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001: What Can Monolingual Family Members Do to Take Part in a Child’s Bilingualism


Listen to the audio in support of this article. I invited a very experienced monolingual parent to give us an advice!DSC_0081

 In our family I am the bilingual parent, who on the daily basis teaches kids Russian and Ukrainian, our minority languages. My husband does not speak these languages (well, he knows couple hundred words, especially useful around kids like brush teeth, time to eat and go potty:). But I could not ever say that I raise bilingual children, it is always WE raise bilingual children.

Even without speaking the child’s second language, there are many ways for monolingual adults to be involved in his or her education. This true for both situations:

1) when only one parent is monolingual in the family and the other one is speaking minority language

2) and when both parents are monolingual, but they still raise their children with second language.


1. Understanding and Supporting Family’s Bilingual Goals

Get your partner on board in an active way, not a passive one. Give him/her books about bilingualism and talk through your specific goals. Have them be part of your plan, and be willing to debunk any myths or misconceptions about bilingualism they may have heard.


2. Showing Pride in Your Child’s Abilities and Successes

A monolingual partner can praise a bilingual child for using both his or her languages. Monolingual parents should encourage children to use both their languages, and to remind them how special and unique their abilities are. The more a child is rewarded for demonstrating his or her skills, the more he or she is likely to use them.


3. Start Learning Some of the Child’s Second Language

To learn another language for an adult is a very time consuming task – we are just so busy with life! But parent doesn’t have to try to become bilingual themselves, but they can pick up a little bit of their child’s second language as a way of showing interest. There are “word of the day” e-mail lists in just about every language that you can use to build a small vocabulary. Sign your monolingual family members up for one and have them share their new words with your child!


4. Making Children Aware of the Benefits of Bilingualism

A monolingual parent can still help children take advantage of their bilingualism. Have partners or relatives point out opportunities for children to use their second languages. Plan a trip to a country where their second language is spoken, or find them books and movies from that culture — the adult doesn’t need to speak the language to show the child places where it will be useful!


5. Letting the Child Speak with Other Second-Language Speaking Relatives

It’s important for monolingual parents — especially parents who speak the local majority language — to step back and let the child converse with adults who use his or her secondary language. Encourage your partner to avoid interrupting when the child is conversing with adults in his or her secondary language. It’s important to create those immersive experiences.


6. Trusting Bilingual Conversations

It can be hard to only understand half of a conversation, or to not understand any of a conversation between a child and the other parent. Encourage your partner to be patient and to allow the child to have “privileged” conversations in his or her second language. Parents of bilingual children need to trust that they won’t use their different language skills to keep secrets from each other!


7. Asking Children to Become the Teachers

As children get older, parents can ask them to start sharing some of the languages they’ve learned. A monolingual parent can ask a child to teach him or her a few words or phrases in the child’s second language. This rewards the child (by giving him or her “instructor” status for a minute), and shows interest in his or her skills.


8. Helping to Give the Other Parent or Relatives Free Time

A parent who speaks the majority language can help get the child more exposure to his or her secondary language by taking over some chores from the parent that speaks the secondary language. By taking on other tasks, the parent makes more time in the household schedule for language immersion.


9. Organizing Language Lessons

Not all instruction comes from the parents. A monolingual parent can help set up lessons in town and take the child to and from lessons, or can arrange for online tutoring and help monitor the internet access needed.

As you can see, there are many ways for a parent to help that do not require speaking their child’s second language! Work with your partner to figure out ways you can help each other and help your child’s bilingual progress.

These suggestions will be of use to you and to other family members, whether that is a spouse, a set of grandparents, or other relatives who share your home and your child’s languages.

RAW Transcript



Olena: Hi! This is Olena Centeno, the founder of Bilingual Kids Rock.

Welcome to the Bilingual Kids Rock Podcast. This is your place to connect with multilingual families, language experts, and passionate authors from around the world. We share actionable tips and motivational stories. Learn from our experiences so your journey raising multilingual children is enjoyable, manageable, and successful.

Olena: One of our readers asked a very good question about how can a monolingual parent — the parent who doesn’t speak the minority language — how can he help to raise a bilingual child, so for the other parent, it doesn’t feel like a very lonely journey? But when I was writing this article, I was thinking of actually about one person who is just about helping me to raise bilingual children. It’s my husband Antonio Centeno. Even though he doesn’t speak — he speaks a little bit of Russian, he does know a lot of words, but we don’t speak it on a daily basis.

Antonio: I know seven words.

Olena: No, you know much more like a couple of hundred words, especially the words that are very useful when you raise the kids.

Antonio: Yeah, Kasula. It’s my favorite.

Olena: Well, no one knows this. It’s in Russian. Anyways, he was just a great support through all the years. Even though I’m the mainly Russian speaker in the family, this is now our minority language, I can truly say that I raised bilingual children. We always say that we raised bilingual children. So I decided to ask him what is his opinion and what kind of advice he can give to other monolingual parents who are raising with their spouses bilingual children.

Antonio: All right. Well, thank you, Olena, for having me on your show. Yeah, I am your faithful husband. I’ve been with you — how long have we been together, hon?

Olena: A long time.

Antonio: I think since the beginning, I’ve always admired your ability to speak English. Because as you know, my ability to speak Russian, if we relied on that, we would not have three beautiful children and we probably wouldn’t have much for a relationship.

Olena: Thank you.

Antonio: It comes down to it. I do not speak Russian. I understand some of it. I’ve been in Ukraine and I’ve made my way through there having to speak some basic stuff out of books. But for me, raising bilingual kids is very important. So I’m going to say that’s the first thing is there’s an understood agreement and we’ve expressed this, we’ve talked about this. Heck, we started this website together on. I mean it is very important. I’m a very busy guy. I have two other businesses. I try to stay active with many other things going on. I travel quite a bit. But when it comes down to it, raising bilingual children is a priority.

So always be thinking that. Don’t say, “I don’t have time for it.” What you really are saying I think when people say, “I don’t have,” you’re saying, “It’s not important to me,” because you do make time for what’s important. So, you’ve got to take a stance and you’ve got to say, “This is important and I’m going to make it happen.” So there’s a very strong understanding and that I think guides us in many of the things that we do.

So whenever we’re choosing to go to an event, it’s like, okay, is there a language aspect of this? If we find that we’re not having time to read to the kids in Russian, it’s like, okay, are we involved with maybe too many sports? Do we need to say “no” to people that have invited us to an event in order to have time to spend as a family?”

I’ll go ahead and give you some concrete examples of how I promote it. One is that I realize, and it’s hard for me because we go to events in which I don’t necessarily have a deep connection with everyone there. But I look at these as high-value family events because we’re going to be in the Slavic community.

Olena: Yeah, merged in the language.

Antonio: Yeah. So I want to put my kids and my family in a position not only where they’re speaking the language, but there are the foods, there are the customs.

Olena: They’re learning about the culture.

Antonio: There is the respect. So our kids can be around this language and this culture. And yeah, there’s not just Ukrainians, there’s Georgians, there’s Russians, there’s Belarusians, there’s Moldovans, they’re all over the place, but these people come together and it helps cement the fact that this is important.

We also do that. I’ve got one friend in particular, Alex over in Chicago and his wife Luba, when we come together, I also am very strict about making sure that my kids adhere to speaking the language especially when they’re in an environment which they could all start speaking English.


I find that whenever you get a number of perhaps Russian or Bulgarian or Ukrainian kids altogether, even though they have a common language which is Russian, it’s a little bit harder for them to speak.

Olena: Yeah. Where does that leave them? There’s a side and English is dominant, and kids always go with an easier path.

Antonio: You notice, Alex, gosh, he speaks like four languages so he is awesome. But for me, I only really speak primarily English, but every time I hear the kids speak in English, it’s a quick reminder to them that “Hey, you guys need to stop. You need to switch back to Russian.” Yeah, we’ll say that probably 10 to 15 times in a night, but the kids get the message that hey, this is important. They do speak about half of the time in Russian. I mean we can’t be on them all the time, but I would say that that right there is another thing.

Another thing is showing pride. So every time we’re watching a movie and perhaps it’s an English movie, but we were watching Space Buddies the other day.

Olena: Yes. There was like about something — boy Sasha which our son’s name is Sasha.

Antonio: There’s a little bit of Russian. They do speak a little bit of Russian in the movie. I’m always very quick to point out to my son, “Hey, by the way, you can understand what they’re saying. They’re speaking some Russian there. You can actually identify how good their Russian is. You’re the only one probably most of the kids who are watching this.”

Olena: Yes. Encouragement is a huge, huge thing.

Antonio: Yes. So when I can show him that he speaks this special language.

Olena: It gets them excited.

Antonio: Yes. It’s like, “Wow, I do have certain skills. I’ve got these things that really set me apart, and it’s special.” We talk about history of Ukraine, history of the language. So now I’m a big fan of World War II books and, in fact, one of the reasons I travel to Ukraine. I went to all the museums, all the battle spaces. And for me to be able to bring in and talk about the Ukrainian history, talk about Cossacks, talk about Russia’s role in World War II and World War I, and for my son to kind of understand a little bit more of the history, even though we’re in a country that 20-30 years they didn’t put that in the highest regard in their side of the story, I try to speak with my son about his history for him to understand the strength of his family.

So another thing is that his grandmother survived working in a Nazi work camp. I try not to use this example too much, but I give him pride in this family by pointing out what his grandmother, what his great grandmother have overcome, and what they’ve been able to do in their lives, and how, with the challenges he faces, aren’t insurmountable. They may seem tough, but “Hey, people before you have gotten through tougher. You can do this.” I’m talking to my girls about this to show them that they have very strong women role models in the family.

Olena: Yeah, very strong heritage.

Antonio: So with me, the kids speak English, and that is fine. I try to work with them on the language ability. But every time I hear them starting to perhaps — I do support with my wife. Probably one of the harder things — and Lena, I know you’re frustrated with me, is whenever you’re speaking Russian to them and I don’t necessarily understand what you’re speaking, sometimes I’ll interrupt.

Olena: Yeah. I actually don’t think it’s — what I’ve noticed around our community and even for me, I know if I do not understand, if the person does not understand another language, he almost kind of filters out as if it’s not like even someone is talking. So interruptions actually happen quite often. I know even with my mom, our grandmother comes here and keeps speaking English to my husband, she interrupts quite often.

So it’s something to be aware of because interruptions sometimes can show that it’s not important. So if you’re at the dinner table or kids are speaking minority language and you are not understanding this language while they’re talking, try to force yourself to wait and just make sure that it’s a priority. Do not interrupt because something important is going on and maybe it’s hard to try to say something. So it’s one of the things that bring this language to a very high priority and try not to make all these interruptions.

Antonio: There’s also a lot of trust there in the sense of I see Lena address things in Russian, and I don’t know how necessarily she handled the problem. Let’s say we catch our son or one of our kids doing something that we asked them not to do. Well, Lena, usually is the first when the jump in there.


Now, I could repeat or I could interrupt, but oftentimes I’m much more reserved. This is where we kind of got a partnership that she takes the lead in much of this. I think that sends the message to the kids. Even though I haven’t talked with Lena about what she told, if the kids come up to me a couple of minutes later and start to ask for something, I specifically ask them, I turn the question like, “What did your mother just say to you?” I just don’t want to undermine and I trust what Lena is saying even though…

Olena: I’m sorry. It’s very good what you just said, the trust. A lot of times, people, if they do not understand the language or what’s going, they can actually get very suspicious. There’s this kind of a fact that if someone is speaking a different language in the next table in a café or in a restaurant, people for some reason are always saying, “Oh, they’re probably talking about me. They’re doing something.” It’s like very conspicuous thoughts.

So trust is a huge thing. If I do speak minority language to my kids, my husband trusts me that I’m not doing thing — I don’t keep any secrets or do something — unless it’s your birthday party and we’re giving you a surprise. But other than that, it’s a huge thing that we trust each other. There is no secret going on.

Antonio: Another thing is whenever we go to special events, not everyone you meet is going to value the language as high. In fact, many people have been here in the United States for years and they don’t speak Russian with anybody even though it is their first language. I find that whenever I introduce my child to them, they’ll start to speak English with them.

It’s tough to do this. I always try to do this. Especially the first time they see my child and there’s an interaction, I always remind them “Oh, don’t worry. You can speak Russian with him. He understands.” It’s kind of tough because sometimes the kids let me down a little bit. They get shy and they don’t respond. I think the person speaking with them is wondering, because when it comes down to, the reality is many children, especially here in the United states, who have Russian or Slavic parents, they don’t speak that language very well. It’s not being pushed in the household.

Unfortunately, it is something that you’ve got to really — it may not be proper manners always, but I find that I have to sometimes push that to the side. It’s more important to me to be very clear that I encourage the language speaking with my child, so please if you can. Now, not everyone honors that. Oftentimes people will switch back to English and then they’ll never try the Russian again. I don’t pursue it if that’s the case. My child usually is only speaking with them for a minute or so.

Olena: From the other side, if there is a little bit of interaction that we show that our kids do understand and speak Russian, the other person can actually get a little bit surprised and say something like, “Oh, it’s so great. It’s so well.” So it’s a little bit piece of encouragement from a stranger. Sometimes it’s even bad if it’s your own family member’s encouragement.

Antonio: Yes. Another thing that I do with kids is that I have them translate for me. So if it’s my son speaking with his grandmother on Skype or it’s my daughter and we’re listening to something or she’s looking at a Russian book or she’s listening Russian cartoon, I can ask her, “Oh, what did they just say?” or “Can you relay this message for me?” It forces them, to in a sense, be a translator, and they’re having to think, go through the process and kind of — I think it’s a higher level of cognitive thinking. I really am proud and I show them like, “Wow, that’s really amazing.” That right there is pretty strong.

Olena: Yeah. So basically, everything we talked about this, when it comes down, support is so important. When a sports team is playing, it’s not just the players who win the game. It’s also the supporters, the coaches, the people who helped, the medical support and everything. They’re also kind of part of a team. So if your husband or your spouse or your partner doesn’t speak the minority language, they still can be of huge support.

One other thing we can talk about that, you always try to make time for me to have this time, this quality time with my children to read and do some things.

Antonio: Well, usually, I just hide in my office and —

Olena: No. Usually, you will go do laundry.

Antonio: Yes. I try to help out. I try to free up time. We’ve made decisions in the household. I mean we’re not rich people. It’s something that we make sacrifices in certain areas so that we have time to spend with our kids. One of the things I think that’s kind of maybe extreme for a lot of people, but we don’t have a television.


We have a lot of computers where we have a number of internet-based businesses, but I always felt that television, it’s like a vampire that just sits in your living room and it will suck time from you. Everything also is in English there. So we’ve made the decision that we’re not going to have a television in our household with our children, and what that does is it gives us this time.

I try to pick up and I try to help out with certain things, with doing laundry, with perhaps doing a bit of cleaning. So that it can give you time, Lena, so that you can work with the kids because —

Olena: Yeah, thank you for that

Antonio: — I can’t work with them in that language aspect.

Another thing I would say is that we budget for certain expenses. They come with warning too. I mean it’s not free. We’ve got certain things that we buy, and I tell my wife that I never have a problem with us spending a little bit of money on language tutors or spending a little bit of money. And we budget for it. That’s a kind of a signal that we send that we’re not going —

Olena: Yeah. We do not go to eat every night like a lot of American families do.

Antonio: We don’t go out to eat at all.

Olena: We don’t go out. Yeah. It very rarely happens unless we have such [0:16:09] [Indiscernible]. So in this case, we have little a bit of an extra to budget for these expenses to support bilingualism. I get it. It’s a huge thing that my husband supports me. If I would spend all the time and my energy of trying to convince that this is good and he wouldn’t give me the support, I wouldn’t be able to do this much with children. So your partner’s support is a huge thing.

But just in case, there are a couple of tips just in case your spouse decides to learn the minority language himself or herself. It’s still possible. Probably if she or he doesn’t have too much time for this, he has a job, there are a lot of a number of services that you can sign up for like a “Word of the Day” in this minority language. It doesn’t maybe sound too much, but by the end of the year you’ll know like 365 words in that minority language. So there are still little things your spouse can do to learn the minority language, but again, their support is probably the biggest thing.

Antonio: Yeah. I don’t really have much more to add, love. I think that we hit a lot of great points. There will probably be a support article that will come out of this as well.

Olena: Yeah, the support article is coming with all these points that were touched on. And yeah, good luck with raising a bilingual child, and remember, it’s not just the person who speaks the language. It’s the whole family. It takes a village to raise a child. And with bilingualism, it’s very true. It takes the whole family to raise a bilingual child.

Antonio: Okay.

Olena: Well, thank you very much for coming to this interview with me.

Antonio: You’re welcome. It was a long track.

Olena: It was a long track, yeah.

Antonio: Okay. Now I need to turn around and get back to work.

Olena: Yes. We have the same office.

All right, you have a great day, guys. Bye-bye!

Antonio: Bye!

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[0:18:49] End of Audio

  • Rita Rosenback on Multilingual Parenting

    Great advice – thank you for posting! Have shared on Twitter and on my FB page. Love it!

  • Marta Gispert

    Hi Olena, I see that you speak 2 minority languages to your children. I would like your advice on how to teach 2 minority languages to a child by the same parent. As I speak Catalan, Spanish and English, we live in England and my husband is English. I speak to my son in Catalan, as this is the language I domanite the most, but I would also like to teach my son Spanish, but I am not sure how can I speak 2 minority languages to my son withouth him getting confused, that is why I am just speaking in Catalan for now. My son is 2 years old, so I guess there is still time for him to learn Spanish, but I don’t know what approach to use so he doesn’t get confused. What approach do you use? What level have your children reached with both minority languages? Any advice would be helpful. Thank you.