Why Your Bilingual Child Objects When You Switch Languages

Anyone who interacts for some time with a young bilingual child will notice the strong bond that exists between a person and a language. In the eyes of the child a person is tagged with a particular language, and if that person addresses the child in the other language, it may cause some distress. We saw this with Danny, when his mother, who usually spoke to him in English, asked him a question in German. Another example concerns Juliette, a two-and-a-half-year-old French-English bilingual, who was playing with Marc, a five-year-old English-speaking boy. Their usual language of communication was English but to please and surprise her, Marc decided to speak to her in French. He asked his mother for the equivalent of “come” in French and then returned to Juliette and said, “Viens, viens.” Much to his surprise, Juliette was far from pleased; instead of smiling, she said angrily, “Don’t do that, Marc,” and repeated this several times.


A number of observers have reported that children often pretend not to understand what parents or grown-ups tell them when they speak in the wrong language. Volterra and Taeschner mention two instances when Lisa, an Italian-German bilingual girl, reacted strongly to the violation of the person-language rule. In the first, an Italian friend started to talk to her in German, even though the usual language of interaction was Italian. Lisa became upset and started to cry. Her mother tried to calm her down and told her that the friend also spoke German, but this only made the situation worse, and Lisa slapped her mother. In the second instance, Lisa’s father, who usually spoke to her in Italian, used a short German sentence. Lisa reacted immediately and said, “No, non puoi.” (No, you can’t.)


The father replied that he too could speak German, but this caused Lisa to be even more upset, and to repeat with more emphasis. “No, tu non puoi!”(No, you cannot!)


And Fantini reports that his Spanish-English bilingual children, Mario and Carla, are “guardians of the appropriate language use” and often remind their parents to speak Spanish when they are speaking English to one another.


Volterra and Taeschner propose that reactions of this type may result from the fact that the child is in the process of differentiating the two languages. One strategy used by the child is to determine which language is spoken with whom and to keep to that language. This makes the choice of words and rules simpler and reduces the effort needed. When the person-language bond is broken, the child is at a loss and becomes upset. This phenomenon continues well beyond the language differentiation stage, and even some seven or eight year olds are not prepared to break the link.


As a consequence of the person-language bond, bilingual children are often ready to correct and help out the adult. For example, when Juliette’s mother code-switches into English, Juliette will translate the switch into French, thus reestablishing the normal language pattern. Only when her mother really fails to understand something that Juliette is telling her in French will she agree to use English, but she switches back to French as soon as possible. Redlinger and Park give another example: Henrik, a French-German bilingual child, showed a reluctance to speak French in the presence of the investigator, whom he considered to be a monolingual German speaker. He would thus translate into German his mother’s comments made in French and then proceed to respond to his mother in German—all for the sake of the investigator.


Extract from François Grosjean‘s Life with Two Languages. Reprinted with permission from the author.


  1. My eldest one (now 7) used to ask me directly: ‘Daddy, why are you using Polish, not English?’ every time I used ‘the wrong’ language. I would explain to her that there are situations, with third party speakers involved, when it would be just rude to speak English, as they might not understand it. After a couple of such situations she stopped asking, though there is always this frown on her little face…

  2. Is this common in older kids? I have that problem, too, and I’m well into my teens. It’s not like I scream or kick people, but when I’m supposed to speak “the wrong language” with people, it seems like there is something in my head telling me not to…

  3. I was raised bilingually, by parents who spoke both languages. Now, I’m raising my own kid (different country, tho), and wonder what the issues are for bilingual parents – who code switch easily, and speak both languages w/o accent and fluidly. Do kids of those parents react like the kids in this article? How do kids of bilingual parents interpret / process primary language (where there is none).

  4. We used to live in France. As I’m bilingual (French – English), I figured that it would be best that I talk English to my kids aged 7, 5 and 2. So, I spoke English with them ever since their birth, I.e., 7 years. It has been tough for me especially as we all lived in a fully French environment. At home, I speak French with my husband, but always always English to the kids.
    Now, we have moved since one month to the US and the kids get English from their environment. My 2 year old is starting to make full English sentences. I’m worried that she forgets French and I have tried switching to French with the kids after explaining how important it is to keep up French. I even ‘bribed’ them with a present if they let me. After the first day, it feels downright weird even more for my husband and me than for the kids. My kids seem upset and seem to feel that I am no longer the same person anymore. I’m scared of psychological consequences and wonder whether it would be best to stop. My kids still get French through their father, a French after-school program and they also speak French with each other including with me. Thanks in advance for your advice. I am feeling very confused and almost upset by this change.


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