Q&A: How strict should you be when your bilingual child answers in the “wrong” language?

by | Nov 5, 2015 | Challenges, Coaches, Marianna DuBosq, Q&A Being the parent in a multilingual family | 0 comments



How strict should you be when your child answers in the wrong language? My almost two year old is learning Spanish, Catalan and English. Spanish and Catalan from nursery (we live in Spain). Spanish from mum and English from dad (native) and English is spoken when we are all together. I know my daughter is only two but I get frustrated when she answers me in Spanish. I correct her many times but still answers in Spanish. I’m patient and repeat the English over and over but sometimes I feel I should be more strict and tell her off otherwise she will answer how she wants.


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Thank you, Trent, for submitting your question to the Multilingual Parenting Language Coaching Team!

One of the most common obstacles I hear from multilingual parents is exactly what you have described here. You are working really hard to pass on a specific language to your child and even though they show that they are understanding what is being said to them they answer in another language. Typically, they answer in the community language which is what you are describing here, your daughter is answering back in Spanish.

How you manage these obstacles will be a very personal choice, however, you certainly have a few options and I will break those down for your below:

Incomprehension. When applying this approach you are pretending that you do not understand your child when she is speaking to you in Spanish. This one may be harder to pull off if your children see you out in the community interacting in Spanish.

Stop your child. Some parents choose to stop their child midsentence and ask them to express themselves in the “correct” language in your case English.

Questioning. In this case, you may ask your daughter a question about what she is saying in English to either give her the words she will need to communicate in English and/or to encourage her to switch from Spanish to English.

Mommy words vs Daddy words. On an interview with Susanne Dopke, a highly regarded speech and language pathologist, she shared with me that children that are 24 months or older understand the differences between mommy words and daddy words. Just like they understand that mommy has certain shoes that she wears and they are different from daddy’s, they also understand who uses which types of words and, therefore, who uses which language.

Repeat. You also have the option of repeating what your daughter has just said in Spanish but in English. Again, this gives her the opportunity to hear the words she would be using to communicate if she chooses to do so in English. Based on your question, it sounds like this is the strategy you have already implemented in your home.

Pretend that nothing happened. Some parents simply let their children speak in the language they prefer but they continue to respond in the target language.

Switch to Spanish. The most extreme option you have at your disposal is to simply switch to Spanish when your daughter speaks to you Spanish.

As you can see, there are several strategies that you can implement, and they really cover the entire spectrum. You can be as stern as you like or as flexible as you would like, and they will likely all yield different outcomes.

I can tell you that in our home, we use the mommy words vs daddy words strategy and it has worked very well for us so far. My daughter is 34 months and I speak to her exclusively in Spanish. Let’s say that we are talking and she says a word in English, I will say something along the lines of “That’s how Daddy says it, how does mommy say it?” If she knows the word in Spanish, she immediately switches. If she does not know the word, she may not respond or she repeats the word in English.

I point out the difference in her behavior based on whether or not she knows the word because it is of relevance to this topic. Often times when our multilingual children answer in a language other than the one we are speaking to them, it is because they simply do not have the words they need to communicate in that language at their disposal. They may have the best intentions but the words may simply come easier in another language, typically the community language since they are much more exposed to it. The best way to address this issue is by increasing the amount of exposure. This is, of course, easier said than done and in fact you are probably already doing plenty to provide your daughter with exposure in English. Here are some additional ideas to help you think outside of the box and create engaging activities for her.

In your question you did ask how strict you should be and again I think that comes down to a personal choice. I can tell you, however, about a recent conversation I had with Annabelle Humanes, a researcher in language acquisition. Through her research on this very topic, she found that parents who responded positively when their child responded in the “wrong language” and then just modeled the word in the “right language” provided the greatest boost in the child’s vocabulary.

This sounds very similar to what you are doing. Perhaps you can take it a step further and after repeating yourself in English, engage in a conversation with her that then encourages her to use the words you just repeated in English. For example, if she is telling you about an experience at the park, you may repeat what she is saying in English and then ask her what she would like to do at the park next time she goes. You are essentially giving her an opportunity to talk about exactly what you just said in English.

Start off simple with words that she finds easier in English and then continue to build on it. Keep in mind that research has shown that how much you speak with your child does make a difference in how much they learn. Therefore, do not hold back and chat away with your daughter as much as you possibly can in English and treat your daughter like a conversational partner because how you say things also matters!

Above all, keep it positive. You do not want your bilingual daughter to start resenting English or have a negative associations. Keep providing her with memorable experiences in English, increase the amount of exposure she is getting in the language and most importantly do not give up! You will look back later and be glad that you worked through this hiccup.

Kind regards

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Marianna Du Bosq

Marianna Du Bosq

Marianna Du Bosq was born in Caracas, Venezuela where she spent the majority of her childhood as a monolingual speaking only Spanish. Until one day, right before her thirteen birthday, her family moved to the United States and her adventure and passion for language learning began! Her love for languages started with her own experience and grew into a desire for teaching others leading her to spend several years in the classroom teaching dual language learners. She is now facing the most challenging yet rewarding facet of her life, that of a multilingual parent with a mix of English, Spanish and German! Marianna is the blogger and podcast host at Bilingual Avenue where she interviews multilingual parents sharing their best practices along with experts in the field of multilingualism providing actionable tips and strategy. She has a Master’s in Education with an emphasis in Curriculum and Instruction.


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