7 ways to motivate your child to speak the minority language
Motivation is the key to any language learning, never more so than for a bilingual child keeping up with the minority language.

1 – Habit
If you consistently stick to speaking the minority language with your children, they are less likely to want to switch to the majority language with you, even when it becomes the main language of their day spent at nursery or school.

2 – Need
Nothing is as motivating as the need to speak a language. Without coercion, come up with situations where your children will want to communicate with monolinguals in the minority language. Think of play dates, Skype calls, sports and other activities in the language.

3 – Travel
Being immersed in an environment where the minority language is the common language in the society is one of the most efficient ways to give the language a boost. Several parents have seen their children’s confidence in the minority language progress in leaps and bounds after a stay in a place where they are surrounded by the language and other speakers of it.

4 – Fun
Make using the language fun – think of activities in the minority language which engage your children and make them want to speak it. This could be games, hobby groups or even computer games in the language

5 – Positive feedback
I am a great believer in giving positive feedback. In the long run, encouraging a behaviour which moves towards the desired goal is far more effective than being told off for using the wrong language. Keep it realistic though: children see through you very quickly if they get praised no matter what they say. Your feedback needs to be honest.

6 – Incentive
Children respond well to different incentives, but always make them age-appropriate. Your five-year-old will love getting a smiling sun sticker on the wall chart, but for your teenager you need to figure out something different. I also think it is sometimes okay to bribe your children to get them to speak your language. However, use bribes sparingly and save them for crucial situations when your children show tendencies to drop the minority language.

7 – Be a great role model
The importance of you as a role model for your child can not be underestimated. Show pride in your language and use it whenever you can. Read books – any books: biographies, chick lit, novels, non-fiction, cooking books, you name it – you children will also want to read. Teach them about the culture of your language: traditions, food, clothing, arts, sports, history, fashion, movies …

… and 3 things to avoid:

1 – Refuse to talk
I have heard of parents answering their children only when they are addressed in the “right” language. This is a very drastic approach and in my opinion, not to be recommended. You should never stop communicating with your child. The very essence of language IS communication. The choice of language should not become a battle ground or be associated with feelings of being forced to do something.

2 – Pretend not to understand
This might be a bit controversial, since I know several parents have pretended not to understand their children when they use the majority language. They have also probably succeeded in getting their children to speak only the minority language. I am however not keen on this approach, as it is a short term solution and you might be accused of lying.

3 – Threaten with negative consequences
As I mentioned earlier, I am all for positive encouragement. You may get your children to speak the minority language by shortening their playtime or refusing treats if they use the majority language, but you are creating a negative atmosphere around the language which is not conducive to your children’s willingness to use it.

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  1. John Hogg

    There’s another idea I’ve heard that I was wondering what your thoughts were on. When the child is just learning to speak what if, instead of pretending not to understand when the child uses the majority language with the minority language parent, instead, the parent repeats back what the child just said, only in the minority language?

    For example:
    Child: “Dad, I want some milk!”
    Dad: “Ты хочешь немного молока? Хорошо…”

    I’ve heard that this can be useful because children sometimes use the majority language because they aren’t comfortable saying a certain thing in the minority language and by hearing what they just said repeated back to them in the other language, it helps to reinforce to them how to say the things they want to say. Thoughts?

  2. Trilingual Mama

    Thanks Rita! Great advice, as always. As far as pretending not to understand, it all depends on how you do it! I take the clown approach 😉 What? What’s that you said? I don’t understand! Can you say it again? Huh? This usually gets giggles or at least a grin. And if they still don’t use the target language, then I model it for them. I do agree it’s important to keep it positive and fun!

    • Rita Rosenback

      Hi Maria! You are absolutely right – the way you do it makes it fun and your children actually already know that you DO understand them, no matter what language they speak. It’s when parents pretend to small children that the really don’t understand and they have to come clear later on. I am not saying it won’t work, it’s just not the approach I would take.

  3. apprendix

    Great post!
    Muchas gracias 🙂

  4. Joana Ferrao

    Hi Rita,

    very very good article and useful as I was just wondering and trying to get more info about the best approach to a situation where a child replies on the majority language to the parent that speaks the minority one.

    Many thanks for this.


  5. Katia

    Great Article and I agree all the way the the `avoid bullet points`. Any punishment or negative impact will not work in favour of language acquisition and use process.

  6. Ambika S

    It is a wonderful and needed article for me. Living in another country apart from native country, it is often hard to make my kids to talk in their mother tongue. Will try your suggestions.

  7. Lauren

    I see you’re not suppose to pretend not to understand, but what happens when you really DON’T understand and you have a frustrated child (toddler) who is upset that you don’t?

    • Rita

      Dear Lauren, thank you for your comment – I know how you feel! My younger daughter was a later talker and at three years she had created her own language, which she spoke very convincingly. She understood both family languages perfectly (Punjabi and Swedish) and got very frustrated when we didn’t understand what she said. I remember asking a lot of confirmation questions, second-guessing and being very patient and accepting of her frustration moments. Rest assured, this phase will pass, but yes, it will test your patience and sometimes break your heart a little bit when you don’t know what your little one wants to tell you. Had I known about baby sign language at the time, I might have tried that to ease the transition. By the way, my daughter is now fluent in three languages, knows a fourth well and quite a lot of a fifth!

      • Lauren

        Thanks for your reply. I’m sorry, I wasn’t at all clear… My child talks very well, but he’s rejecting the minority language (English), which I speak. I’ve tried learning the majority language with little success (I’ve never had a facility for languages). So I literally do not understand him even though he’s speaking in full sentences. He does communicate in my language sometimes.

        • Rita

          Oh, yes, that does change the situation … and of course the answer! I will send you a direct message, as I would need to have some more information to give you a better reply with some suggestions, and will then feature your question in our Q&A section.

        • Rita

          Dear Lauren, I have sent you a direct message a couple of weeks ago – if you forward me the additional information, we can feature your question in the Q&A section.

  8. Annie

    Dear Rita, my nephew refuses to speak Vietnamese even though his parents and I all speak Vietnamese to him and he understands every single word. He said he was American so there was no point for him to learn Vietnamese. What should I say to encourage him? He is 11. Thank you.

    • Rita

      Dear Annie,

      commenting on others’ children’s behaviour and language use is a tricky thing. What are his parents thoughts about this? Have you showed them the article and have they tried the different options? I think the encouragement really has to come from them – a longer stay in Vietnam would probably be the most efficient way to get him to realise the worth of the Vietnamese language. Sorry to say, but his auntie telling him he should speak the language will unfortunately probably not make that much difference.

      Kind regards



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