Should You Correct Your Bilingual Child’s Language Mistakes?

by Corey · 20 comments

By Corey Heller

It’s late, I’m tired and I just want my little bilingual buggers to put on their PJ’s, brush their little teeth and get some Z’s.  I don’t want to mess around with begging and pleading and explaining why 10:00 is so very much later than 9:00 and that just because they don’t have to be anywhere the next day (the glories of homeschooling) doesn’t mean that they can stay up all night.

I’d like to say that I calmly walk into the living room, kneel down to their eye-level, touch them gently on the shoulder and encourage them to put on their pajamas, brush their teeth and hop into bed.

But I don’t.

Instead I yell it from the kitchen (in German, of course), with an annoyed tone.  I have that authoritative, “I’m the boss” tone.  You know the one I mean?  The one that says, “I make the rules here, you need to follow them and I’m not in the mood for negotiations.”

All would have gone according to plan had it not been for one little snag: my native-speaking German husband, who heard me yelling across the house, took the opportunity to correct my incorrectly spoken German sentence.  Arghhh.

Let me just say that my husband is wonderful.  Over the years I have encouraged him to correct my German and he has done so continually with kindness and gentleness.  He has helped me maintain my German and, in many respects, improve it.  I am so very appreciative for all of his effort and encouragement.

However, that having been said…

When I am in a grumpy mood, when I am tired and cranky, when I am trying to get a specific point across, then I don’t take my husband’s German language lessons with the same eagerness as when I am sitting in the back yard on a sunny day sipping an iced tea.

What does this have to do with raising bilingual children?

Just as we adults can respond both positively and negatively to our loved ones correcting our language mistakes, our children will also respond differently based on their particular mood.  If our child returns from school and rushes in to tell us an exciting story about how a zoo keeper brought a real, live snake to his class, and instead of letting our child finish the story we interrupt him every step of the way to correct his grammar or vocabulary or pronunciation, our child may bit-by-bit stop telling us stories.  He may even start to feel uncomfortable and annoyed when talking to us.  Our children want to know that they matter more than a language, any language, no matter what.

Does this mean that we should never correct our children’s language mistakes?

No way!  We should definitely correct our children’s language mistakes but we should do it in a way that feels natural and blends in well with our everyday conversations.  We need to get a good feel for the conversation we are in with our child and then add our corrections seamlessly.  This isn’t always easy to do and it has more to do with our patience and self-control than anything else.  And sometimes we need to just skip correcting our child’s mistakes all together and leave it for a later discussion.  Validating our children as human beings is far more important than perfect grammar.  We sometimes forget that we have language to communicate and connect, not just as a skill to be mastered.

Here are some tips for correcting our children’s language mistakes without pain and suffering:

1. Repeat the sentence correctly
While your child is telling you what she has to say, you can nod and repeat her sentences but with the correct sentence structure/vocabulary/verb tense, etc.  You are not interrupting.  In fact, you are validating what she said and showing that you are listening by repeating parts of what she said.  And she, in return, is hearing it corrected.  This is definitely the way I recommend most to parents.  In fact, sometimes our children will surprise us by willingly repeating our corrected sentences back to us before continuing on with their story.

2. Facial expression and body language are key
It is important that when you do the correcting that you pay attention to your body language and facial expressions.  Your child is picking up far more about how you really feel about the mistake than what you actually say.  Is your face relaxed when you correct your child’s language or does it have a look of annoyance or disappointment?  Is your body turned toward your child and showing that you are engaged in the conversation or are you turned away?  If you show that you are fully present to your child as she is telling you what she has to say, then your correction will be more readily accepted and heard.

3. Discuss the language mistake later
If your child does make a language mistake over and over again, feel free to discuss it but don’t do it right when she is making the mistake.  Start by discussing the mistake separately from when your child has used it in a sentence.  Maybe you can bring it up at the dinner table: “Emma, I notice that you often say things like this ___ when actually we say it like this ____ .”  That way the mistake is pointed out but it doesn’t interrupt the flow of her sharing information with you.

4. Have fun comparing languages
Often our children are making mistakes because they are mixing grammar or words between languages.  Remember that language mixing is not necessarily a bad thing!  In fact, researchers believe that it can indicate a higher level of language mastery – but we’ll save that for another post.  The point here is that our children are bilingual and thus they are using the language tools which they have on hand to make themselves understood.  Have fun talking with them about the different ways things are said between the languages.  Discuss which language structures come from one language but are being used in the other language.

These are only a few ways that you can help correct your child’s language mistakes.  Of course there are more formal ways such as practicing declensions or verb tenses.  Just make sure that you are keeping the living part in your bilingual family life.  It is very easy to fall back into the language learning pattern where we feel that we need to train our children in our languages rather than simply be the example that we’d like them to emulate.

If you find that your children are picking up language mistakes from you, don’t worry!  Just work on your own language skills and it is very likely that your children will start picking up the corrections.  And if not, then follow the points above to help them out a bit.  Don’t hesitate to let your children know about your own language mistakes.  Our children delight in the fact that we too can make mistakes, both in language and in general!

Do you have additional tips on how to help correct your children’s language mistakes?  How do your children respond to the different ways that you correct their language mistakes?  Are you a non-native speaker whose children pick up incorrect language patterns from you?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 15, 14 and 12, in German and English.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Cathy May 28, 2010 at 9:08 am

If I were raising my child monlingually, I would also correct his grammar. It is normal for kids to make mistakes until they are maybe 5-6. My nieces and nephew speak Tagalog exclusively and I notice that they don’t conjugate their verbs yet. I think that as multilingual parents, we are more sensitive towards this topic, moreso when we’re talking in a non-native language. I also feel annoyed when my German is corrected in a very public and humiliating way.

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2 Corey May 28, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Cathy, you are so right! It is funny how typical parenting items become so highlighted when we have multilingual children. Seems we question everything more, doesn’t it?

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3 Rea May 28, 2010 at 1:42 pm

I agree, it’s about time and place. I remember that as a second language learner I was not receptive to correction in public, during emotional discussions, or when I just didn’t feel like it. I hope I can remember that when the tables are turned.

http://notsospanish.wordpress.com/

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4 Corey June 5, 2010 at 12:24 am

So true, Rea! Time and place are so important. I always try to relate to my kids based on how I’d feel in their situation. That really puts things back into perspective! Hah!

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5 Thien-Kim May 28, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Great tips! I have to stop myself when my daughter makes mistakes. I’m happy to have her speak Vietnamese!

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6 Corey May 28, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Thien-Kim, I’m glad the article gave you some food for thought! I’m sure you’ll come up with a constructive approach to correcting your daughter’s mistakes. It seems that as soon as we notice such things, we do it even better than before. Thanks for your comment!

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7 kim April 16, 2011 at 11:25 am

Hello…I’m a girl and my Vietnamese name is Thiên Kim…I was wondering if you can give me a translation of what it means? Thank you.

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8 Maria H May 28, 2010 at 9:43 pm

Since I taught preschool through second grade to monolingual English speakers and Spanish speakers (at different times) I got to see firsthand that all children make grammar mistakes as they are growing up and learning how things work. I think as parents of bilingual/multilingual children its our first assumption that its a result of more than one language, but I suspect its more just part of language learning. In that regard I try to do the same thing I did for my monolingual students which was, as Corey says in number one, model the correct way to say it. If I really notice something we might talk about it, but for the most part I try not to stress. Language is a complex system with not only grammar but context clues and social cues to figure out and I try to remind myself it all takes time. Mistakes are part of the process, for us all!

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9 Corey May 29, 2010 at 3:50 pm

It is always nice to have your feedback, Maria. Being that you have been in the classroom, you have yet another insight into the world of multilingualism! Thank you for sharing!

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10 smashedpea May 29, 2010 at 5:11 pm

I’m trying to be careful with corrections as well, although my almost 5 year old sometimes is quite interested in finding out whether she’s getting it right.

What puzzles me is that I don’t really know which mistakes are age-appropriate (and hence would be made by a monolingual child of similar age) and which are related to it being the minority language and my kids just not having enough overall exposure to it.

If I knew, I’d focus on what’s caused by lack of exposure and leave the rest alone.

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11 Corey June 4, 2010 at 11:53 pm

I know what you mean. I too wonder which are just normal mistakes for my children’s age and which I should be paying more attention to. Especially when someone else acts surprised that my kids said something wrong in the majority language. But then again, maybe they are being overly attentive too, trying to see mistakes in the majority language to “show” that bilingualism isn’t good for kids?

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12 Eliana Elias June 1, 2010 at 10:04 am

I loved this article. Drawing a parallel between an adult learner situation and a comparable situation going on for a bilingual child is helpful because it makes us feel more empathic towards children. I raise my children bilingually (I am a native Portuguese speaker) and I often think about ways to improve and refine my children’s language without openly correcting them. Here are some strategies that have worked for us (in addition to the ones mentioned in Corey’s article)-
1- Note the mistake and SAVE it. Use that example in a different context, so it can be discussed naturally.
2- Note the patterns in the mistake and design a fun activity around that pattern (for instance, my kids were using English syntax to ask questions in Portuguese, placing the preposition in the end of the question, rather than in the beginning. So they would say “Que é isso pra?” (WHAT IS THIS FOR?) instead of the correct form in Portuguese (Pra que é isso?) _ Which in English would be strange… (WHAT FOR IS THIS?). So we designed a game… a guessing game, to practice the correct form and to laugh a little. In that context, I brought up the difference, and I discussed the fact that they were being super smart to transfer the syntax from one language to the next, but that sometimes this did not work. I gave them examples of the mistakes I usually make in English, and we all had a great time talking about this…
3- Let some things go. Sometimes, mistakes are not really mistakes. They are just an unusual way of speaking.
4- Watch how you model language, and use full rich sentences even in the most casual conversations.
5- Talk to family members, so they do not over correct the children and make them feel self conscious. It is normal for relatives to find our bilingual children “cute” when they make mistakes, but laughing at their mistakes can inhibit them. In Brazil, people are often charmed by the way my children speak, but my closest relatives know how to engage the children without attracting too much attention to their mistakes.
6- Having said that, I also think that children have to be resilient, and ready to accept that being bilingual or multilingual often comes with some challenges, and that mistakes are OK. Being multilingual myself gives me a chance to model curiosity about languages. It also gives me the chance to discuss “mistakes” as opportunities and as comical relief from the challenges of learning to communicate effectively.

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13 Corey June 4, 2010 at 11:54 pm

Eliana, this is a FABULOUS list!!! Thank you! I am going to implement many of the items that you suggested! Wow!

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14 Barbara June 2, 2010 at 5:06 pm

I also think, that we are often over-critical as bilingual parents especially about mistakes our children make in the minority language. And when you talk to your friends and relatives in your home country you realize that their children do the same mistakes and it’s just age-appropriate. I usually take the “repeat the sentence correctly”-approach. Sometimes I find it more strange, that I don’t even know what words they use or mistakes they make in English, because we only speak German at home.

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15 Corey June 4, 2010 at 11:57 pm

So true, Barbara! We are so overly focused in part because we just don’t have anything with which to compare it. I also notice that when we go back to Germany for a visit, many people seem to really notice whenever our kids make mistakes in German. It kind of annoys me because I figure we are doing a pretty darn good job with what we’ve got to work with. But on the other hand, they are just noticing the mistakes and are reacting normally to it.

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16 Kimberly de Berzunza July 7, 2010 at 10:32 pm

I also have that weird feeling about not knowing what mistakes my children make in English (or my spouse, for that matter) since we only speak Spanish at home. Until we’re out, and then I don’t want to correct them publically.

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17 Study ESL in Cebu October 27, 2010 at 2:58 am

kids will always be kids. Learn to accept that fact first, and you will realize that parenting is not that hard after all. You need to accept that it is part of being a kid to make mistakes and to misbehave. It is only normal for kids to have mistakes but we must see to it that we dont miss the opportunity to correct them. kids are fast learners so we must not waste our time on teaching them the right things..

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18 Jo November 24, 2010 at 2:37 pm

Thanks for these tips, very useful. I was already repeating the sentence correctly a lot, I’ll start paying attention to the non-verbal cues too.

One thing that I have found useful was some information I came across (fairly randomly) on the internet about standard stages of language learning for monolingual English speakers. Then when my son started adding -ed as a past participle ending to all verbs, including irregular ones like “broken-ed”, I wasn’t worried. On the contrary, I was delighted that his language awareness had progressed to equating “-ed” with a past tense!

I’d like to add a comment to Eliana’s contribution: lots of children’s games are very repetitive and therefore use the same grammatical/lexical constructions, so it might not always be necessary to invent games to give them the practice. When I was teaching English as a foreign language I would sometimes use games to drill grammar points. For small children some books and poems work well due to the repetition (do you know “The bear hunt”, or “Little Rajani”?), so they naturally do the same thing.

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19 Jo November 25, 2010 at 5:39 am

Thanks for these tips, very useful. I was already repeating the sentence correctly a lot, I’ll start paying attention to the non-verbal cues too.

One thing that I have found useful was some information I came across (don’t remember where) about standard stages of language learning for monolingual English speakers. Then when my son started adding -ed as a past participle ending to all verbs, including irregular ones like “broken-ed”, I wasn’t worried. On the contrary, I was delighted that his language awareness had progressed to equating “-ed” with a past tense!

I’d like to add a comment to Eliana’s contribution: lots of children’s games are very repetitive and therefore use the same grammatical/lexical constructions, so it might not always be necessary to invent games to give them the practice. When I was teaching English as a foreign language I would sometimes use games to drill grammar points. For small children some books and poems work well due to the repetition (do you know “The bear hunt”, or “Little Rajani”?), so they naturally do the same thing. You just have to find the ones that cover the mistake you want to correct!

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20 Dorcas June 21, 2014 at 3:39 am

I live in East Africa where learning grammatically correct English is a privilege. Unless one can afford an expensive education, it is unlikely that one’s child will speak correctly. I recently learnt that my 7-year old daughter cannot effectively communicate in English because we use Swahili all the time. She reverses sentence structures, uses awkward phrases and sometimes mixes up words with similar meanings; for instance, she will say “You will fall the ball” instead of “You will drop the ball” or “jacket of yellow” instead of “yellow jacket” . My solution to this has been to speak to her exclusively in English and to constantly correct her; however, i noticed that she resents the corrections and has been talking less. Perhaps i simply need to model correct language patterns and leave the rest to her.

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