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My Child Won’t Speak my Language, One Simple Technique that Works for us

my child won't speak my language - One technique that works for us

My child won’t speak my language

If you are raising a bilingual or multilingual child, no doubt you have been in the situation where your little one answers you in another language.  It can be frustrating, I know, I have been there!

What you need to remember is that children will use any vocabulary they know to communicate so if it means using another language to get their point across they will do so. If you are speaking the majority language then you may not experience it so much, but if you are speaking the minority language, it may be a common occurrence.

So what do you do when your child won’t speak your language?

If you haven’t already, read my article: Why your child won’t speak your language and tips do to encourage them. This will give you ideas on how you can prevent possible issues in the future. Now I will share with you the simple technique that works for us.

My little ones are now four and two and we use the OPOL method. From birth I have spoken with them in English and my husband has spoken with them in Italian. As we live in Italy, the community language is Italian, therefore the language they get the most exposure to.

For both children, Italian has always been the stronger language and when they were starting to speak, both responded to me in Italian quite a lot. It was quite frustrating because I remember thinking What if my kids never speak English? What if they never become fluent in my own mother tongue?”

My youngest, is now starting to talk a lot but mostly in Italian.

If he points to the ball for example and says “palla”, I simply ask, “In English?” and pause.

Sometimes he will say “ball!” and in that case I say “Yes, it’s a ball”. But if he doesn’t answer because he doesn’t know the English word, or doesn’t remember, I then say it for him, “In English, ball”.

I try to encourage him to repeat it, but I don’t force him if he doesn’t.

I wait until the next time and repeat the same process. It takes a few times for him to get it, but eventually when I make the pause, he will say the word.

There are times when my son will argue with me and say “No, palla”, and no matter what I say at that point, he won’t want to listen, in his mind that is the word he knows to be right. I just leave it until the next time he uses the word and repeat the process.

For some words he will repeat them right away, and from then on he will say the word in English. However there are some words and especially longer phrases where he takes a little more time.

He often even mixes languages when speaking with me until he gets it.

When learning new words from me in English that he doesn’t know in Italian, he responds to his Papà using the English words. My husband uses the same technique and asks “In Italiano?” and repeats the same process.

The main things are repetition, and consistency, using the same technique every time.

So far he is doing quite well, he will usually repeat the English words right away now as he us used to the process and expects it. There are times when he won’t and we need to be patient as all children learn at a different pace.

My four year old on the other hand is now fluent in both languages. We followed the same technique when he was learning to speak, and now also that he is learning Spanish. It has really helped him to distinguish languages.

Now when he doesn’t know a word he will ask “Mummy, what is “xxx” in English?”

There are variations that other parents use, eg. “Mummy says “x”, Daddy says “y”. For young children this can be a simpler way for them to understand, however I have found by eventually using the actual names of the languages I have been able to teach my children about other languages, and the countries they are spoken in.

Do you use this technique and has it worked for you?
If you use another technique what do you do?

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11 Comments

  1. Jewel Eliese

    Thank you for this post. It is easy to get frustrated when your child doesn’t speak the language you hope they will, especially when you know they can. My son wants to only speak English, making his father a bit disappointed. I know my son will eventually speak Ukrainian, though.

    I never knew the method we use to teach him two languages had a name. Neat!

    Thanks,
    ~MomWhoWrites

  2. Maria

    Thanks for sharing your technuque. Actually I do the same thing with my daughter and it works.

  3. Yvonne Tse

    I used another technique – pretend I didn’t understand the other languages. When my boy just started speaking, English was dominant, he said: “want want” (pointing at juice on table) Me (in Chinese): “shenme? Guozhi a? Shuo yao” (What? Juice? Say want). He: “yao yao” (want want) 😉

    • Bilingualkidspot

      That’s great! I also used that technique a lot when teaching young children in other countries (because actually I hardly could understand them)
      With my own children though, they know I speak Italian and know I can understand them, so for me that wouldn’t work.

    • Cheryl H.

      Yes, I also pretend that I only speak English when I am at work (in school teaching English), but the kids are very funny that some young kids would consistently trying to talk to me in their mother tongue (which is usually my mother tongue or my third language), perceiving that I should understand what they were saying. I just kept inviting them to say it in English, please’ but that only works sometimes.

      We are facing a big challenge when the ‘target language’ of the child (no matter the student or my own kid) is only at a very elementary level, so the child could hardly express herself in that language. It happens to some of my students in English and to my children in French. So they chose to keep trying to make me understand in an alternative language that they are familiar with, or simply shut up because they couldn’t find the words they need in that language.
      I know both parties are getting frustrated at that point, but I don’t know what else I can do.

      Do you any suggestion there when I experience such situations again, please?

  4. Amy

    It’s funny, I almost never used the words “English” or “Italian” with my kids. When something like this happens to us, for example my 3 year old says “voglio succo”, I’ll say, “what do you want? You want ….” (and there’s that pause you’re talking about!). By starting my phrase in English, something seems to click in her head and when that pause comes, she fills in the blank with English.

    The other “trick” we use is a “prompt” of the first letter or sound of the word. Sometimes that’s enough to trigger the word that I *know* she knows 🙂

    FWIW, I’ve also noticed my older daughter always replying to someone in the language that they speak to her in. I don’t know if she knows she’s doing it, and I have a hunch it’s a similar thing going on: when they hear a language (even if they don’t explicitly recognize: I’m speaking in English), they have a tendency to continue with it.

    Enjoy the journey!
    (from a mom with two little bilinguals: ML= Italian. ml= English)

    • Bilingualkidspot

      Hi Amy,
      Nice to hear from another mum raising bilingual kids in English and Italian 🙂
      I am happy that your children are doing so well. I really only had to use the terms “English” or “Italian” while they were younger. Now my youngest is two, I don’t really have to say anything, I just make a weird look and he will laugh at me and immediately repeat in English. It is amazing how they catch on so quickly isn’t it?
      We have added a third language now, Spanish, so the term “In Spanish” still gets used a little bit as they are not as fluent.
      The “prompt” you mentioned is a great idea, sometimes it can be on the tip of their tongue but they need a little clue 🙂
      Good luck with your little ones, I would love an update at some point.
      Chontelle

  5. Yaser

    First of all thanks for sharing this great information. My son is 4 his mom is korean and I’m an Arab we live in korea at home me and my wife communicate in English, my wife speaks Korean to our son and I speak Arabic to him. Our son is fluent in Korean and understands Arabic I would say 70% but he would always reply in Korean I think because he knows that I understand Korean, please help. I want my son to speak my language arabic not just understand it. Any tips???

  6. Thank you so much for sharing, as a bilingual teacher in the US, my students’ parents often complain that their child refuses to speak the second language at home. I think this technique will aid in the process.

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