Bilingual Homeschooling

Teaching bilingual children at home in
more than one language

By Corey Heller

“Last year when my son started school, things really started to change,” reported a woman in my seminar on Raising Bilingual Children. “I can’t get him to say one word in Chinese anymore.  He even said that he hates it when I speak Chinese with him!” Another woman piped in saying “Now that my kids are in school, I let them watch as many DVDs in Italian as they want, something I never thought I’d be doing –  but at least they are hearing the language!”

Home languages almost always take a severe blow the moment our children walk through the schoolhouse doors.  All of a sudden, our children are surrounded by peers, teachers, administrators (even the janitor and bus driver) all day long who speak nothing but the community language.  Our children quickly learn that this “school language” is essential for functioning in society and thus begins the home language–school/community language dichotomy (to the distress of many a dedicated parent).

However, not all families experience this abrupt change once their children are school age.  What is their secret?  They choose to educate their children at home.

Although this choice is not available everywhere in the world (in Germany, for example, it is illegal) in those countries where it is legal, multilingual families are realizing the tremendous educational and language benefits of homeschooling, especially if both parents (or at least the primary “educating” parent) speaks the minority language.

What is Homeschooling?
The history of homeschooling is tough and treacherous, meandering and glorified; full of religious extremist overtones on the one hand and hippie, free-loving radicals on the other.  We hear of homeschooled winners of spelling bees and Stanford University wooing them because of their “intellectual vitality.”

Yet we also hear of administrators, institutions and individuals attacking homeschooling because of its supposed lack of uniformity and oversight.  Heck, even Harry Potter’s wizarding world recognized homeschooling as a viable form of education, at least until Voldemort forbade it (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, page 210)!

Many imagine that homeschooling consists of children sitting around the kitchen table for hours on end, working in workbooks and listening to lectures from their teacher-parent who writes information on a chalk board.  This type of homeschooling is rare and an exception to the rule.  For most families, homeschooling is not about recreating the classroom at home.  It is about creating something absolutely brand new and unique; about fostering an environment which is conducive to learning, regardless of material, location or method.  Imagine the joy in learning to read while snuggled with a parent on the sofa and practicing multiplication tables while jumping on a trampoline!

Most families attribute their decision to homeschool to their firm belief that each child needs a truly individual approach to learning, something which standardized schooling admits it simply can not provide.
Studies have shown that children in traditional classrooms spend most of their time waiting.  Waiting for the lesson to start, waiting to receive worksheets and turn them in, waiting for the teacher to answer questions waiting to go outside to play.  With a classroom of 20-30 students, it is inevitable that there will be a lot of sitting and following directions.

On the other hand, with just a few hours of dedicated learning at home each day, parents can far exceed what is covered in a standard classroom.  What is left over is time for playing, socializing, hanging out and best of all: reading and talking, all in more than one language!

What is bilingual homeschooling?
Bilingual homeschooling is exactly what it sounds like: providing a homeschooling education in two languages.  In our home, this means teaching our children subjects in both English and German and covering the body of knowledge that most American children AND German children cover in their classrooms.

Often the question arises as to how this can accomplished without text books in BOTH languages for every grade.  Bilingual homeschoolers use an array of resources for learning different subjects.  What is most important are the results that come from learning a subject, e.g. being able to read and comprehend what is read, compute mathematical equations on varying levels, write a well-researched and well-argued essay, be familiar with world geography and history, and put the scientific method into practice – all of which progresses and matures as our children develop their knowledge and skills.

Many experts would argue that our best learning comes from sources other than text books: for example, while discussing current events, utilizing maps and atlases, calculating the sales tax on a new toy, and, most importantly, reading what are called “original sources” (books from which text books find many of their facts and information).  For example, reading and discussing the diaries of families who immigrated to the United States rather than relying solely on a condensed version of it via a few chapters in a text book.

It is important to remember that bilingual homeschooling is more than just providing our children with opportunities to learn our languages.  While language learning is about learning to speak (and often read and write) in a given language, bilingual homeschooling is teaching a subject in a given language – the subject is the focus, rather than the language.

How to Bilingual Homeschool
Each family will need to come up with their own bilingual homeschooling plan based on their languages and subjects which they plan to cover.  Family members must also decide who will be teaching which subjects in which language and when. Planning is probably the hardest part so families need to make sure they find as many resources as they can – general books on homeschooling as well as books in the target language which can be used for specific subjects.

I am not a native speaker of German and my German vocabulary is limited, so it is important that my husband and I teach our children together.  In any household where either parent is not as strong in a given language or where parents are practicing the One-Parent-One-Language (OPOL) method, it is important that both parents team up in their homeschooling endeavor.

A homeschooling lesson/activity might go something like this (which includes time spent in both languages): Someone becomes interested in a certain country in Africa so we decide to use it as the focus for a homeschooling lesson.  We start by looking up the country on a map, talk about what we know about the country, ask questions and explore ideas.  We then go to the library and find books about that country.  My husband and I look up what we can find online (printables, information about the land and the people, traditions, etc.) and consult Encyclopedias and atlases at home.  Then we spend time looking through the materials we have, discussing the traditions and languages of the people of the country, we talk about the land and what resources it provides, discuss where people live, what they eat and what things the children like to do.  We even throw in math and other subjects to go along with the theme!

None of this lesson focused specifically on the language per se.  However, my husband and I both make sure we are using vocabulary from both languages when we learn/teach about the country (even if the materials are only in one or the other language).  This way vocabulary is learned along the way but it isn’t the primary goal of the activity.

Many parents will realize that they are doing this on a daily basis but on a smaller, incremental scale.  The difference is usually the amount of time and dedication spent on any given subject.  When kids are in school, how often will a parent spend time with his or her children after school and on weekends working on an independent lesson about the culture, climate and traditions of a given country in Africa?  Ironically, most parents will do more of what might be considered homeschooling before their children start school.  Once their children are in school, much of the after school learning focus is on homework and targeted school subjects.

Part Time Homeschooling
Any parent who is raising a bilingual child and who wants their child to learn to read and write in their language is probably going to have to become a homeschooling parent to some degree, even if it is just now and then.  So, start today!

The catch with homeschooling outside of regular schooling means you will be cutting into time that your child would otherwise be using for other activities, homework, playing and just hanging out with you.  The answer is to find the right balance.  Make it fun, fun, fun!  Engage other families who are also interested in part-time homeschooling their children in the same language and do it as a group.  This will help your child not feel that he or she is being punished for growing up in a bilingual family.  So, don’t call it homeschooling.  Just call it have fun together!

If you are going to part-time homeschool, then you need to get your priorities straight before you start.  You can’t teach your child the same subjects in school all over again in your language, nor should you.  If that is your intention, then you should just bilingual homeschool 100% of the time.

You will need to pick and choose what are the most important subjects and tasks. For example, start with reading and writing and then go from there.  No matter what you do, don’t push things too hard.  Concentrate on the “child lead” type of learning and utilize your child’s interests as base topics from which you can incorporate additional concepts.

Remember, every child learns things like reading and writing in their own time. If you can get your child to enjoy listening to you read a book out loud, that in itself is teaching about reading and writing in your language!  Try the same for other subjects and activities!

Check out the next page for top multilingual homeschooling tips!

Top Tips
Monolingual homeschooling takes patience, dedication, perseverance and a view to the future.  Bilingual homeschooling demands even more, especially a clear plan of action, even if that plan means taking things one step at a time.  Most homeschooling families will tell you that they started out very strict with book learning and worksheets each day.  But soon they realized how exhausting and unproductive this was and finally let learning follow topics of interest.  As homeschoolers, we don’t have to follow the same plan that a teacher of 20-30 kids must follow.  We only need to match the needs of ourselves and our children.

  • l Parents of bilingual children in general need to know when to step in and direct a language situation and when to step back and just let it happen.  The same is true for bilingual homeschooling.  Help your children find their interests, facilitate their access to materials and directions and then step back and let them experiment as much as possible.
  • l If you notice that you are spending the majority of time homeschooling your children in one language, don’t worry.  Just start to focus more homeschooling effort on the other language.  This may also mean getting more involvement from your spouse.
  • l Homeschooling families are no different than any other family when it comes to needing motivational support.  There will be moments when you lose your energy and need to get focused again.  This is normal!  Homeschooling families are not perfect and parents find that they need time away from their kids, just as any parent feels from time to time.
  • Remember that many subjects overlap between your two cultures.  For example, mathematics.  You don’t need to start from scratch in each language when teaching some subjects.  Just make sure you switch back and forth with languages so that your children will be familiar with the concepts and vocabulary in each language.
  • Standard schooling focuses on imparting information which a given society believes is most important.  In bilingual homeschooling, you will want to make sure to cover this same information in a depth that does justice to each culture.
  • Want to prepare your children for higher education in both countries?  Then ask yourself what you need to do to accomplish this goal.  Answering such questions can help you better formulate your homeschooling program and better define you goals.

The decision to homeschool bilingually can be a frightening one but with enough preparation, support and motivation you can make it a successful one for you and your family.  You may also be surprised how many others around you are homeschooling their children!

On the next page you will find some valuable resource tips.


Early Years Homeschool
Indira is a fellow bilingual homeschooler in Seattle.  She and I met when our children were very young.  She has created this wonderful homeschooling site which includes information on bilingual homeschooling:

Home Education Magazine
This magazine is a fabulous resource for families who are homeschooling.  It will give you the tools and the motivation to stick with your homeschooling adventure month after month!

Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense,
by David Guterson

As with many advocates of homeschooling, Mr. Guterson was a school teacher while he and his wife homeschooled their children.  His book is a beautiful discussion of why homeschooling can be the right choice for families around the world.

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine.Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. She lives in Seattle with her German husband and three children ages 8, 7 and 5. CLICK HERE to send her an email!