7 things you should not say to a bilingual child

Children can be sensitive about almost anything to do with themselves – be it their bodies, looks, family, friends, hobbies, the list is endless. Languages are no exception, so adults should be mindful when making comments or even asking questions to do with their languages.

1. “Where do you come from?”

This may sound like an innocent, everyday question you could ask anyone, but for bilingual (and/or bi-cultural) children the question can be hurtful and possibly hard to answer. Because, what you are actually saying is “You are not from here, are you?”, and the underlying statement is that the child is a foreigner in the country.

2. “Say something in ”

Never ask bilingual children to say something in a language just to prove they can. Language is about communication, not about showing off.

3. “You have hardly any accent when you speak ”

What you are actually saying is “You have an accent.” Children (and adults for that matter) can be very sensitive about their language skills and how they sound. Also, who doesn’t have an accent when they speak – even monolinguals?

4. “How come you don’t speak as well as your brother/sister/cousin/friend?”

Never compare children’s language skills. Children learn at different speeds. Also, shy children may come across as less fluent, because they don’t speak as much as other, more talkative children. Not saying anything doesn’t mean not knowing how to say something.

5. “Can you come and translate for me?”

Translation and interpretation are skills that are taught at university. Bilingual adults are not born translators, never mind bilingual children. Don’t put undue pressure on bilingual children by asking them to translate an adult conversation.

6. “You said that wrong!”

Be very mindful about correcting a bilingual child’s language. Most importantly, never do it in front of others. Instead of pointing out what was wrong, first emphasise what was right and then suggest how to improve the part which was incorrect. It is vital not to undermine the confidence bilingual children feel about using their languages.

7. “You sound so sweet/funny/different when you speak ”

Speaking a different language doesn’t change a person’s identity. Children are not sweeter/funnier/more different when they switch to speaking another language, so don’t make patronising or judgemental comments about how bilingual children speak. They may come across differently depending on the situation, but so do monolinguals. For example, if an outsider overheard a man speak to his boss, his daughter and his friends (all in the same language), the man will display different personality traits. This doesn’t however make him have many different identities.

If you are a bilingual which comments wind you up?

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31 Comments

  1. Avatar

    LOVE THIS PAGE, IT HAS HELPED ME A WORLD WITH MY GIRLS.

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      Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Fernanda! All the best to you and your girls 🙂

      Reply
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        Thanks for this Rita… you reminded me of a few things, and got me thinking about some things I hadn’t thought (much) about. I wish we could post these to all the state schools in Hungary, where bilingualism is still quite unusual!

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          Thank you for sharing my post! Perhaps the information would need to be in Hungarian for it to be easier to spread out to schools?

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    Hi Rita! Thanks for this interesting post.
    Although I’m in favour of enlightening the ignorant (i.e. people making such comments because they don’t know better), I wouldn’t be so radical. I grew up in a trilingual household and have been exposed to such remarks for a long time (except #6, no one ever corrected me, in fact I tended to correct my parents at times). Don’t you think that to be aware of one’s differences nurtures the sense of self in a child? I was made very aware of my “being different”, but I consider this a good thing. My parents taught me early on that it was a “plus” to have skills that others don’t and to have a wider cultural background. And even if to this day I don’t feel “at home” in either of my parent’s cultures, I feel very much a citizen of the world and at home in the place I chose.
    So, I think it’s important for parents to acknowledge and encourage bilingualism in their children, but also to help them make the most of the comments you mention. 🙂

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      Thank you very much for your comment, Scilla! Of course this depends on the nature of a child, some – like you – wouldn’t even think twice about such comments. However many children are less confident in general and specifically with regards to speaking one of their languages. and there I would be cautious about such comments. I am all for diversity and being aware and proud of who you are, but I am not sure comments as per above would be helpful for children to understand this. I absolutely agree with you that parents of bilingual children should make their children aware of their uniqueness and feel confident about themselves to become great citizens of the world, just like you! 🙂

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        Couldn’t agree more!
        I forgot to mention that I was actually very shy and insecure as a child, so of course these remarks affected me.
        I think it’s wonderful that parents nowadays can benefit from exchanging ideas and advice on platforms such as this one! Thanks again 🙂

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          Thank you for being one of those who contribute with great insights and their own experiences!

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    Thanks Rita for these very important aspects! I remember from my childhood some other “stupid” questions like: in which language do you dream, do you think? And my “favourite”-one : Oh your bilingual, than you will become a great translator! Arghhhh!
    It’s so important not to feel as a guinea pig! During our childhood we just want to be as the other children and not as coming from another planet. Our parents offer us a unique gift raising us bilingual & bicultural – but as children we need time to realize the worth of this gift. In my opinion it takes years, maybe until we become parents ourselves.

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      Thank you for sharing your experience! Oh yes, the ‘dream’ question – I still can’t tell in which language I dream, it is very much visual 🙂
      You are so right when you say that it takes time to realise what a great gift knowing more than one language is – this is why I always say “Stick with it, your children WILL thank you one day!” 🙂

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    Great points. I would just disagree on the translation – interpretation point. I don’t think they are skills one learns at university, actually most of the translators and interpreters I know trained themselves as translators or interpreters after going to university to study something totally unrelated. The most sought after translators are actually people who have a specific training like medical or technical, and speak fluently two or three languages, having started translating for work or as a hobby, and once they are working as professional translators that’s when they get some type of official qualification.

    It’s like signing, everybody with vocal cords can sing, but not everybody can sing well or be professional singers. People who know two languages can translate, translation is one of the type of exercises used when learning a language, but wether somebody can actually do translation or interpretation to a professional level is a different kettle of fish.

    I actually think that asking bilingual children/people to translate something can be positive. It can encourage them by feeling they are doing something good and helpful with what they know, it may help them to think outside the box, and reflect about the differences in the two languages and why somethings don’t have a direct translations, or why some concepts just don’t exist in other languages… Of course, you can’t ask an 8 year old to translate an article from The Times, but that’s common sense.

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      Thank you for your comment! You are right, you don’t necessarily have to go to university to be a translator or interpreter, but as you say, most have some kind of training. I know from other bilinguals that being asked to translate can be very frustrating, especially if you have to translate something that is not familiar to you. To continue on the singing theme – yes, everyone with vocal cords can sing, but this doesn’t mean they want to sing and in my opinion should not be expected to sing.

      I don’t mind asking a child what the odd word is in their other language, or making a fun game of translating between the languages, but I know about cases where a child has had to translate between a parent and a teacher or a doctor, for example. This is the kind of situations where I think there is too much pressure on the child.

      Reply
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    Caught your post in Facebook group, new reader here so first of all let me say HI!

    I couldn’t tell you which comments upset my children, because so far they haven’t had any complaints and to the best of my knowledge they have never gotten any of these comments. However, I can tell you which comment upsets me as a parent of two bilingual children: “You are in ____________ (insert country here), speak __________ (that country’s language)!”

    This comment most often comes from my mother, and it’s terribly frustrating not to have her understand or support my decision to raise my children as bilinguals.

    Brief context explanation: I am Croatian born, married to an American, my son is Croatian born but spent 3 years in USA and I continue to raise him as bilingual, our daughter was born in USA and now we live in Croatia.

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      Dear Ana Lynn, thank you for sharing your experiences. I am so sorry to hear that your mother is unable to see the value of her grandchildren being bilingual. I don’t know your mother, but would it be possible to discuss the situation with her? There might be more than “You should speak the country’s language” behind her reluctancy to accept your decision. Does it bother her that you speak a language she may not understand? Is she worried that she won’t be able to speak to her grandchildren? Does she think that they might move away from Croatia when they grow up since they know English? If you could dig a bit deeper, you may be able to find some way of working around the situation and make her understand how important languages are for you and your children.
      whether you can or can not speak to your mother about this, it is your decision and a good one it is! You are giving your children the gift of an other language which will benefit them hugely in the future. Keep it up!

      Reply
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    Great list. I totally agree with number two (“say something in….”). It just isn’t natural and you’re so right about language being about communication rather than showing off.

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    I am a teacher who moved from a home country to the UK. Teaching here involves using English- the class is multilingual. The children picked up straight away that I am a foreigner but it never made any difference to them. Sometimes when my pronunciation is off they would ask- but they are growing up to appreciate the fact that there are many languages in the world . They have decided to learn few phrases in every language spoken withing our classroom. This way instead of feeling different and anxious all those for whom English is not their first language are keen to share their language. As for interpreting … well, they do that without being asked out of kindness:)

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      You are clearly going about it in exactly the right way. Fantastic that the children want to learn some of each others’ languages. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against children translating as such, just like you say they can really enjoy it. It’s the situation where a child is expected to act as a translator which I do not like.

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    Thank you very much, Rita for this great post! I agree with all the points: people just shouldn’t ask these question to bilinguals or multilinguals. I’ve experienced most of these situations (not 6, like Scilla di Donato said before, I was more the one who would correct others and not 4, because my sister and I are native in the same languages). I could add two more points that are close to some in your list: “Which language do you prefer?” and “In which language do you count?”. Last one came from linguists (collegues) who assumed that the language you count in is your native language. But I can perfectly count in both my first languages and do equations etc…. And the the question about which language I prefer: it’s like the question “where’s home for you?” for a Third Culture Kid. For me it’s like being asked if you love more your father or your mother.
    I find this topic very inspiring and will think about 7 (?) questions to ask a bilingual or multilingual child. Any suggestions? 😉

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      Thank you, Ute! Good additions – you are so right, you can’t choose between your languages. With regards to the ‘heart’ question, my anser is “Home is where the heart is and the hart can be in many places”
      Like the idea of a “counter list” 🙂 Maybe “Please continue speaking all you languages, you are a great role model to other kids”

      Reply
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    I can still just about remember the awkwardness of wondering what to say when people asked me to say something ‘in foreign’ when I was a kid. But luckily for me my Dad taught me some enjoyable phrases to reply like ‘Do not feed the moose’ (yep, Scandinavian) or ‘no polar bears here’ which just made it good fun, and I learned to enjoy the question. It was usually other kids who asked me – hard to stop a curious child from asking, and I came to like sharing my other language, once I knew what to say. It was a bit of a game.

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      I agree, kids asking kids is fine – but generally children are reluctant to “perform”. Your Dad gave you some really good advice!

      Reply
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    If I had a penny for every time I’ve been told “Say something in Maltese” I’d be a millionaire! Unfortunately I have learnt that this is either just to check if the interlocutor is really able to speak the language or because the language in question is a minority language, considered a novelty, something funny or strange. In any case it remains a question that still puts me ill at ease.

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      I know! And you are right the less common the language you speak is, the more often you will get asked to “say something” in it.

      Reply
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    You can change your title to : what not to say to bilingual people (or people not from your country).. I get almost all these comments on a regular basis. Especially the one about “o you sound so cute / funny / sweet when you say it like that”, when you are being dead serious quite annoys me…. 

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    First of all, great post, Rita!
    As a professional translator and interpreter, I do think that these are skills learnt at university (or equivalent learning institutions).
    It is true that there are very good translators and interpreters who first trained in something else, but there are just as many, if not more, who first studied translation and then especialized in a given area.
    Also, some bi-/multilinguals make very good translators, but some really struggle, because none of their native languages are strong enough to be their A language (the language the translator works into). I grew up bilingual (Spanish/Basque), but only my Spanish is strong enough to translate into.
    I totally agree with Rita that a child should never be asked to translate between a family member and a doctor/teacher.

    Reply

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