Why Your Child Won’t Speak Your Language

☝️ You should read this if you want your children to speak your native language and you live in a place and with a partner of a different majority language

Living in an area of London where there are plenty of multicultural families, and having children of nursery and school age, I see how families succeed and fail to different degrees in achieving multilingualism.

In this article I introduce 7 common patterns I’ve seen when things start going south. They are presented as quotes I’ve heard from peers over time.

I’ll use a prototypical family of an English-speaking country with a English-speaking father and a mother who is not a native English speaker. They have one son.


1. “I can’t find any children’s books in my language”

It’s inevitable that most of the children’s books available in the shops and received as gifts are in English. You may end up with handwritten translations in the books or becoming a decent real-time interpreter if you choose to translate as you read.

Nevertheless, in order to pass on your language, it is massively beneficial to get hold of children’s books, talking toys and DVDs in your language. This will not only help with the language acquisition but your home will be imbued with your culture as well.

Keep some valuable luggage space available to fill with books when you visit your country. Or have your relatives bring them for you. Online bookstores can also be a solution. In my case I’ve found that Amazon.es and Ozon.ru are pretty good at delivering books to the UK.

Make sure your bedtime story time is in your language.


2. “My partner feels left out if I use my language with the baby!”

This is something I keep hearing around and it annoys me. Mum talks to baby in her language. But as soon as Daddy is around, she switches to English, even when addressing the baby directly!

The saddest thing about this is that, most of the times, the English-speaking parent is okay with your language being spoken in the house, let alone when you’re addressing your child directly. It’s the fear of creating awkward situations that drives this.

4 years is more than enough to learn to speak a foreign language like a 4-year-old

In any case, if you are committed to bilingualism, your partner needs to get used to you speaking to your child in your language. And you have to get used to people around you not understanding what you say to your child. (this is a great power, but a dangerous one too)

The best solution would be for your partner to grasp some knowledge of your language, at least at a lower-intermediate level, so that this fears go away, particularly during the years where the language is imprinted in the grey matter.

Besides, four years are more than enough to learn to speak in any language like a 4-year-old.

(If your partner is not OK with you using your language in his presence with the baby… then you need to take a step back, sit down and draft a “language strategy” you both agree on. This document should outline what objectives, expectations and commitments you as a family will take about your multi-linguistic reality. I’ll cover it in a separate article)


3. “It was just too confusing/overwhelming for my child”

I’ve heard this excuse a couple of times, particularly when the child goes through a period of mixing languages or even what looks like a mild speech impediment or stuttering in English. Many parents decide to shut down one of the languages at this point.

It’s important to keep calm and not to freak out. For most languages it can take up to the age of 7 to learn to produce all the phonemes without this delay requiring speech therapy.

Bilingual children are generally late talkers. While they are par with other babies in starting to utter isolated words, they usually take longer to start constructing more complex sentences. In the case of languages with complex grammatical structures (multiple verbal tenses and aspects, case declensions, etc), it is absolutely normal for them to make mistakes, as monolingual children do.

Apart from that, bilingual children can take a bit longer to pick the right word. When they get stuck they are usually trying to remember the word in your language. This is a good thing; they’re trying not to mix. Just give them some time and try not to guess or complete their sentences.

Fluent speech is more important than grammatical correctness and perfect pronunciation. Don’t over-correct, everything will come in due time. If you really feel the need to correct your child (as I do often), focus on just one single feature or mistake at a time. Otherwise you’ll find yourself interrupting every single sentence.


4. “I used to get bad looks when we spoke in front of other people”

This happens in two ways:

  1. With strangers in public places. Just don’t care about this.
  2. With friends and family.

The first times it can look a bit awkward when you address the child in your language in front of other people you’re having a conversation in English with. It can be things as trivial as “Say ‘thank you’ to aunt Mary” or just shifting your attention to the child for a moment to say something quickly before you return to your conversation with another adult.

Some people will just smile in and wait politely, others might frown, some will ask you straight: “what did you say to her?”. Just act naturally.

This can be specially with your in-laws and other extended family because it will happen *all the time*. The sooner they get used to it, the better. I can’t stress this enough, even if you’re child is a few weeks old, if you say something to him or her, although at that stage is purely a monologue, do it in your language. This will probably be the first point of contact for your in-laws with your language and it will be your opportunity for you and your partner to explain that you plan for the child to be bilingual and you will use the “one person, one language” strategy.

You really need the support of your partner in this. It will set a great example when he behaves naturally when you use your language when other people are present.


5. “There’s nothing I could do. He would just reply in English”

This is related to #2. By using a different language depending on who else is around, you have set a dangerous precedent. Your children will *know* that you’re capable of using English with them and they will naturally pick whatever is easier for them. Gradually their English will get stronger and it’s where they have the richest vocabulary. It becomes an effort for them to use your minority language.

As far as I know — we are not there yet — , there are stages in which the child is more prone to answer back in English. I have been told by other people with older children that, if you persevere and continue with the plan, this goes away around the age of 8. This can also be due to peer pressure, particularly if it happens when his friends are present, such as school drop-off, pick-up or playdates.

One solution is to play dumb. My eldest son thought for years that my English is just not good enough and in fact he speaks better than me (which he will do eventually). This filled him with pride because of being better than a grown-up at something, while at the same time it gave him no choice but to use Spanish with me.

Be firm and help them if they use an English word in the middle of the sentence. This is just highlighting vocabulary gaps that you can help them fill. My son often interrupts what he’s saying to ask me “how to say X in Spanish”.

Again, don’t be too pushy or too perfectionist. If you try to correct every grammar mistake they make, they can lose the train of thought and get frustrated.


6. “They’ll pick it up when we go on holiday to my country”

When I’m on a flight to Spain, it makes me sad to see Spanish mums who use Spanish in 50% of the sentences to their children, and their children reply back in Spanish just 5–10% of the words. I’m sorry to be defeatist but this is a red flag for me.

Intensive courses and linguistic immersion for a short period of time can be OK to acquire a second language later on in life. However for a native language acquisition in context of minority language, you need regularity, routine and anchors, that is, regular activities where the minority language is used and particular people with whom the child is used to using the language.

Unfortunately I’ve heard of cases where the child is sent with the grand-parents on his own to the country of origin for a few of weeks and he finds the situation too overwhelming. Unable to communicate properly, it becomes frustrating for the grand-parents and the child. Depending on the child’s age and other factors, it can even create an aversion to the minority language. In one case in particular that I was told about, this 5-year-old girl would burst in tears when spoken to in the minority language.


7. “If they speak the language with me, that’s enough”

Following up from the previous point, we’ve found it essential for our children to have native speaking friends or to go to language clubs. This provides a regular time with a defined group of people where only the minority language is used. If the club is run properly, and providing that all children have a decent command of the language, it will seem natural for the children not to use English. You can then leverage these friendships to do playdates or go on excursions or trips.

As I mentioned in another article, cartoons (used wisely) can be a good vector to carry your language and culture into your children’s heads. You can play the same episode in both languages to help fill vocabulary gaps.


Conclusion

Raising multilingual children requires a lot of work and commitment. When done properly it will usually have an effect on what extra-curricular activities the children do, with whom the children spend time, what friends they meet up more often, and what TV they watch.

Everyone in the household must be on board. This includes the parents, but also other people who spend a lot of time with the children: carers, extended family, etc. Being on board means at least being supportive of the idea and creating an environment without awkwardness where the child feels confident and reassured.