The idea was also shared by my husband… we both shared the conviction that bilingualism was an extraordinary thing we could give our children…. When we decided to come and live here together I said the number one condition would be that we speak French at home.”

French mother living in Christchurch with her Kiwi husband 

Raising bilingual children requires some forethought and planning. Although speaking more than one language is very common in many parts of the world, it is unusual in New Zealand where most people are monolingual English speakers (this means they only speak English). Even though there are three official languages in New Zealand – English, Maori and New Zealand Sign Language – English is the ‘majority language’ due to the vast number of people who speak it. All other languages can be thought of as ‘minority languages’ in the New Zealand context.

Parents wanting to raise their children to speak one (or more) minority language(s) in addition to English should first discuss together what languages are important to them and why. It is helpful to talk together about the level of proficiency you hope your children can achieve in each language. For example: would you like your children to be able to use the language to talk to relatives on the phone? Or would you like them to be able to read and write in the language and, if so, to what level? Parents also need to think about what opportunities their children will have to hear the minority language(s), and how to find other speakers of the language(s) to turn to for support and encouragement when needed.

Planning these things in advance can help prevent disagreements and complications within the family later on, especially since being bilingual is so exceptional – rather than the norm for all families – in New Zealand. Language learning is a part of children’s development and parents can talk about it together just as they talk about other factors like their children’s manners, the clothes they wear, the schools they attend, and so on. Even if parents do not completely agree on the specific details of their children’s bilingual education, it is a very positive step if bilingualism is the topic of discussion and debate!

Links to help you with planning:

Other resources for further reading:

Baker, C. (2007). A parents’ and teachers’ guide to bilingualism. (3rd ed.). Clevedon, Buffalo, and Toronto: Multilingual Matters.
– Section A: Family questions (pp. 1-27)

Cunningham, U. (2011).Growing up with two languages. (3rd ed.). London and New York: Routledge.
– Chapter 1: Families with two languages (pp. 1-11)
– Chapter 2: Expecting a child in a bilingual home (pp. 12-30)

Steiner, N., & Hayes, S. (2009).7 steps to raising a bilingual child. New York: AMACOM.
– Chapter 1: Building the foundation for your child’s bilingualism (pp. 1-24)
– Chapter 2: Making it happen – Defining you goals (pp. 25-50)

Zurer Pearson, B. (2008). A step-by-step guide for parents: Raising a bilingual child. United States: Living Language.
– Chapter 3: Learning two (or more) languages (pp. 79-120)
– Chapter 4: Establishing a bilingual environment (pp. 121-162)
– Chapter 5: How-to testimonials (pp. 163-220).