabic language DVD, which I played frequently. But it wasn’t quite enough. More than anything else in the early years, we wanted a child who spoke in any language and was less frustrated.

Once we emerged from the weeds of the sleepless year and had a finally talking three-year-old and an easy-going one-year-old, we assessed our children’s bilingualism. We knew more action was needed to ensure they not just understood Arabic, but also spoke it. Since our household language was English and the dominant environment was also English, their exposure to Arabic from solely their father was too limited. We knew we needed to stimulate their bilingualism through some combination, if not all, of the following:

• Arabic books and more DVDs
• An Arabic-speaking babysitter
• An Arabic playgroup, and the gospel would be an Arabic daycare or preschool

The kids already “spoke” to their relatives in Morocco at least weekly if not more on Skype. But what that actually entailed was the kids holding up toys or books while the family spoke to them. Inevitably, the kids became distracted after a few minutes by another activity, like say stuffing a pair of pants in their “bum bums” to make animals tails.
While frequent trips to Morocco were not really an option, our language commitment renaissance coincided with our move from Santa Fe to Berkeley and two months abroad, one of them spent in Morocco. Our first day in Casablanca, we hunted for bookstores and bought tons of Arabic language books for the kids, something that was previously a bit prohibitive with Arabic books unavailable in Santa Fe and online ordering costs running above $20 per book.

In Morocco, the kids spent the first two weeks almost silent but then started speaking Arabic in fits and starts by the third week, asking for “ate afek” (tea please) and telling each other to “eji” (come) and “ara” (give) this toy and that. Despite the many Arabic books we acquired, they shared a common problem—none were in the Moroccan dialect my kids understood, but all in classical Arabic. We figured this was better than nothing and also a good opportunity to begin exposing them to the classical. But once we returned to the U.S., we quickly noticed that the kids rarely gravitated toward those books. It made sense—they couldn’t really understand them.

Settling in to our new life in Berkeley, we started looking for Arabic-speaking daycares, playgroups and most of all, a babysitter, a previously rare phenomenon in the population of under 10 Arabic-speakers, mostly male, in Santa Fe. Overjoyed, we soon found an Arabic-speaking preschool within 20 minutes of our house. After visiting however, we discovered the school was not the right fit for us. We briefly debated a 40 to 60 minute drive in rush hour traffic, the opposite direction from work, for another school that offered some Arabic in the curriculum. The lunacy of that idea took longer than it should have to dismiss.

Playgroups posed their own set of challenges. Although I found an Arabic-speaking one, since I don’t speak much Arabic, my presence defeated the purpose. As everyone needed to speak English to communicate with me, English slowly took hold. We next focused on babysitters, a search that lasted over a year and half to find someone who spoke the North African dialect of Arabic. The majority of Arabic-speakers in the San Francisco Bay Area are Palestinian and Yemeni, a very different dialect from Moroccan. A Yemeni and Moroccan speaking in their own dialects, for example, would not be able to understand each other. We had many false starts on the babysitter search, finding many almost-but-not-quite-right matches. But we finally managed to find a wonderful Moroccan babysitter who now spends a few hours each week with our kids.

The largest benefit of our Moroccan babysitter has been her two- and three-year-old children. We actively encourage her to bring them when she comes to watch our kids, and a few times, we have dropped the kids at her house. While slightly inconvenient as her house is out of our way, language wise, it is fantastic for our kids’ Arabic to be in a Moroccan household, complete with mother-in-law as well. My children excitedly tell me about speaking “Arabya” with her son, Idris, because he doesn’t speak English. Since her daughter goes to preschool, where she learned English, she tends to interact with our kids in English. However, Jasmin complains to me that, “Hiba only speaks to me in English.” It is refreshing to hear the disappointment in her voice as she yearns to communicate more in Arabic.

A few weeks ago, my Moroccan brother-in-law visited us for the first time. We were unsure if the kids were capable of speaking Arabic with him. While our babysitter tells us they speak some, we rarely hear them. Neither of us has ever witnessed full Arabic sentences roll off their tongues. So could they communicate with him? We were anxious to find out. The first few days of their uncle’s visit, my oldest tried in earnest to find Arabic words before speaking, but most often reverted to English. The youngest seemed to not care at all about speaking Arabic. However after one week, Uncle Simo reported that both kids spoke to him in Arabic sentences (sentences!!) when they were playing games. He told them he would play only if they spoke Arabic. Smart uncle. While neither of us parents had the pleasure of hearing it, we felt encouraged that with just a little more daily exposure to Arabic beyond their father, our kids could potentially be Arabic speakers, not just listeners.

All of our bilingual challenges have led to two decisions about our kids’ bilingualism. The first is we initially decided that school should definitely be in another language. However, private school for two children was costly and we didn’t get into the public Spanish immersion option. Enter plan B: I am creating an immersion Spanish afterschool program for the fall so that my children will have the opportunity to learn Spanish. The second decision is that at some point, we will try to live in Morocco for a few years. What’s funny is we never anticipated this in the slightest—neither of us had an interest in living in Morocco, up until recently. But I realized the best way for my kids to be fully bilingual is if we live in the country, also giving me the opportunity to learn Arabic fluently, a goal of mine. Once I am also an Arabic speaker, Arabic could have more reinforcement in our household, no matter where we live.

Our bilingual journey has definitely not been what we expected—eloquently trilingual children spawned with little parental energy. Bilingualism takes far more effort and commitment than anticipated. But it’s definitely worth every second.


  1. Loved your story Stephanie.My 3 year old understands my husband’s German but only responds in English. Everyone says that kids learn languages so easily, so we start our bilingual raising journey with very unrealistic expectations that it is going to be a walk in the park. It is not surprising so many parents give up, as at every turn there is another obstacle.. Good luck with your girls.

  2. I love how you let us peak into this very interesting part of your family life. I know so many little global nomads that have no base language and go through early childhood speaking about 200 words only and yet they have a family rich life of multiple languages. When I talk to their parents they often as so surprised that their child has such limited language since they hear them speak several languages but this base just doesn’t grow unless the parents work hard at building language.

  3. This is a complicated situation you’re dealing with here. I have 2 trilingual girls and it’s not easy,either. Sometimes bilingualism is not the best option for a family but you seem very commited to this cause! stay strong and good luck!

  4. Thank you for sharing such a candid portrayal of the challenges inherent in raising bi/multilinguals. Your commitment and efforts are laudable. It’s a good reminder that sometimes children have issues that preclude or override their ability to become bilingual. While we weren’t trying to raise him bilingual, my son had speech and language delay issues that required several years to address. It must have been so difficult and frustrating for you both, yet it sounds as though as the children get older it’s starting to come together. Living in Morocco sounds as though it would be a cultural gift to your children as well as your husband’s family.

    My husband and I can get by in a couple languages each, mainly reading and writing, some conversations, but nothing near proficiency. (I call us ‘perpetual intermediates’.) I’m making more of an effort with Dutch as we are now living in the Netherlands, but it’s hard going. Our two children value language but so far are intermediates as well. That’s okay, because our feeling is any capability is better than none, and you never know what path life will take.

  5. Thank you all so much for reading and for your very thoughtful comments. It’s great to hear about your families and experiences as well. Hope we can all continue sharing our experiences as it’s so nice to read about other families language situations as well. I am still quite hopeful my girls will be Arabic speakers but I’ll keep writing about the journey to get there!

  6. I was happy to rea that you did not stop the second language due to the dyspraxia. I have a son with apraxia and though he is older I do hope he will get a second language at some point. As we move around overseas it may happen, he still has a ways to go with English. I hope you get to live in Morrocco.

  7. Stephanie- I stumbled across this article from my FB page, The Bilingual Child. I created the page, a Spanish playgroup, among other things to help myself and other moms raise bilingual children. My husband is Lebanese, I am American, but we both speak Spanish, so we agreed to keep Spanish the main language I speak to our son (1 year) and Lebanese Arabic the main language my husband speaks to him. Much like you. I found a need for my son to interact more with Spanish-speaking kids, so I started a Spanish play group. I am in the process of starting an Arabic one. However the only familiy I have found so far that is interested is Algerian, so I am going to run into the same problem you had. Plus, I only speak about 20 words in Lebanese dialect of Arabic. We are very committed to raising a trilingual child. But after reading your article, a lot of it hit home with me. Do you have any suggestions for me? How did you find an Arabic -speaking preschool? How did you find an Arabic speaking nanny? Any other suggestions you or anyone else has will be greatly appreciated!

  8. Thanks so much for your comment Mrs. Kozaily and it’s always exciting to hear about others on the same bilingual/trilingual journey! My first question is, where do you live? I also don’t speak much Arabic. I don’t think it’s a problem although like you, it did pose a challenge to the Arabic playgroup. I personally don’t mind that I can’t understand (although I sometimes get real curious about what he says when he gets them to listen to him after they have been defiant with me- loll) but since their Arabic exposure is so much less than their English exposure, we knew Arabic reinforcement was necessary. Our Arabic babysitter search was a bit exhausting. We tried the following routes: craigslist, a local listerv (Berkeley Parents Network), mosques, the local Arabic Cultural Center and told every person we knew that we were looking as you never know who may know someone. Eventually, we found a friend of a friend of someone we contacted via one of those routes. We also found the Arabic preschool through some Muslim moms…there was a yahoo group of local Muslim mothers and I believe it was through that. It never came up on any google searches for Arabic schools. Mosques I think are a great source of Arabic resources in your area if you have any mosques nearby. The best thing for my kids’ Arabic has been not so much our babysitter (although that has helped a ton!) but her children. If you can somehow find a babysitter with kids that she could bring with (maybe she is a SAHM so it could work well for her) that would be the jackpot! Don’t give up though! It took us a long, long while but we found someone who is fantastic. Also, any chance of your in-laws coming to stay for an extended period? We hope this could be an option for us in the future. Also, if you can set the precedent now for all media consumption (DVD, TV, iPad, etc) to be ONLY in Spanish and Arabic, it will make it so much easier later, as you have established the pattern since the time he was young. The great thing is you still have plenty of time to get all the resources ironed out since your son is only one still. Best of luck and I would love to hear about your progress!

  9. Stephanie,
    I so admire your commitment and creativity towards helping your children speak multiple languages.
    Many families have experienced the difficulties you describe. My son is trilingual and we are now working with our newest arrival to the family. We have a teen who is preparing to leave the house and toddler who has recently joined us. Our experience has taught us this is a JOURNEY, consistency and environment have been key. We have lived in the countries where the “foreign” languages were being spoken at some point of our son’s developement. Each parent spoke our native tongue, leaving school and peers to do their magic. Often, we had to take the teacher’s word for our son’s progress because we would hear not a peep from our son. His speech was not delayed, but we waited a year to introduce the second language (and have also done this with our youngest). Since we live abroad, we found language Kids Camps (which met once a week) where my son could be around other children just like him (this was impotant in the context of fighting peer pressure. My son was never ashamed of his languages or muliple cultural heritage, though we met plenty of other families who struggled with this. As a teen, we’ve been able to send him to summer camps where he is competely immersed, serving to strengthen his weakest language. Making sure he learned and kept his three languages, has truly been a journey. Not everyone has understood the commitment our even the lengths you sometimes must go through to make sure you child has what they NEED to feel connected, not only to their languages, but their heritage as a multicultural child. You’ve illustrated this with your children’s visit with their uncle. This isn’t simply about WANTING your child to speak a different language (which has its own merits), but it is also about making sure your child can feel connected to their family. Language is a big factor in aiding that connection.
    We’ve spent 3 years in one country, 11 in another, and have recently returned to the US (temporarily) to complete my son’s education. What a journey indeed!
    Best to you and yours,

  10. I really enjoyed reading your journey and have experienced so many similar feelings and challenges. We were very lucky to have a supportive pediatrician in Brooklyn given that our eldest was also a very late speaker. I actually think it runs in our family since there are a number of cousins I’ve heard about that didn’t speak until 2 or 3, many of them mono-lingual.

    It’s funny how I’d also always assumed that bi-trilingualism would naturally emerge. I guess I wasn’t aware of my own hiccups acquiring languages as a child –my mother has since set the record straight on that one. I am so glad you didn’t give up. I look forward to hearing more about your girls’ language development and I do hope you will someday live in Morocco….then my girls and I can come and visit!

  11. Wow, I really admire your perseverence. It is also heartening to read about another family’s struggles with bilingualism.I also assumed it would be easy, since my husband is a native speaker of Spanish. (We also do OPOL). But as you say, when you are in an English-speaking environment, having one parent speak the language isn’t enough. Thank you for sharing your story so candidly and for sharing such great tips.

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