Q&A: How to convince a 3-year-old to answer in the minority language?

by | Mar 28, 2019 | Babies, Coaches, Q&A How to motivate a bilingual / multilingual child to speak a family language, Rita R, Toddlers | 1 comment

How to convince a 3-year-old to answer in the minority language?




I’m British, living in France for the past 13 years. I speak French to my French husband, and we have two girls, a 3-year-old and a new-born. Our 3-year-old was a late speaker (first words at 17 months) and I am the only person who speaks English to her regularly.

I am terrified she is going to become or is becoming, a passive bilingual. She understands everything I say to her, but always replies in French. I always repeat her sentence in English but I’m getting more and more frustrated (and tired) of doing this. I’ve tried lots of things, but she just always speaks French to me.

Anything you can suggest so I don’t lose my mind?


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Dear Emma,

Thank you for your question and for sharing your sense of frustration while waiting for your 3-year-old daughter to respond to you in English.

First of all, let me tell you that you are not alone in this struggle. Actually, for anyone in your situation, that may well be more the norm than the exception that at three years of age a child prefers to speak the majority language. Most children go through a phase where they understand, but don’t speak the minority language (receptive bilingualism).

When you say that you “regularly” speak English with her, what does that exactly mean? Do you always switch to French with your daughter when your husband is present, but speak English when it only the two of you? I am asking, as your choice of language in that situation can make a big difference as to how urgent it is for your daughter to speak English with you.

100% consistency is not required, but the less exposure to a language, the bigger the importance of the minority language parent sticking to his or her language. It is a question of creating a routine, where the child is used to always speaking the minority language with that parent. In your case, I would recommend that you use English even when your husband is with you. If this is a change to what you are currently doing, then please discuss it in advance with your husband and explain the reasoning behind the change.

Please keep in mind that children are very pragmatic in their language choices. A 3-year-old, who knows that a person speaks both languages, will choose to speak the language which is easier. This is nothing to do with the child rejecting the language, nor being stubborn. It is just a case of what’s easiest at the time.

I have had contact with many parents in your situation and it does take patience to stick with it. Some time ago I spoke to a father of a 5-year-old who was yet to answer in English (the minority language in the family). What resolved the situation was the father having a casual, calm discussion with his son, asking why he did not respond in English. The son said that he felt ashamed because he did not know the language as well as his father did! You can never be sure of the reasoning behind a child’s choices. In this case father and son had a good talk, where the father said how delighted he would be if the son would use even a little English, and that it did not matter if it was not right. Slowly the son agreed to start using English and has now got used to it.

I understand your frustration, but please go easy on yourself. You have a toddler and a new-born to care for, and days can be hard even without anything special happening. You could use your baby girl as a reason for making English the only language between the three of you. Talk to her about how important it is that her baby sister learns English, and that she can help you to teach her the language. Make her feel important.

For children to start speaking a language, they should feel the need to speak it and they should want to speak it. It is on us as parents to create such an environment. With small children it is important to associate fun things with the language. (This is the reason I am not in favour of the approach where parents refuse to understand if a child speaks the “wrong” language.) Think about things your 3-year-old likes to do, then find a way to make them English-only activities. This could be a certain game or even a place which is dedicated to English. One great way that works with small children is to use “monolingual” toys. Read the linked-to article on ideas how to use them.

It would also be helpful if you could find other English-speaking toddlers that she could play with. Seeing other children speak English may well be the push she needs to start speaking the language herself. I presume you are already reading books to her – as often as you can with the new-born to care for? Also remember to give her lots of enthusiastic positive feedback if she says any English word at all. Tell her how happy it makes you.

I know it feels like a long uphill battle, but it can be done – lots of parents have been through this phase. I would also recommend that you reach out to other parents, e.g. via our Multilingual Parenting Facebook group. It is always good to have an understanding audience to vent to and be supported by.

Wishing you a successful bilingual family journey!

Kind regards,

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Rita Rosenback

Rita Rosenback

Rita is an author, Family Language Coach, blogger and speaker, who was born into a bilingual family on the Swedish-speaking west coast of Finland. After studying languages in Finland and Germany she worked as a university teacher, translator, interpreter and manager of multinational teams. Rita is now a full-time writer and coach and has been living in the U.K. since 1998. Rita is the mother of two grown-up multilingual daughters, who are the inspiration for her book: “Bringing up a Bilingual Child”, an easy-to-read guide for parents, where she navigates the reader across the “Seven Cs of Multilingual Parenting: Communication, Confidence, Commitment, Consistency, Creativity, Culture and Celebration”. Currently English and Swedish are Rita’s main languages, but she instantly switches to Finnish or German or to her Finland-Swedish dialect when the opportunity presents itself (and when push comes to shove, she can communicate in a very basic Punjabi). Rita is the creator and driving force of this website, and she gives talks and holds workshops for parents and teachers on the topic of bilingual children. She also coaches families on how to make the most of their languages and raise their children to become confident speakers of the chosen languages.

1 Comment

  1. Emma

    Hello. I am the original poster of this question. 5 years on update: my younger daughter is now 5 1/2 and speaks English to me 95pc of the time. Sadly, my nearly 9 year old still refuses to speak English with me and we had another fight this morning about it. I am speaking more French with her than before because I am simly exhausted by 9 years of being answered in French and it really upsets me. If anyone could help, I would really appreciate it. I can’t continue like this. Our relationship is really suffering.


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