Solutions to a common problem- language rebellion. Tips for when bilingual children don’t want to speak the Spanish language.
One of my biggest parenting fears is that my children will grow up and not be biliterate in Spanish and English. This fear is so deep rooted that I worry about it constantly, and I’m not a worrier. We generally practice the Minority Language at Home method of bilingual parenting, but I have gotten lazier with my Spanish.
To be fair, my worry is evidence-based, after years of observing friends raising bilingual kids, and spending 15 years in bilingual classrooms, I know that achieving true bilingualism takes a lot of diligence and effort on everyone’s part.
So when my daughter started preschool and after only a month has decided she doesn’t want to speak Spanish… well let’s just say that I had been beside myself with her language rebellion.
I originally wrote this post several years ago when Little Sister was a baby and Big Sister was three. I wish I could say that I have the cure for language rebellion and it has never been a problem, but it comes and goes depending on where we live and what type of school the girls are in.
In this post, I’ll explain a bit about what language rebellion is, who it affects, and what some solutions are to the problem.
What Is language rebellion?
Simply put, language rebellion is when a speaker of a language no longer wants to use that language. This isn’t something that only affects children, but it is a common issue with bilingual people in general. You can’t really rebel against a language when you are monolingual.
Language rebellion can occur for many reasons. Some people arrive in a new country with traumatice memories of their language and culture, and no longer wish to speak that language.
Some people become so enamored with a second language that they no longer want to speak their first language. This happened to me for several years while I lived in Costa Rica and pretty much refused to speak English while I learned Spanish.
Famed author Jhumpa Lahiri (she wrote one of my favorite immigrant novels ever- The Namesake) went to Italy and fell so deeply in love with Italian that she went through a period of time where she refused to write in English.
Some kids go off to school and realize there is a whole other language other than their home language, and they want to practice that outside language as much as possible- and that includes at home.
The point is that language rebellion is not necessarily a bad thing, but when we are raising bilingual children, we want them to focus on learning a language really well before they rebel against it.
Often times, bilingual parents are using a language at home that is different from the language spoken where they live, and so when their kids start to refuse to speak the home language, it’s stressful it is for me!
Why does language rebellion happen?
Language rebellion happens for a number of reasons:
- Social pressure– kids don’t want to be different. When they begin to associate with a peer group that speaks the dominant language, they will often want to switch languages
- Autonomy– when young children decide to speak a different language than their parents, they are often asserting their independence at home
- Vocabulary– when kids start in school in a language that is not the same as their home language, they are often learning more vocabulary at school than at home. They don’t have the words in their home language to describe what they are doing at school and so they use the words they have learned outside the house
- Shame– some kids are shamed for being bilingual. While this is changing, it is a real problem that can make kids want to reject their home language. Be careful of family members that make comments about your child’s language abilities in a negative way.
Which kids are most susceptible to rebelling?
Rebellion often happens most often with children whose parents are bilingual. For example, a child who comes home from school and talks to his parent about school in English when the home language is Spanish can be understood by that parent.
On the other hand, if a child comes home and wants to talk to his parent about school, but that parent is monolingual in a language other than the school language, the child must make a much larger effort to explain what happened at school in the home language.
Younger children in the family often rebel by speaking the outside language to their siblings because it feels forbidden or cool.
Children who do not feel especially close to the culture associated with their home language also feel less inclined to speak it- they don’t feel the urgency.
Related post: 100 Spanish Language Resources For Bilingual Parents
Solutions for language rebellion – Spanish
What NOT to do
The bigger deal you make out of the language rebellion, the more fun it becomes for your child to keep the rebellion alive. Don’t take this phase personally- it’s a natural part of raising bilingual kids.
Make sure not to punish your child for not speaking Spanish because then they will associate home language with a negative emotion and may reject learning how to speak Spanish altogether.
Also don’t force your child to start speaking Spanish. You should continue to speak the home language even if your child responds in a different language.
We have stopped saying “hable en español.” Big Sister is accumulating a lot of new vocabulary at school, and we’ve realized that her refusal to speak Spanish isn’t necessarily because she doesn’t want to. It’s actually because she has accumulated words outside of the home that she doesn’t know in her home language.
More academic vocabulary is good, right? I’ve started making a point to talk to her about what she did at school, and then repeating in Spanish what she says in English in order to give her the new vocabulary. This hopefully will avoid her feeling frustrated when she can’t speak Spanish because she doesn’t know the words, and will expand her vocabulary in Spanish by relating it to what she has learned at school.
Also- don’t give up! If you need some extra support you can join our BilingualWe Facebook group– everyone is super supportive and there are lots of ideas in there for all types of bilingual parenting challenges.
Grow your village
My best advice for when you are facing challenges are a bilingual parent is to make your village bigger. Bring people in that are not as emotionally involved as you are to help you expose your child to the second language in a more authentic way. Here are my favorite ways to grow my village:
- Reach out to family in your Spanish speaking country of origin and schedule a weekly phone date. This is a great way to improve Spanish conversational skills.
- Make Spanish fun by adding new Spanish phrases and Spanish grammar into your conversations with your kids. For example, maybe I’ll talk to the girls a bit about something they are really into and then I’ll say- do you know how to say that in Spanish? And we will learn together.
- Find others in your community who speak the same home language as you and arrange a playdate or a Spanish language exchange of letters.
- Find an online Spanish tutor. I’m not saying just throw money at the situation- but I kind of am. Sometimes another teacher or person can bring things out in our own kids that we can’t. Especially during the Pandemic, there are all kinds of programs for Spanish language learners. My favorite right now is TruFluency Kids.
About TruFluency Kids
TruFluency Kids was started by Micah Bellieu in 2010. As a child, she always wanted to understand her grandparents, so she started taking Spanish at age 15 (the earliest it was offered). After 8 semesters, she could read high-level literature, but everyday conversation was quite difficult still. Her ears weren’t trained, she didn’t know the most used words, and she didn’t have practice expressing herself in Spanish.
That’s why she started TruFluency Kids Spanish – to give kids the classes that she so badly wanted as a child. Fun, engaging, conversational classes based on the interests of kids. Even though the classes are fun, kids don’t know that a trademarked Bellieu Method is being used every moment of the class to ensure ear training, comprehension, conversational practice, and allowing kids to get confident in a language by actually using it. Through games, question/answer method (The Bellieu Method), storytelling, and songs, TruFluency Kids Spanish Immersion has a goal of getting all kids fluent in a second language within 4-6 years (depending on consistency).
TruFluency Kids Spanish Immersion founder Micah believes that second language acquisition should be consistent, flexible and easy to attend. That’s why classes are online, as low as $12, available 9am CST to 9pm CST, and meet multiple times a week for ultimate exposure.
2 most critical components to TruFluency Kids Spanish Immersion: the method, the curriculum and the teachers. These 3 dynamic parts come together to form highly engaging classes that allow kids to get fluent through fun.
You can try TruFluency Kids with 20% off your first purchase by using the promo code PURAVIDA.
Hit the ignore button
There are times when Big Sister does not want to speak Spanish, and she’s strong-willed enough to outright defy us. Instead of punishing her for choosing her preferred method of communication (we really don’t want her to associate Spanish with punishment), we just refuse to respond to her in English.
This avoids the battle over what language to speak, and we are still holding the line that Spanish is our home language. For example, today she came home and said “Papi, there was a leprechaun at school today!” My husband responded, “¿De verdad? ¡Un enanito verde llegó a la escuela! Y ¿qué hizo?”
While lunchtime after an exciting day at school was not the time to battle over what language Big Sister should use, my husband did a great job of refusing to speak English, and giving her the words she needed in Spanish.
Use new methods
Try something different when your kids rebel. If they don’t want to speak Spanish to you, try letting them choose their favorite show but make sure they are watching it in Spanish.
Pump the tunes in the car- but make sure they are in Spanish. Take a virtual tour of Latin America via YouTube.
Buy some fun books in Spanish and read them together. Mix it up! Here are a few of my favorite resources:
- Disney Spanish Cartoons – List of Over 100
- 10 Spanish Kid’s Songs- The Ultimate Playlist
- Best Spanish Subscription Book Boxes
- 15 Podcasts in Spanish You’ll Love!
- Spanish Shows On Netflix – For Kids
- How To Watch PBS Kids Spanish Programs
Vocab, vocab, vocab
Finally- many kids start. on a path of language rebellion because they don’t know enough words to express themseves in Spanish. Make sure to give your kids as much vocabulary as humanly possible.
We have started a Spanish word wall on a dry erase board. Whenever we need a word we don’t know we simply look it up and add it to the list.
Another popular solution is to label items around the house with Spanish and refer to them as much as possible.
Finally, help your child to converse in Spanish by using the following techniques:
- Ask home or her to repeat the vocabulary. In Step 1, we’ve tried to minimize the frustration for everyone when our kids don’t want to speak Spanish. By asking them to repeat the vocabulary in Spanish, we are also making sure that she can comfortably pronounce all of the words that we expect her to use.
- Use the new words in a lot of different contexts throughout the day. We recently celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day, and Big Sister came bursting home from school will all kinds of new words: leprechaun, pot of gold, rainbow, tricks… So today, my job is to use those Spanish words in a thousand different ways, over and over, until they are as much a part of her Spanish vocabulary as they are English. Easier said than done, but I just installed the SpanishDict app on my phone so I can quickly look up any words that I’m not positive about (because Saint Patrick’s Day was not actually a holiday we studied in Spanish class)!
Language rebellion is a super normal part of raising bilingual kids. It happens when kids start to see their home language as synonymous with “foreign language.” It’s nothing to worry about.
Language rebellion IS something you need to stay on top of so that the home language expectation does not change as a result. Hopefully these tips help you to find some new solutions to the problem.
And finally- when all else fails remember to value the relationship over the bilingualism. Your child won’t take a risk language-wise if they are afraid of you or the consequences for not being perfect.
How do you encourage your children to communicate in the home language when they don’t want to? Comment below.