The Bilingual Family: A Testimony

by Gunborg Presson

Please take note – This is in response to a review of The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents by Edith Harding and Philip Riley. Following are excerpts from a letter received from Gunborg Presson, who served in Cote d’Ivoire with her husband, David.

I read with great interest your review of The Bilingual Family. When my husband (American) and I (Swedish) had our first child in 1987, this was one of the two books which helped us make the choice to raise our children as bilinguals and which gave us a lot of valuable information on how to go about it. The other book we found helpful was Bilingual Children: Guidance for the Family, written by George Saunders and published by Multilingual Matters, England [now out of print]. This is more scientific in its approach but is still very practical.

You might be interested in knowing that Multilingual Matters published “The Bilingual Family Newsletter” three or four times a year. [No longer published as of the end of 2010, but archives are available at

By now our oldest, Samuel, is almost six and our youngest, Jacob, is three. [See end of article for an update.] To raise them as bilinguals has been entirely a positive experience. Their first language is definitely English, but Samuel is fluent in Swedish, and it’s actually the language he reads most. He has attended French school for two years and by now has a pretty good grasp of French as well. He will continue at least one more year in French school. Jacob has been slower to start speaking but from the very beginning he has made a clear distinction as to what language he speaks with me and what language he uses with Daddy.

There are several reasons why I believe this has worked out so well for us. One is that we live in an environment which is conducive to speaking several languages. The children hear different languages all the time, and it is not strange to have a mother who speaks a different language from everyone else. I’m not at all sure that we would have been as successful if we had lived, for instance, in the U.S., in an environment where I would have been the only adult speaking a different language. I have a feeling that I, as well as the children, would have fallen for the pressure to be like others and not to be looked on as “odd-balls.”

Update (as of 2011): it has continued to be an entirely positive experience. We moved back to the US when the boys were 5 and 8, and they have been in an English-speaking school environment since then – in the US or at an TCK school in Niger. From the time we returned to the US, we mainly spoke English at home and English quickly became their first language. Still, the boys were right back to Swedish every time we went to Sweden, every other year or so. I would consider them fairly fluent in Swedish – they certainly have no problem carrying on a conversation with a Swede although their vocabulary is a bit limited. Our youngest, now 20, spent a semester studying at University in Sweden his sophomore year in college. The boys are both high achievers academically, and the fact that they were exposed to more than one language from early on, has had no negative impact on their results in the English-speaking school environment.

First published in “Parents Teaching Overseas,” an SIL publication. Permission to copy, but not for commercial use.