The Bilingual Family: A Review

review by Wayne D. Lance

The Bilingual Family: A Handbook for Parents by Edith Harding-Esch and Philip Riley Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1986 and 1998. A 2003 revised edition is available from Amazon.


This book is based both on the authors’ research and their own experiences as parents of bilingual children. Edith Harding, who is French, is Assistant Director of Research in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Cambridge. She and her husband, an English mathematician, have two children. Their home language is French, with English kept for work and school.

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Philip Riley, an Englishman and professional applied linguist, works at the University of Nancy. He is married to a Swedish-speaking Finn. Their three children speak English and Swedish at home and French at school.

The handbook is written for English-speaking parents, living in just about any part of the world, faced with decisions about bringing up their children as bilinguals. The authors describe their book in the following terms:

  1. A summary of the research which has been done on bilingualism and the development of the bilingual child.
  2. A discussion of the factors which parents should consider when deciding whether to bring up their children as bilinguals.
  3. A series of case studies of a wide variety of bilingual families. In them, readers can see the different choices and decisions made by parents in different contexts.
  4. An alphabetical reference guide to a number of topics or notions likely to be useful to parents.


This reviewer finds The Bilingual Family to be a refreshing approach due to the two authors’ ability to:

  • rely on research, yet be practical
  • make recommendations, yet avoid being dogmatic
  • be comprehensive in answering parents’ questions, yet not become bogged down in esoteric arguments and theoretical hair-splitting.

Global TCK Care & Education staff members often receive inquires about bilingualism. Here are a few of the questions, addressed in this handbook, that we have heard from parents:

  • Is it normal for bilingual children’s development of their two languages to show considerable variation in detail?
  • Will learning to read in two languages cause a child problems?
  • Will my bilingual children have problems with speaking ability in a language which is primarily receptive when they move back “home”?
  • At what age should children be introduced to a second language?
  • Should we expect problems associated with infant bilingualism?
  • What do we need to know about “mixing” and “code-switching”?
  • Why is attitude about a new community so important in language learning?
  • Is correcting counter-productive?

Many other topics are discussed, including stuttering and bilingualism (no direct link), refusal to speak a language (a number of factors to consider), need for formality in teaching a second language (depends on the age of the child), and the role of television in bilingual acquisition (it is useful and powerful, although limited).

The authors present some “golden rules” for parents faced with decisions about bilingualism for their children. They follow these guidelines with a 14-item questionnaire designed to help parents think through their situation.

The case studies are brief but informative and should help parents relate to similar family situations. For readers interested in further study, a reference list is provided.

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