Language scenarios for multilingual children growing up abroad

There are numerous language scenarios for multilingual children living abroad, i.e. outside of both, or one of their parents countries of provenance (or origin), since there are many different degrees of fluency for the single languages spoken at home, language preferences, and languages might be mixed within the home.

Parents might speak the community and/or school language to some extent, and other languages could be spoken at home and in certain societal situations too.

Here are some possible scenarios. La, Lb etc. indicate the different languages and are not suggesting any kind of language hierarchy; the languages indicated can be replaced with any other kind of language, dialect or sign language.

  Parent 1 Parent 2 Language at Home Language at Home CommunityLanguage education
1 La (German) La (German) La (German) La (German) Lb (Italian) (Lb) Italian
2 La (German) Lb (Italian) La (German) Lb (Italian) La (German) (La) German
3 La (German) Lb (Italian) La (German) Lb (Italian) Lc (English) (Lc) English
4 La (German) Lb (Italian) Lb (Italian) Lc (English) Lc (English) (Lc) English
5 La (German) Lb (Italian) Lb (Italian) Lc (English) Ld (French) (Ld) French or (Lc) English

scenario 1: Both parents speak German, their home language is German and the community and school language is Italian.

scenario 2: One parent speaks German, the other one Italian. They both understand each others’ language and use both languages at home. The community language is German.

scenario 3: One parent speaks German, the other one Italian, both speak and understand their respective languages at home. The community language is English.

scenario 4: One parent speaks German, the other one Italian, they speak Italian and English at home as one parent doesn’t speak German. The community language is English.

scenario 5: One parent speaks German, the other one Italian, they speak Italian and English at home as one parent doesn’t speak German, and the community language is French.

Children who live in a community that speaks one of their heritage languages (¹), will most probably be schooled in that language (example 2), whereas those who live in a community that speaks another language, are usually schooled in the community language (examples 1 and 3) or in an additional language (example 5).

For the former ones, any additional language will be introduced and taught at school, and, if necessary, additional support will be provided by teachers, speech therapists etc. in a language they also speak at home. An example would be an English-French speaking family living in France, the child attending a French school and learning English (or an other additional language) later in school.

Children whose heritage language differs from the one they need for their education, tend to learn that language in more formal setting – at daycare or school – and rely on their parents to maintain the heritage languages. They will learn the community and school language for social and academic purposes, and receive support from the school to reach the expected level of fluency necessary to participate in the lessons.

For highly mobile families, who move every few years, these scenarios will change. They may want to maintain the home and school languages if possible, to guarantee at least some kind of continuity.

The variety of constellations in multilingual families is huge! I like to think about it as a continuum of increasing complexity. The more languages are involved, the more questions we need to find answers for to make sure to maintain the languages in the most effective and compelling way for us and our children. In the picture here below I use colors instead of labels as I prefer to avoid any kind of hierarchy when it comes to languages, dialects, sign languages etc. used in a family.

Reality check for parents raising multilingual children


Multilingual children who attend a school in another language (scenarios 1, 3, 4, 5) do not become and stay multilingual automatically. What many parents and teachers underestimate is the impact school language has on the children. In order to follow the lessons, they will need to improve their school language skills and they want to speak the same language as their friends at school.

If they are lucky, they receive education in their heritage language to some extent if it is part of the school curriculum. If the school doesn’t provide an intensive program that aims at pluriliteracy, and if their heritage language is not part of the school curriculum the chances for them to attain a native level of fluency (i.e. level C1 or C2 of the CEFR)(²) decrease and many of them won’t become or stay biliterate (or pluriliterate) if they don’t receive consistent additional support.

When parents, schools and communities don’t support the heritage languages to an extent for them to grow alongside the school language, or at least stay active, the proficiency of multilingual children in the heritage languages will most probably decrease. – This phenomenon is called subtractive bi-/multilingualism, as opposed to additive bi-/multilingualism that refers to the case in which someone learns a second language in a manner that enables him to communicate in both languages, without diminishing the skills in the other languages, and where these latter ones are considered as an asset rather than being a hindrance to the learning process.

What many parents are not aware of or underestimate is that transmitting and maintaining the heritage language when living abroad is the main responsibility of the parents: they are the ones who are the agents of multilingual education. They will either take on the task themselves or find weekend schools for their 3-12 year olds. Most weekend schools for minoritized languages offer tuition in the heritage languages up to age 12 or 13. 

Parents need to find strategies that are supportive for the heritage language throughout the whole developmental years of their children and foster reading and writing in teenage years, should pluriliteracy be the goal. But even if understanding and speaking the heritage language is their goal, consistent input is crucial for the children to maintain the language(s) throughout their childhood and beyond, when the community and education language is different.
This entails planning, time and dedication, because at some point, the requirements in the other school subjects will increase and some will consider them more important than the languages. Many families will thus abandon their former language goals concerning the heritage languages in favor of the school language and other subject areas.

What kind of language scenario do you have in your multilingual family?

How do you manage to keep all your languages alive? Please let me know in the comments.

– If you would like to find out what you can do in order to support your children with the heritage language throughout their developmental years, contact me here. Don’t wait until your child is 12 or 13…

(1) I use the term of heritage languages to define the languages spoken by non-societal groups and linguistic minorities in a society, and in given contexts. In this chapter, this term defines the languages that internationally living families speak at home, and, occasionally, outside of their homes if there are respective language communities in the area they are living. A heritage language can be one of their first languages (when they are simultaneous bilinguals) of the parents, or one that is their most dominant language (ex. adopted parents might have grown up with another language than the first one they heard). 

(2) The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is a valuable reference instrument that can be used to assess language skills. It is available in 40 languages (so far) and gives a general orientation about the skills required for the different levels of fluency. It is advisable to do the assessment with professional help, as the different levels of fluency in speech, reading and writing require some explanation.

Posted in Bilingualism, Blog, Case Studies and Success Stories, Family Language Planning, Heritage Language Maintenance, Intercultural Communication, Language Change, Language Development, Language learning, Maintaining Multiple Languages, Multi Literacy, Multilingual, Multilingual Families, Raising Multilinguals, Research and Insights on Multilingualism, Terminology and tagged , , , , , , .


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