Helping 3-year-old form sentences in Yoruba

Question: My husband speaks to my 3-year-old daughter solely in Yoruba; I speak in English and when we're together we speak English. My daughter understands Yoruba and regularly uses a few words, but generally answers him in English. We don't regularly interact with other Yoruba speaking family/friends, and when we do they're often not great at speaking Yoruba to her, despite our insistence. Any tips for encourage her to respond in Yoruba? Thanks. Victoria


Dear Victoria and other parents in this situation,

First of all, please feel relieved. This situation can be improved fast. Often within days. The picture above is from my Bilingual Cake talk. It is a two hour long answer to this question. It is quite a challenge to squeeze some golden nuggets from it into a handful of blog posts. I'll do my best to give you an idea, as this is a situation I really can help with. 

This is all about the one-to-one interactions between your Yoruba-speaking husband and your child, so I will write to your husband. Sorry, Victoria.

Hello, great stuff that you are speaking Yoruba to your child. Is Yoruba your strongest language? If your Yoruba is not as strong as your English, my answer would be different. Here I am answering assuming that Yoruba is your native language and speaking it feels more natural to you than speaking English.

My compliments. Your child is over 3-years-old and is still producing words in Yoruba regardless of only hearing it from you. Many children in similar family set ups drop their weaker language entirely before their third birthday. You are in a good position to help your child.

This situation is very familiar to me. About half of all my family consultancies are about activating sentence production in 2 to 4-year-old children’s weaker language. I have spent almost 25 years on learning to resolve this problem. 

What is happening in your child’s bilingual development is normal and very common indeed. That does not mean things are going fine as they are. It is very common for bilingual children’s weaker language to fade away between the age of 2-4. But is not at all inevitable. You as the parent can make a huge difference. 

When a child does not begin to form sentences in a language the adult discussion is often along the lines of should the parent keep speaking the language or stop speaking it?

If you would like your child to speak the language, then of course it would be very counter productive to stop speaking it. The standard advice in these situations is that the parent should persist with speaking their language to the child even if the child responds in English. Then eventually, it is assumed, the child would begin to speak the language too.

Although it is crucial for the parent to keep speaking the language, this common advice is incorrect for a very simple reason: If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. If you keep on speaking the language to your child in the same way as you have done before the gap between languages will widen and become harder to resolve.

There is a third option: upgrading the parent’s interaction skills. It is likely that there are tiny conversation habits that the parent needs to change in their own speech for the child's speech to activate. If you became aware of your strengths and learn some new tricks, you can help your child produce speech in your language. Both of you will enjoy being able to communicate with more ease. It feels good and motivates to develop better and better parent-child communication.

What kinds of habits and skills am I talking about?

There are two sets of skills I teach parents to help activate sentence production. First, becoming aware of the relationship we display with our own talk. Second, spotting how we react to mixed language and learning a range of alternative reactions. 

To introduce these ideas would require several separate blog posts. Some of these things will appear as answers to questions from other parents. However, for now I’ll continue with your question and give a practical example in the next post tomorrow. It will be about conversation v. control orientation in parental talk. If I wrote it here, this text would become far too long. I'll be back tomorrow.