Sep 202012

Grandparents and the Bilingual Child - Alldonemonkey.comThis summer we were fortunate enough to have visits with both sets of my little Monkey’s grandparents – a real treat, since they both live so far away.  During this wonderful family time, I had plenty of opportunities to observe my little Monkey with his grandparents.  Since I am always curious about his bilingual language development, I was particularly attuned to how this affected his interactions with them.

All of my little Monkey’s grandparents are monolingual (English on my side, Spanish on my husband’s), unless you count my father’s very enthusiastic “Hola!  Me llamo David!  Pásame la mantequilla, por favor!”  (Hello! My name is David!  Pass me the butter, please!) 

Luckily, they all support our mission to raise our son to be bilingual, yet it has created some difficulties for them.  This is particularly the case for my husband’s family, since my little Monkey mostly speaks English right now.  Even supportive grandparents may get frustrated at times, and in the worst cases, it could create tension within the family, as questions are raised about the appropriateness of the child’s bilingual upbringing.

Difficulties with Having a Bilingual Grandchild

Grandparents and the Bilingual Child -

  1. Trouble communicating: I have written more fully elsewhere about my reflections on our recent trip to visit my husband’s family in Costa Rica. During our visit, my little Monkey’s Spanish-speaking grandparents were frequently left in the dark as to what he was talking about.  He was a bit shy to begin with, and when he did talk around them, it was mostly in English.  And while this is less of an issue with his English-speaking grandparents, it still does occur occasionally.  For example, when my little Monkey wanted my mother to read his punto (“dot”) book to him, she had no idea which book he was asking for!  (He was referring to Press Here, a book about dots and circles that is a current favorite of his.  Ironically, it was one given to him by my mother).  And while one of us is almost always around to step in and translate, if we weren’t the situation could be frustrating or – in the case of an emergency – even dangerous.
  2. Trouble connecting: Other than the possible safety issue mentioned above, the most serious problem is that the difficulty communicating can make it more difficult for monolingual grandparents to connect with their bilingual grandchildren.  In many cases, such as ours, this problem is compounded by the fact that the grandparents often live great distances apart from the grandchildren and so are already at a disadvantage in building a close relationship.


  1. Patience:  My hope is that this situation will improve as my little Monkey grows.  As discussed elsewhere, at two and a half, my little Monkey doesn’t seem to be aware that others don’t understand both of his languages.  As he learns to distinguish between which language he can speak to which people, he will become more adept at speaking in the appropriate language to each set of his grandparents, alleviating both of the above problems.
  2. Stretch your boundaries:  Later in life it is quite difficult to learn a new language, but it is always possible to incorporate a few key phrases from the other language into your vocabulary.  Not only will this ease communication somewhat, but the grandchild will also be delighted to hear you speak in his other language!  It may also introduce a fun activity to do together, as the grandchild gets to step briefly into the role of “teacher.”Grandparents and the Bilingual Child -
  3. Focus on the advantages.  Remember what an advantage being bilingual will be to your grandchild.  He will be at ease in a wide range of situations that are difficult for most people because of his ability to communicate.  He will also be ahead of the game later in life when looking for work, as bilingual employees are in high demand.  In addition, the fact of learning another language helps a child to “think outside the box” and will make it easier for him to learn other subjects that may at first appear unrelated.


Although having a bilingual grandchild can present challenges, these are far outweighed by the advantages.  And as parents, we can help ease the difficulties by helping our children understand the “correct” language to use with their grandparents.  For most of us, this is a learning situation, so the most important thing is to work together in a loving, supportive way.  Grandparents love their grandchildren and want what is best for them.  As someone once told me, they are the only people other than yourselves that wouldn’t hesitate to rush into a burning building to save your child.  So what’s a little language barrier?  After all, we are talking about bilingual grandchildren, so they do speak the grandparents’ language, we just have to help them figure out how to put all the pieces together!

This post has been shared at Play Activities’ Sunday Parenting Party, True Aim Education’s Mom’s Library, the Kid’s Co-op, and September’s Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism.

Blogging Carnival on Bilingualism logo

  20 Responses to “Grandparents and the Bilingual Child”

  1. I’m sure this will be very helpful for struggling grandparents, and any other relations who are trying to keep up. When you are so focused on your child’s burgeoning language skills, it can be hard to factor in adults feeling left out too.

    • Tallulah, that is such a good point. Sometimes we are so focused on our little ones that we forget to factor in others that are close to them, yet if everyone is on board our efforts will be so much more effective. Thanks for the visit!

  2. Well said! I am going to share this article with my little one’s grandparents, thank you very much.

  3. Oh yes. Been here. Wrote the blog post. 🙂 The good news is (two years later) that it gets a lot better. Bad news is it never gets totally better, because there’s always that culture and language gap between grandparents and grandchild – a place the grandparents can’t follow because they don’t know the child’s other “self”.

    I think your advice is good for grandparents or other family members finding themselves in similar situations. Good one! 🙂

  4. YES! It is so frustrating when my kids speak English in front of my in-laws. I wish we lived closer so that they were able to visit with them more:(. I think there is so much that kids can learn from their grandparents.

    • Agreed! That grandparent-grandchild relationship is so important. And we have the same problem of living far away from both sets of grandparents. I’m hoping when my son is older we’ll be able to do longer visits, and maybe eventually even some on his own.

  5. It is truly a gift to your child to be bilingual even though it presents some challenges. Sounds like you are handling it very well. Good advice.

  6. Nice article! My family speaks only English with any fluency, but I have a friend who is from Germany and raising her children bilingual. It has been really interesting seeing them develop. Her oldest is 5 now and clearly understands when to speak English and when to speak German. Recently when their German grandparents were visiting, I met the 5-year-old on a city bus with just her grandfather, who speaks very little English (I tried talking with him; my high school German from 20 years ago was about as good as his English) so she was his native guide and doing a great job!

  7. […] Of course, bilingualism has social implications as well.  Cordelia writes about her child’s growing understanding of how to distinguish which language to speak to which people, while I wrote about how being bilingual has affected my little Monkey’s relationship with his monolingual grandparents. […]

  8. I was talking about this very subject at work the other day. One of the Moms there mentioned that her two grown daughters (now Moms themselves) had never spoken a single word to their grandmother because of language barriers. So sad. Your suggestions are just wonderful and I think they could be applied to all sorts of situations. Thanks for linking up to The Sunday Parenting Party.

    • Thank you, Ness! Oh, that is a sad story. Yes, unfortunately, the language barrier can make family relationships strained. Thankfully it seems like more and more families are recognizing the importance of teaching more than one language, especially when there are family members that only speak one or the other. And there is a lot more support for it these days. I suspect that this was not the case when the Mom you spoke to was raising her daughters.

  9. My grandmother is Vietnamese. I wish I could speak the language, but my Dad never taught me. It really is a great gift you are giving to your child. I understand the frustrations it may cause. However, it really is sad when a child cannot communicate with a loved one. I know my English grandmother would understand if I was trying to learn Vietnamese. Some great thoughts on this and I think it is an awesome skill to teach your children. Thanks for sharing at Mom’s Library!

    • Thank you! Yes, it seems like not learning a second language is a much bigger problem than learning one, in terms of family relations. That is wonderful that your English grandmother was so understanding. We have been really lucky in this respect as well, although I know this isn’t always the case.

  10. Beautiful post! I’m going to share on the Kids’ Co-op FB page this afternoon so that others can discover and learn from it too. Thank you for your honesty and thoughtful list of solutions.

  11. […] Leanna shares the benefits of having grandparents help on the multilingual journey yet is also honest about some of the difficulties that come with having a bilingual grandchild. She shares plenty of solutions on how to overcome these obstacles. […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Social media & sharing icons powered by UltimatelySocial