The trials and tribulations of trying to raise a bilingual child

We are raising our daughter bilingual. It is not easy though. We have had so many trials and tribulations on our short journey already that I am starting to lose hope. I have listed the difficulties we have had in trying to raise our toddler bilingual and they boil down to three main areas - time, temptation and resistance. 

My native language is Finnish and I want my daughter to learn the lingo as well as she can. I recognise that she will never totally sound like a native unless we decide to up sticks and move out of the UK, but I would like her to speak with near fluency and be able to read at an age appropriate level. I know all the research about how bilingualism helps your brain develop, how it makes you smarter, more open-minded and more innovative, but it is not just about that. It is also that I want her to have that deeper cultural understanding you only gain through understanding the language. 

toddler laughing

We have been on our bilingual journey for just three years but there has already been several trials. 

The biggest trial is the most obvious. I work full time. Monday to Friday we only have a couple of hours to converse in  Finnish. A bit when she wakes up and a bit when I come back home from work. Otherwise, it is English from daddy all day long and soon it will be English at the nursery all day long.

Weekends can patch it up, but just a bit. I mostly speak only in Finnish to my daughter, but of course I have to translate the things I say on Finnish to my English-speaking partner, and other family members and friends. I try my hardest to speak in Finnish only when I am speaking directly to my daughter. It does often create quite a bit of interest, and people want to know how her language skills are developing and how we find the whole process. 

toddler girl laughing

Second big trial is also trying to resist the temptation of English. Her English is naturally a lot stronger. When she doesnt quite understand what a Finnish word means I find myself repeating it to her in English. It isn't really what I should be doing of course.  For monolingual children you explain the word, thus expanding their vocabulary and understanding at the same time. It is something I have to be mindful of, as it is easy to slip into. 

We have several additional strategies to support her language development. I've bought tons of kids films dubbed in Finnish for her to watch. Now if only I had Paw Patrol in Finnish... as that seems to be the only programme she accepts nowadays. She does often reject the films I have bought her for whatever is her favourite at the moment. I also read her books in Finnish, and I do sing nursery rhymes in Finnish. And sometimes make up my own silly stories and silly songs, although sometimes she very clearly requests an English song...  

During term time we go to a Finnish Saturday school, where she gets to play with other more or less bilingual children. The sessions are all in Finnish, but I hear the children often, quite naturally, reverting to English when playing together. It takes a keen ear to listen and remind them to speak in Finnish.

toddler girl pulling a funny face

Third big trial we have faced is pure stubborn resistance. My daughter understands Finnish very well, and can speak it a bit less well, but sometimes she just plain refuses to use it. Whether it is because she just wants to push my buttons, or because she just doesn't feel like it, I don't know. I try to mostly ignore it, and ask her to say it in Finnish, or if she insists in saying things in English I repeat them back to her in Finnish. So if she says "I want to have a biscuit", I repeat "Siis sinä haluat keksin?". Which I suppose at least builds her passive understanding of the language if nothing else! 

Although, it might just be that she is slowly turning full-on English. Whenever she says anything to me in English I ask her to repeat it to me in Finnish... 

And she repeats the same English sentence, but just LOUD and s l o w l y. 

Joking aside... Do you have any tips on how to raise a bilingual child?


  1. I don't have any tips but I do envy you the ability to teach her two languages, even with the trials. I only did three years of French at school (in England) and I can hardly remember that. I really wish I had carried on now. Hopefully as she gets older it will become more natural? #ftmob

    1. It really is such a blessing to be able to speak languages - I am fluent in two, and can speak a bit three other languages. It is difficult to try keep it up as an adult, much better if you learn it as a kid!

  2. I know how tough it is! I tried but ultimately could not make it work. Firstborn was speaking well until the school started. 2nd born was 4 tears younger so by the time she was learning her vocabulary the 5 yes old had her own English speaking friends and could not ' bother' to answer in Finnish nor did not speak it to her sister. - they are adults now and both regret not learning and are angry at me for not insisting. I have great guilt! So do keep at it, no matter how tough it is. If they understand and don't speak it, it is up to them later. With siblings, if they are close, it could be their ' cool' secret language....on the other hand, some kids don't want to be different and insidious on blending in and speak English. The current xenophobia makes it even harder. But, don't give up! Train yourself to say it in Finnish when you look at your child and avoid translation.They may be frustrated ( you too) but it pays well in the end!

    1. Yeah I can imagine they would regret it now. I had a similar situation when I was a child. I was bilingual too, but when I went to nursery (majority language) I started dropping the other language. And my mum did not insist on me speaking it. I am not angry but I do feel sad now as an adult, to think those skills I have lost and not being able to communicate properly with my maternal set of grand parents.

      I will do my best...

  3. I don't personally, but one of my NCT friends is welsh (with a kiwi husband - interested on rugby days!), and she's doing the same, trying to get the kids to be bilingual.

    She only speaks welsh to the kids at home, and even when she's out and about with them. She works as well, but has 3 kids so has been on maternity leave quite a bit in the 5 years since having her eldest. She also found they refused to speak welsh at one point but she just continued. I think now it's normal for the eldest to switch easily between the two.

    1. That's what I am finding too, my daughter just doesn't speak Finnish. She doesn't quite refuse, I just think she lacks the skills and English comes more naturally.

      I will try and follow your friends example though and just keep at it! :)

  4. We're rising up two trilingual children, where the oldest one is now almost three years old. One of the languages is Finnish and two other ones are Scandinavian languages (Norwegian and Danish), where the understanding one of the languages is supporting the understanding of the other. In the family we speak three languages: mother is speaking Finnish, daddy Danish and together with each other and with friends we're speaking Norwegian. Mummy is staying home with kids, so Finnish is the language kids hear most even though society language is Norwegian.

    Here is our strategies:
    1. Both parents talk only own motherlanguage to the kids, even though it might lead that not everybody understand what we're talking about.
    2. Kids need undisturbed time just with one parent at time. Specielt that together time is important with that parent who's working. We also try to get undisturbed time with one language with other people whose native language is one of our "target" language.
    3. We encourage to use of a right language in a right situation, even if the vocabulary might be better with other languages. That everybody doesn't understand all the languages helps kids to find the right language, because then it's useless to use wrong language. For excempel our son can't talk Finnish to our Norwegian friends or any Scandinavian languages to his Finnish relatives.
    4. If our older son is watching films, one the parent is with him and can then be actively talking what's happening in the program. His favourite is actually "Tom the towtruck" which is found only in English, but when there is a "translator" with it has been working actually fine. He can see the same program both with daddy and mummy and learn words in both languages.
    5. We use lot of time with reading books, in both languages which are native in our family. Our son knows well what books are "daddys books" and which ones mummy can read.

    What's are results now for our almost our three years son? Even though he is having multilingual environment he was pretty early when learning to speak. His Finnish is very good for his age. That's the language he's most exposed to. He's mixing Norwegian and Danish, and these languages are hanging about half an year behind from his Finnish, but he's using them as good as he can, as it's only way to communicate with most of the people.

    Rising multilingual children isn't easy and it takes a good effort to make it work, but I think with time results will be good when people just never give up.

    1. These are some amazing tips and I am so glad to hear your experience has been so positive! It sounds like you guys have really managed to crack it.

      I think I should definitely increase that mummy time with my daughter - usually we go out as a family and of course during the week she is either with her English speaking daddy or at English nursery. And I love the tip about "translating" the programmes - I must start doing that! I usually just veg with her in front of the telly, but that would be a good way of explaining words to her.

      It is really tough to raise multilingual kids... These are brilliant tips though!

  5. I can imagine that it must be difficult to raise your child to be bilingual, especially when English is what she hears the most. It does sound like her understanding of Finnish is good even if she is not always quite so keen to use it herself. Even if her Finnish is never as good as her English, it will still give her so many benefits to be able to speak both languages. I'm always interested to read about ways to raise children bilingual - it's something I'd love to be able to do with mine although unfortunately neither my husband nor myself speak another language to a good enough standard to do so. My French is reasonable though and I do try and sing songs in French and read French stories to the girls to at least help them learn a little of the language. It's now got to the point that Jessica will ask me what the French word is for things around the house - which is improving my vocabulary as sometimes I need to look it up myself! Maybe your daughter will want to speak Finnish more as she gets a little older too? Thank you for sharing with #ftmob

    1. It is true, she does understand a fair bit, but actually producing the language is a lot more difficult. In English she says proper sentences, in Finnish she might know some words here and there.

      That's really great you are teaching them French! At least they will get the sound of it, even if not really speak it, and it'll probably help them in school in the future :)

  6. Oh I love that you do this! I lived in France for a year and I'd love to have done a bit more French with my children, but I just never got around to doing it. I hope that when they learn it in school I'll be able to help them though. You're doing an amazing thing for your daughter, she will be so glad that you did in the future.

    1. Thank you for such a supportive comment :) I am sure your French will be useful when they start learning it in school! :)

  7. I came across this blog post: and remembered you wanted comments on this very topic. Thought you might be interested :)

  8. Hi Sanna!I have to kids, who are now 5 and 7 y.o. They minority languages are Russian and English, we live in Italy. I know it is not so easy the first years. Kids can be "moody" in relation to one or another language. Just keep on speaking your language. Use every chance you've got, speak it in public too. Also try to read to your daughter in the morning. Here is the link to my website, where I share many tips and what worked for me. I hope it will help you!

    1. Thank you - I will check it out :) It is always good to get some tips on languages! It is tough at the moment, but thankfully it is getting better. There are of course setbacks every once in a while but we are moving to a better place with the language now I think :)


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