When I first begun this journey of raising bilingual children, I thought I had it all figured out. I figured it would be extremely easy to have my children speak multiple languages! I just couldn’t understand why parents who spoke multiple languages had children who didn’t speak those same language. Must be laziness, right? Boy, I just didn’t know how hard this journey would be!
If you’ve read any of my blog posts before, then you know I am a mother of 3 girls (YAS! 3! My poor husband) and we speak English and Spanish at home. The baby is just 1 and she responds and emulates words in both English and Spanish. My oldest daughter, who is now 5 and a half, is quite fluent in both languages and is considered to be bilingual. She was an early talker and has always had a lot to say in both English and Spanish! My second child just turned 4 and she is most definitely my wild card. She has been quite difficult in every sort of way, yet she somehow has the entire family charmed! She is also the one who absolutely refuses to “talk in spañol.”
We all know that raising multilingual children is hard work. It takes a lot of concentrated effort. You have to create a parallel world in which your child has a need to speak a language other than the community language. Some communities are more amenable to this; living in Florida means that making sure my children speak Spanish is a lot easier than living in say, the Midwest. But I honestly never expected for my biggest battle to come from my own child’s unwillingness to participate in our bilingual journey!
My story, however, doesn’t seem to be a unique story. There are several people I have heard from who have experienced this situation with their children or were even themselves like this as a child! (check out this blog post to read about one such story). I have read about many more such situations in some of the groups and people I encounter on social media.
So, with my experiences and the experiences of other in mind, I have made a list of tips and tricks that I have used successfully to help me daughter want to speak ESPAÑOL!
Acknowledge the dislike and try to get to the bottom of it.
I think it’s always important to acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings. They need to know from an early age that they do have a voice and they need to learn how to properly express it. Therefore, finding out why your child doesn’t want to speak the language is extremely important. Only after you get to the bottom of it, can you help resolve those feelings.
In the case of my daughter, she’s resistant to speaking the target language (Spanish) simply because it’s hard. She must put in effort, and who wouldn’t rather do something easy? But I am trying to teach her to be persistent, so we talk about how even though it’s hard, we can’t just give up on something that is so important. And I let her know that I am going to help her, that it’s ok to make mistakes, and that as she continues to work on her Spanish she will have more success with it.
Keep using the target language
Even when she hates it, I continue to use Spanish. I must admit that it’s hard for me, because when I am surrounded by so much English, it’s just natural for English to flow. So, I make a concerted effort to use Spanish. And I can honestly say that she understands everything I say to her!
Help your child say what he or she wants to say
Understanding language is the first step (receptive language) but it takes a little bit more to actually use language (productive language). Which is why I often help her say what she needs to say. I will ask her to tell me in Spanish, and she may come up with a couple of the words, but not the whole sentence. So, I simply model the sentence for her and have her repeat it.
I let her know it’s ok to make mistakes and that if she needs help, she can ask me for it. I try not to correct her by telling her that she did something wrong, that will make her shut down. Instead, I model the correct way to say it and she will usually repeat it.
Use media and games to your advantage
Children have access to so much information, media, technology and games. I try to limit how much they use and try to get them to vary the ways in which they spend their time. But I am ok with them using media moderately and responsibly and I always try to use their love of it to my advantage!
I always put their cartoons on in Spanish (Yay Netflix!) and have a couple of apps they use as well. And of course, they have been faithful testers for Spanish Safari. After all, I have been writing it with them in mind!
I think it’s important for them to have other sources of authentic language and having the shows and games that they enjoy let them know that Spanish is fun and that there is a whole world out there of people who use the language.
Music is an amazing way to share not only a language, but a culture. We are a music-loving family and listen to a lot of music in Spanish. Everything from pop, to rancheras, vallenato, joropo, salsa and more. Their lives are filled with music and dance and they are unknowingly being educated. My little rebel may not like to “talk in spañol,” but she sure likes to sing in it!
Look for peers and social groups
This may not be easy depending on your target language and where you may be located in the world, but finding groups and friends where the target language is spoken is huge! Knowing that it’s not just mommy or daddy that speak a language can encourage children to attempt a language for social reasons. It’s a positive form of peer pressure and we should take advantage of it when we can.
If you have read my blogs before, then I may sound like a broken record to you. But there really is nothing better you can do for your child than to spend time reading together! And of course, reading in the target language is tantamount to success! It introduces hundreds of new vocabulary words, helps you actively model grammar, and gets you spending time together while using the target language.
When I am consistent about using the tips above, my little rebel becomes much more enthusiastic about using Spanish. She puts more effort and has fun when experiencing these activities. If I slip a little, however, we go back to not wanting to speak in Spanish. Just like with anything else, we have to get back on the horse, so to speak. But the consistency really is key when raising multilingual children, especially with the more reluctant Speakers.
This battle is by no means over for me! So, I would love to hear from you. What tips do you have for helping your child speak the target language? Please let us know in the comments!
About the Author
Keli Garcia Allen is a certified Spanish teacher and currently works as a Preschool teacher in a bilingual classroom. She is the Head of Content for Learn Safari and is currently working on Spanish Safari, a Spanish Learning game for children 4-10 years old. You can follow her and the rest of the team on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.