How to manage a bilingual home: understanding children’s response

It is now widely accepted that parenting in our native language is a natural and positive thing to do. Long gone are the days when foreign parents were advised to speak the local language to their children, a language that they may not even speak well.

Over the last decades EU citizens’ freedom of movement and exchange programmes like Erasmus have resulted in many bilingual families, either because couples have moved to work in another EU country or because they have formed across national and language boundaries.

This is also my experience. I am a Finn married to an Italian. We met in the UK, where we have lived since. We are parents of two trilingual teenagers. The three countries, languages and cultures in my life have been immensely enriching on a personal level, and linguistic diversity is also my profession. I am a sociologist specialised in bilingual family interaction, especially between children and their bilingual parents.

Soile Pietikäinen
Photo: Soile Pietikäinen. By Eva Slusarek.

One of the most obvious challenges that emerge when we parent in a different language than that of the society we live in is that speaking our language to children does not necessarily lead to our children speaking our language. They might and they might not.

A common everyday situation is that we speak our language and the children respond in the local language.

This is a serious problem. We do not learn to speak languages by listening to them. We only learn to speak by speaking. Therefore, if our child does not respond in our language, the child is not learning to speak our language. With time, the gap between the two languages will keep widening and bilingualism may be lost. The good news is that this can be solved.

Why don’t children respond in our language?

The child speaks to us in the local language because that language comes out of their memory faster and with less effort. In short, it is easier. The human brain seeks to work effectively. It optimises its resources. Things we have already mastered are effortless. Learning equals effort. So children’s choice of language tells us where the frontier of new learning currently stands.

It is important to note that this is a situation unique to bilingual communication. Our child would not propose a sentence in the local language to a monolingual speaker of our language, such as a monolingual grandparent or cousin. They would either choose the only possible language or stay silent.

So what should a parent do in this situation?

Three options with a catch

The typical choices that are presented are: pretending to not understand, continuing to speak the native language or switching to the language the child prefers.

In a bilingual family both the child and the parent know that the parent is bilingual. Children hear us using the local language every day with other people. Pretending we don’t understand it would be absurd.

The third option equals giving up on bilingualism. The most commonly proposed solution is therefore option two: parent keeps speaking his or her native language and waits for the child to switch in their own time. This is unlikely to happen.

There is nothing wrong about continuing in the native language. However, the problem is not in our language choice. It is in the social meaning.

Let’s imagine a concrete situation: the parent has just picked up the child from school. A few minutes after saying goodbye to classmates and other parents, he or she asks in the native language: “How did it go at school?” The child responds in the language of the school. The parent continues the conversation in their own language taking into account what their child just said. A nice positive conversation follows where each keeps speaking a different language while they discuss the day’s events. This is wonderful high quality parent-child time.

But from the bilingualism point of view there is a catch. If only this conversation were entirely in the parent’s language, bilingualism would be advancing in leaps and bounces. But because the child is not replying in the parent’s language, bilingualism is declining.

If the parent’s reaction is to continue the conversation as if nothing had happened, the social meaning created is: “When you speak this other language to me, I understand you and I don’t mind. You do not need to speak my language to me.”

The parent is focussing fully on the content of the conversation, not on the language it is delivered in. The language choice is ignored and the conversation moves on. This is known as the “move on” strategy.

There are situations where this is absolutely the right message to give. For example when the child is tired, upset, angry, scared, hurt, hungry or enthusiastically explaining their joys or ideas. In these situations it is wise to let them speak in whatever language they feel comfortable with. Doing anything else would be disrespectful. But most everyday talk does not have this kind of high emotional charge.

However, if this is a habitual reaction by the adult, then the child will not respond in the parent’s language because the implicit message the child receives is that speaking the parent’s language is not necessary.

A frequent use of the “move on” strategy by a parent stops new learning from happening and robs the child from the opportunity to recall words letting them fade away. So speaking the parent’s language will become harder and harder. At the same time, we do not want to act like disciplinarians about language choice.

A better way

The good news is that there are effective alternatives that cover all learning needs and that involve the parents speaking their own language. This is one strategy to start with.

Pause the conversation. The child needs more time to think so that she or he can recall how to say things in your language. You don’t even need to say a word to give them that time. You can react by a curious “Hmm?” while looking at your child, slightly raising eyebrows and smiling. It may be cumbersome to explain, but it is a natural gesture to do.

Then just wait, even for a few full seconds, for you child to respond.

Now things get very interesting. What your child says next gives you a wealth of information about their languages. The things they now say in your language are those they already know, but need to use to become faster at them. The things they say again in the local language, they genuinely cannot say in yours. That is the next thing they need to learn.

There is so much more to this. But thanks to that little “hmm?” and a smiley raised eyebrow you have already discovered where to start with helping your child to speak your language.


By Soile Pietikäinen © all rights reserved.

The author is a sociologist specialised in bilingual family interaction. Soile performs the Bilingual Cake talk on bilingual family interaction and helps families through private bilingual family consultancy. She is the founder of Bilingual Potential an ethical business dedicated to every child’s right to learn and use the language of his or her parents, as defined in the Article 30 of the UN Convention of the Right of the Child.

Photos courtesy Pixabay (top of page) and Eva Slusarek (article).

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