While many people assume that children will automatically become bilingual if each parent speaks a different language, the reality is often far more challenging. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the parent of the minority language to suddenly experience a large shock, when the child is about 2 or 3, because the majority language seems to be progressing more strongly than the minority language. It may even be the case that the child is actively using the majority language but resists speaking the minority language, much to the dismay—even panic—of the minority language parent.
To help parents avoid this situation, before it evolves, I wrote the post Warning to New Parents Who Dream of Raising a Bilingual Child.
But what if this is already the case in your family? What should you do now? And why would I suggest that feeling upset about this is actually a good thing?
See the situation rightly
First of all, it’s important to point out that if you didn’t feel upset about this situation, it would mean one of two things:
1. You aren’t clearly aware of the problem.
2. You’re aware of the problem, but you don’t really care that much about it.
You see, if either one of these is true, then you wouldn’t be as upset as you are now. After all, we don’t generally get upset about issues that we aren’t aware of or that we don’t really care about.
The truth is, feeling upset about the situation is actually a very positive sign because it demonstrates that you are aware of the problem and that you do care about it. And because you’re aware, and you care, you now have the opportunity to do something constructive about the problem and improve the situation.
This is how a breakthrough begins.
So, first and foremost, I urge you to shift your perspective and see the situation rightly:
The fact that you’re upset is precisely what will now enable you to move forward more effectively and experience the greater success and joy that you seek on your bilingual (or multilingual) journey with your children.
Provide ample language exposure
Once you can reorient yourself in this way, it’s time to become more mindful and proactive when it comes to your daily efforts to address the two “core conditions” of exposure and need.
The first of these, exposure to the minority language, is the all-important engine for generating progress. The more input your child receives in the target language on a regular basis (and, especially, input that comes from live speakers of the language, not merely from electronic devices), the more progress he or she will surely make over the years of childhood.
There is no “magic number” for the weekly hours of exposure that are required to successfully raise a bilingual child (because the circumstances and aims of every family are naturally different), but I consider 25 hours a week to be a useful benchmark for assessing whether or not your child is receiving ample input. If the amount of time your child is exposed to the minority language is much less than this suggested target, that could be a cause for concern.
As for ways to increase these hours of language exposure, and make that exposure as effective as possible, well, much of my work—at this blog, at my forum, at my YouTube channel, and in my book—is devoted to meeting exactly this challenge. Along with those links, please see this handy page which contains links to all the resources I currently offer.
Fortify need for the language
At the same time, it’s important that the child feel a genuine need to actively use the target language. If there are shortcomings in exposure to the minority language, and the majority language grows dominant, the child may come to feel more comfortable leaning on that language to communicate, even with the minority language parent. This is particularly true, of course, when that parent also has ability in the majority language. After all, small children are pragmatic creatures and if they find that they can effectively use the majority language with the minority language parent, they will naturally feel less need to actively use the minority language, too.
So, alongside efforts to strengthen the child’s exposure to the target language, this second “core condition”—the child’s desire to actively use that language—may need to be fortified as well. When a child’s language ability is more passive, meaning that the child generally understands what is said but tends to rely on the majority language to respond, this is an indication that more proactive efforts are required—for both exposure and need—in order to “activate” that ability.
Minority language parents facing this challenge might want to expand their children’s opportunities to experience “monolingual” speakers and settings, which can promote more active language use. (I’ve put quotes around “monolingual” because such speakers of the minority language can also have ability in the majority language…as long as the child isn’t aware of that ability and simply assumes that they only speak the target language.)
If a child’s ability in the minority language can be activated with other speakers of the language, it then becomes more likely that the child will come to use that language more actively with the minority language parent, too.
For ideas on finding other speakers of your target language to help address exposure and need, see 5 Ways for Your Bilingual Child to Interact with Other Speakers of the Minority Language.
Adopt a broader perspective
Finally, remember this: Frustration is fuel. Whatever frustrations you feel on your bilingual or multilingual journey (and everyone, including me, experiences frustrations along the way), use those frustrations as fuel for making more mindful, more proactive efforts that can help strengthen your children’s language development. Remember, too, that you don’t have to be perfect at any of this—see Nobody’s Perfect at Raising Bilingual Children—in order to fulfill your basic aim. We just have to stay persistent each day—playfully persistent, as best we can—and persevere for the full length of childhood. If we do that, and if we don’t allow ourselves to get mired in momentary frustrations (which will ultimately become minor footnotes to the longer journey), we will experience a lot of satisfying success and joy, both in the process and in the results.
So if you’re upset about your bilingual journey, I sympathize with your distress, but I also urge you to take positive advantage of this moment. Look beyond your short-term frustrations and adopt a broader, longer-term perspective: you can still succeed to a very rewarding degree over the months and years ahead as long as you recommit to your bilingual aim and renew your efforts from here.
As I stress in Have You Failed at Raising a Bilingual Child?, there’s only one way, really, to fail at this aim and that’s to give up entirely. If you don’t give up, if you continue moving forward, step by step, day by day, gradual progress is guaranteed. And it’s through this incremental progress, over the many years of childhood, that our success at raising bilingual or multilingual children is realized.
At heart, this journey is as much a psychological challenge—a test of spirit—as it is a process of promoting our children’s language development. In the midst of frustration, I know it can be hard to see things in a positive light, but let my whispering voice remind you that your times of frustration can always be transformed into useful fuel for strengthening your efforts and your children’s progress. And the more you’re able to hold to this outlook, instead of becoming blinkered by discouragement, the more you will propel your family toward the goal of greater success and joy on the bilingual journey.
For more encouragement, see…
Raising Bilingual or Multilingual Kids? Don’t Miss These Helpful Resources!
7 Steps to Get Your Bilingual Child Using the Minority Language More Actively
What to Do When Your Bilingual Child Won’t Speak Your Language
Free E-Book for Parents Raising Bilingual Children
Adam, this is all so true. We went through exactly what you describe but can finally see some light at the end of the tunnel. I am practically the sole provider of live minority language exposure and at age 4, my twins understood everything I would say to them but would only respond in the majority language. However, we kept at it and we’re now seeing results. For us this is happening now, at age 5 and a half with a blossoming in the use of the minority language. Other than encouragement, I want also to mention one trick which has helped. They know I speak the majority language because they hear me talking to relatives but with them I insist I can’t speak it. I’ve repeated this so many times, it must have become ingrained in their subconscious. Yesterday I mentioned a colleague who can’t speak the majority language and their reaction was “…ah, just like you, Daddy!” Kids’ minds really are amazing!
Paul, thank you for your comment. I’m really glad to hear that you’ve reaped happy results from your perseverance. Your story is a very positive example for other parents who face this challenge.
Yes, I had a similar experience with my own kids regarding my use of the majority language. When they were younger, I not only limited my active use of the language around them, I would also play up the idea that “Daddy can’t speak” this language by demonstrating my incompetence by intentionally botching simple phrases with laughable pronunciation and grammar. It became a running joke, but, as with your kids, this seemed to get my kids thinking that I really couldn’t speak the language very much. It’s only years later (they’re now 14 and 11) that they’ve come to grasp that I actually do have some competence in the majority language…but, at this point, since their ability in the minority language is already quite active, this awareness is no longer a “threat” to their bilingual development and use.