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Bilingual Parenting

5 Things NOT to say to your Bilingual Child  


What NOT to say to your Bilingual Child

Raising bilingual kids? Many of us as parents will be guilty of saying at least one of these to our children, whether it be because we are tired, frustrated or because we actually don’t think it can do any harm.

Raising bilingual children isn’t as easy as some think it is.

It’s work, it takes a lot of understanding, and sometimes a lot of patience, especially if you are the parent with the minority language. 

Anything we say can affect them in one way or another so it is important that we think twice before making certain comments.

Here are 5 things you should not say to a bilingual or multilingual child.

1. “You said that wrong”

We must be very careful when correcting our children, especially in front of other people.

Some children can be quite sensitive and if they feel embarrassed it can really damage their confidence. Children naturally love to please their parents so more than likely they are trying to say it correctly, however they may just be having a bit of difficulty.

An alternative would be to repeat and model the right way if your child has made an error.

If they have spoken in the alternative language, you can say something like “In English we say –xxx-“ and then move on. You may have to repeat yourself a few times but they will eventually catch on, there is no reason to force it.

Recommended Reading:
Why your child won’t speak your language and tips to encourage them

2. “Show them how can you talk in English”

It is tempting to show your child off when people ask to see how they speak “X” language, but asking them to show off to others just because they can, is not always a good idea.

For some children it can make them feel like they are different to the other children.

It is possible that some children may shy away and avoid speaking the language in front of anyone. For other children it can make them overconfident, they could start to think that they are better than others because they speak another language.

An alternative would be to say “Can you teach them how to speak some English” Or “Can you teach him/her how to say this in English”

Asking them to teach is giving them a feeling of responsibility instead of having to perform.

3. “I will give you a reward if you speak English”

By rewarding your child for speaking a certain language you are essentially bribing them. Sure, they may say what you want them to at the time. But it is only because they know they are getting something out of it. It won’t make them want to speak the language by choice.

Alternatively you could make speaking the language more fun and exciting for them.

Buy some new books, or organise some different games that they don’t usually play. Give them “special activities” that can only be done in the language so that they will feel more motivated to speak.

You would be surprised how much more kids learn when having fun, and how much more they will try.

Recommended Reading:
Tips to Boost the Minority Language

4. “Your brother/sister speaks better than you in English”

We must try our best not to compare our child to anyone else especially their sibling.

All children learn at their own pace, some children will pick up words quite quickly and others may need a little bit more time. No child should be made to feel that they are not good enough.

If you think that your child isn’t at the level that you think they should be, there are many things that you can do to give your child more exposure to the language.

Recommended Reading:
Language Development in Bilingual Children
Speech Delay in Bilingual Children
Easy ways to nurture your child’s language development

5. I won’t listen to you if you don’t speak English

Children can become frustrated when they cannot express themselves and they tend to use the language they know best to communicate. They shouldn’t be punished for this in any way.

We should never tell our children that we won’t listen to them if they don’t speak the language we want. There is the risk that the child won’t want to talk back at all. 

Children will test us to see our reaction and they need to know that we are there for them, and will always listen to them, no matter what.

An alternative could be just to remind your child that you speak X language each time and tell them that you will help them express what they want to say. You could then repeat it together.

It is never too late to change

It’s never too late to change the way we speak to our children. By making an effort and thinking before we speak, we can make a positive impact in the way they view languages, and in the way they learn.

“Doing is better than not doing, and if you do something badly, you’ll learn to do it better.”  — Twyla Tharp


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  1. Cheryl H.

    I share your views!

    I think I have never said those five things to my kids, hopefully, as I can remember…

    My question is, what can I do to help them when they are learning a language I don’t speak or I am also an elementary learner? How can I make them speak that target language? Or is it beneficial at all inviting them to speak that language to us???

    • Comment by post author

      Hi Cheryl,
      If your children are learning a language you will need to provide enough outside resources for them to practice and want to use that language. My children are learning Spanish, a language which I do not speak. I am trying to learn along with them however they are doing much better than me! They have a Spanish speaker come to play with them a few afternoons per week which gives them great exposure. When she isn’t here we take advantage of screen time and I put on Spanish cartoons. I am also building a library of Spanish books and I am looking into getting some audio books! One thing I do with my son also is to ask him to teach me a few words here and there, he loves it! Hope that gives you some ideas 🙂

      • Cheryl H.

        Hi Chontelle,

        Thanks for your positive response! My children are learning French, most of the time from me, as I couldn’t find many suitable resources for them, except the tonnes of French children’s books and the French nursery rhymes at home. I think you are really lucky to be able to find a Spanish-speaker to come to play with your kids all the time! I have tried to find some French speaking kids as playmates for my children, but in vain. Now after having found your website, since last week, I am trying to read more French books to my younger kid, hopefully everyday whenever I can see them before they go to bed. But as a working mother, it is not always the case. I have realised that we have been applying the ‘time and place language strategy’ but their exposure to French must have been way less than six to eight hours a week. Others at home do not have the capacity to talk to the children or read to them in French, while I am not totally fluent either, with a B2 level (at the lower side). I am hoping they can catch up later as long as they have developed interests in the language. Anything else I can try? I have a few French learning DVDs (Little Pim), but I don’t let my children watch TV usually.

        And for their fifth language, we are learning sign language together, but the major sign language time is only during the one-hour lesson once every two weeks on average. For that, I can’t help much, and there has not been a ‘time and place’ allocated for sign language at home, I would say, as thee are not many opportunities where we can practise the limited vocab and sentence structures we have already learnt.

        I am struggling hard to balance the time spent in each language and am worried that they can’t really acquire these two languages.

        We usually speak two of the three languages they already speak at home (English as one of them), and I have been busy correcting the rather bad mistakes my younger kid make copying them our domestic helper. I really, really feel the urge to help them learn and keep up with all the five languages they are exposed to, but I gradually find it harder and harder…
        Should I give up one of them or just leave it at its natural pace, even if it means they won’t acquire them in the near future?

        I am so confused and helpless. I am an English teacher, too, but sometimes I feel bad that I haven’t got more time to teach my kids English for various reasons.

        Is there any suggestion you can give me, please?

        Cheryl ^^

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