Situational Bilingualism

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Situational bilingualism is a little known bilingual parenting method in which multilingual parents teach their children in what situations they will need to use each of their languages.  

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What is Situational Bilingualism?

family laying on the floor, shown from above

Essentially, situational bilingualism is when parents and children determine in what situations their kids will speak which language- independent of place or time of day. 

This bilingual parenting method is not very well known or written about, but almost every bilingual parent that I have spoken to has been able to recognize this as a method that they have applied from time to time. 

A few examples include:

  1. Monolingual parents who send their children to school in a second language that they do not speak. The children learn that they speak Spanish in situations related to education and school. (If this is interesting to you make sure to read this article Why do Spanish native speakers take high school Spanish?)
  2. Sequential bilingual (parents who did not grow up in bilingual households and therefore whose parents do not speak two languages. Children learn that they can only speak a specific language in situations where their grandparents are present.
  3. Children who are in a mixed language playgroup of monolingual peers. Bilingual children learn which child needs to be spoken to in which language.  

Related article: Language Rebellion

How It Works

 In Homes

Situational bilingualism in homes generally occurs quite naturally as long as families are explicit about in what situations each language should be spoken. 

This can be as simple as reminding your child who in their life is monolingual and bilingual. Once a child learns this, it’s usually very natural for them to speak the correct language to the correct person. 

This can translate to virtual conversations as well- for example when we call home to Costa Rica, my girls know that when they are on the phone with grandma they will always speak Spanish. 

Finally, situational bilingualism is a great way to get kids introduced to bilingualism if you didn’t start bilingual parenting in early childhood. You may make television or tablet time be “Spanish time” as kids gain fluency. 

Of you may find specific situations where you will speak Spanish, such as bath time or at the grocery store.

In Schools

Situational bilingualism in school is very easy if the child is in a language specific monolingual school. Your child will know that school is Language A and home is Language B, for example.

Some bilingual schools will also use situational bilingualism when some of the teachers are not bilingual adults. This might mean specials or lunch time happen in a different language than the academic instruction happens.

For an overview of bilingual parenting, methods refer to this article: 4 Language Learning Methods For Bilingual Families

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Like absolutely any bilingual parenting method, situational bilingualism gives your child a cognitive advantage over monolingual peers. 

Young children are surprisingly able to move between bilingual situations with easy once you have reminded them a few times when to use which language.

Additional Bilingual Parenting Articles from Pura Vida Moms:


If your situations are not equal in time, a child can exhibit language dominance in one language over the other. This often happens when bilingual children go back to school in the majority language and have more contact with school and activities than they do with the home language. 

This is a concern with almost any bilingual parenting method in which the child does not also attend bilingual school, so it’s not generally a reason not to choose this method over others.

Related article: 5 Tips For When Bilingual Children Don’t Want To Speak The Home Language


If you are deciding between language learning methods, there are a few considerations:

  1. Let your child know which situations pair with which language and then make sure to provide gentle but firm reminders to him or her until switching between languages feels natural.  
  2. Build a village- you will need support from other bilingual parents. You can join our BilingualWe Facebook group here. 
  3. Be kind to yourself as you navigate bilingual parenting with your child. Language acquisition is a process even for monolingual kids, and developing bilingual language skills takes even more intentionality.

Resources for Parents

This video from my BilingualWe series talks more in depth about the Situational Bilingualism method. 

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Christa Jimenez

Welcome! I’m Christa, a former high school teacher married to a handsome Costa Rican and mother of two bilingual daughters. I love all things Spanish and bi-cultural, (especially travel and food!) and you’ll find my observations on life here. Thanks for stopping by

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