5 Tips For When Bilingual Children Don’t Want To Speak The Home Language

My daughters have to be able to speak Spanish! Their beautiful aunt doesn't speak English, and she loves them so much!

My daughters have to be able to speak Spanish! Their beautiful aunt doesn’t speak English, and she loves them so much!

As I mentioned in my previous post, right now Big Sister doesn’t want to speak Spanish.  And it’s literally shattering my world.  In our family, we use the Minority Language At Home (MLaH) strategy to raise bilingual kids, (You can read about different language approaches for multilingual families here).  MLaH works for us because both my husband and I are fluent in both the Home Language (Spanish) and the Minority Language (English), and because we prefer to speak to each other in Spanish.  However, there are occasional exceptions to the MLaH strategy in our household (TV, music, and books) given that we live in the United States, and this means that our kids sometimes accumulate vocabulary in English that they don’t have in Spanish.  And this means two things:  1. Spanglish 2. Refusal to speak Spanish at home.  I can now step back a bit and realize that the refusal to speak Spanish is a common and natural problem, (yet still incredibly frustrating!).  Here are a five ways that we are encouraging Spanish right now at home when not everyone is “feeling it:”

  1. 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.
  2. Ask 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.  
  3. 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)!
  4. Ignore the English.  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.
  5. Create a village.  This is muuuuch easier said than done.  Even though we live in a city where lots of people speak Spanish, there are very few fellow Costa Ricans here, and as a technical “outsider” myself, I’ve found it hard to find bilingual mothers and caregivers with whom we can spend lots of time.  I have accosted nannies and mothers everywhere: the library, the Chick Fil A play place, the park… anyone who has kids speaking Spanish that can be part of our village.  We are lucky to have an incredible group of bilingual parents in a town nearby, and each of our girls have a Spanish speaking and and English speaking godparent.  Still, there can never be too many bilingual role models in either of our girls’ lives.

How do you encourage your children to communicate in the home language when they don’t want to?  Join the conversation!

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Big Sister being kissed by her two grandmas... one English speaking, the other Spanish.

Big Sister being kissed by her two grandmas… one English speaking, the other Spanish.

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  • Reply
    Tiffiny Spire
    April 21, 2016 at 6:51 am

    These are great strategies! We are trying to raise our daughter bilingual (my husband’s family is from Honduras) and she is surrounded by English speaking friends so she resists the Spanish a lot…because she doesn’t have the vocabulary. I will try some of these tips. Thanks.

    • Reply
      April 21, 2016 at 9:20 am

      Hi Tiffany!
      Thanks so much for reading! More Central American bilingual kids! Yay! Please do let me know if these tips work for your family, and if you have any tips I might have missed! Also, not sure the age of your daughter, but I’m starting to teach my daughter to read in Spanish – Central American style! I’ll be posting the activities and printables here, so stay tuned!

  • Reply
    July 9, 2016 at 4:01 pm

    I really needed to read this, thanks for the encouragement!
    We’re raising our kids with the MLaH strategy. I am bilingual, half argentine, raised in the Uk and my husband is fluent in Spanish but native English. I am so close to my Argentine family and wanted to pass on the language to my kids, and my husband also didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to teach them Spanish either.
    ..But I’ve suddenly found myself in a stage where 1.Kids are growing up so pressure on Dad to continue to speak Spanish even though it’s becoming more taxing (it’s hard to come home at the end of the day to speak a second language when you’re tired! Also, the kids and I have started to correct his mistakes which is frustrating for him ?)
    2. My 6yr Old definitely prefers English now and comes home from school and plays with his siblings in English which now influences their language preference (big frustration for me).
    3. Husband and I actually talk English to each other so the kids will overhear that(other than conversations with the kids, at the table for eg.).
    ..So I’m greatly encouraged to read that frustration is normal (!) and I also find your first point (1.) very enlightening. School has nearly finished for the summer so I Wil endeavour to widen my sons Spanish vocab in the areas where he has accumulated more words in English.
    I just wanted to ask- do you do any English reading at home? I’ve been very stubborn about ‘only Spanish’ at home but my son has acquired a collection of English chapter books he can’t wait to dive into. Naturally I want to replace it with Spanish (sometimes he refuses to read to me in Spanish now!) but I don’t want to squash his enthusiasm or hinder his English literacy skills either!
    Sorry for the long post…Trying to find balance in this new phase of life!…

    • Reply
      July 10, 2016 at 3:03 pm

      Lolly, thank you so much for visiting the site, reading the blog, and commenting! Everything you said above resonated with me so much, it’s all such common behavior for bilingual kids. The siblings speaking English to each other is SOOO frustrating. And I feel your husband’s pain, both with the kids correcting me (ugh) and not wanting to speak Spanish after a long day. So. Hard.
      As for the reading in English at home. Such a great question, and one that I am currently struggling with (a lot). I’ve been adamant about Spanish only, but that has gotten hard for me. I am an avid reader and native English speaker, and I have come to the point where I want to share some of my favorite books from childhood with my kids, and it seems silly to not read them because it isn’t Spanish. (Right?) And I can understand for your son, if he receiving academic language in English, it is natural that he would want to read chapter books in English. Maybe you can find a great chapter book in Spanish that you and he read out loud together a bit each day during a special time that is just the two of you?

      I also want to encourage you to check out our #BilingualWe community. It’s a video series (it’s live too, so you can tune in and interact with us during the episodes if you want!) created for parents just like us – working hard to raise bilingual kids and who have lots of questions. Each episode in our first series focuses on a different type of bilingualism, and after we chat about strategies for implementation, we include vetted academic research articles that support our suggestions. We are on a break until August, but it would give you time to catch up on the episodes and join in on the conversation. You can check out the ML@H episode here. https://www.puravidamoms.com/bilingualwe/bilingualwe-episode-0002-minority-language-at-home-mlh/

      Please do keep me posted on how things are going… we have to support each other as bilingual parents, and I so appreciate your honest comment. Take care, and we will be in touch!