“What is it like to have a bilingual teen?” I’ve been asked. Pretty much like having any teen, I guess. They just have two languages in which they can ignore you and tell you to (please) leave their room .


I know that it’s a cliché, but I really do remember like it was yesterday when she was a toddler! A smiling round face with dark curls everywhere – and always happy to play and interact with her dad in French as much as he wanted.

Fast forward 10 years  and the toddler’s mutated into a teen who prefers to stay in her room with her computer and books rather than talk to anyone. When she does speak (or grunt), it’s not quite what it used to be. It seems that we have become a trilingual family and “teen” is now spoken  in addition to French and Finnish at our house – even if we parents apparently don’t really master it since eyes are rolled repeatedly when we try. Most of the time the terms come from English; there’s swag (a noun, an adjective, a verb, and an all-purpose expression of agreement or endorsement – I had to look it up here) and semi (used on its own as an adjective as in kind of okay) Then there’s yolo (you only live once to explain all the silly things she does) and the sarcastic Sherlock (as in, you guessed it, the famous detective) when we accidentally say something so obvious and lame that she just can’t believe we’re related.

I’m slightly exaggerating; in truth she continues to be a wonderful girl and I am extremely proud of her. Nevertheless, she IS a teen and we have needed to look for new strategies to keep communication and the minority language going. I hope that you are reading this when your child is not yet a teenager because honestly, the foundation was laid in early childhood. All the effort we put into creating a need and motivation for her to use the minority language is now bearing fruit. She may question and resist a lot of the things we parents want her to do, but she never questions the language issue. Her bilingual identity is so strong that it seems to be completely untouched by the teenage crisis she is going through.

Still, we’re not naive and know that a language is never done; therefore we are always looking for ways to make sure she continues to have language exposure in both languages. This is what we’ve found useful:

Taking advantage of the bio-rythm. Adolescents have very different biological rythms than adults and they tend the be the most receptive and open to talk late in the evening. This is certainly the case in our family, and we have noticed that from 10.07 pm to 10.37 pm is the optimal moment to achieve interaction as that’s when a very different and even talkative girl emerges from her “teen cave.” While we parents have a very different rythm (and would really rather be in bed already!) we really treasure these moments and in depth conversations we can have at the end of the day. Top tip from someone who needs a lot of sleep: taking a nap in the afternoon helps.

Looking for meaningful one-on-one time. Emma plays soccer and Gilles is very involved with her team. I actually love soccer too, but I’ve decided to let them have it as their “thing” together. They go to practice and games together, watch the sport on TV, talk strategy and – of course – at times disagree about soccer in French! Emma has a favorite female team in France and as chance would have it, they visited Helsinki last year. Long story short, as a huge fan and French speaker Emma got to meet the players and talk to them. She even ended on the team’s video as the players took turns in signing her ball. This summer she is participating in a soccer camp the same team is organizing for girls her age in France. She understands the part her bilingualism plays in this.

Connecting her with the popular culture in the minority language. These things just are important to the teens. Emma is subscribed to a French teen magazine, she watches movies and music that her peers in France like and many times she has found out about these (and the local teen slang) from her French friends on Facebook.

Making (or keeping) the language and the culture “cool.” Tap into their interests! Look for websites or any minority language material about the things that genuinely interest your teen (even if it’s Hunger Games!). At this age, fitting in with their peers is another important thing for most and unless we parents play our cards right, bilingualism may just become something that they feel makes them different from others in a negative way. Look for recently-arrived expat families with children that speak your minority language to get your teen to know others his/her age who speak the language or find out about babysitting opportunities with the younger expat children. Earning some cash can be a strong motivating factor. Last, but definitely not least, travel to the minority language country if possible. Visiting relatives, looking for a summer job, camp or similar can all be good ways to make the language more attractive. Social media is also a good way for the young to keep in touch with new friends despite the distance.

Last week, Emma was invited to be the French-speaking Master of Ceremony at the end of the school year party of her bilingual school. Here is a picture of that. If I could, I’d rather show you another picture and that would be of the look on her face when she told me she had been picked to do it and that the teacher had told her it was because of her French skills.

Worth having made bilingualism a priority for the past 13 years? Absolutely and more.