By Corey Heller
Wondering why your children are not speaking your language? It is hard to say why one child will gladly speak a second (and third and fourth) language while another will resist it. Below are the top 10 most likely reasons why they are not. Do some of these resonate with your multilingual family’s situation?
Let the countdown begin…
10. Patience: Give it some time! You and your child both have to get used to this. Even if you are a native speaker of your child’s minority language, it can take a while to figure things out. And once you are completely on board, take the journey one step at a time. Don’t rush your child, it will only make things worse. Remember, you are raising a multilingual child, not trying to win a race!
9. Comfort: Do you or your child feel uncomfortable speaking the language? Make sure you don’t embarrass your child by asking her to speak the language out loud in front of others or to use the language in uncomfortable situations. Start in the comfort of your own home and go from there. Sometimes it is the parent who is uncomfortable using a minority language with his/her children, even if it is a native language. If this applies to you or your child, then talk about it as a family. Work out the areas which cause the most embarrassment or why it might feel uncomfortable.
8. Age: Our children go through phases in their lives. Their relationship with their minority language will be experienced along these same patterns. If your child is going through a phase where he wants desperately to fit in at school, then rejecting a minority language may be part of this process. Be gentle with your child and address language issues just as you would other changes in your child’s behavior. Try your best to find out how your child is feeling overall. If appropriate, talk with your child about how speaking the minority language feels to your child. Work on finding a compromise so that both you and your child can feel good about speaking your language.
7. Resources: Does your child have a good source of language resources? I’m not talking about language-learning text books (unless your child gets a kick out of them)! I’m talking about making sure your child has interesting books in only the minority language. A good supply of DVDs, video and computer games, board games, etc. all in the minority language can come in very handy as well. Without resources to keep their language stimulated, our multilingual children can easily get bored with what is available and will be more inclined to turn toward community language resources (which are so very plentiful!). Find out what interests your child the most and see if family can send over some specific materials – or perhaps you can order some online?
6. Not setting an example: What kind of example are you for your child? Are you using your language as much as possible or are you speaking the community language most of the time with your children (and not even realizing it!)? I can’t tell you the number of parents I talk with who insist that they speak their language with their children ALL the time. But when I visit these same parents, they spend the majority of the time speaking with their children in the community language without even realizing it! Believe me, it is very, very easy to fall into this pattern! You can solve this by (1) being very aware of when you are and are not speaking your language with your children and then (2) switching to your language each time you catch yourself speaking the community language. (3) Ask yourself why you tend to speak the community language with your children as much as you are. If you can find the sources for that question, then you are already one step further along the path toward solving it!
5. Teaching not Living: Raising a child in a minority language is about living the language, not teaching it as if it were another subject in school! You need to live the language and impart that love of the language to your children through your way of life, not via language-learning text books. This means speaking it as much as possible: while cooking, driving the car, picking up books at the library, going shopping. Make it part of every element of your every-day life. Make the language magical! Make it sparkle for your children by singing songs and doing dances from your culture, telling fairy tales you grew up with, and sharing stories about your childhood in your home country. Even if it isn’t your native language, you can find unique cultural and linguistic elements to bring into your lives. When your children are older, then you can pull out the grammar books. For now, make the language a part of your everyday life.
4. Enjoyment: Is using a minority language fun for your children or difficult and boring? Are you and your children enjoying using the minority language or has it become drudgery? Make sure you are finding ways to make using the language a joy: play games in the language, chat about fascinating to pics, visit friends and places where the language is spoken. Don’t let yourself get to the point of drilling the language into your children’s heads. That is the best way to make your children hate the language. Many parents in my seminars have told me how their children started using their language after they received a game that was only in the minority language. Not only did the game help encourage language use, it also brought the family together!
3. Consistency (not rigidity): Does your child know who speaks which language and when? Are you going back and forth, speaking different languages randomly? It isn’t the end of the world if you don’t have a perfectly consistent language pattern (and switching languages back and forth isn’t a crime) but a clear plan will make your language journey so much easier. Ultimately, your young child wants to please you and she can do this best if it is clear what is expected of her. If your child is confused or frustrated by not knowing what is expected, then it is very likely that she will simply stop speaking the language. But watch out! Don’t let your consistency plan turn into a rigidity plan! You need to make sure that your plan is serving you, not trapping you! You are allowed to change your plan whenever needed but if you do, make sure to meet as a family to decide on what the new plan will be. Then give the new plan some time to be fully implemented and assessed.
2. Need: Why should your child use his minority language? If your child can get everything he needs via the community language, then there is really no NEED to use the minority language. A need can come in the form of many different things: to play a game, to speak with others who only speak the minority language (family, travel to another country), to understand a book or DVD in the minority language, to get something that he wants. Some parents go as far as to refuse to answer their child unless the question is in the minority language. I never did this with my kids but for some families it works well. This is where you will have to be creative based on what resources you have available (Can you hire a nanny who only speaks the language? Can you travel to a country where the language is spoken?). Need can come in the form of that which is most familiar: a child often will speak the minority language with parents simply out of habit (it would feel too strange if they didn’t)! Remember that each child is different so a need for one child may be very different for another. Get creative!
1. Not Enough Exposure: Are your children exposed to their minority language regularly all week long? Would you say they are exposed to it around 30 percent of the time (on average)? 30 percent is not the magical number. It will not guarantee multilingualism in your child! There are too many factors that work together to count! However, we can use 30 percent as a general number to aim toward. 50 percent? 80 percent? Wonderful! The chances are so much better for bi/multilingualism with exposure like that!
NOTE: The idea of a minimum of 30 percent language exposure in the minority language came from a group of researchers who were doing studies on bilingual children. When deciding on what the minimum minority language exposure would be for the children in their study (in order to say that a child was living in a bilingual environment) the researchers decided on 30 percent. Does this mean that less than 30 percent is not enough? No way! But be aware that you might not see as much regular progress in you child’s language mastery as you would hope to see.
When it comes to the amount of language exposure, use your common sense with this. If the spouse who speaks your child’s minority language is working 40 hours a week, then it is going to be much more difficult for your children to receive enough exposure than if the native-speaking spouse is with the children all day. You may need to find additional ways that your child can receive language exposure to reach an average of 30 percent: a nanny, friends, family.
And remember, if your child receives less than 30 percent exposure, that is no reason to give up! Sometimes less exposure can have more of an impact than we know! Just allow yourself to adjust your expectations to match your family’s language journey and see where you can add more language exposure along the way. The gift of language is priceless, no matter how much language exposure your child receives!
These are just a few of the main obstacles to your child wanting to speak the minority language. There are so many more! Please share your ideas and tips on getting your children to speak their minority language! You are a wealth of valuable information, I can’t wait to hear!