“But she won’t speak *my* language…”

Unfortunately, most bilingual families go through this crisis at some point; despite best efforts to provide good and consistent input, despite the ability to use the language if necessary… most bilingual kids, at some point, figure out which language gets them the most effect for the least effort, and choose to use that language, all the time. I’ve worked with parents who have tried bribery, threats, enticements, and the old stand by “I don’t understand you.”. The bottom line is, once your child figures out that you *do* speak, or at least understand, the majority (or other) language, it’s very, very hard to get them to make the effort to use the less popular language. So, what’s a parent to do?
Here are my suggestions:

Firstly, don’t try to pretend that you don’t understand. It usually doesn’t work (either they don’t believe you or they don’t care…), and it can cause bad feeling between the parent and child. In the moment that your child is trying to communicate with you, it’s important to support that, even if it isn’t in the *right* language. In this case, what you can do (although not, obviously, all the time) is recast – restate the phrase, in your language, and continue the conversation. This gives them input in your language, but doesn’t interrupt the communicative act.

Secondly, work very hard to find or create “monolingual situations”, where the child needs to use the language to be understood, and preferably to play with other children. The reality of play dates is that as parents we often spend time with people simply because we have our kids in common – even if you wouldn’t normally seek out your language community to socialize with, it’s worth it if it helps your child have the motivation to communicate in your language.

Thirdly, continue the discussion with your kids about why you do what you do in terms of language. Every bilingual family should have an on-going discussion about who does what and why (and who does not and why…). It helps your kids better understand the languages in their family and their world, and have a better understanding of why they need their different languages. Each person has the right to make their own language decisions, and so you have the right to continue to use your language of choice, just as they have the right to use the language of their choice. Sometimes, just by keeping an open dialogue and transmitting the message of importance, kids will come back to using both or all their languages (in their own time, of course…).

And finally, don’t feel guilty. If you are doing all you can do to give your kids good quality, consistent input in your language, you are doing your best. At the very least, they will have a solid foundation in the language when one day they decide it would actually be useful to speak that other language… and at best, your consistency and communication will help the come back to your language sooner rather than later.

7 thoughts on ““But she won’t speak *my* language…”

  1. tacodelenguas says:

    Great advice, thanks for sharing. This is the kind of help I was looking for in books on bilingualism. Most books, despite being titled something like ‘step by step guide for parents’ etc don’t really give much practical advice. My son is only 8 months old so I have all this to come yet!

  2. expatsincebirth says:

    Thank you for pointing this out. I experienced this with my son when he was 2.5 years old. I kept on talking Italian to him but unfortunately we didn’t find italian friends with children of his age. The problem then became more complex when his sisters started to talk (but I talked about that in a few posts on my blog). I think parents have to be prepared that this period can last for many years. We have friends whom’s children don’t respond in their language since 10 years. They just don’t want to, but understand everything and would talk it with peers.

  3. Manuela Damant says:

    This is exactly was is starting to happen in our house. The Swiss German is slowly but surely extinguished by the English and the Dutch. Time for some Swiss playmates!! 🙂

  4. LivingBilingual says:

    Great post! I like it. I’m already dreading the day my child decides he doesn’t want to speak Spanish anymore. Luckily, his grandparents will be around and they honestly don’t understand! So… he won’t have much of a choice with them.

  5. livingbilingualblog says:

    I like this post a lot. I’m already dreading the day my child exclaims he doesn’t want to speak the minority language. However, luckily for us, he will have his grandparents around who actually don’t understand any other language… so he will not have a lot of options with them.

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