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What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language

March 29, 2013

Bilingual MonkeyLet me begin this important post with a little story…

Not long ago I bumped into another American father in town, cradling his newborn daughter. His other two children, of elementary school age, were playing nearby. As we talked about our children, and naturally touched on our efforts to support the development of their minority language—English for us—it became apparent that he was feeling some frustration over the fact that his older kids seem to understand his English, for the most part, but typically respond only in Japanese.

I’ve lived in Japan since 1996 and I’ve seen this situation over and over and over again: despite the parent’s high hopes, the child won’t speak the minority language.

Lately, too, I’ve received email from a number of parents—located in a range of countries—who have expressed concern over this same dilemma. So, clearly, this is a common and widespread challenge for parents raising bilingual kids. The question is:

Why does this happen, and what can be done to address it when it occurs?

Two key areas

Recently, I wrote a post entitled Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child. If you haven’t seen it yet, I urge you to read it and share it with others who are just beginning the bilingual journey. That article, I hope, can help spare some parents the frustration felt by many when it comes to the development of the child’s minority language ability.

The basic point of that post is this:

If you want your children to use both languages actively when they start to speak, you must hit the ground running, right from birth, and do all that you can—day in and day out—to ensure that they form an organic need to use the minority language and receive sufficient exposure to that language.

When a child starts speaking, yet comes to rely mainly on the majority language to communicate, her reluctance to use the minority language can generally be traced to shortcomings in these two key areas—need and exposure—during the first few years of life. This period, when the young child’s brain is building the foundation for future communication, is a vital time for firmly supporting the minority language.

The necessity of need

If the growing child discovers that the minority-language speaking parent also has ability in the majority language, her need to use the minority language will naturally diminish. And if there is little need to use the minority language outside the home, either (such as attending a minority language school), chances are the child won’t be as moved to communicate in that language as the parent desires. (Though, as always, every family situation is different and I think the odds are better when the minority-language parent is the main caregiver.)

In my case, before I had kids, I would watch how other native-English parents interacted with their children and I realized that, all things being equal, the more those parents used Japanese around their kids, the less need the children felt to use English. In essence, each time the parent used Japanese, they were sending this unspoken message: “I can speak the majority language, too, so you don’t really need to use the minority language to communicate with me.”

This is why, once my children were born—and bear in mind that I’m not the main caregiver—I was determined to speak as little Japanese as possible when they were within earshot, especially as babies and toddlers. It’s true, my own Japanese ability has suffered, but it was far more important for me to convey the idea that I could only speak the minority language. In this way, they would form a real need to communicate with me in English.

It’s odd, but even now, when I do speak a bit more Japanese around them—especially when we have guests or we’re out in the community—they still think that “Daddy can’t speak Japanese.” This is how deeply conditioned they’ve become. In their minds, “Daddy speaks English and that’s the language I have to use with him.”

If your children have already come to realize that they needn’t use the minority language with you—and that using their stronger, majority language is “easier” for them—altering the pattern of communication that has been set will likely require more than simply insisting that they speak to you in the language you wish.

I understand the deep desire to communicate with your own children in your native language (see Why Communicating in English with My Kids is So Important to Me)—and being firm may bring some results, depending on the family dynamic—but if you really want to “activate” their passive language ability, you should also vigorously address the lack of need and exposure.

Addressing the lack of need

Again, an organic need is crucial for motivating their use of the target language. If, at this point, you’re unable to create a genuine need for your children to speak the language with you, look elsewhere to shore up that need. Seek out monolingual settings and situations where they will have no choice but to communicate in that language: schools, clubs, tutors, family members, babysitters, other children, homestay guests, homestays for them, trips, etc. Be proactive about this—don’t just assume that such opportunities aren’t available to you. The more you’re able to build this real need into your children’s lives, the more they’ll start using the language.

Addressing the lack of exposure

At the same time, you should make every effort to increase the amount of meaningful exposure your children receive in the target language each day. In my experience, most families facing the problem of passive ability in the minority language aren’t providing their children with enough exposure in that language on a regular basis.

What’s “enough exposure”? I discuss this question in detail in How Many Hours Per Week Is Your Child Exposed to the Minority Language?, so I urge you to read that post. A good target, though, would be about 30% of the child’s waking hours, or roughly 25 hours a week.

Along with the opportunities for interaction that you’ll hopefully create when you address the lack of need, I strongly suggest that you increase your children’s exposure to the minority language in a wide range of ways, including books, conversation, music, media, and games.

Books
When it comes to nurturing language development, books and reading have tremendous power. If you’re not already reading aloud to your children every day in the minority language—for at least 15 minutes a day—you’re not taking advantage of the number one way to boost their language ability. Make a vow, right this minute, to build a home library of suitable books and read aloud to them each day, whatever their age.

Because I’m such a mad believer in the power of books and reading, I’ve written extensively on this subject. For all my posts on reading (including recommended children’s books), see the reading category. Here are some articles you might start with…
The Secret to Raising a Bilingual Child
How to Get Your Child Hooked on Books
What Is Captive Reading and How Will It Help My Bilingual Child?
Recommended Resources: “The Power of Reading”
Recommended Resources: Good Books on Reading Aloud

Also, at Free Report: The Power of Reading in Raising a Bilingual Child, you can download a handy PDF file which summarizes my thoughts on reading.

Conversation
Along with daily reading, make an effort to increase the sheer volume of speech you direct toward your children in the minority language. (See The Most Powerful Thing of All in Nurturing Language Development for a fuller discussion of this important principle.) Even if they aren’t responding in that language, right now, this additional exposure will help pave the way for communication.

Try telling true stories from your past (Strange-But-True-Tales: Baby Chicks in the Bathtub) and fanciful “made-up memories” (Using Made-Up Memories to Engage Bilingual Kids). Make images (photos, illustrations, etc.) a staple of your efforts (How Images Will Stimulate Your Child’s Bilingual Development). Turn to riddles, which have built-in “kid appeal.” You’ll probably find plenty of riddles in your target language online—or simply make up your own. (Here’s a collection of “Ridiculous Riddles” that I concocted in English.)

Music
You should also make persistent use of music in your target language. Playing music regularly in the background, when your children are at home, or in the car, will quickly increase their input. You may even find your children starting to sing along to a catchy song! (See How the Power of Music Nurtures Bilingual Ability and—for suitable music in English—Recommended Resources: Great Music for Kids.)

Media
At the moment, I’m pretty clueless when it comes to new computer apps, but in the past, I made use of computer games and electronic gadgets as one component of my efforts. If you investigate, you’ll likely find some enjoyable and effective resources for your target language. (The electronic device I describe in Are You Accidentally Hindering Your Child’s Bilingual Progress? might be of interest to those promoting English.)

As for TV, I’ll admit that TV programs and DVDs have long played an important role in my children’s exposure to the minority language. At the same time, I do try to limit this input since the passive exposure of TV can’t match the positive impact of more interactive experiences—and, besides, I don’t want my kids turning into glassy-eyed zombies. :mrgreen:

Games
Over the years I’ve collected a lot of fun, useful games—board games, card games, word games, storytelling games—and I play them regularly with my children and my students. This is another area in which I would encourage some investigation and investment. I also suggest, in addition to “competitive games” (where there are winners and losers), that you seek out some “cooperative games” (where the players work together toward a common goal). (For information on cooperative games in English, see Recommended Resources: Great Cooperative Games.)

It’s never too late

In the end, activating a child’s passive ability in the minority language will depend on the actions you’re willing, and able, to make. If you can adequately address these areas of need and exposure, you’ll likely see signs of progress.

It may be, however, that in your particular situation, at this particular time, you’re unwilling or unable to take action to the degree needed. There’s no shame in that. It then becomes important, though, to modify your goal and feel at peace with the idea of supporting your children’s minority language to whatever extent you can. Never permit yourself to get to the point where, out of discouragement, you just stop trying. Remember that every effort you make can have a positive impact on your children’s language development and their longer-term future. Even if you don’t see the fruits of your efforts right away, the actions you make now could very well lead to the day when your greater goal is realized and your children come to use the minority language more actively in their lives.

In other words, it’s never too late to keep trying. At the same time, go at this as lightly, as playfully, as you can. The bilingual journey, for both you and your children, should be more joy than burden. I understand the frustrations that can come with supporting the minority language (just ask my daughter), but we can’t let those frustrations weigh on our day-to-day relationships with our kids.

After all, from the child’s point of view, being loved will always be more important than being bilingual.

For more on this important issue, see Is It Too Late For My Child to Become Bilingual?

How about you? If you want your children to use their minority language more actively, what more can you do to address the areas of need and exposure?

Bilingual Style

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1 Elizabeth March 30, 2013 at 5:20 pm

Hi! I really like your website. I’m having the opposite problem though. I live in Jordan and speak English almost exclusively with my 3 year old, and have since he was born. I have him in an Arabic pre-school, and regardless, he is having a load of trouble with Arabic. He knows his numbers and letters, but is way behind in speaking and listening in comparison with his peers. Ideas?

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2 Adam March 31, 2013 at 7:36 am

Elizabeth, during my teaching time at Hiroshima International School, I encountered many preschool children who had very little ability in the language of the school (English, in this case) when they first arrived. Every child is different, of course, so the period of acquisition will vary, but I can say that, without exception, all of them gained competent speaking and listening skills within a year or two (at most). So, although I don’t know the details of your situation, I suspect it’s really just a matter of time and patience.

Meanwhile, you could help fuel the process by increasing his exposure to Arabic even more through monolingual situations and settings. For example, when my kids were smaller, I paid a college student—an exchange student from the United States—to come to our house weekly to play with my kids in English. Perhaps you could do something similar with an Arabic-speaking student. (And if the student speaks English, too, try to conceal that fact from your son or he won’t really have a genuine need to use Arabic!) Best of luck to you both!

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3 Selina Sakamoto March 31, 2013 at 12:49 pm

I have a friend who has used a puppet really effectively with his five year old son. His son knows the father speaks Japanese very well so he replies to him in Japanese most of the time just as you mentioned above. So my friend made a puppet out of an old sock, named it Johnny and uses it often when he plays with his son. Johnny doesn’t speak Japanese and can never remember the Japanese words the boy tries to teach him. So although the father is speaking for the puppet, the son always speaks English when the puppet is out.
I thought it was a really good idea and a good tool for those whose kids already know they speak the majority language.

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4 Adam March 31, 2013 at 3:23 pm

Selina, thank you for sharing this really creative idea. I think it’s a wonderful way to help address this problem of a lack of need and exposure. Though its effectiveness would naturally depend on the particular parent and child, it could have an important impact in combination with other efforts. Thanks again (to your friend, too!) for this great suggestion!

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5 wendy March 31, 2013 at 9:34 pm

I have 6 children aged from 36 years to 24 years. I am happy to say that they are all totally bilingual. One of the main reasons is that my Japanese is rubbish, however not quite as awful as they think. I have a few friends who thought it was rude to speak English to their children in front of Japanese family and friends. I never had that problem. As soon as they could read a little Japanese I asked them to translate school papers etc. and the older ones always helped with the younger ones school information. Sometimes they rebelled but mostly it made them feel valued and it worked. As adults they are still amazed at the things I could do without speaking Japanese!

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6 Adam April 1, 2013 at 6:38 am

Wendy, thank you for your comment. It’s great that things worked out so well for your family—good for you. May we all find similar success on our own bilingual journeys! :mrgreen:

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7 Denhi April 2, 2013 at 3:34 am

I loved this! All of us need encouragement and direction as it is no easy task. I’m a firm believer in books, each month I have a budget alone for books for my son, and even though he can’t read yet I read to him everyday. Thank you for your insights, will be sharing this with my siblings.

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8 Adam April 2, 2013 at 5:21 am

Denhi, yes, books and reading are at the very heart of this challenge, I think. Having a monthly budget for books is ideal because it immediately prioritizes their importance as it adds to your home library on a regular basis.

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9 Annika April 2, 2013 at 4:46 am

Need and exposure – absolutely! I remember how both our children went through a period of trying to speak Finnish to their French dad, especially in the evenings when he picked them up from the daycare. They were tired and had spent the day speaking Finnish – which they knew their dad also understood. I’m so grateful that he persisted even when it was difficult and looked for ways to increase the “fun exposure.” Trips to the minority language country and cultivating close ties to monolingual French grandparents have been the best way for our family to make sure there is a real need to use that language. Expat networks in your city are also a good place to look for recently arrived expat families who speak the minority language.

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10 Adam April 2, 2013 at 5:26 am

Thanks for sharing your own experience of this problem, Annika. It sounds like your resourcefulness and persistence have paid off well! (A fair amount of “fun exposure” is certainly a key!)

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11 Mara Anderson April 2, 2013 at 6:17 am

Don’t give up. Keep talking. Comprehension of language, whether native or foreign, comes before the production of that language. My sister as a child went through a period of time during which she refused to speak Latvian. My parents continued speaking to her in their native language, she answered in English, and then one day she started answering in Latvian. Today her grown children also speak Latvian.

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12 Adam April 2, 2013 at 6:36 am

Mara, thank you for adding this encouraging account. You’re absolutely right—perseverance is vital! (In fact, see The One Thing You Absolutely, Positively Must Have to Raise a Bilingual Child for a whole post on this subject!)

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13 Raira June 22, 2013 at 4:04 pm

I have read this last week because this is completely what is happening between me and my 2-year-old boy! I hope we could get back on track again! It is so hard not to respond right away to his father talking to me in the majority language! I really cannot imagine how did you do that in years! Any tips to not irritate the father who needs to come closer to me or me to him just to whisper a non-secret and non-big deal reply! Just so curious how did you manage that! Please help the non-creative mind Raira! Please!!!

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14 Raira June 22, 2013 at 4:21 pm

Well, I seriously talked to my husband regarding this! What we have agreed is I must answer in English first before I translate to the majority language. But still it is so hard sometimes especially for a non-native English speaker like me! I’m sometimes stuck on English and feel it is easier to express in the other language! Or the topic needs an urgent reply. Or sometimes I am so excited to talk about a good thing that happened, so I cannot slow down thinking how to express that in English, though I can talk about it fast in the minority language. It is so hard for me! Through that, I can’t make it a habit of me answering in English first! Whew! Do you have something there for me to try to help me get back my baby responding in English!

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15 Adam June 23, 2013 at 8:01 am

Raira, are you Japanese? If so, I suggest that you reach out to other non-native speakers of English who have a similar bilingual goal for their children. The best place to start is with the membership of the JALT Bilingualism SIG (JALT stands for Japan Association for Language Teaching and SIG stands for Special Interest Group). If you can connect with other Japanese parents who are familiar with your experience, I think they’ll be able to offer you useful advice.

If you’re not Japanese, my suggestion remains the same: Seek out other parents in a similar position.

From my perspective, I’m not sure you’ll be able, all by yourself, to create sufficient “need” and “exposure” so that your son will actively use English. Chances are, as he becomes more communicative, he will mainly use the majority language to communicate with you and your husband. After all, since he’s becoming aware that you both speak the majority language, it won’t really be necessary for him to communicate with you in English. And so, unless you can find effective ways to increase this “need” and “exposure” (like putting him into an international school setting when he gets a bit older), his English ability will grow more passive. I understand your heartfelt goal of “simultaneous bilingualism,” but establishing a passive foundation for later “successive bilingualism” is another viable alternative—and it may be more realistic given your circumstances.

I hope this is helpful, Raira! Definitely don’t give up, but do be realistic about matching your aim to your situation. It sounds to me like you’re becoming a bit stressed out trying to maintain an English-only environment when it might be healthier, and still helpful, to use a balance of the two languages, such as using English when you’re alone with your son, but using the majority language when you’re with your husband and with others.

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16 Raira June 23, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Thanks Adam! I told myself already to relax and I just want some other to remind it to me again! Hahaha! Thank you for implying me to relax Adam! More Power!

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17 Tam July 29, 2013 at 4:47 am

I have a very talkative 5 years old daughter and I have exactly the same problem as you described! I am Thai and my husband is German. We live in Germany. My German is very limited and my husband and I communicate to each other in English. When I have a chance to read bedtime story for her (I work fulltime and often come home later than my husband), I read only in Thai and speak only Thai to her from birth. However, she replies only in German. It gets worse and worse nowadays. I’m frustrated about this. I sometimes could not understand when she told me stories from kindergarten. Recently, my parents came to visit us. She refused to talk to them because she could not answer them. She often sticked to my husband and followed him every where. When I forced her to speak Thai, she ran away (if possible) to my husband.

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18 Adam July 29, 2013 at 11:47 am

Tam, thank you for your comment. These are challenging circumstances, and I feel your frustration. To help address this situation, here are my first thoughts…

1. Your daughter isn’t aware of this yet—she’s only five, of course—but she really wants to be bilingual. She wants to speak Thai with you (and her grandparents), and she will regret it one day if she can’t, but right now German is the more active language for her because, so far, the weight of her language exposure seems to tip heavily toward German.

2. It’s hard on you both, I know, but I would recommend that you (patiently) persist in speaking to her in Thai. When she responds to you in German, and you understand what she says, make a habit of restating the same message in the minority language. Although you can encourage her to use Thai with you, emphasizing that German is not your language (maybe try making it playful, too, like Thai is the “secret language” for the two of you?), I would refrain from pressuring her to use it if this causes either of you stress and interferes with your loving relationship.

3. At the same time, to activate her passive ability in Thai (she seems to understand, but is reluctant to speak it because German has grown dominant), it’s vital to increase the amount of exposure she’s receiving. I suggest looking back at the article above and brainstorming with your husband about each of these areas of input. How can you enhance your daughter’s exposure to Thai each day amid your busy lives in Germany? Be as creative and resourceful as possible in compiling ideas.

4. I would also seriously consider spending time in Thailand with your parents, just you and your daughter. If you can manage a trip there, and stay for a few weeks or so, I think you would find that the intensive exposure could help spark her active communication in Thai. If you could take annual trips there together, that would be especially helpful.

Again, I understand your feelings of frustration, but I urge you to keep your eye on the future and seize each day while your daughter is still small. If you and your husband can find ways to be more proactive in supporting her minority language—while making these regular efforts in a light, playful manner—this will have a very positive impact on her language development. You may not see the progress right away, but progress will definitely be made over time.

Tam, best of luck! I’m cheering for you guys!

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19 Tam October 3, 2013 at 5:48 am

Hi Adam, Thank you very much for your suggestion!!

After I read your comments, I took it seriously. I immediately booked flight tickets to Thailand. I arranged a kindergarten for my daughter in Thailand. I have to say one whole month in Thailand is really worth it!!!

My daughter started to speak Thai after staying there for 1/2 week. I’m really happy about this. We came back to Germany with very positive feelings. It’s not only trigger her to speak Thai, it also makes the relationship between me and my daughter better. She would like to go back to Kindergarten in Thailand again and we will arrange this for her again in the next 6 months.

Thank you again for your valuable suggestion!!

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20 Adam October 3, 2013 at 6:35 am

Tam, thanks so much for following up! I’m thrilled for you and your daughter! What a wonderful breakthrough!

From here, continue trying to be as conscious and proactive about promoting Thai as you can, while in Germany. And, if possible, make these mother-daughter trips to Thailand a regular feature of your lives. (I’m sure your parents are really happy about this, too!)

Again, this is great news, Tam! Good for you and your daughter!

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21 Maria August 30, 2013 at 5:05 am

It is exactly what is happening with my two year old son. From his birth I have consequently talked to him in my native language, read books, sung songs and played games, but lately he has started using more and more words of his dominant language. I thought that exposing him to my native language for two weeks in my native country would boost his minority language development, but to my great surprise he started speaking even more in his father’s language. I have tried to give him alternatives when speaking, like would you like an apple or a pear, but even then he answers in his dominant language. My friend also raises a bilingual child, but she forces him to say words in the minority language. I believe it may spoil the experience of learning a language. While others force their children to attend both schools in their dominant language and in the evenings and weekends in the minority one. What do you think? I wouldn’t like my son to develop hatred towards my language because I forced him to speak. Thank you for sharing your experience and thank you for saying that raising a bilingual child is hard work. Sometimes I think that it would be much easier to give up, but then I read such articles as yours’ and get my priorities back on track.

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22 Adam August 30, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Maria, I hear your concern, but please keep going. First of all, it sounds like you’re making a lot of good efforts, and those efforts are definitely having a positive impact on your son’s language development. Your son is still just two, and it’s relatively early in your bilingual journey, so I encourage you to stick with the process and continue making the same good efforts each day. You don’t mention the language use in your family, but if you’re not speaking to your son exclusively in the minority language, consistently communicating in that language could make a substantial difference in his development, too. (And when he responds in the majority language, just restate what he said in your mother tongue and move on.)

Of course, you don’t want to “turn off” your son to his second language—and that’s why it’s so important to keep your efforts as light and playful as possible—but it’s also vital that he receives enough meaningful exposure in the target language. So I would suggest taking a close look at his weekly language exposure and find ways to increase his interactions in your language if the total time falls below a 25-hour benchmark. For more information, see How Many Hours Per Week Is Your Child Exposed to the Minority Language?

Because your son is still small, I realize the days can be long and tiring, but I also think a larger perspective would help ease the momentary frustrations and keep your motivation high. In fact, I recently wrote a guest post about this at SpanglishBaby called Your Child Wants to Be Bilingual! Please take a look at that article, too.

Best of luck to you, Maria! Despite the difficulties, just keep doing your best, day after day, and I expect you’ll see some significant progress over the next year. At that point, you can reassess the circumstances and then take further action, as needed. For now, though, I would focus on maintaining broad, playful exposure in the minority language, which should include reading aloud to him every day. :mrgreen:

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23 Alberto August 31, 2013 at 12:32 am

Hi, I come from Spain, however I’m living in the UK with my family. I have twins, one boy and one girl aged 4. I moved out to the UK when my children were 2 years old. At that time my girl had started to speak Spanish, however my boy was able to say a few words only.

The main goal to move out to the UK was to learn English.

It seems they have forgotten to speak in Spanish or even worst they don’t want to speak in Spanish (specially my son).

We have been in here for nearly 2 years. Last year they attended a nursery day, and in a few days time they are going to start the school.

At home, they talk each other in English and also at home with their parents. Hopefully in a year or maybe in a couple of years time, we’ll be back.

To be honest, I’m really worried about the lost of the mother tongue and the vital time in the early years in the learning process.

To avoid this situation I have tried many things like talk them always in Spanish, tell them I don’t understand English, watch DVDs in Spanish, repeat in Spanish what they say, reading stories in Spanish, and many other things but nothing seems to work.

Do you think I am right? or I have nothing to worry about because they will learn Spanish when we go back?

Thanks
Kind Regards
Alberto

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24 Adam August 31, 2013 at 7:08 am

Alberto, thank you for sharing your story—your concern is natural. First, though, let me emphasize the positive: You’ve clearly accomplished your goal of establishing a good foundation in English! Well done! You can then continue to nurture this language after you return to Spain, and your children will benefit for the rest of their lives.

As for Spanish, I understand your frustration, but if you definitely plan to return to Spain in a year or two, I don’t think you need to be worried. Your children already have some ability in Spanish (though they may be reluctant to use it at the moment, because their English has become dominant and they know you speak English, too), and that ability will be quickly activated once they return to a Spanish-speaking environment. In fact, after the pendulum swings the other way, and their Spanish becomes the majority language, your challenge will probably be just the opposite: you’ll have to make greater efforts to promote their English!

If your wife is Spanish, too, I would suggest, for the time being, that you try to implement a firm version of the “minority language at home” approach: Spanish is used within the home (you and your wife use Spanish with the kids, even if they respond in English), while English is used out in the community. In this way, along with your other Spanish-language efforts, you will continue to foster a solid foundation in Spanish.

And when you really want them to speak Spanish with you, just try this tactic…
A Sneaky Way to Get Bilingual Kids to Use the Minority Language

Best of luck, Alberto! I look forward to hearing what happens with your family!

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25 Barbara Ebbli September 16, 2013 at 5:12 am

Hello!
First of all I want to thank you for this insightful reading!
I have 2 daughters and we live in Italy.
My husband is Italian.
Before we had children I always thought I should speak to them in English and my husband in Italian.
But now I regret it.
Although we have books, movies, journals in English and I continuously speak to them trying to get them to reply to me in English…it is still not happening.
I tried to send them to an American nanny once a week but still!
And it is very frustrating because they really feel they don’t have to speak nor reply to me in my native language.
I have just started a journal with them, and I keep writing to them in English…each time they read I ask them to do it out loud…
No one believes they are bilingual and it saddens me a lot.
Help!
I am doing this for them…and I truly hope one day we can start communicating in English.
I have also considered moving out of Italy…but it is not so easy.
Barbara Ebbli

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26 Adam September 16, 2013 at 8:27 am

Barbara, I sympathize with your frustration and I’d like to be helpful, if I can.

Could you please offer more details, though? How old are your daughters and what is their English level like now? What exactly are the circumstances of the language use within your family? What is the schooling situation? Approximately how many hours a week are your children exposed to English, and what does that exposure consist of? (See How Many Hours Per Week Is Your Child Exposed to the Minority Language?) Are there any regular situations where they have a real need to use English? (You’re fluent in Italian, is that right?) What sort of English-speaking opportunities are possible in your community?

And what exactly is your “regret” about following the OPOL (one person-one language) approach? I mean, what would you have done differently if you were starting over again?

The more information you can provide about your circumstances and your efforts to date, the more effectively I can respond with some suggestions.

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27 Megan October 5, 2013 at 8:36 pm

Hello, I’m curious about Barbara’s situation…is she by any chance in or near Rome??? We could help each other out!!!

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28 Jim November 27, 2013 at 1:20 pm

I speak English and my wife and her son of 7 speaks Spanish. My wife speaks fluent English and Spanish and even does interpreting. Her son came to the USA when he was 5 years old. He spoke very poor Spanish and no English. My wife was all for teaching her son English and even chose an English school system over Spanish system at first. After 2 months of being in the USA she chose not to teach him English and only speaks in Spanish to him. A teacher at his school told her that she should not let him lose his culture. Since this point English is not spoken. Since I am his step-dad he has not bonded with me yet so he sees no need to speak English.

Now that a year and a half has gone by he is regressing in his English skills. He has learned and only communicates in Spanish. He is refusing to learn English in school and has resulted to mumbling when he is forced to answer a question in English. His mom has influenced him that Spanish good, English bad mentality. He fears he is letting his mom down if he speaks English. It has been a year and a half and he has spoken less than a few words to me in English even though he understands English but can’t form the words to speak it.

Is there any hope he will ever be bilingual or will he choose his mother’s language over mine? We do not live in a Spanish community and he is the only Spanish kid in school. It is getting so bad the school is threatening to hold him back. He is in second grade. He resorts to making sounds to communicate with others who don’t speak Spanish.

We have been told he will learn it in time but I fear that his fear to disappoint his mother will overpower his learning in school and put him behind. She is fine with him only knowing Spanish even though she is a English-Spanish translator at her job. He is not exposed to English other than school or when I talk to him but he just says la la la to you so he does not have to listen to English.

What can I do to help him learn English if his mother is not willing to teach him? When is it too late as each year school passes him by?

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29 Adam November 28, 2013 at 8:29 am

Jim, I’m really sorry to hear about this situation. I understand your desire to support your stepson, and I feel your frustration, but I can’t really comprehend why your wife wouldn’t care about the level of his English ability, particularly since you live in the United States. I mean, I appreciate her wish to nurture his Spanish side, but if her son is struggling in school, and is unable to communicate with others and with you, shouldn’t this motivate her to take some kind of positive action?

Ideally, since she’s bilingual herself, she should serve as a model for him and encourage the development of both languages by using the two strategically. As his English now needs proactive support, English should be emphasized. For example, she could use English with him on school days, and Spanish on the weekends. This sort of clear and separate usage of the two languages should be followed so they aren’t simply used haphazardly each day, which would be far less helpful.

At a later stage, after his English catches up, even overtakes, his Spanish, his mother could then modify the strategy and stress Spanish. At that point, perhaps Spanish would be used during the week and English would be used on weekends. The point is, the language usage should match the need, and currently, because his English development is apparently poor, English should be emphasized more strongly.

At the same time, I would also have your stepson evaluated by a trained speech-language pathologist in order to rule out a more biological cause for his speech delay. The fact that he was speaking “very poor Spanish” at age 5, when he arrived in the U.S., could be indicative of a problem in this area.

Best wishes to you and your family, Jim. I hope your wife will come to recognize that this situation isn’t healthy for her son and is hindering his development, both academically and socially. I’m honestly not sure how much you can do to help without your wife’s proactive involvement.

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30 Rachel December 28, 2013 at 2:56 pm

I have a different problem. My brother lives in the U.S. and married a woman from Japan. They moved in with my parents, in the U.S. The child is now 3, and while she understands some English and is highly intelligent, she chooses ONLY to communicate in Japanese, only hangs out with her mother’s friend’s children who speak Japanese, and the mother only hangs out with Japanese speaking people (all coincidentally Japanese women who transplanted to the U.S. and married American, English-speaking men, and they all met in church). I believe that the mother is using foreign language as a weapon, as a means of creating separation between the child and the rest of the family who don’t speak any Japanese. When people try to speak to her in English she completely ignores them and even gives indignant looks as if to say you must be stupid, and I dare say this is a reflection on the mother. I speak a little Japanese and have excellent pronunciation, and therefore am able to tell the child no when she is being naughty. And she listens to me. But I don’t live there. I recently suggested to my family that they ask my brother’s wife for Japanese language lessons so as to find a way to connect them. I would like to know what your opinions are on this.

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31 Adam December 29, 2013 at 10:02 am

Rachel, I’m sorry to hear about this difficulty. I’m sure it’s frustrating for the whole family. Unfortunately, from your description, it sounds like the worry regarding your niece’s language development is a symptom of deeper issues involving the mother’s adjustment to her new life in the United States and her relationship with your brother. I mean, how does your brother communicate with her and with his daughter? And have the parents discussed and agreed on a “language policy” for their family so that their daughter can develop and use both languages actively?

If the child remains in the United States, and attends a local school, she will inevitably become proficient in English, too, so I don’t really see that as the main concern. (In fact, this head start to her minority language could serve her bilingual development well as time passes and her ability in the majority language grows at a quicker pace.)

No, the more serious matter, from my perspective, involves these deeper issues of adjustment and relationship. I don’t want to alarm you—and obviously, I don’t know all the details—but I think it would be prudent for me to say that it’s not uncommon for Japanese wives to have difficulty adjusting to life in the United States, far away from their familiar language and cultural environment, as well as family and friends. In fact, in some cases, the wife ultimately decides to return to Japan, with the children, and the marriage breaks up. It’s important to understand, if such a scenario would arise, that Japanese law heavily favors the mother and the father is generally left with little opportunity to see his children, unless the mother is willing. There is no sort of “joint custody” available to fathers of Japanese children. (Sometimes, but rarely, it’s the father who wins custody and the mother then essentially “loses” her children.)

So I would strongly advise that your brother, and your family, make every effort to help his wife adjust. Try to understand, with as much compassion as possible, how hard this adjustment probably is for her. The more proactively, and positively, this situation is addressed now, the more likely she will endure this shock to her spirit and settle into her new life there. The worst-case scenario is not something you want to face, with regrets over missed opportunities.

I wish all of you the best, Rachel. I hope 2014 is a good year for your family.

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32 Marika January 1, 2014 at 1:38 pm

A 3-year-old should be entering preschool/pre-kindergarten anytime now, shouldn’t she? If it’s an English-speaking kindergarten, she will start speaking English very fast and will get used to using it with other people.

From the child’s perspective it maybe seems useful to ignore “English”, because that reduces the number of adults who can give her orders. It might not even be a conscious decision. If they moved recently, she might also need some more time to get used to the new language and environment as well.

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33 ML January 19, 2014 at 11:30 pm

I still haven’t hit the actual problem since I’m currently still pregnant but the language topic has already come up with my husband. He is Japanese and doesn’t speak any English (well, maybe 10 words or so), I’m actually from a Northern European county but have a very good English level. Together we speak Japanese but I haven’t formally studied it at all, just bits and pieces, a little bit of teaching from a friend who studies it in uni, and then simple communication with my husband, his family and people where we live (countryside, so no one knows any English). At first my Japanese was very very limited, so it was a miracle we made it past the dating stage but now I can pretty much manage in simple everyday conversation, however specific terms (medical, economical, etc.) are still beyond me and my grammar is iffy, kanji is just at around 600.

Not only do I have the difficult decision to make of whether to comply with my husband’s tentative wishes that I speak English to the future kid (as opposed to my mother tongue) and keep my mother tongue to the future if even that (which would mean my side of the family would have to speak to my child in English…which they would take hard since I am from a small country very defensive about it’s language), but whichever language I choose my husband will not be able to speak the minority (=mine) language at home to the kid, it shall be only on me and I totally see the troubles starting after the child goes to (Japanese) kindergarten and school.

Sadly, I would say the option of my husband starting to study English is pretty much out since he is the usual Hardworking Japanese who just does not have the time after work.

So, though the problem is yet pretty much hypothetical, it is already quite a lot on my mind.

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34 Adam January 20, 2014 at 8:52 am

First, let me commend you on thinking through this situation now, before the baby arrives. Your early choices are obviously very important, as they will set in motion the shape of the whole journey to come.

Your circumstances are indeed challenging, but let me ponder the options with you…

1. Use your mother tongue
If you would feel most comfortable communicating with your child in your native language (see Why Communicating in English with My Kids Is So Important to Me for my personal feelings in this regard), then this might be your natural preference. Of course, it would make your side of the family happiest, too. (Whether your mother tongue or English, you would still need to communicate with your husband in Japanese, and “interpret” for him.)

And if you want your child to acquire your mother tongue, fostering this language right from the start would give you the best chance of realizing this aim. It’s possible, too, that after a foundation is established in the mother tongue, you could then gradually bring in English as well. The key, though, would be to establish that foundation before Japanese schooling begins and the heavy influence of the majority language is then felt.

2. Use English
If you would feel comfortable using English—and accepting the fact that your child might never learn your mother tongue—then there could be advantages to this choice. English is now a global lingua franca, ability in the language is a huge plus in Japan, and, as you’ve mentioned, this is your husband’s preference. At the same time, since your side of the family would still be able to communicate with the child, they may be disappointed about the lack of ability in your native language, but I imagine they would come to see the merits of this decision.

Whether you first focus on your mother tongue or on English, providing sufficient exposure in the minority language will be an ongoing challenge—though this probably would be easier in English, considering the wide availability of English-related resources and opportunities.

3. Use only Japanese
The third option would be to use only Japanese. This would naturally be the “easiest” option for your home, but it would be a huge disappointment to your side of the family and I suspect you would come to regret the “missed opportunity” of raising a bilingual child.

I hope these initial thoughts are helpful and I look forward to hearing from you again as time passes—or whenever you might need some support. I’m cheering for you from here in Hiroshima! :mrgreen:

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35 ML January 21, 2014 at 7:59 pm

Thank you for the reply!

I definitely think option 1 or 2 is the way to go, since the Japanese side of the family is really cheering for either bilingual or at least pretty good English-speaking child. No one can know what the child wants to do in the future, to stay in Japan, go to Estonia (my country) or Europe or US or whatever. Either way English is really important in keeping the child’s future open without the parents killing off some paths right from the start by only speaking Japanese.

I have read that in the cases of many languages in a family the parents should opt for their mother tongue as opposed to a learned third language (English in my case), since no matter how good your language ability, you can only teach all the nuances and whatnot of your mother tongue. It makes sense but of course if that language is a minority language, it might not be so important since it shall be a struggle to get the child to learn all that you have to offer anyway.

Thank you! I’ll try to keep you posted over the years. I guess it might be helpful to others too, since this is not so common a problem. Most of my multinationality-couple friends have English as the only or main language they communicate in. No one I know has been as nuts as me to start a relationship in a language I barely speak with someone who only knows one language.

Greetings from Shikoku!

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36 Nanna January 20, 2014 at 4:05 pm

As useful as English is nowadays, a child can learn three languages quite easily. If it’s important to you (and your family) to communicate in your native language with your child, you should discuss that with your husband some more. The child will pick up his native language from him and his family either way. And you never know how your language might come in handy later in the child’s life either.

Currently Japanese parents are putting more and more value on a better English language education, which their educational system hasn’t been able to provide them with yet. That’s why there are more and more bilingual kindergartens in Japan, which could be an option, if you and your husband want your child to have a very good command of English.

I know people in Northern Europe speak excellent English. When do you start studying usually?

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37 Adam January 20, 2014 at 4:38 pm

Nanna, thank you for adding this helpful comment. It’s true, if a bilingual kindergarten is available in her area, then this would be a potential way of including English exposure in addition to the mother tongue…though it sounds like she lives in a rural part of Japan (“countryside, so no one knows any English”).

Even so, I agree that it’s possible for the child to acquire all three languages by first establishing a firm foundation in the mother tongue and in Japanese, then successively fostering English. I think it’s fair to say, though, that given the circumstances described, this will be challenging and will take significant effort. (It’s “easy” for children to acquire multiple languages, if they receive sufficient need and exposure, but providing this need and exposure often isn’t “easy” for the parents!)

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38 ML January 21, 2014 at 8:11 pm

Thank you, Nanna, for the comment!

Yes, in my country (Estonia, tiny tiny country) children nowadays start studying English really early…like 3rd grade or so. I did too but at that time it was at first the parents initiative and we had a private teacher who came to school, the official program started at the 5th grade, I think.

In Estonia knowing English (and other languages) is a must, you cannot get a good job otherwise, since the country is tiny most of the commerce, service, etc. always has the English option too.

Bilingual kindergarten is sadly out since I live in a small town (integrated into a bigger one but still, mostly separate) of 3000 people in the middle of mountains an hour from Matsuyama.

Perhaps the best option of getting English more into the community actually is my own contribution. This has been as of yet simply a thought of the neighbourhood but we were talking of me maybe teaching local children some basic English. Not only would it become a job for me (good thing for a housewife of barely a year) but it might also make the aforementioned trouble of English-speaking kids having a hard time at school since others do not know English. If we could get neighbourhood children some years older than my child and at some point maybe also children of the same age to attend, it should (should, who knows if it happens) create a “English is cool” attitude. I guess this is the good side of living in a small place—one person could actually make a change.

Of course this teaching thing is simply an idea right now but now that I think about it—if it would also make it easier for my own child to become bilingual—it becomes even more important than just finding something to do here to get the community more immersed in English.

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39 Nanna January 22, 2014 at 11:00 am

Oh, Estonian is a very special language. I think mastering its grammar can only be a plus for a child and will make further language acquisition that much easier. I know some Japanese who are currently struggling to study Finnish…

Adam, you’re absolutely right. If a child can get enough exposure to a language, it can reach a native level even if it starts studying later, like in elementary school. The older you get, the more exposure you need, I guess. Kids who enter an international school become fluent in English pretty fast. If that’s not an option, it’s better to start earlier. But at the same time, you don’t necessarily have to abandon your native language in favor of English.

I’ve seen little private English classrooms in the most rural areas of Japan and I guess most of them were established basically by the only foreigner living there. There might be one near you? If not, it sounds like a great idea to make this your job. ;) You could also ask the local kindergarten if they’d be interested in an English teacher / establishing an English class for those kids whose parents are interested.

Good luck! :)

40 Hana March 7, 2014 at 11:39 am

Hi! Very interesting article! I want to share my story!

I was born in Australia to an Australian father and a Japanese mother. When I was three years old, my family and I went to live in Japan for six years and although English was my first language (L1) upon arrival, soon after, Japanese became my mother tongue and English was disregarded. When I reflect back and watch family videos of our first few weeks in Japan, it was interesting to see that I only spoke English with my parents and that was my identity as a child. I understand that children easily adapt to their environment, and although there were opportunities to learn English in Japan especially considering my father had a language school, I resisted and continued to assimilate Japanese culture and strove to have only one identity. In addition, at that time in the early 1990s, English language learning was not introduced at the elementary level and there was strong emphasis to develop Japanese language abilities amongst elementary school students. My special encounter with English was in 1995 when my parents decided to move back to Australia to start a new life. The decision to move back was made not only for sociocultural benefits but also for the fact that English would be acquired like a native for both my brother and myself. This was the beginning of my language appropriation, claiming the ownership of English and the development of my new identity.

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41 Hana March 7, 2014 at 11:44 am

Hi, it’s Hana again.
Just to add to the above post, I’m back in Japan as an adult!
I got married in 2013 to a Japanese man and we had our son in December. :) Now it’s my turn to raise my son as a bilingual child.
Before coming to Japan, I gained a degree in MA in TESOL. I hope to share my know-how and teach English in Japan!

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42 Adam March 8, 2014 at 6:10 am

Hana, thanks so much for sharing your story. Like me, I’m sure many readers of this blog will find it interesting food for thought. And I’m glad that, in the end, you were able to acquire both languages successfully!

Yes, now it’s your turn! Congratulations to you and your husband on the birth of your first child! And I wish you all the best in giving the same gift of bilingual ability to your son. (Good luck with your teaching career, too!)

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43 Cagla June 17, 2014 at 5:30 am

Hi! I just discovered this website and you have great tips, thank you! I’m pregnant and my labor is due mid August. This means that I and my husband started to think about this language issue more than before. I am Turkish and he is German. We are living in Austria. He speaks basic Turkish and my German is a bit better, but still cannot hold a normal conversation. We were thinking that after the baby is born, we will speak with her in our mother tongues, and between us a mixture of Turkish and German. (I definitely need to improve my German to find a job in Austria). After I read this post, I got a bit worried because if the kid notices that I can speak German, what if she rejects Turkish? Would you then suggest that we continue to speak in English between us?

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44 Adam June 17, 2014 at 3:22 pm

Cagla, welcome! And congratulations to you and your husband on the upcoming arrival of your first child! If you haven’t already come across it, this page of links might be of special interest…

Posts for New Parents

About your question, I do think you would raise the odds of successfully nurturing your child’s active ability in Turkish if you avoid, to whatever extent is realistic, the use of German in his/her presence. The more you openly use German, the more you could potentially undermine the child’s need to communicate with you in Turkish. I also understand your personal need to improve your German, but I would suggest, at least through the first few formative years of your child’s life—until a firm and active foundation in Turkish is established—that you try to work on your German more “secretly.” This means, yes, it might serve your situation best if you and your husband continue to communicate with each other in English, while consistently using your mother tongues with the baby.

For more food for thought, also see…

What Language Should I Speak in Public with My Bilingual Child?

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45 George June 27, 2014 at 11:16 pm

Hi Adam! Just stumbled upon your site. I’m American and I’m moving to Japan this Fall with my wife (Japanese) and our 2 year old daughter. We currently live in a major city so my wife has lots of Japanese friends with children most of whom are married to non-Japanese. One thing we have both noticed is that out of a group of about 10 children with Japanese mothers, our daughter is the only one who speaks only Japanese even though we religiously follow the technique where I always speak to her in English and my wife always speaks to her in Japanese. She clearly understands English but 90% of what she says is in Japanese. This is in contrast to her friends who are the exact opposite (understand Japanese but speak almost entirely in English).

We were a bit perplexed about this since these children’s parents all seem to be following very similar parenting techniques to us when it comes to language but I was at a BBQ last weekend and I overheard two of the children’s fathers laughing about how sometimes their child says something in Japanese to them and they have no idea what they’re saying. Ah ha! That’s the difference! I’m no master of Japanese, but I have no problem understanding my daughter when she speaks to me in Japanese though I always respond in English (after usually repeating whatever she said to me in English). I realize now I need to get better educated on how to successfully raise a bilingual child especially given the impending move. We are planning to switch to 100% English in the house once we move (my wife is very fluent in English) but I’m sure it will still be a challenge.

Hoping to learn a lot from your site!

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46 Adam June 28, 2014 at 6:45 am

George, welcome! And I wish you all the best with your relocation to Japan! (Maybe I’ll see you in Hiroshima one day!)

Yes, it sounds like a lack of need to use English is at the root of the current difficulty. It may be, too, that through her first two years, she’s received more language exposure in Japanese than in English.

I think it’s wise, once you’re in Japan, that you’ll be using English as the home language—it’s very tough providing sufficient exposure in the minority language when it comes from only one parent, and that parent isn’t the main caregiver. (I’m speaking from experience, I’m afraid! :mrgreen: ) At the same time, you’ll need to be sensitive about your daughter’s feelings when you wife begins using more English with her. I expect this new arrangement will come to have a very positive effect, though, on your longer-term journey.

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47 Loris Ayoub June 30, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Such an amazing post… I am over frustrated and feeling depressed about my situation. I was born in Venezuela so I speak Spanish. My parents are Arabic but I never really learned Arabic well, just understood some. I got married and lived in South Africa for few years and when I had my son I only spoke Spanish. We moved to Israel and I had to learn Arabic myself and drag my kids along with me. At the beginning I spoke Spanish but then I completely stopped. I feel as a failure for many reasons specifically because my sisters won’t speak Arabic and when they want to speak with my kids they can’t understand each other and when I try to teach my own kids a life lesson I find it hard to explain myself in Arabic. They are 4 and 6. Is there anything I can do at this stage? Or I just made my kids lost a language?

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48 Adam June 30, 2014 at 4:16 pm

Loris, I feel for your frustration. I’d like to be helpful, if I can, but I’m afraid I don’t have enough detail about your situation to offer concrete advice. Could you please respond to these questions? With a clearer understanding of your circumstances, I can then share my thoughts.

*When exactly did you move to Israel?

*Is your majority language there Arabic? Is your minority language (your target language) Spanish?

*You’re speaking only Arabic to your children now? Is that correct?

*How long did you speak Spanish to them? And why did you stop?

*What language does your husband speak to the children?

*Your parents speak Arabic, but your sisters don’t, they only speak Spanish—is that right? Do your parents and sisters live in your area?

*Are you children attending school in Arabic?

*Are you working? How much time are you with the children?

*What Spanish resources do you have in your home? What opportunities for exposure to Spanish do your children have in your area?

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49 Loris Ayoub June 30, 2014 at 5:12 pm

Hello Adam and thank you so much for your quick reply and your means to help me.

My answers:
I moved to Israel 4 years ago (sadly).
In this town the majority language is Arabic and they will learn Hebrew at school for second grade.
My target language is Spanish (minority since I am the only one who speaks it).
Only speaking Arabic right now but might speak some commands in Spanish like go and brush your teeth or time for a shower, very few words.
I spoke Spanish to them until they were about 2 and I stopped out of embarrassment for being the only one speaking Spanish and the feeling that if I was going to learn Arabic I need to talk it and since I don’t have many friends I just felt I needed to practice it with them.
My husband speaks Arabic and sometimes English to my oldest…he understands and speaks some English.
Their school is Arabic speaking.
I don’t work so I spend a lot of time with them.
I don’t have many resources, just a few books in Spanish, one for teaching to read and a story book.
Thanks for your help

My parents speak Arabic and I feel I am doing as my mom did to us, she didn’t speak much Arabic to us. They live in Venezuela.

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50 Adam July 1, 2014 at 8:39 am

Loris, thank you. I now have a better understanding of the situation.

First, please read this post…

Is It Too Late For My Child to Become Bilingual?

If the first three options I describe there aren’t possible for you, your only option is the fourth approach: a major “intervention.” In other words, you will have to make Spanish a much higher priority in your family’s lifestyle by increasing the children’s language exposure through interactions with you and through a richer environment of resources.

It’s true, your children don’t really have a need to use Spanish with you—since you generally communicate with one another in Arabic—but this shouldn’t stop you from speaking Spanish to them. I suggest, though, that you clearly define the times you will use Spanish, and ease into this change in your lifestyle, in the following way: 1) Speak Spanish to your children on the weekends while continuing to use Arabic on weekdays; and 2) Read to your children in Spanish every day (and I do mean every day, on weekdays and weekends).

Although your children will respond to you in Arabic, that’s fine for now: the most important thing is increasing their exposure to Spanish so they can develop “passive ability” (understanding but not yet speaking). Even passive ability would be a major accomplishment because this ability could then be “activated” at a later time.

So passive ability is your first aim, and this can be achieved by speaking Spanish to them and building up your home library of children’s books and other resources (magazines, music, DVDs, games, etc.). Without resources in Spanish, it will be difficult to realize this goal.

Here are some articles on resources that could be useful to you…

Why Resources in the Minority Language Are So Vital to Bilingual Success (With 6 Real-Life Examples From My Own Family)

There Are More Resources in Your Minority Language Than You Think

What to Do When It’s Hard to Find Children’s Books in Your Minority Language

Once this first stage (using Spanish on weekends and for daily read-aloud sessions) is going reasonably well, you could then consider expanding the amount of time you use Spanish. For example, you could add another day, so your “Spanish time” becomes Friday to Sunday. Depending on how the situation develops, additional days could be added until you arrive at the point where you speak mostly Spanish to your kids. This would be a good goal, but I don’t think it should be rushed or your family may protest. A gradual, playful approach to the increasing use of Spanish would probably work best for everyone. (And I recommend, too, that you clearly explain to your children, and to your husband, why using Spanish is important to you, before you implement any changes in your lifestyle. You naturally want their understanding and their support.)

Loris, I hope these thoughts are helpful. If handing down your mother tongue to your children is truly important to you, then it’s surely possible, but you will need to put this goal at the very center of your life and be highly proactive, day after day after day. You can do it, Loris! And I’m cheering for you! :mrgreen:

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51 Loris Ayoub July 1, 2014 at 3:10 pm

Thanks a lot Adam, you are so nice and helpful.
What worries me is that they don’t understand everything I say in Spanish so what do you think is best? Should I say it in Spanish and translate for them? They get frustrated too if they don’t understand.
My husband always told me to speak Spanish to them…he is actually upset because I never do…
I have some reading to do :-) thank you thank you

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52 Adam July 2, 2014 at 10:27 am

Loris, I know it will be a bit hard on your children, at first, but during “Spanish time,” I strongly advise that you use only Spanish. If you get into a habit of translating for them, you will be undermining your own efforts. Your aim is for them to understand Spanish, not Spanish translated into Arabic. So use simple language, facial expressions, gestures, drawing—whatever you have to do to communicate your message—but stick to Spanish. If you do, and you do this as playfully as you can, like it’s a fun game for the family (give them prizes for their participation!), then gradually your children will come to understand your Spanish and their passive knowledge of the language will grow.

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53 Aida July 3, 2014 at 12:31 am

Hi Adam,

I’ve done a little reading around your site and am wondering if you could offer me some insight. I am Mexican-American, speak English and Spanish fluently and picked up French later, with which I’m actually terribly out of practice. I have worked in a kinder immersion program, and currently work for an organization that helps schools implement language immersion programs, but these programs are for school age children not infants, which is where I am having lots of questions! I have a 6 month old daughter, with whom I have been struggling to figure out what I should do and what I can accomplish linguistically. Her dad is American and while he does not speak Spanish or any other languages, we both want her to become bilingual (ideally, I would be able to teach her French, too, but honestly don’t know how that would even happen.) Logically, I know that children need to be exposed to a language in a consistent manner in order to absorb it, but I worry about how I can accomplish that in my particular home setup.

Since she was born, I have been trying to speak to her in Spanish, but because her dad and his family don’t speak a word of it, I revert to English when I’m around him or at family gatherings, in an effort to not to leave anyone out. This makes it difficult for me because even though I am fluent in Spanish and in English, once I have been speaking English (which I have to do for work, with his family, etc.), going back to Spanish takes me some time to “warm up”, if you will. Speaking in English sometimes, is so much “faster”. I’ve read a little bit about OPOL, and originally, this is what we were trying, but I worry that it won’t be feasible or effective because I will still need to communicate with my husband in English, our only common language, and inevitably, the baby will overhear or directly witness it, which will affect how she feels about needing to speak a different language with me. I do try to supplement with songs, stories, and books in Spanish, and whenever my mom cares for her and she is around that side of the family, she is surrounded by Spanish.

I feel terrible because I feel like I am not doing enough, but I desperately want my daughter to grow up actively working on developing her linguistic abilities. What am I doing wrong? What can I change? What can I do more of? Is our predicament with OPOL (speaking English to one another) not that big of an issue? How can I ensure that she becomes bilingual, at the very least, when one of her parents is monolingual? Does this rest firmly on my shoulders, and should I just be more consistent about staying in the language with her? There are a number of Spanish/Mandarin immersion programs in our area, and so I’m hopeful that regardless, she will have that opportunity when she reaches school age, but I just want to do as much as I can to prepare her brain for that kind of education. Thanks in advance for your advice.

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54 Adam July 3, 2014 at 10:04 am

Aida, your circumstances are challenging, and I understand your concern, but it sounds to me like you’re making the right efforts within the parameters of your lifestyle. As long as you’re doing your best to use Spanish with your daughter as much as you realistically can, while consciously trying to limit her exposure to your spoken English, to whatever degree is practical, I expect that her Spanish side will grow very naturally over time. And by combining a Spanish immersion program, when she gets a bit older, with your continuous efforts, you’ll surely experience good success at fostering your daughter’s active ability in the language.

So take heart, and take a longer view: Despite the difficulties, just keep doing your honest best, day after day, and know that every effort you make does have a positive effect and will amass over time as the ground for your daughter’s budding Spanish ability. (In addition to talking to her in Spanish, very actively, you should definitely be reading aloud to her each day in Spanish—this should form an essential part of your efforts, throughout childhood—as well as playing music in Spanish and creating other opportunities for Spanish exposure.)

As a fellow minority language parent, I know how tough this role can be, especially when the other parent can’t really help. But, finally, we simply have to accept our fate and “own” this responsibility fully, instead of wishing the circumstances were otherwise. For me, at first, I struggled with this somewhat, and even resented the fact that support for the minority language fell almost entirely on my own small shoulders, but since I couldn’t change the circumstances, it was actually a counterproductive mindset. I think it freed me to act more positively, and more effectively, when I came to the conclusion: “Okay, so it’s up to me. And I’ll do everything I realistically can to succeed at this challenge.”

And the thing is, when you adopt that attitude, I don’t think you can really fail.

Aida, I wish you the very best on your bilingual journey. (And once Spanish has a firm foundation, you can make it a trilingual journey with French!) I look forward to hearing good news from you as time goes by.

P.S. Here are a couple of posts that might speak to your situation…

Important Thoughts on Babies and Hammers

What Language Should I Speak in Public with My Bilingual Child?

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