Raising Bilingual Children as a Non-Native Speaker: The Challenges

Raising bilingual children as a non-native speaker of the language is an interesting endeavor. Fortunately, I have it better than some; my wife is a native speaker. It’s commonly understood that this is a huge benefit and, well, it is. While it is a huge benefit in the overall process, unique situations still exist for the one actually speaking the language; which would be me.

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc
photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

Unfortunately there is more to raising children than just insuring they receive some semblance of the language you wish to pass down to them. I have appealed this, but alas to no avail. You actually have to feed them, dress them, hang out with them, and, to put it succinctly, make them the center of your world. When raising bilingual children, the majority of the duties are exactly the same; only in another language. I have hopes of making this a series of posts detailing the unique challenges we face as non-native bilingual speakers raising children in our target language.

The problem for the non-native is that a lot of these activities aren’t readily studied prior to having children. I studied Spanish in high school, college, and then learned the other 95% on my own after meeting my wife; the formal foreign language study was less than optimal. In your own language, you have some exposure to people interacting with babies as you live your life; cousins, nieces and nephews, friends younger siblings, or random people in the supermarket. This is a learning process when raising bilingual children in a non-native language. In our “own” language, a person soaks up that information and forms some idea about what to say to babies. In a foreign language, you may never have seen another person say one word to a baby. Being a bilingual daddy in a foreign language can be tricky. Here are some of the specific challenges I face on top of the fact that fathers communication skills are already fairly questionable!

Raising Bilingual Children in a Non-Native Language Challenge #1

Regardless of which parenting techniques for bilingual children  you’re using as a non-native speaker, one thing stands in your way: vocabulary. You don’t have the vocabulary for a lot of things. If you learned how to say any of the following words in a college foreign language class, please comment below. I will go take that class.

Diaper, baby powder, crib, jumper, walker, pack-and-play, stroller, car seat, crawling, babbling, etc.

The list of baby terms one must learn is extensive and must be assimilated into your vocabulary. This isn’t overly difficult, obviously, however it’s a process. You’re goal isn’t to learn vocabulary after your child is born and you’re in the hospital; it’s to connect with your child. This is the point: when your raising children in a non-native language you are always learning.

It doesn’t matter if it’s the happiest day of your life, the saddest, the most frustrating, or just any another day; you’re learning and you’re working. Most of the time it’s a great thing, sometimes it’s just plain annoying. However, after a while you get the kinks worked out and are sailing on smooth water until the next milestone arises and you have all new vocabulary to learn.

While it isn’t always a cakewalk, it’s definitely a worthwhile endeavor. Keep at it! Sacrifice today gives way to success tomorrow. If that’s a quote, I don’t’ know who said it, because I just made it up. But it’s true. In all things in life, especially in raising bilingual children; or really, children at all. The benefits of being bilingual are many, and being able to be the first one in your family to raise a child in another language is an honor.

Stay tuned for challenge #2 coming soon!

Jeffrey Nelson from LivingBilingual

Jeffrey Nelson

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18 thoughts on “Raising Bilingual Children as a Non-Native Speaker: The Challenges”

    • Thank you Adriana!

      It is hard work, but keeping after it makes it easier as time goes by. My wife is a big help, that’s for sure! Thanks for the comment. I’m excited to write part 2 as well!

      I appreciate your kind words,

    • Thanks! It definitely does get easier with practice. Every day I learn new words, phrases, and ways to communicate with the little guy. Now that his activities are expanding, so is my vocabulary! 🙂


  1. Both my husband and I are non-native speakers committed to only speaking Spanish with our 14 month son. Connecting with him has felt natural since we’ve been doing it in Spanish since birth but sometimes I fear that we are not able to expose him to as rich of descriptions for things or we’re uncertain how to say a lot of stuff. It’s frustrating and feels a little scary but he only has a few words now and they are half in English and half in Spanish. He understands many of the things I ask him to do in Spanish. Those things probably would not feel so incredible to me in English but for some reason I keep thinking day in and day out…can we really do this? But so far we’re doing it? Lot’s more vocab to learn…that’s for sure! I just hope we can stay ahead of him.


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