My child won’t speak my language
Are you frustrated thinking “Why won’t my child speak my language? Don’t worry you aren’t alone. Raising bilingual kids isn’t easy.
If you are raising a bilingual or multilingual child, you will know that it comes with many challenges. 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.
What to 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 worked for us when my kids were younger.
We used the OPOL method from birth. I spoke with our kids in English and my husband spoke with them in Italian. As we lived in Italy when they were younger, the community language was Italian, therefore the language they get the most exposure to.
For both children when they were younger, Italian was 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?”
When the kids starting to talk, it was mostly in Italian. What I did was this.
If he pointed to the ball and said “palla”, I simply asked, “In English?” and pause.
Sometimes he would say “ball!” and in that case I said “Yes, it’s a ball”. But if he didn’t answer because he didn’t know the English word, or couldn’t remember, I would say it for him, “In English, ball”.
You can do the same in whichever language you speak
Repeat but don’t force it.
You can follow the same method.
Wait until the next time it happens and repeat the same process. It may take a few times to get it, but with us eventually when I would pause, he would say the word.
There are going to also be times when they will argue.
My son would sometimes look at me and say “No, palla”, and no matter what I said at that point, he wouldn’t want to listen, in his mind that is the word he knows to be right.
In this case I would just leave it until the next time he uses the word and repeat the process.
Kids will often mixe languages when speaking until they get it.
For example when learning new words from me in English that he didn’t know in Italian, he would respond to his Papà using the English words. My husband used the same technique and would ask “In Italiano?” and repeat the same process.
Repetition and Consistency
The main things are repetition, and consistency, using the same technique every time.
Kids will expect it if you are consistent.
Sure there will be times when they won’t and we need to be patient as all children learn at a different pace.
My kids are now 8 and 10 and speak both languages fluently.
We followed the same technique with both children when they were learning to speak, and also when they were learning Spanish. It really helped them to distinguish languages.
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 found by using the actual names of the languages I was able to teach my children about other languages, and the countries they are spoken in.
Are you frustrated that your child doesn’t speak your language? Do you use this technique and has it worked for you? If you use another technique what do you do?
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We also use OPOL method.
We live in Ukraine, I am Ukrainian – but I speak with my son in English. My husband is Ukrainian too, but he speaks with our son only in Russian.
And as for Ukrainian language – we left it for society and grannies ?
And we do exactly as it is said in the article. We just wait and give him a time to accept a new word in another language.
When my two older kids were younger they only ever spoke Finnish to me, and I answered in Swedish. I wouldn’t pretend I didn’t understand what they were saying, nor would I demand them to answer in Swedish. That’s because I know they would be going to Swedish-speaking children´s clubs and eventually to Swedish school, and I knew that once faced with kids that are not bilingual, they’d start speaking Swedish, and they did. Me and my husband are both also bilingual, and apparently my husband only spoke Finnish too before entering (Swedish) school, while I would switch between languages from an early age. Our youngest daughter kind of switches if she doesn’t get her message through in one language, but mainly she speaks Finnish. I’ve got a theory about this: I only speak the dialect spoken in the area we live in, which differs quite a bit from the Swedish they hear on TV, plus that when I’m reading to them I obviously use standard Swedish.. So Finnish, which sounds basically the same whether it’s my husband speaking or if they hear it on television is just easier to figure out..
I live in Sweden but my mother tongue is Greek and I’ve spok n almost exclusively in Greek with my soon 3-year-old son since the moment he was born. Basically I do what the article says too and since I’m a teacher I am quite strict with it reading more and buying his fav shows dubbed in Greek etc. But unfortunately my son is super talkative in Swedish but not Greek. He understands EVERYTHING I say but replies in Swedish. And I’m getting really anxious that he might never be fluent because Greek is a very complex and difficult to learn language,especially when you’re only exposed to it through one parent in an environment where everyone speaks another language. Unfortunately my husband doesn’t speak Greek either so I speak Swedish with him and my son hears that I’m fluent in that language so he doesn’t bother with Greek… I really hope that one day he will be fluent in my language too because as an immigrant it’s basically the only thing I have from back home, from my culture and it’s really important to me so I don’t want to give it up!
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.
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???
Chontelle Bonfiglio - Bilingualkidspot
The main way to help encourage your son to speak back in Arabic is to create the need for him to speak it. If he knows that you understand and speak Korean, he may not think that he needs to speak Arabic to communicate with you. Consistency is very important with the minority langauge.
Take a look at this article with many tips to create the need. I hope it helps. https://bilingualkidspot.com/2016/09/16/create-a-need-minority-language/
Thank you so much
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)
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.
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) 😉
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.
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?
Thanks for sharing your technuque. Actually I do the same thing with my daughter and it works.
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!