Episode 62: Q&A – Is it too late for our family to become multilingual?

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On this episode of Bilingual Avenue, I answer a listener’s concern regarding the languages that are spoken in the home.  They currently speak mostly English but would like to also add Chinese and Spanish.  She also wonders if it is too late to get started since her son is over a year old.

Episode #62- Transcript

Hey there and welcome to another Question and Answer edition of the Bilingual Avenue podcast! Thanks as always for tuning into the podcast.


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Alright, let’s get to this week’s question.  Let me read you the email that came in from Grace.  The email is a bit long but I wanted to share it in its entirety with you so you can understand all the context for this specific situation.

Hi Marianna,

 Thank you for your podcast, it has been really interesting and encouraging to hear all the different stories you have featured with various challenges that families have addressed.

 I guess my struggle has to do with getting a late start on the journey. My husband and I both have Chinese-speaking parents, though we didn’t really grow up speaking it much. I speak it a little more with my parents, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in using it with anyone else. I also learned French and Spanish in school and studied abroad, and I can read and write but really struggle with conversation as I just get stuck with the grammar. We would like our son to learn Chinese and Spanish, as well as English, but I’m afraid we’re starting too late and I’m struggling with how to begin. Our son is now 19 months old. He gets some Spanish exposure at daycare, and I read some books to him sometimes. My husband suggested that I start speaking to him only in Chinese, but I find it so awkward and I’m unsure of the right words. Often, in the middle of cleaning up a mess, for example, it’s difficult to run to the computer and look up the words. So my son is used to following my instructions in English, and the thought of re-training him to understand those instructions in Chinese seems really daunting. Right now, whenever I remember, I try to repeat whatever I said to him in English again in Chinese. So he at least hears both versions. But I would really appreciate any tips you have to get us off on the right foot.

Thanks again, Grace

 Alright thank you Grace for sending in your question and for allowing me to share it with the Bilingual Avenue community.

There are many parts to this question so I’m going to try to divide them up and then give you my thoughts for each one.

  • The first thing I see here is that you have a concern that you feel that you are getting a little late start on the journey since your son is 19 months old and has for the most part only be exposed to English;
  • You and your husband share a desire for your son to learn Chinese, Spanish and English;
  • Both you and your husband have only have an understanding of Chinese with some limited practice speaking it;
  • As far as Spanish goes, you have studied Spanish before but struggle at times with conversation;
  • You find it awkward to speak exclusively in Chinese and often resort back to English.

Alright so I think those are all the elements that we are taking into consideration so let me break those down and give you my thoughts for each of them.

The first thing to keep in mind is that 19 months old is NOT too old to introduce another language so don’t let that be a worry.  Even if he has mostly been exposed to English, your conversations with him are still quite simple and probably around the same day to day topics.  So don’t beat yourself up about starting late, you have plenty of time to make up for the previous months.

Between the ages of 12 to 24 months, children are going through lots of developmental changes in the way they hear us, understand us and talk to us. According to the American Speech Language Hearing Association, ASHA, children at this age can on average–


  • Point to a few body parts when asked
  • Follow simple commands and understand simple questions
  • Listen to simple stories, songs and rhymes
  • Point to pictures in a book when an object is being named
  • Produce one to two word fragments
  • Use many different consonant sounds at the beginning of words


If your son is not doing these yet, don’t hesitate remember this is a really wide range 12 to 24 months but I bring this up because it is important to keep this into perspective when thinking about his language development whether you are focusing on one language, two or three.

Now let’s talk about the two additional languages you and your husband would like your son to learn.  You mentioned Chinese and you mentioned Spanish.  The term “learn” is quite broad so my first suggestion would be for you and your husband to layout some language goals for each of these languages.  Are you satisfied if your son simply understands Chinese and Spanish? Do you also want him to be able to speak them? Later down the road, do you want him to be able to read them and write in both of those languages?

Defining what exactly you would like for him to achieve is going to be critical for you.  Take some time write down your vision, write what your expectations are for his language acquisition and that can provide you with some clarity.  You may find that you need to dedicate more time to one language than the other because you end up having different expectations.  You and your husband will know best but make sure that when you set these goals you are realistic about your expectations.

Now let’s talk about your experiences so far with speaking Chinese with your son.  You said yourself that speaking it exclusively to him feels awkward.  This mean very well mean that you should start a slower transition so that it is easier for both you and your son.   Try this for a change, start out by dedicating just a half hour a day to Chinese and plan, plan, plan for that hour. I am sure like most moms you are busy and the idea of planning seems daunting but it may be very helpful at first.  Since you have mentioned that you are not always confident when speaking Chinese, plan a basic, simple activity that you can do together that is not frustrating for either of you.  Freshen up on the vocabulary that you will be covering in your activity before you set out to do it.  Pick vocabulary words that you have a good handle on and use those to start off with.  Remember keep it super simple at first.  If you have already trained him with cleaning up words in English, forget that for now. Try something new but something that is very simple. See how that goes at first.  Over time you can dedicate more and more of your day.  Add a half hour here then before you know are working on two hours. But take your time and like I said really plan those activities especially when you are starting out and then soon it will start feeling a little bit more natural and you will feel more confident in your own abilities to speak Chinese.

To make it easier for your son during the transition, I would pick a specific time or day or specific activity to do with him around Chinese.  That will be a good trigger for him over time that will allow him to understand the boundaries you are setting for English and then for Chinese whenever they are being spoken in the home.  You may find an earlier episode, episode 10 helpful.  Here I share with a mom some advice on how to introduce French to her bilingual daughter.  There are some themes here that you may find helpful in your situation. You can check that out by heading over to bilingualavenue.com/episode10.

Now given what you have shared about your own knowledge of Chinese, you are probably going to want to supplement your son’s exposure beyond just your interactions.  I’ll share another episode that you may find helpful, on episode 12, I talked about different ways and different ideas in which you could increase exposure to the target language.  You will get some ideas on how to boost his exposure and how to incorporate more and more Chinese in the home that does not necessarily have to come from just you.

I would also recommend you check out a blog by Nick Jaworski.  The blog is called “Where are We Going Dad?”  I’ll link to it on the show notes page.  I think you’ll find Nick’s blog helpful because he is a non-native Chinese speaker who is working exclusively with his daughter in Chinese.  He blogs about his adventures on the language journey and we actually had him on the show back on episode 19, you can kind of getting his takes on how he is doing it and some of the resources he has been using.

Now let’s get to the last part of your question and that is how to manage the Spanish exposure.  As I said before, you will want to look at your goals for your son.  Do you want him to know Spanish as well as he does English and Chinese?  Would you be satisfied if he only understands it? What is your expectation?  I can’t stress that enough, you have to define these as this can help you define a better language plan going forward.  My suggestion before you worry too much about how to introduce this third language is to get those goals sorted out and then you can move forward.  You may be able to just rely on school for Spanish exposure or you may not, but you have to sort that out first.

If you want hear my very personal thoughts, I would encourage you to put your energy into work on Chinese and table Spanish for now, at least at first.  What’s working for you with Chinese is that your husband also has some knowledge of the language which will certainly come in handy.  You also have family members that can support you on the endeavors.  You want to make sure you are being realistic and find an approach that feels manageable for everyone!  You can revisit Spanish later but for now I would say pick just one and try it out.

Alright Grace, I just shared a lot of information with you so for you and for everyone else listening in, remember that you can find a transcript of everything I cover in the Question and Answer edition episodes on my website.  For this episode just head on over to bilingualavenue.com/episode62 and you can revisit everything we discussed.

That takes us to the end of this episode.  If you found this episode helpful, I am thrilled to hear that.  If the information for today’s discussion was not applicable to you but you still have questions about your language journey just send me yours.  You can reach out to me or send me a note by clicking on the contact tab on my website. I’d love to hear from you.

May you have fun travels on your language journey. Hope to see you again on the avenue.


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