How One Woman Taught Her American Children Her Mother Tongue

How One Woman Taught Her American Children Her Mother Tongue

Written by Ksenia LL

How to teach children your native language?

Imagine, what a gift it could be –for a child to learn a second language naturally. A language that can help your kid feel connected to you and your culture, that can open more doors for him, and that can broaden his mind and give him the feeling of belonging to more than one country.

But there are more benefits in children’s bilingualism than that. A few studies show that the strength of the mother tongue transfers into strength of the second, third, etc. languages. A child’s native language becomes the foundation for the language of residence.


More studies suggest that the ability of bilingual children to deal with information in more than one language builds their thinking skills. Usually kids like that have better memory and enhanced ability to concentrate.

A lot of U.S. immigrants try to pass their native language on to their children and a lot of them fail. Passing on the mother tongue is especially hard to do if the parents don’t share the same mother language.

That was exactly the situation of one Russian woman from California, who I met a few years ago. Olga had two kids, a 4-year-old boy and an 8-year-old girl. Both kids were speaking, writing and reading English and Russian. Yes, even the 4-year-old boy. The daughter was also speaking German and studying Mandarin. I was impressed.

Being a mom myself who was planning on teaching my own sons Russian, I was extremely interested in how she was doing it with so much success.

These are Olga’s golden rules for every parent for teaching children his or her mother tongue while living abroad:

  1. Speak to your child only in your native language. Always.

I have heard some moms saying things like: “I feel it’s not polite to speak to our children the language my husband doesn’t understand. So when he is around, we switch to English” or “If my child has done something wrong in public, I scold him in English, so that people around us can understand what I am doing”.

While these feelings are natural, if you explain to your husband or wife why you are speaking in your native language to the children, it may go a long way. Also, Americans are usually very tolerant of different languages. And not even once have I gotten a judgmental look or some kind of remark when speaking in Russian. [Of course, you may need to be prepared for misunderstandings. Once I was telling our son that daddy is coming—which is “Papa idyot” in Russian. I then heard my husband’s angry cry from another room: “I’m not an idiot!” Woops!]

  1. Read to your child only in your native language.

If you do borrow English books from the library, translate and read them in your native language. Of course, as stories become more complicated it might get harder to read and translate the content simultaneously. I have handled this issue by reading most of the books prior to reading them to my older son. For books that rhyme, I have found it just doesn’t work to translate, though. So I bought a few books in Russian.

  1. Let your child watch cartoons only in your native language.

Don’t be afraid to look like a crazy-native-language-person. Remember, he will be learning English for the next decade or so. He has only these few years to get comfortable with your mother tongue.mother pic

By letting your kids watch cartoons only in your native language, you might notice that your children learn words that you personally don’t use. It was also a good excuse for not feeling guilty when I was turning on cartoons. I told myself that my son was learning my mother tongue and immediately felt better.

  1. Play children’s songs in your mother tongue.

That includes songs you sing and any tunes you might put on for him. Again, if you think “Oh please, give me a break! Why can’t he just listen to children’s songs in English?” He can and he will. At preschool and later. But for now let him learn some songs you used to sing yourself.

Besides the benefit of building vocabulary in your native language, there is another advantage. When my son watches the same cartoons I used to watch and when he sings the same songs I know by heart, I feel we are connected. And it just feels so good.

  1. Teach your child to write and to read.

Yes, this one might be the hardest. You have to find the time and you have to put some effort into it. The easiest way to do it is to buy good children textbooks in your native language and study them five days per week. Tell yourself it’s important, find time and become a fun yet demanding teacher for your child.

I can’t share my own experience on this one, because I’m only planning to start teaching my older son now. But looking at some of my friends, I can tell that the language will never stay with a person if he can’t read and write that language.

  1. Stick to your mother tongue, even if your child tries to switch to English.

father picYou have to have a strong language policy at home. After my older son started attending preschool, he attempted to talk to me in English a few times. I explained to him that it wasn’t going to happen. It’s just one of those rules, like brushing his teeth before going to bed or never touching elevator doors when they are opening.

  1. Make sure to find a community who speaks your native language.

It’s important for children to see other kids speaking their mother tongue. Luckily, I have had the opportunity to go to Russia every year for a month or two. If you can’t go to the country of your origin, try to find some playgroups, day cares, or even just a few other families with kids who speak your mother tongue. The easiest way for children to learn is by watching other children.


If you want more information on raising bilingual children, I would recommend a few good blogs for you.

Spanglish Baby spanglish baby 

Started by two best friends Anna and Roxana, who were raised in two cultures – Spanish and American. The awesome tips shared by them are going to be useful not only for Spanish families, but for every parent intending to pass his mother tongue to his or her children. It’s always easy to learn by example, and these bloggers give the best examples ever. Some of my favorite posts include:

 “Raising a Bilingual Kid: Useful Do’s and Don’ts”  and “The Importance of Play in Raising Bilingual Kids”

bilingual monkeysBilingual Monkeys

Created by Adam Beck, a parent and a teacher, who gives very handy, practical tips on raising bilingual children. He lives in Japan, and speaks to his kids the minority language – English. His blogs are easy and fun to read, yet super useful for parents raising bilingual children. Some of his greatest posts are:

When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language” and “96 Things You Can Do Today to Boost Your Child’s Bilingual Ability