Raising a Bilingual Child: 6 Ways to Keep Them Talking

autumn-72740_640Last week, we shared 6 Things You Need to Know about Raising a Bilingual Child. This week is about getting your child to stick with both languages. In most countries in the world, you can encounter more than one spoken language. But in most countries, there is a clear majority language. In the case of the US, that language is overwhelmingly English; English is the accepted channel in mass media, in government, in business, in school, in society, everywhere. It’s the norm. While English is NOT the official language of the US, contrary to popular belief, having a majority language serves a wide-scale need, and it’s something that gets taken for granted as a tool for building morale and patriotism.

Why do Kids Stop Speaking the Minority Language?
One downside to a majority language, is that parents who are raising bilingual are challenged to cultivate the minority language. I know too many parents whose kids suddenly realized that the minority language was not the norm and stopped speaking it entirely. It usually happens around preschool, or kindergarten at the latest. And there is a plethora of reasons for it:

  • Social factors. Children start to look to their peers for modeling and acceptance in preschool, and begin to navigate the rules of conformity. (One mother of a boy says her son has gotten into princesses, because his classmates are almost all girls. Majority rules at playtime, and it does with language, too.)
  • Simple logistics: There are no other Russian, or Mandarin, or Arabic speakers in preschool, so there aren’t opportunities to cultivate the language registers for socialization in those languages.
  • Academic language. If instruction happens in English (with the requisite library of English children’s books), children are inundated with new concepts and vocabulary and assimilate it so fast, the minority language hardly stands a fighting chance.
  • Stigma. An especially sensitive or reflective child will be keen to perceptions of the minority language, even as a wee one. Negative stigma, and the language is sure to go.

How do You Keep Them Talking?
So what is a well-meaning parent to do? How do you battle these, and many other factors that destine you for failure? How do you keep your kids on track with the minority language? Once again, I turn to Multilingual Parenting for some ideas.

  1. Habit. One of my college professors had a theory: If you adhere to one-parent, one-language, and the minority-language parent absolutely never deviates, the child will internalize that Dad Just Speaks German as part of her understanding of the world. The child is then totally cool with speaking German to Dad, because Dad Just Speaks German, and what else would she use to communicate with him? Even if Dad speaks English with Mom, children don’t pay very close attention to language that isn’t directed at them, so it’ll take a couple years before the child realizes that she can use English on Dad, and he’ll understand. This is the theory, and so far, I buy it. I’ve seen it work between my husband and his parents—as Mexican immigrants, his mom has learned a fair amount of English, his dad knows very little. My husband is able to have long strings of Spanish-only conversation with his dad with nary an English word, but English peppers conversation with his mom almost every other sentence. Hey, he can get away with it. If you’re raising a bilingual child, you might not want your child to get away with speaking English, so if Dad Just Speaks German, the child will Just Speak German, without any thought or whining.
  2. Need. Whoa, Nelly, this one is huge. Last week I mentioned that we’re looking for new friends. Here’s why: My children hear Spanish from two adults on a daily basis, and from two other adults by phone on a weekly basis. There aren’t any kids in that equation, and three of the four adults could manage English just fine. So how badly do my children need Spanish? Truthfully, hardly at all. Or at least, that’s the conclusion I imagine they’ll draw once they make English-speaking friends. If they need Spanish to have fun though, they’ll sing a different tune…
  3. Fun. Directly related to Need, above. If a kid needs Japanese to understand videos, or TV shows, or songs, or games, or riddles, or books, or to make friends, or any other thing that they deem fun, you can bet they’ll hone their language skills. This is when I strongly recommend looking for bilingual groups and programs of any kind, where your kids will be motivated by their simple kidness to hone the minority language. This is also when I say that, if screen time is high value in your home, as it is in mine, why not reserve it strictly for the minority language?
  4. Positivity. ‘Positive reinforcement’ is a tired parenting adage, right? Maybe not. If you want a child to engage in a particular behavior, they need to associate that behavior with gumdrops and rainbows and sparkly, magical feelings. That doesn’t mean being fake. But it does mean being encouraging in whatever way works for your kid. In some cases, calling attention to their use of the language may shut them down and make them self-conscious, which has the opposite effect. You know your kid best, so do what works, but avoid any smacking of negativity—pressure, perfection, threats, etc. If you explicitly ask your child to switch to the minority language, be aware of their emotional state or the content of their message, because a son who’s distressed about being picked last at recess is going to need emotional support, not linguistic cajoling, and that’s a bilingual battle that may be lost.
  5. Incentives. This is almost a sub-bullet to Positivity. The Multilingual Parenting post linked above suggests that incentives can be appropriate for keeping your kids talking. In addition to using bribes sparingly, I would add that incentives should be linked to clear, obtainable goals. If you’re going to ice cream, suggest your daughter can have two scoops if she uses only the minority language on the car ride there. If you want your child to practice the language prior to his grandparents’ visit, orchestrate a high-value reward with your in-laws in advance, so the child has a clear payoff for his practice, and is inundated with good feelings about the language and people who speak it when they arrive. Incentives should be used judiciously, but it’s plain reality that the minority language require just a little more love in some instances.
  6. Travel. This one is lower on my list because I place more value in day-to-day practice, but it has huge potential. Another professor of mine enrolled her daughter in school in Argentina for their two-week visit to see extended family. They were proud to see their daughter not only keep up, but flourish among native Spanish peers, and the challenges were more cultural than linguistic (“They stand up every time the teacher enters the room!”). Keeping language in the back of your mind as you plan family vacations could be incredibly constructive, while drawing on all of the above factors to keep your kids talking, even after the vacation is merely a memory.

How do you motivate your kids to use the minority language? What fixtures are in your life to guarantee its value to your kids?


Becky Shogren January 27, 2016

Is there a way to get a printable version of this article to share with my bi-lingual parents? I ALWAYS encourage them to keep their native language alive, but I see more and more kids losing it.


    Irina January 29, 2016

    Hi Becky,

    you can use the Print function of your (read any) browser.


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