Help! My Bilingual Child Won’t Speak My Language

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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?

6 COMMENTS

  1. 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?

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