When my Child Responds in English

A speech therapist working with a bilingual family recently reached out to ask what advice to give the family on how to support the goals they have for their bilingual child’s language development. Often their child is asking for or responding to questions in English rather than in the home language. The parents want to know how to respond to this, with the goal in mind being that child becomes bilingual.

This is a question I get from parents and a question I’ve asked myself at times too. What do we do when a child responds in the majority language  rather than responding in the home language? Parents who are trying to teach their child Spanish while living in the U.S. may become frustrated as they see the majority language taking over their child’s vocabulary. Do we withhold what the child has asked for until she speaks in the home language? Do we pretend not to understand? Do we throw our hands up and no longer make any demands because sooner or later, we’re going to get worn out by what seems like an uphill battle to teach the home language? Before responding to this, there are a few things that I should clarify about the process of dual language learning (when you learn two languages at the same time). This takes undue pressure (and more importantly blame) off of yourself and your child.

Children Like to Be Efficient

Children don’t always have the same words in their expressive vocabulary in both languages (Nicoladis, E., & Genesee, F. (1997a). For example, they will learn and use words in certain situations, say, learning to talk about home routines such as clothes, cleaning, and bedtime in the home language but may have learn the names of some favorite  foods in English while at preschool. They may realize that learning the word “apple” will get them that apple whether they’re in the their Chinese speaking home or at their English speaking preschool.  If they are able to get away with knowing that word in only one language, then that is what they will do. Just like adults, children are all about efficiency and won’t necessarily learn the meaning of a word in both languages.  So, don’t feel frustrated if you see that your child resists learning to say apple in both Chinese and English. This is a natural part of language development.

Children Respond Better to Less Pressure

Children usually feel less pressure when learning two languages than adults who are learning two languages would because the demands are less. However, if we do place a lot of pressure on a child to learn and respond in the home language, this can increase what’s called an affective filter which basically means that there’s more stress or anxiety around language learning.  The natural learning process for children is more carefree when learning short phrases such as, “Big car!” “Go park!” Or, “I want ball.”  As adults, if we are asked for directions  or have to explain what we do for a living in another language we are just learning, we are much more likely to feel overwhelmed at formulating all of these thoughts, will break out into a sweat, and will probably resort to gestures or mimes. Thinking of such complex language for an adult is a challenge– and let’s not even mention the acrobatics our articulators (jaw, lips, tongue, mouth) have to go through to get the pronunciation even somewhat on target. Remember though that for a child who only has a few words, if we put a lot of pressure on what he is supposed to respond and how quickly he is supposed to respond, we can raise the anxiety around language use. So, start small and easy with children. Think of what motivates them to talk rather than having a lot of expectations of what will make them talk.

We Respond Better to Less Pressure

Although we want to encourage learning from a very early age, we can take some pressure off of ourselves by knowing that even if a child seems to favor the majority language more than the primary language, as long as they continue to have opportunities throughout their lives to learn and use the language, they can learn at later ages. I recently heard a speech-language therapist on a podcast who spoke about some of the worries she began to experience when her then preschool-age son, who was being exposed to  Spanish-English speaking was using a lot more English than Spanish. She persisted though in using Spanish in the home. When he was around five, they went to visit her family in Central America. She was amazed to see the amount of Spanish he was using to communicate with the extended family. She hadn’t even realized he’d retained so much. In addition,  there was a study done in 1978 by Snow & Hoefnagel-Hohl that assessed English speakers who were learning Dutch in Holland. They tested learners of different ages (preschool to adulthood) every four to five months. And the results after one year? They found that the age group that learned at the fastest rate on a variety of different language measures (vocabulary, grammar, syntax) were the adolescents! Children of all ages are capable of picking up a second language although consistent exposure at an earlier age will ensure not only clearer pronunciation but also more time to use, practice, and build upon their language.  Parents don’t have to feel desperate that if the child isn’t speaking quite as much in the home language as they would hope from a very early age that they have missed the boat. Being persistent and consistent will help though in ensuring your child has the best chance at becoming bilingual.

How to Encourage Use of the Home Language

I will give some basic guidelines according to what research and observation has demonstrated. Just remember that the personality of your child will also determine how well he may respond to some of these suggestions.

Keep it Playful

By this, I mean, let’s try to make  using the home language meaningful, enjoyable and practical. We won’t get too far by pretending we don’t understand the child who speaks to us  in English rather than French when the child knows quite well that we do actually understand every word he is saying. But, we may get a response if we playfully pretend we don’t understand. For instance, if you withhold an item, say when your child is requesting an orange. You don’t immediately get the orange for him as you’re hoping he’ll ask for it in French rather than English.   If he politely requested the orange and you say, “tell me in French and then I’ll give it to you,”  he may become a little resentful about being asked to make this same request again in French. Or he may not. A lot depends on his personality, but if you see that he’s becoming frustrated, rather than let him feel irritated that he’s being asked to speak in French, try to create an interaction that is more playful.  If you can bring yourself to act silly, using a funny voice, (this is a hit especially with the two to four year old crowd), saying something in your home language, such as, “I can’t hear you?  I only understand French right now” or, “Did you just ask for an orange or for a pet elephant?”  The key though is that it needs to be done in a lighthearted way. If your child insists on continuing to request this item in English, then repeat what your child has requested but in your home language, saying, “Oh, you would like an orange.”  This type of modeling has been recommended by studies on dual language learners going through the Head Start as well as recommendations on Colorin Colorado. I love their website and they have great recommendations for families and therapists in English and Spanish.  Your child may often switch back and forth between the home language and English, and this is a natural part of dual language development for young children. The recommendations are to repeat back to your child what he has said, in a complete sentence in the home language. If your child says, “Quiero cookie” you can repeat back, “Quiero una galleta.” This way you are modeling how the complete sentence would be spoken. One quick note: make sure you are speaking in sentences that your child can understand. You can keep them short and grammatically correct.

T.V., Music, and Superheroes

I am not a big fan of promoting electronics for learning, especially for little ones, because it is very passive learning, and in a study by Kuhl (2004) on early language acquisition there has been no benefit in language growth when a toddler to preschool age child is given electronics such as the TV, videos on YouTube, etc. especially if the child was left alone to watch the content without interaction from anyone else. Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers learn language from interaction with people.  That being said, if you use T.V., music, and superheroes in a strategic way, you can stir your child’s interest in the primary language and cultural interests that are part of the language. There’s a cartoon you can find on YouTube that is in Russian called Masha and the Bear. Many of the Spanish speaking children I see love this cartoon. But it’s in Russian!  And they watch it in Russian. So, if we can get non-Russian speaking children interested in this cartoon, there may be a chance of finding a fun children’s show in your home language that can get her interest. The trick is to not leave your child in front of the I-phone watching the show, but to watch it together, pausing and commenting frequently on what you’re seeing. Your child might protest at first. I usually see if you start slowly and make the interaction fun, such as having some toys where you act out what you’ve just seen, or sing along one of the songs together, that your child might respond well. Also, and this is a personal opinion, showing that the home language is spoken outside of your home might help a child who is resisting learning the home language because of the pressure to assimilate and learn the majority language. If you find you can’t keep the TV watching interactive, then it may be best to leave the electronics aside for now.

Go Beyond Your Household

Your child can benefit tremendously from opportunities outside your home to hear and practice your home language. If you can find opportunities, such as Story Time at the library, attending church services in your native language, or finding a bilingual preschool program, even if it’s just a few hours, a few times a week. In one study of children attending a bilingual preschool, the children showed language gains in their home language and the majority language. They did not lose the first language but they continued to develop their language skills in both languages (Winsler et al, 1999).  If your child sees that there are more places and opportunities to use the language, they may be motivated to persist at learning.

Language learning is a bit of a math equation. Children need input in the language (hear the language) and output in the language (speaking the language) in order to be bilingual. And the magic ingredient is motivation. If you can find what motivates your child to learn the language, whether it’s his love of children’s songs in Spanish or being able to talk with the aunts and uncles on Skype every week, then you’ll have a greater chance that he’ll be bilingual for life. If you would like more reading material, I highly recommend the book, The Bilingual Edge by Drs. Kendall King, and Alison Mackey.

For any of you that have had success with your child becoming bilingual in a country with only one majority language, please leave your comments, suggestions, or observations below. Thank you!

4 thoughts on “When my Child Responds in English

  1. Rebecca says:

    This article is an excellent resource for my families with dual language learners. They had seen and heard other families lament over the fact that their children no longer wanted to speak the home language, and they wanted to do what they could to prevent that from happening . Not only did this article give nice resources and advice for this purpose, it also reiterated and reinforced excellent overall strategies to enhance language learning! Ironically, I was the replacement therapist for this family, as the initial therapist was following a drill and pressure to speak philosophy. The family has begun singing more songs in their home language, attending story time in their home language, responding in grammatically correct sentences in their home language, and also allowing the kids to watch Netflix shows if they are in their home language. They felt re-energized in their quest to maintain their home language after reading your article. Thank you!

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  2. Vija Rogozina says:

    Spot on! I absolutely agree with ‘no pressure’ approach and the importance of creating opportunities for speaking and hearing the language. Bringing up a multilingual child requires dedication and creativity on parents behalf. And certainly the best opportunity for the language exposure in my experience is spending time with the extended family. I’ve been surprised how much of passive language knowledge comes out and becomes activated when necessary for communication. As you said, children like to be efficient. And they love to be entertained! So keep it strategic: Masha and the Bear (Маша и Медведь), Смешарики, Russian old movies, TV series with a plot, books – there’s so much but certainly make sure the child is enjoying it! Some things that I loved as a kid are not going to work for my son and it’s OK.
    Now as Maxim is 12 and he’s learning his fourth language at school (Spanish) he is aware of his linguistic advantage he has in comparison to other kids. 🙂
    Thank you for the great article Becky!

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  3. Rita A Puig says:

    Raising bilingual children is no easy task, but it is extremely rewarding! This past year, I took my two boys to Mexico and Nicaragua. The best part of both trips for me was seeing my boys successfully communicate and interact with the locals! There are a few things that I believe have helped me be successful in this endeavor, and I’m happy to share them here:

    1. Consistency – I have spoken to my children exclusively in Spanish since they were in the womb. They already know, when they speak to mamá, they must speak in Spanish. It’s never too late to start this. Kids are resilient and get used to things fast.

    2. Literacy – We read books daily and with mamá, they are always in Spanish. If they have a favorite book that is in English, I simply translate it as I read it to them.

    3. Extended Family – Grandma and auntie live with us, and both speak to the boys exclusively in Spanish. Exposure to extended family that speak to the children in the home language is the key. They don’t have to live with you.

    4. Education – My son is attending a school that has a bilingual program all the way to 5th grade. This reinforces the language by adding the reading/writing in the home language. If a public/private school option is not available to you, search for other creative/fun ways to incorporate the reading/writing.

    5. Community – The search for Spanish language groups, playdates, storytimes, etc. is never ending. The constant exposure to the language outside of the home not only allows opportunities for practice, but also increases the importance of the language. Even if subconsciously, this will increase the child’s desire to communicate in the language. Especially as they get older.

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    • Becky Green says:

      Rita, thank you so much for your response. It’s so motivating to hear that you’ve succeeded in raising your children to speak Spanish and English knowing the benefit it has for them and for your extended family who wants to communicate with your children. These ideas are very useful. Yes, they take some time and planning but I love to know that your efforts are paying off! These are all great ideas for bilingual families who have children with or without language delays.

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