Your child is learning two or more languages at the same time. However, getting an answer in the majority language is something that frustrates you from time to time, because you’re afraid they’re not learning to speak the less-spoken, minority language.

You try to encourage your child many times but they still answer in the “easier”, primary language. You’re patient and repeat the words in the language you want to be answered in over and over but sometimes you feel like you should change your strategy or be more strict, otherwise your child will not learn the minority language.

This is one of the most common obstacles we hear from multilingual parents. You make your greatest efforts to pass on one or more languages to your child, and even though they show that they understand what is being said to them, they answer in the community language, or the majority language of the community you live in.

How you manage this situation is a very personal choice, however, we have several tips on how to encourage your child to speak a minority language at home.

Majority language = Primary language = Community language = Language of the country you’re living in

Minority language = Secondary language = Language not spoken at the school = Spoken by only a few people in the child’s life

“My Child Won’t Speak MY Language!”

For bilingual children, the early development years are a common point of linguistic rebellion. At that time, the majority language starts to make its dominance felt from the time at elementary school and the social interaction outside of the home. So, the combined discovery of a more widely spoken language with cultural differences from what’s experienced at home may lead them to reject the minority language.

For parents, this can be very confusing and challenging. Keep reading for techniques on how to best handle when your child only wants to respond in the majority language.

Tips to Encourage Your Bilingual Child to Speak in the Minority Language

The following techniques are the most effective to correct language rebellion when raising bilingual kids.

Tip #1: Repeat in the Minority Language

Respond back in the minority language using a tone that aims to confirm what your child said. For example:

¿Quieres jugo de naranja, cierto? (You want orange juice, right?) or
¿Quieres tus juguetes ahora? (Do you want your toys now?)

You can use this approach when your child asks a question or requests mixing both languages. In this way, you will be providing the missing vocabulary by example, without making them feel corrected or interrupting the communicative act.

Do not make any comments on the mixing, and don’t say you “don’t understand”. What you want to do here is to use your kid’s request, and make it a teachable opportunity.

Additionally, even if the child only uses one word of the sentence in the minority language, help them fill in the other gaps. Or if they said the whole sentence in the minority language, but they couldn’t find one vocabulary word, help them find that word by asking them to describe what word they’re looking for.

This is more helpful than a direct translation. For example:

¿Quiero jugar con mi doll?
¿Quieres jugar con tu muñeca?

And later on, you can ask for the word. ¿Cómo se llama? and your child can respond, muñeca.

Tip #2: Incomprehension

Pretend that you don’t understand your child when they are speaking to you in the majority language. Do this playfully, not reproachfully, and use it with caution. When the approach involves humor and fun, you can have a successful outcome by re-engaging your child in the target language.

Avoid pretending incomprehension when your child has an immediate need, as this can make them feel ignored or confused, and affect their emotional development. Instead, use it in more relaxed contexts.

For example, if your child asks you to bring them a box of colored pencils. Incomprehension works better with little kids since older kids and teens won’t believe you.

Tip #3: Mommy Says This, Daddy Says That

Instead of competing with the majority language, use the words your child already knows in that language to teach them the equivalent translations in the minority language. It’s a lot easier to use the words they already know than rather than teaching them new words from scratch.

Tip #4: Discuss and Rephrase

If you have the time, discuss the topic of confusion with your child. Teach them different ways to express the same thing they said in the majority language in the minority language. Ask questions and make sentences incorporating the words that your child needs in order to form relevant phrases in the minority language.

Plus, you can identify the things that your child is more curious about regarding the language they’re learning.

Useful phrases to use along with this technique are:

“I hear you but let’s use…”
“Of course, you could also say…”
“How do we say that in…”
“How would you say that in…”

Tip #5: Stick to the Minority Language

Continue to communicate in the minority language, regardless of which language your child uses. If you are persistent enough, and do it without neglecting your child’s needs, at some point they’ll switch back to the minority language. The trick is to pretend that nothing happened, that having spoken in the majority language isn’t a big deal, but be confident in continuing to communicate with your child in the target language.

Tip #6: Interpret the Context, If That Doesn’t Work, Then Translate

If you identify that your child doesn’t know a word, try to describe the context of the word with the minority language. Do not translate it immediately, as this could lead your child to believe that it is not necessary to speak the minority language if you are always going to translate it for them.

So, only translate after explaining the context in the foreign language a couple of times.

Tip #7: Review Your Big Why with Your Children

If you notice that your kids are losing motivation, you can pick up the discussion with your kids about what you do at home in terms of language. Every multilingual family should nurture an ongoing discussion with their kids about who does what and why (and who does not and why…).

For instance: “Mommy only speaks Spanish at home because she’s proud of her Mexican heritage and wants to share it with you. You love grandma’s tamales, right? Well, she will tell you all of her kitchen secrets, but let’s try to talk to her in Spanish”.

Of course, the way you break down the Big Why of your bilingual family to your kids varies according to their age. However, this helps your kids to better understand the need of keeping multiple languages alive at home.

Sometimes, just by keeping an open dialogue about bilingualism and conveying its importance, kids will come back to using the languages they were rejecting.

Tip #8: Differentiate the Two Languages

When your child uses the majority language, don’t make them feel like they’re doing something wrong. Reassure your child, and explain to them that talking in the majority language is OK, but that you wish to hear them in the language you would like them to use.

For example: “That is perfect English, I would like to hear how you can say it in Spanish, which has a stronger R”. Exploit the occasion to remark on an interesting feature of the target language, and establish differences between the languages.

Tip #9: Don’t Feel Guilty

In the end, you are doing everything within your reach to give your kids high-quality consistent language input. You are doing your best. The way you feel about your parenting is something that shows. Hence, don’t let a few stones on the road discourage you from moving forward.

At the very least, your child would have a solid immersive foundation in a foreign language that later will be useful to them if they decide to deepen their knowledge and become fully fluent in it.

At best, your consistency and friendly approach will drive the comeback sooner than you think. Besides, if the outcome of what you do at home does not satisfy you, you can always get a language coach for your kids.

Bring the Magic Back

Boosting your children’s motivation to be bilingual is possible even in stagnation periods. Variety is fun and strikes the spark necessary to change the paradigms of learning. At TruFluency Kids Spanish, we know that only through speaking, will your kids truly internalize the nuances of their minority language.

Therefore, our conversational lessons are thought to stimulate your child’s fluency while reengaging them with the cultural and thrilling aspects of bilingualism. Our schedules are flexible and our groups are small and diverse. Join our next session and get 20% off your first month of classes.