Family & Pets

How to pass on a mother tongue to your children

Raising bilingual families means a mother tongue and a mother’s tongue are not always the same language. Teaching children both languages preserves a part of family history and strengthens family unity.

Mother tongue

By Expatica

Updated 9-1-2024

Life as an expat parent can be challenging. From choosing the right school to introducing them to the local cuisine, it can seem like every day brings its own unique struggle. And then, of course, there’s the age-old conundrum for expat parents: What language should I use with my kids? Does using a mother tongue at home hinder their progress in the classroom?

For some, using the local language at home can help make the move as seamless as possible. Others find it easier to use their native language around the house. But what should you do to ensure your children keep their mother tongue while flourishing in the language of their new home? To help you out, here’s our guide on how to pass on a mother tongue to your children.

Use your words

It might sound obvious, but the easiest way to ensure your kids retain their mother tongue is to use it. Couples who speak the same language use that to communicate with their children; parents that are fluent in different languages, though, can pick their own language for the kids. As an example, a French mother and a Russian father living in Berlin could speak their own mother tongue to their children – all while the kids themselves learn German at school.

Speaking your native language might seem counter-intuitive when trying to integrate into a new culture — but it isn’t. For starters, your kids will practice their new language skills with friends and teachers every day at school. In fact, you’ll be surprised at just how quickly they pick it up. So, use your time with them to practice your mother tongue.

Some children might not want to do this, especially if they feel embarrassed about speaking a foreign language in front of their friends. If this is the case, try not to force it too hard. If you do, your children may end up resenting the language you want them to learn. Instead, compromise by only speaking it around the house or at family events. This way, they’ll get plenty of practice and won’t feel like they’re being shown up in public.

Choose the right education

As an expat parent, you’ll soon discover a whole host of academic options for your kids. There are advantages to whatever option you choose, whether local primaries or international high schools. However, if language retention is a pressing concern, why not consider a school that teaches in their mother tongue? Wherever you are in the world, you’ll be surprised at the quality and availability of international schools teaching in foreign languages.

Diverse schoolchildren

Even if you do choose the local state school, there are still plenty of extra-curricular learning options in your native language. Whether you choose to enroll them in an after-school program or even an expat sports club, there are a number of ways to get them practicing outside the family home. Connecting with other expat families in your new home can also help you and your children build up social networks, allowing them to practice their skills in a social setting.

Take advantage of different media

The thought of sitting your kids down in front of a TV or computer might not sound appealing. However, all this modern technology can be a great learning tool when it comes to languages. From British children’s TV shows to French cartoons, these resources can provide age-appropriate language and interactions for all ages. And there’s a whole host of streaming services to choose from, too, so search around for the best ones for your kids.

If you don’t like the sound of all those screens, why not choose books or songs instead? Songs can be a great way for kids to pick up colloquialisms without even realizing they’re learning. Books can also be an excellent resource, from simple picture books to Harry Potter and the classics. Most online stockists deliver internationally, but don’t be afraid to suggest a book swap with other local expat families if getting hold of books in your new home is difficult.

Get them interested

The most important thing to remember when it comes to language learning is to make it fun. And what better way to bring your mother tongue to life than by linking it to something your little ones enjoy? So, if your daughter likes soccer, why not introduce her to your favorite team from back home? Or, if there’s a book your son likes that’s set in your home country, buy him a copy and let him discover his interest in your mother tongue at his own pace.

Mother and kids on vacation

Another good way to keep things fresh is with a little cultural immersion. Kids love adventure, and nothing says adventure like an overseas vacation back to your home country. Not only will they have little choice about practicing their language skills, but they’ll also foster a new sense of appreciation for the culture. Being in the country will also show your kids just how important knowing another language can be. This can have a big impact on their attitude when they get home.

Don’t get frustrated

There’s no getting around it. Ensuring your kids retain their mother tongue can be downright disheartening. Many expat parents will know the frustration of talking to their children in their native language – only to have them reply in the local language. But don’t let that put you off, and try not to get annoyed with your child’s behavior towards the language. Being bilingual can be a great advantage in adult life, but few kids will understand this while they’re young.

Instead, focus on the easier wins mentioned in this article. Try to make learning fun and give them a reason to learn the language. Whether it’s communicating with friends and family in your home country or keeping up-to-date with their favorite TV show, as long as they want to learn then you’ve done most of the hard work! But, whatever you do, don’t give up. Your kids will thank you for persevering when they get old enough!