Margie Hord

Expat by Default

Raising Bilingual Kids as an Expat

Our son was three or so when he entered preschool. After a few days, his “miss”, as they often call female teachers in Mexico, asked, “Do you understand what he says?” Obviously, she didn’t. We had gotten used to his childish language, in which he mixed a bit of English and Spanish. Of course, before long he straightened things out.

When I took a course in bilingualism as part of my M.A. studies, I wondered if it was too late to help my children become as fully bilingual as possible. But looking back, we hadn’t done that badly, even when our actions were not necessarily the result of conscious decisions at all times.

There are many types of bilingualism, depending on the stage of life when it begins, how languages are used in daily life, and what status those languages have, among other factors. Whether the parents share a native language or not is a major differentiating factor, of course.

My background

I myself grew up bilingual in Honduras, except for a brief hiatus as a toddler in Canada. My expat parents spoke to us only in English, although there was often domestic help with whom we used Spanish. The international school was almost completely in English, except for classes in Spanish and in Honduran history. Most of my classmates were native Spanish-speakers, so –despite school rules to the contrary—we would use that language when we could get away with it. Anyway, English was my main language at home, and for academics, reading and writing. My Mom even started English Brownie and then Girl Scout groups, which many Honduran girls attended, too. Summers were spent in Canada, a time for English immersion.

Our reading and writing were not well-developed, for the reasons mentioned above. However, at one point my parents had me take Spanish classes with a tutor to get a bit further, and the book that comes to mind is the classic “Platero y yo”, the sweet story of a little donkey.

When both parents are expats, understandably, Spanish is the language that needs to be reinforced.

Parenting in Mexico

The particular case of my children growing up in Mexico was quite different, although the two languages involved were the same. English was the language that needed to be reinforced. In our household, I communicated with my husband in his native language, Spanish, and to my children in English… most of the time. Out in the street, I hated to draw more attention than necessary, and often switched to Spanish. Later I realized that this wasn’t necessary or recommendable, as it meant less English input.

In most social situations and with Mexican relatives, Spanish was the norm. Of course, there was only Spanish TV back then. They and their Dad used Spanish exclusively with one another, but they were with me more. Basically, English was their dominant language until they started preschool and were immersed in Spanish.

We didn’t have any specific rules, as some families do, such as: one language with one parent and one with the other (no exceptions), or one at home and one outside the home. Although I tried to use mostly English with the kids, it sometimes seemed unnatural or even impolite in the presence of Spanish speakers. As time went on, they often answered back in Spanish, and after a few minutes of schizophrenic conversation, sometimes I gave in –or unconsciously went with the flow—and switched to Spanish.

Some parents enroll their kids in international schools to promote bilingualism, but financially that wasn’t an option for us. Others go for homeschooling, which in those days was still called “correspondence courses”, and even that was rather costly for us. Once the kids started kindergarten, Spanish became more and more dominant. The English offered in many Mexican schools is quite basic, and doesn’t promote much reading or writing.

That meant creating or looking for other opportunities to strengthen English input. With expat mothers, we had a little Bible club for our children, which added an extra opportunity to be exposed to the language. These families and others often exchanged English children’s books, so we could encourage reading in what was, in these cases, “Mom’s first language”.

Whenever I visited Canada, I was glad of the chance for the little ones to be immersed in English for a while, to take a workshop (such as drama or music), or to visit the library. My Mom and I kept an eye out for kids’ books at yard sales, to bring back to Mexico. Sometimes family gave us books or records/cassettes as gifts, as well. Another treat was receiving gift subscriptions to children’s magazines from the U.S. or Canada; these occasionally didn’t arrive, but were a great stimulus in general.

A scientific study of simultaneous bilinguals in the US found that “when children learn two languages from birth each language proceeds on its own independent course, at a rate that reflects the quality of the children’s exposure to each language.” Thus, it is helpful for parents to ensure that “quality exposure” to both is encouraged.

One mistake

I admit that I did commit one mistake in my efforts to develop my children’s English. I had started reading C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tales to our son and daughter, in which the old-fashioned, British English proved to be challenging for them. They complained that it was hard to understand, though of course I tried to explain some unfamiliar terms. But finally I threw in the towel. My advice to other parents: Don’t do that! Literature is such a wonderful way to enrich vocabulary, among many other advantages.

“I’m not bilingual”

When our son went to Canada for a year of high school, before being there long, he complained, almost on the verge of tears, “I’m not bilingual!” I asked him why he said that, and learned that he found the reading material difficult; when he asked his grandparents what a word meant, they would typically reply, “Look it up in the dictionary!” Having less exposure than his peers to written English over the years meant he got more frustrated than most. He undoubtedly also faced frustration when he wasn’t familiar with the latest slang his peers spoke. In particular, I’d say it was academic English, and the reading and writing skills that were particularly weak in the case of our children.

A few final tips

Make wise decisions about schooling. There are no “one size fits all” solutions, but a good bilingual international school can be an excellent choice for those who can afford it. Large cities often have private schools that offer an education mainly in English, a plus for those who plan to finish their studies in their home country. Homeschooling lets children go at their own pace and allows parents to travel abroad more easily, not limited by normal holidays. In the case of two expat parents and mostly monolingual English schooling, however, I’ve seen disadvantages in that kids’ Spanish doesn’t develop as it should. A tutor might be helpful for those who wish to strengthen the “weaker” language.

Seek out extracurricular activities. Especially in the case just mentioned, finding opportunities to socialize in Spanish is recommended. From ballet classes to martial arts, Scouting or AWANA, there is usually a fair selection of classes and clubs to choose from.

Two young girls stand reading from a book outdoors in the sun

Get lots of books! Besides getting new or used books when you visit “the other country”, consider other ways to shore up reading skills and language. Sometimes families have access to a bilingual school or an expat community that has a lending library… or you might get one started! Reading circles with little ones can be organized, as well, or might be part of “play group” activities.

Take advantage of other resources. Nowadays, the options for bilingual –or multilingual– families have multiplied, especially for those who speak majority languages, in which there’s a vast range of books or DVD’s one can order, online reading and video materials, video games, Kindle, and much more. International phone calls are much cheaper, and many expat families take advantage of Skype calls to grandparents and others. Although visiting the “other” country is a definite plus, with creativity and networking, you can certainly come up with plenty of other ideas!

You might find this discussion interesting; two daughters of friends of mine had very different language-learning experiences in Mexico:



  1. Lou Ann Phillipd

    February 24, 2018 at 2:56 am

    Loved reading this. Thank you.

  2. Lou Ann Phillips

    February 24, 2018 at 2:56 am

    Loved reading this. Thank you.

  3. Margie,
    I loved your article about raising Bilingual kids.
    Thank you for your honesty and insight.
    Our kids are bilingual, grew part of the time in USA but mostly in Mexico. They were homeschooled all their basic Education including High School and by College age they moved to the States.
    While they were still young we lived in the Seattle area for about 4 years. We noticed some speech delay in one of our sons and decided to take him to the School district to be evaluated. They referred us to a speech therapist and she told us we were confusing him by speaking 2 languages at home. So, unfortunately I made the big mistake of switching to English only. Since he was homeschooled and spent most of the time with me, he ended learning my not so good English instead of my excellent Spanish. Big mistake!
    To our sadness, when we returned to Mexico 4 years later our kids could only say “Hola”.
    Eventually they all catched up with Spanish although because their homeschool was mostly in English due to lack of good Curricula in Spanish they ended up preferring the English language.
    They had several extracurricular activities so that helped their Spanish a lot.
    Reading was an important part of their education. They read mostly English so they had better vocabulary in a English as well.
    At the end it resulted in and advantage for them since their College education was in the States. As with many kids who had grown outside the States, it took Some adjustment to them to be able to function comfortably in the US culture.
    We had a daughter later in life. She is 12 now, and since the beginning we have raised her bilingual. I speak 100% to her in Spanish unless we are with English speakers only. She is totally fluent in both but again since all her school studies, books, computer time, movies, etc. are in English, she seems to prefer English.
    I have asked my kids which language they rather use and all of them have told me depending on what they are doing. I find that fascinating.,
    To me one of the hardest challenges is to be consistent and not to give up. Also to expose them to both cultures. Languages are living so they have to be immerse in the culture.
    Overall in spite of the ups and downs, I think raising bilingual kids is and added advantage to our kids and produces many fruits.

    • MargieHord

      February 26, 2018 at 10:04 pm

      Very interesting Marilu! Especially that you changed your strategy over the years. Too bad the speech therapist didn’t know much about bilingualism!

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