Sunday, August 20, 2006

What do you do when your child only wants to speak English?

Parents raising bilingual children frequently have the same complaint. "I try to speak my native language with my children but they only respond in English." Why does this happen and how can it be avoided? Usually, children stop using their home language because they don't need it or are ashamed of it. In order to keep them using their home language they have to have a reason to speak it and they have to feel comfortable doing so. From my experience, there are several of things parents can do to encourage their children to use their home language.

Only use your native language with your child. Some parents will speak their native language with their children but will switch to English when in public situations or around English speaking friends and family. This is a very tricky situation for parents. You want to speak to your children in their home language, but you don't want to appear rude or insensitive to others. My husband, who is the strictest of the two with regards to language use, will never speak in English to our children and will not respond to them if they do not use Spanish. Needless to say none of the children would even think of speaking to him in English even though they know he is fluent. However, in an effort to not appear disrespectful, he will usually tell others, "I hope you will excuse me but I only speak to my children in Spanish. I want them to be bilingual." This is usually met with exclamations of how great it is to be bilingual. Just because you are with other people doesn't mean you need to change languages. Doing so will show your child that it is inappropriate to use their home language with others or in public and will make them feel uncomfortable to speak it.

The more you respond to your children when they use English, the more English they will use. Make it clear that they need to use their home language when speaking with you. This can be by simply not responding when they speak to you in English. This is difficult but very effective. Of course, this is almost impossible with much older children who usually have set language patterns that are hard to change. Once you have established your relationship with your children in one language it is very difficult to switch later on. Be sure to start young and be consistent

Parents also frequently switch to English when they think their child is not understanding something that is important. This is an interesting phenomenon but should be avoided. If a parent switches to English to discuss more complicated topics or to check for understanding, their child won't develop the ability to discuss complicated topics in their home language. Usually, the child is understanding perfectly well but isn't getting the chance to work through their thought process in that language because English is brought in.

It is possible to keep your child speaking their home language with you but it requires effort. The most important thing is to not give up. Bilingual children have many advantages and you can give your child that gift.

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