Pin It
Friday, December 31st, 2010

Help! My Bilingual Child Won’t Speak My Language

Krugloff -

If you find your child refuses to speak your language, don’t hit the panic button just yet. All you need is a little bit of patience and perhaps some organization too.

As a parent of bilingual children, I have often heard parents bemoan the fact that their child refuses to speak back to them in their native tongue, preferring instead the language of the country they live in. They might understand everything that you are saying to them, but when they talk back to you, they use Spanish, German or whatever the language is that they hear around them on a day-to-day basis.

This tends to happen when a child starts school and ends up speaking just in one language most of the day. The language that the child is taught in becomes dominant, and the weaker language starts getting used less and less.

“This is something that often happens because children don’t want to be different from their friends at school,” says Babara Abdelilah-Bauer, a linguist, social psychologist and an author of many publications on bilingualism and the founder of Café Bilingue, an organization promoting multilingual contacts.

Several Solutions

A perfect solution would be to put your child in a bilingual school so he or she could be schooled in two languages simultaneously. But that is not often possible or accessible for many parents depending on where you live and what educational options are available and affordable.

But there are lots of other things that can be done to encourage your children to speak their second language—or at least hear it. One example is to have someone outside the family come to your home. Bilingual families often don’t have relatives nearby that speak the second language and who can just pop over to have a cup of tea and a chat or do a spot of babysitting. So how about hiring a babysitter who does, even if it is just for a couple of hours a month.

Recently, I met a Franco-Austrian family living in France, who decided to take the bull by the horns to encourage their three children to speak German as the children were continually speaking back to their mother in French. They now have a German speaking babysitter who comes to look after them on a Wednesday when they are off school and their mother is at work.

“Now my kids are getting older, they are getting really proud of speaking another language,” says their father.

Another plus is to take them as much as possible to the home country of the parent who speaks the minority language and help them to soak up the local language and culture. While on holiday visiting family in Austria, the mother enrolled the children in a local school, giving the children a chance to mix with Austrian children and, of course, only in German.

Family trips are key. One mother I met said she was almost about ready to give up speaking her native Spanish to her small daughter who would just answer her back in French all the time as she was surrounded by French speakers. But when they went on holiday to Spain one summer, her daughter heard lots of little girls speaking Spanish on the beach and wanted to join in and from then on there was no looking back. The family regularly travels to Spain, all speaking Spanish when they are there.

Never Force

Another thing that can help is to find playgroups in your native language so your child can meet children who speak their second language. If you can’t find one you can always set one up. It would be a good way of getting to know other people who speak your language. For example, there is a new organization in Paris called D’une Langue à L’Autre, which has set up playgroups in German, English, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian and Creole, to encourage little children to hear and speak their second language.

The most important thing is to keep a child exposed as much as possible to the second language. Keep on talking to your child in your language, but never force them to speak it. “One thing not to do is to insist. It musn’t become a source of conflict for the child,” says Abdelilah-Bauer.

So if you are a frustrated parent dealing with a child who refuses to speak in your language, don’t despair. There are lots of ways of getting around the problem. In the end your child should end up being a true bilingual or even multilingual and in today’s world isn’t that a great thing?

© 2010 – 2013, Jennifer Laidlaw. All rights reserved.

More Great Stuff You'll Love:

Breastfeeding Around the World

In photos and figures

The West's Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep

How the West sleeps is different from the rest

Birth, Loss and In Between

Life after devastation


Jennifer Laidlaw is a freelance journalist who lives in Paris. She has traveled the globe working as a reporter for news agencies Dow Jones and Reuters and has learned various different languages along the way. She is now living a truly multilingual and multicultural experience, as married to a Frenchman, she is bringing up her two small children to speak English and French in France.

Leave us a comment!

  1. Commentscommunity organizers - legislative pressure - bilingual speakers - dialect speakers - necessary field - peace on earth - peace action - Koreatown - bonus pay - Promote - Earth - Peace - Paid   |  Saturday, 08 January 2011 at 7:00 pm

    […] Los Angeles, USA Additionally you can look at this related post: […]

  2. Commentsalastair mclean   |  Saturday, 15 January 2011 at 3:20 am

    Got your letter. Looking forward to seeing more of your writing in InCulture magazine.

  3. CommentsWhen a Child Refuses to Speak a Second Language – Early Lingo   |  Wednesday, 13 March 2013 at 11:39 am

    […] […]

  4. CommentsInCultureParent | 5 Games to Get Your Bilingual Child Talking   |  Monday, 10 June 2013 at 1:43 pm

    […] your children to speak the minority language isn’t always easy. You may encounter resistance or face kids who understand the minority language but prefer to speak in the majority language. To […]

  5. CommentsMavis   |  Tuesday, 24 June 2014 at 5:52 am

    Any advise for child resisting to speak the community language at a day care? I have the exact opposite problem as described in this article. My 2 and half year old daughter prefer to speak Chinese to all her American friends at the day care. She understand and would speak English words, but she somehow chose to use her Chinese in social interactions. I’m sure this is just a phase and I likely be glad that she has a strong foundation for the minority language we speaks at home at age 2. However, the teacher is concerned since my daughter tends to get frustrated when other kids don’t understand her Chinese.

    What should I do? Would it be a good idea to start incorporating English at home when my husbands and I interacting with her? What suggestions should I provide to the teachers at day care to encourage my daughter using her English in social settings?

  6. CommentsThe Editors   |  Tuesday, 24 June 2014 at 9:33 am

    Mavis- if you would like we can pose your question to our linguist and get you a response: Please let us know!

Notify me of follow-up comments via e-mail.
Or leave your email address and click here to receive email notifications of new comments without leaving a comment yourself.

Get weekly updates right in your inbox so you don't miss out!

Why I Travel 13 Hours Alone with My Kids Every Chance I Get

Travelling with children, while definitely more of a mission, contradicts the old saying that “life is about the journey, not the destination.”

A Diverse Book for Preschoolers in Celebration of Multicultural Children's Book Day

A book that honestly and simply celebrates the every day diversity that children experience.

Why My African Feminist Mother Gave Me the Identity of My Father's Tribe

She gave me an identity so different from her own.

2 Children’s Books about Jamaica

Explore Jamaica with your child.

Costa Rica with Kids: Two Weeks of Family Travel

Two weeks of Pura Vida in a country with so much to offer families.

Should I Worry about My Child's Accent in Her Foreign Language?

See why Dr. Gupta takes offense to this question and where children learn accents from

How to raise trilingual kids when exposure to Dad's language is limited

My kids only get 1-2 hours of the minority language per day-help!

What Cultural Norms Around Bare Feet Taught This Mother in Guatemala

Her baby's bare feet ended up being a lesson on poverty and privilege.
[…] the breastfeeding culture in Mongolia compared to America. Did you have any idea that something as simple as breastfeeding attitudes can […...
From Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan
My mother born in the 1930's is originally from the northern part of Germany. I am in my mid fifties and have a terrible relationship with my mother. She is domineering and hurts those where it hurt...
From Are Germans Really Rude?
[…] JC Niala, InCultureParent […...
From Why African Babies Don’t Cry
[…] […...
From Breastfeeding Around the World
Although humanity is one Man (in a generic sense, including woman)has identified himself endless groups, religious, nationalistic, ethnic, cultural, linguistic, etc. Once you separate ME from YOU on...
From What’s an Asian? Race and Identity for a New Generation
[…] […...
From Breastfeeding in the Land of Genghis Khan
Some great tips here but not many working mothers could feed baby every hour especially if you work in a major multi-nationa...
From Why African Babies Don’t Cry
So true!!! Thanks for being so honest and self reflective. It's a proof of true characte...
From Are Germans Really Rude?
As a first-time mom I've spent the last two months of my four-month-old's life stressed out about her sleep and I recognize how crazy this is. It's clearly not working for me! I'm wondering how non-...
From The West’s Strange Relationship to Babies and Sleep

More Raising Bilingual Children