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My child won't speak my language. What should I do?

My bilingual child does not speak my language. Should I add input?
My bilingual child does not speak my language. Should I add input?

My children just won't speak Finnish. Especially my younger child, who is now 5, has never spoken Finnish. I speak Finnish to my children while both of them speak English to me. How could I improve this situation?

Many parents lose all hope over this experience. This is why so many bilingual families abandon bilingual parenting.

The bad news is that this is the result of a powerful natural social process. The good news is that you can harness that same social process in your favour. In fact, you can turn this around with the right help.

I know this may sound like high fantasy: you can realistically lift your children from this situation to speaking two fluent languages in 6 months. But only if you learn to do exactly the right thing at the right moment. That's a long story. Let's start with a shorter one.

Let's get you started on the right track.

Reducing input and exposure

How do we resolve this problem? By speaking more Finnish? No. By insisting that children speak Finnish back to you? Not that either.

The solution starts with reducing input and exposure to the Finnish language. Yes, that's right - reducing - not increasing.

Shall we go a bit deeper into this novel idea? I’ll tell you a story of a client of mine whose 4-year-old daughter had stopped speaking French two years earlier.

When this mother contacted me, she was feeling pretty much like you are feeling right now. Or maybe worse. You'll decide once you have read about the problem she faced.

Her child was not speaking any French to her, even though she had continued to speak French to her child. She was following the standard advice to increase input and exposure in the minority language. Their family had recently employed a French au pair. The child had reacted badly. The little girl was rejecting the au pair - and she was angry with her mother.

Now you know how mother must have been feeling. Yet, if you think of it, her child’s reaction was entirely normal.

Suddenly in the little girl's home there was a stranger. A stranger who spoke a language she did not really understand. That stranger was robbing their home of privacy. The stranger was speaking with her mother in a language that excluded her.

The child of course understood that this new arrangement was her mother's doing. She also understood that the whole point was to pressurise her to speak this uncomfortable language! But she could not.

How would you feel in the child's shoes?

Sometimes the standard bilingual parenting advice can be shockingly inconsiderate of children's feelings. 

But what can we do instead? How do we get out of this deadlock?

Respecting children’s feelings

We get out of the deadlock by making the child feel good. We do that by giving children the emotional respect they need in the family.

The very first thing we did with this family was that the French au pair started to speak to the child in her very limited English. 

It was crucial to make it clear to the child that it’s OK to struggle with a language. French is hard for the child, but English is hard for the au pair. Now they can help each other.

This little girl needed to know that in her home she could speak her (currently) only language English to everybody. French was not a means to boss her about.

We radically reduced input and exposure to French. I gave very precise instructions for when not to use French - as well as how and when to use French.

In one week, the child relaxed. She was not angry with her mum anymore. She was developing a positive relationship with the au pair. The mother described the experience beautifully:

"My child was drowning in a sea of French. Now she can safely paddle through a little stream of French."

This emotional harmony is a necessary starting point for a successful Bilingual Speech Activation.

How to start doing this in the simplest possible way?

Special moments

First of all, if your child currently does not speak your language, it is not reasonable to always speak your language to them. 

Listen to your child’s thoughts and feelings. They will show you when they feel comfortable with hearing your language. And when they do not want to hear it.

You can create special moments together to find little things your child can say in your language. There is always something to start from. You can also find little things that your child would like to say in your language. Then you practice together those tiny fragments of language - it does not matter what they might be.

In these special moments your task is to listen and support your child. It can be just for one minute at a time. Then you stop. This is important. You stop before your child becomes tired or irritated.

Then you give them praise. You give them a smile, a kiss and a cuddle. You send them hopping along to whatever they want to be doing. Or you continue in the language in which they are comfortable.

Please, always remember: these special moments must end with a feeling of happiness. Then your child will want to come back to you to get more love in your language. You can start by creating a habit of one special minute every day. It builds up from there. 

We all want to speak a language in which we are loved.

Try this for a week or two. If you then decided to get serious about helping your child to speak two languages fluently, I certainly could help you. You might even email me at soile [at] bilingualpotential.org to ask about it.

Or you could subscribe to the Bilingual Fluency Newsletter that would come to your email inbox once a week. Or you could read about the Bilingual Fluency online course. It's up to you.

Either way, I wish you and the children many happy special moments. 

Love, 

Soile

 

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