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5 Tips to Help Your Bilingual Child Speak More

A teacher, creator and certified TALK With Me Baby coach spreading her love for Spanish language and culture with families everywhere.

A child may refuse to use their target language for many reasons.

A child may refuse to use their target language for many reasons.

Why Is My Bilingual Child So Quiet?

The story of one mum who has been trying to teach her daughter Mandarin for a little over a year has picked up some unexpected roadblocks and complicated feelings. The mum shares: "My daughter is just not responding and sometimes when she does, it's the wrong language."

Fear not! This phase of the learning stage is quite common but can be resolved without force or frustration. Uncovering the reasons behind your bilingual child’s language rebellion helps you to become more self-aware and better-equipped at understanding your child. Let's dive in.

5 Reasons Why a Bilingual Child Won't Speak (and What You Can Do to Help)

1. There’s Little or No Need for Target Language Usage

The need to do something is one of the key motivating factors in getting anything done. As adults, we know for sure there's no way to get us to do anything we don't need to, so why should it be different for our children? Your child may be learning a language but sees no need to speak it. If, for example, nobody else at their school does. On the one hand, it may be a pragmatic approach with some reason behind it, but on the other, it may lead to losing skills in the minority language.

What to Do:

Some parents choose a radical tactic whereby they refuse to understand their children if they speak anything but the minority language. This may work, but it can also create negative connotations with the second language. A child may become proficient now, but could give up using the new language in the future.

Tip: Give your child reasons to speak the new language. Mundane tasks and chores can be turned into a musical journey, even if you only incorporate one word in the target language while you rhyme or make beats.


2. They Don’t Have the Habit

You, my darling, are a creature of habit. Have you ever found yourself taking shortcuts because it's more convenient? Be honest! I know I have. If you want your child to use their minority language more, you need to be a good role model yourself. Life does get hectic for real, even on a well-planned day. A five-minute coffee break can turn into an impromptu meeting then a frantic rush out the door to do grocery shopping before you realize it's time for afternoon pickups. Feeling exhausted yet? I bet.

What to Do:

Teach your child that, when starting new things, challenges will arise, but sticking it out is needed for building habits. Teach your child to think of language learning as a thing you do every day, like handwashing after bathroom use or tying shoelaces after getting dressed.

Create a bilingual reading routine or join a club.

Create a bilingual reading routine or join a club.

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3. They Lack the Vocabulary

Developing competency in a language and having the ability to utilize it requires a key component: vocabulary. Children learn new words mainly by hearing them in a meaningful context. You may be using the minority language at home but perhaps not exposing the child to enough new words to help them grow as speakers.

What to Do:

Expose your child to new words by reading and talking with them.

  • Practice reading the new language daily
  • Choose books with illustrations that appeal to your child
  • Introduce books with bilingual translations or clue words
  • Narrate daily activities in the target language
  • Teach them new words to use when they need to express themselves

4. Their Routine Lacks Consistency and Discipline

Consistency and discipline go a long way. When it comes to learning and practicing a second or third language with your little one, it is important to establish clear rules, routines, and structures. Inconsistency = confusion! Imagine daily changes to your job’s management, schedules being changed weekly, tasks being frequently reassigned. Doesn’t that make you feel anxious and confused? This is how children feel. Consistency is important to the brain, as it provides repetition that strengthens connections.

What to Do:

Tips for building language discipline:

  • Identify your child's language strengths and weakness
  • Write down one clear goal and share it with your child
  • Start small
  • When that goal is reached, find a new goal together.
  • Get help when necessary (join a club or language nest; use native family bonds)

Discipline and repetition are important: our brains need repetition to transfer information from short-term into long-term memory.

Let's think of language development as a sport like volleyball or tennis. Parents lay the foundation for their children's communication skills when they have "serve and return" interactions. This back-and-forth listening and responding creates room for high-quality conversations which affect vocabulary building.

5. The Child Just Doesn't Want to Speak

For one or more reasons, a child may simply refuse to communicate in the new language. Yes, it can come as shock or grave disappointment if you hear: “Mommy/Daddy, speak to me in [native language] only please.”

What to Do:

Despite this linguistic rebellion, it’s best to find out if there are any negative connotations or feelings of discomfort your child may have developed towards using their new language or if they're going through a silent period. If you discover a reason they don't want to speak, then you can take the necessary steps to address it.

Raising a Bilingual Child

Raising a bilingual child does come with challenges. No matter how complex those challenges become, don’t feel discouraged and give up. To build up a child's skills and give them empowerment on their journey, it’s recommended to create a routine and a learning-friendly environment and connect them with native speakers or other children on the same path. Tapping into your child’s interests is a great way to get them speaking more of the target language. Incorporating a consistent teaching method at home aids in creating structure on the journey to bilingualism.

© 2022 Sania Heath

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