Why Won't My Child Speak Our Home Language?

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

I had a speech therapist email me recently on behalf of a bilingual family she was working with. The family was frustrated because their child wouldn’t speak in the home language. They'd speak to him in Spanish, and the child would respond in English. The parents in turn began to ignore him if he didn’t use Spanish. This would either lead to a tantrum or to the child not asking for what he wanted or needed. So, lose-lose situation.

Have you experienced the language standoff in your home? You in one language corner and your child in the other?

As a bilingual speech therapist, parents come to me with this situation time and again. You might be speaking with your child in Spanish while living in the U.S. but you see that English always seems to take over.

Do you ask your child something in your home language only to have him respond in English?

And then do you start to think that maybe your home language is too hard? Or maybe he just likes English better?

Have you ever been discouraged from friends or family from raising your child to be bilingual? They’ve said things like.

Learning two languages confuses him or delays his language!

Well, don't listen because that is...

Parents struggle the most with getting their child to speak in the home language. You’ll ask your child something in Spanish and they respond in English. This is very normal in bilingual families. Sometimes children won’t speak the home language to exercise their control over what they do and don’t say, but most often, it’s because the majority language is what comes most easily to them. It’s not defiance-- it’s just what’s easy.

Knowing this, we can avoid power struggles. We want to use the home language to connect more with our child or to help our child connect with our family or other cultures. It’s all coming from a place of connection.

So, what do we do? Do we withhold what the child has asked for until the child 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 you jump to the tips, keep this in mind

Children Like to Be Efficient

Children, just like adults, like to do what comes easiest to them. They might have some words in the home language and other words in the majority language. For example, they might speak in the home language when it comes to talking about food, pets, and clothes and in the majority language when it comes to talking about toys and TV. If they can say apple in the majority language, they’re not going to worry about learning it in Spanish, manzana. Young children just don’t see the need to learn the same word in two languages especially if their family members understand both languages. It’s easy to feel frustrated if you see that your child resists learning to say apple in both Spanish and English, but this is a natural part of language development.

Quick tip: Keep modeling complete phrases in your home language. Even if your child says apple and cookie in English, you can keep saying things like, ¿Quieres la manzana? Aqui está la galleta. You don't need to say Quieres la apple. Keep modeling complete phrases in your home language.

Children Respond Better to Less Pressure...

Children often learn one or more languages while interacting with others, either in play or during their daily routines. If you learn a second language as an adult, you usually actively study the language rather than learn it slowly through experiences. Babies don’t study a language. They learn through exposure. But once children feel pressured to speak, they can shut down. We do the same. Just think of when you learned a foreign language and then had to give some answer on the spot like directions, or information, or do you not understand how a roundabout works? And then see how easy it is to articulate your thoughts. It isn’t.

So, TIP NUMBER ONE, use the home language around a favorite low-pressure activity:

Look at the toys that your toddler/preschooler enjoys playing with and start to set up play time with these toys knowing that you’ll be using your home language. During this play time, name the objects you’re playing with and describe what you’re doing with these objects. I’m driving into the castle. I’m climbing up the castle wall. Oh no, the horse is running away! Come back! Focus on narrating what you’re both doing- just like you hear announcers doing at a basketball game. Resist the urge to ask your child a million questions during this play time, otherwise you’ll get the SHUT DOWN. Your child will ignore you and you’ll be on the uninvited list to play time. You can playfully set up questions in your home language like, “Do you want to be the dog with the blue hat or the cat with the green boots.” And then let your child make a choice. If they respond back in the majority language, try again. Tell them the cat didn’t understand and repeat what you said in your home language. Having fun so your child wants to come back is the most important part of this whole scene.

If your child is older and isn’t into play, what crafts does she like? Can you do a baking activity with him? Or a fun science project? Prep your child by saying, “Hey, I found some cool science experiments we can do in Russian. We’re going to try to the whole thing in Russian! Should we try science experiment A or B?” What I’ve done there is set up the expectation around language but given them a choice in how they’ll engage in the activity.

If your child will let you read to her and then talk about the book after, even better! Also, movies and TV. For younger children, movies and TV are better used sparingly but as children get into elementary school, they’re easier to use!. Have a movie night. Set up the expectations that you’ll be talking the whole night in your home language. Everything from popping the popcorn together to choosing the movie in the home language will all be done in the target language. If your child slips back into the majority language, just emphasize the home language and get back on track. It isn’t a test night, it’s a fun night!

I hope this first tip was helpful. Share with me below what has worked for your family and what hasn’t! Do you sprinkle in any family traditions in your play time or movie nights?

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