Bilingual parenting in the early years

As a parent you know how complicated it is to find a childcare centre for your children: you have a mental list of must-haves and no-goes; you browse the web; you check out centres; you put your name on several waiting lists – only to find out that your plan won’t work. Either because you didn’t get a spot or because the spot does not measure up to your requirements.

Now imagine that, on top of all that, you want to raise your child bilingually. If ‘bilingualism’ is one of your considerations, you are left with a minuscule number of facilities … in many countries anyways and most definitely in Australia.

Or maybe ‘bilingualism’ wasn’t on your list at all but, as luck would have it, a bilingual childcare centre round the corner from where you live just happened to offer you a spot? What would you think about that? How do other parents in the centre feel about the bilingual programme? What are their reasons for sending their children there? And what are the odds that your child will really become bilingual in a bilingual preschool?

My book Bilingual childcare: hitches, hurdles and hopes provides answers to these questions through the voices of parents who enrolled their children in a bilingual German-English childcare centre in Sydney. I examine their expectations for the language learning of their children, the importance they place on bilingualism (or not), and also their hopes for their children’s bilingualism beyond the early years.

Any childcare centre is a dynamic hub, where people from different backgrounds (economic, educational, attitudinal, linguistic, you name it) and with different expectations come together. Catering to these diverse backgrounds and expectations is a difficult job. To understand educators’ perspectives, Bilingual childcare: hitches, hurdles and hopes also highlights the voices of educators working in bilingual childcare – voices that often remain unheard. Readers will find out about the ways in which they implement the bilingual programme, how they are trained, prepared or qualified for their job, their attitudes towards early language learning and how they perceive parental attitudes about this very topic (and how this affects their work).

All of this is framed by and explained through Australia’s monolingual mindset and the hegemony of English. It is alarming to see how heavy these weigh on the implementation of the bilingual programme – from the inside and from the outside. The outside refers to issues on a larger socio-political scale, for instance to the hostile policy environment towards bilingual daycare. Issues from the inside refer to educators, directors, and internal structures as well as the centre’s clientele, the parents. The dynamics between the factors parents, centre and language policies is what creates major hitches and hurdles, but also enormous potential for future development: hope.

An example of policies that are hostile – or, at best, indifferent – to languages other than English comes from the Early Years Learning Framework (EYLF), the early childhood curriculum which governs the provision of early childhood education in Australia. Language-related learning outcomes in the EYLF are very vague: while educators are expected to ‘respect’ and ‘support’ home languages, no implementation guidelines are provided.

By contrast, the requirements for starting primary school are very explicit – explicitly monolingual: the NSW primary school entrance test ‘Best Start’ is focussed on testing literacy in English only.

For early childhood educators, monolingual English measurements of school readiness and vague EYLF references to home languages create a conflict of interest: it’s either bilingual development or English literacy. This conflict obviously creates a barrier to the use of any language other than English, even in a ‘bilingual’ childcare centre. As long as English is tacitly equated with ‘literacy’, educators will always struggle to implement bilingual programmes.

Bilingual childcare: hitches, hurdles and hopes shows how bilingual early childhood education ‘works’ (or doesn’t work) in practice in an environment that is notorious for the barriers it puts up against bilingual learning. The multiple perspectives on bilingual early childhood education it features also show potential pathways to solutions that will help improve the bilingual education experience for parents, educators, policy-makers and, above all, for the young learners who are at the heart of this enterprise.

Author Victoria Benz

Dr. Victoria Benz received her PhD in Linguistics from Macquarie University, where she is now an Honorary Postdoctoral Fellow. Her sociolinguistic research focuses on language attitudes, ideologies and practices in institutions of bilingual early childhood education. Victoria has a background in the teaching of German as a second language to all age groups from the pre-primary to the tertiary sector in Germany, Turkey and Australia.

More posts by Victoria Benz
  • MonyCRole

    I highly favor that the outcome of a child’s bilingual education is affected by the parents, the center and official programs on bilingual/multilingual education in that these three aspects could be considered the provider and supporter of a systematic language education. Moreover, family, learning and social environments help to create a bilingual context, enhancing or affecting children’s language acquisition and usage.

    But I was wondering whether interpersonal recognition of the language(s) that children are learning to use could have influence on the outcomes of bilingual education. I once encountered a case with my boss’s child, Tony. Since his parents are Chinese immigrants and possess strong affection and nostalgia to Chinese language, he was told to take Chinese lessons and made great progress in learning it. However, in my conversations with him, I discovered that he had the tendency of avoiding using Chinese. When I raised my confusion about it, he told me that almost all of his classmates or friends did not understand Chinese and might isolate him for his special ability of speaking the language. Therefore, he needed to resist his urge to use Chinese.

    Personally speaking, this is a serious problem. The environment for children to learn and use a language includes family, school and society, as well as the interpersonal contexts. Furthermore, the interpersonal contexts require psychological and behavioral theories to analyze, examine and investigate. If possible, it is recommended to take wider contexts of language acquisition into consideration when it comes to further development of bilingual education.

  • GlobalMikeW

    This is an interesting read and I’d be very curious to check out the book. Although I have no direct experience with child care in Australia, as the parent of a bilingual daughter, I can certainly empathise with the frustration at limited multi-lingual centres. That being said, I still think the primary responsibility for a child becoming bilingual lies with the parents. In regard to my own daughter, despite her outside environment being dominated by Japanese, all of my interactions with her were in English. This included (and continues to include) both conversation and more structured learning activities. Had our situation been reversed and she was brought up in Australia, then the responsibility for her learning Japanese would have fallen more heavily on her mother. Which is not to say a bilingual child care would not aid the process enormously, but I do not see it as an insurmountable barrier.

    I do wonder, and perhaps this is covered in the book, but how does a bilingual child centre cater for multiple languages? Obviously if it is located in an area with a large, single-nationality migrant group, then it is clear how a centre could offer an environment that caters for their native language. But in a more ethnically diverse suburb, where the is no one dominant group, how would a child centre provide for these multiple languages? I’d be interested to see examples of how this is approached.

  • JZzzz

    This article reminds me of my friends and their 7-year-old son in Sydney who immigrated to Australia 5 years ago. The son is educated bilingually during these years: English only at school and Chinese speaking and reading at home guided by parents. Actually this mode is very common in Chinese immigrant families in Australia and even around the world. It underlines the importance of parents’ effort on bilingual education and also the lack of qualified bilingual educators in the society as mentioned in the article. Personally, I think bilingual education including bilingual childcare, is essential for immigrant family. Studies show that children who taught to read and write in their mother tongue are likely to perform well in learning the majority language later since literacy skills could be transferable.

  • vy ha

    Reading this article reminds me of a few encounters I had with bilingual teenagers who I met in Vietnam. These children have Vietnamese parents who are quite well off to send their kids to international school since a very young age with the expectation that their kids can speak English fluently enough to function in the constantly globalized economy. In some cases, these children are exposed to English as early as 5 or 6 years old. The main curriculum is carried out in English with a few classes in Vietnamese related to history or literature, but the exposure to their native language is not much. The main language for interaction in these school is English and as a result, after many years of being in this kind of environment, these kids do no develop a full capacity in speaking in their mother tongue. They could carry out daily conversations but are incapable of explaining more deep or sophisticated thoughts. Communication with the parents are also hindered as their parents told me that they have problems sharing with their children or doing something simple as helping the children with their homework and this problem creates a rift in their relationships. My thoughts about bilingual school is that in terms of curriculum design is that how educators can help these children develop a deep sense of appreciation toward their own culture, language and values when they are living in the age of English imperialism and how parents can involve in their child’s learning progress and ways to minimize the “rift” parents could feel to their child as they grow older.

  • Reem

    Due to the monopoly of English nowadays, it would be worth to consider the benefits of bilingualism from a tender age if the idea of language literacy is to be ingrained in the structure of a community. Structures that support the learning of children such as day cares could be used as great tools in establishing language literacy form the early years of children. This is a concept that can be adopted in certain countries such as Saudi Arabia to gain knowledge and proficiency of language form the early years of children.
    Thank you.

  • Yeji LEE

    Thank you for this interesting article. It reminds me of my country’s situation of early-childhood English education. Actually, as a global common language, English proficiency is considered as a significant ability. In this reason, in Korea, children begin learning English from the third grade of priamary school. However, besides the public school learning, most of children start to learn English when they are in kindergarten or even earlier. Nowadays, there are a lot of so-called ‘international kindergarten’, in which teaches children in English, and many parents are eager to send their child to those institutions. I think learning English in early ages definitely helps children to acquire proficiency in any ways, for example, lowering their anxiety to English. But it should be accompanied by appropriate succeeding learning and assessment in the second and higher level education.

  • Nancy

    As English is the dominant language in the world, it is understandable that parents want their children to learn and excel that language so that they can be successful in the future, getting a well-paying job for example. According to critical period hypothesis, there is a close correlation between learners’ age and second language acquisition. Personally, it is better to get children exposed to second language at an early age as early exposure, up to a point, is beneficial to the acquisition of the children in terms of pronunciation and accent. Parents play a vital role in facilitating the progress of second language acquisition and maintaining HL at the same time.

  • Roxxan

    Thanks for the deep discover post. By the influence of globalisation, more and more opportunities for bilinguals, it seems that a person who can speak two or more languages has a better job. In this case, parents especially Chinese parents desire to send their children into a bilingual schools even most of them ask for a high price. What they think is that it will be better for children studying in a bilingual surroundings; however, these parents failed to realise that the purpose of most bilingual education institutions is only for profit instead paying attention to the teaching quality. As a consequence, even there are some bilinguals, the aim of language curriculum is fuzzy. Moreover, even if students learn some ‘foreign language’, they have nearly no chance to use it as they live in a full Chinese surrounding. There may be no point to learn a language if it will not be used frequently.

  • Meera Panthee

    As far as bilingual parenting is concerned, the best example is school and home of children in Nepal.Children are sent to Private English Boarding school with a high expectation that children learn English and speak in English fluently but they undergo a difficult stages initially but it is wonderful hearing them speak in English.On the other hand, parents cannot help their children with English and they remain confused.What I believe in this regard is, providing children with an opportunity to immerse into bilingual programme at the early childhood stage is in innovative step because it is a platform for learning something naturally before becoming actually aware of monolingualism or bilingualism. Parenting bilingually in the early years is a good step as acquiring knowledge in the early years is rapid as I have seen my 3 years cousin in Canada speaking in Nepali with his grandmother whereas he uses English with his friends.


    It reminds me of what we have learnt about some theories related to language acquisition. According to critical period hypothesis, there is an ideal time window to acquire language in a linguistically rich environment. Though there are still some debates about what the time frame exactly is, the hypothesis points out that the first few years of life is crucial for an individual to acquire a language fully. The launch of bilingual program is actually an application of the theory, which is believed to be of great benefit to language learning as the children are put in to an immersion or submersion education context. The fact that bilingual programs manage to offer sufficient comprehensible to the children helps the children acquire both languages. As is said in the essay, the programs` intention is great but needs to take all the dynamic factors that may influence the implement of the programs into consideration.

  • Luc Belliveau

    As a less and less young adult in a long term relationship, this article brings about all kinds of anxiety. I really want my children to be able to communicate in French as a baseline, and because my girlfriend is from Taiwan, she wants them to be able to speak Mandarin and Taiwanese (a variety of Southern Min). We both take the English language for granted.

    If you add onto that the Acadian dialect that is spoken at my paternal family reunions (along with occasional Cajun), and the fact that our careers are taking us both to Okinawa (where Japanese and the Ryukyu language are both spoken!) I feel like we are expecting too much of our children. At the same time, I marvel at European children, who apparently successfully communicate in upward of three languages at a young age. I will definitely be taking a look at “Bilingual Childcare”!