Q&A: How to motivate a bilingual toddler who understands a minority language to also speak it?

by | Oct 22, 2015 | Coaches, Maria Babin, Q&A How to motivate a bilingual / multilingual child to speak a family language, Toddlers | 2 comments


Hi coaches,

I read a lot of your Q&A’s and hope you have some comments for my family’s current situation:

I am a native Danish speaker (speak English fluently after living in the UK for 10 years, but currently living in Denmark). My partner is a native English-speaker (he can get by in Danish after having lived in Denmark for five years). Our 3-year-old was born in Denmark and she speaks almost exclusively Danish, but can understand everything her dad says to her in English. He talks mainly English to her, but sometimes a bit of Danish (should he not be doing this?) When he talks to her in English, she responds in Danish.

My question is whether she is getting too ‘old’ to become bilingual and what we have to do to encourage that she develops her ‘verbal’ English (as opposed to her ‘listening’ English)? We read lots of English books, and my partner and I only ever speak English to each other, but of course, she is surrounded by majority-language from myself, nursery, Danish family etc. She seems reluctant to speak English and have on a few occasions said “I can’t speak English” although she is aware that she understands it.

Due to the fact that she hasn’t developed the confidence to speak it, she is also not able to communicate that well with the English side of the family. Is this something that happens a lot? Any ideas and recommendations most welcome as to how we can encourage her to speak English? Any tips on how we perhaps should do things differently with our 5-month-old baby in order to encourage that he develops the ‘verbal’ English more naturally?

I would also like to add that our daughter (who in general is quite shy), becomes extra shy if we try to get her to say anything in English – particular in front on her dad (the English native speaker). We can’t really figure out why this is, as he under no circumstances has been “pushy” about her learning English, and he never corrects her. She has also started to say that she doesn’t want English books at bedtime, but when I ask her why, she can’t really give a reason. The only reason I can think of is that at bedtime she is tired and it might be a bit harder listening to English rather than Danish, when she is surrounded by Danish most of the day.

The other day I took a really easy English book, and read out short sentences and tried to make a game out of it, by having her repeat the sentences (which she did reluctantly, was shy about it, but thought it was fun). When her dad tried to do the same with her (him being the native English speaker), she did something else and rather interesting – she translated the English sentences back to him but in DANISH! This I found very peculiar, as it clearly shows that she fully understands English, but chooses not to speak it (particular in front of Daddy). Is it a case of introducing the verbal English through games (suggestions most welcome)? Or is there another way we can get her to practise her verbal English?



Hello Marie,

Thank you for your question. It is one that I can personally relate to as English is one of our minority languages and one that I work hard to maintain. I also have a soon-to-be 3-year-old who speaks to me almost exclusively in the community language (French). But I also have three older children (14, 12 & 9 years old) who speak their community and minority languages fluently today! So I can reassure you that even when children do not use the minority language when very young, that does not mean there is not a lot of learning going on and that they can’t still grow up to be fluent speakers! A little patience is needed along with a few tips that I have found to be helpful.

Increase input. It sounds like you are already doing a great job, but it is worth repeating. The best way to help our children learn to speak a language is to increase the input in that language. The wider the range of activities that you participate in as a family, the greater the opportunities to learn and practice new vocabulary. Nature walks, cooking together, family meals, museums, read lots of books together and the list could go on and on! This list is for summer, but it can give you some additional ideas: 101 ideas for language immersion outdoors. The more interpersonal interaction is involved, the more effective the language input. But movies, music, and language apps can be a wonderful support.

Create a need to use English. If you have English-speaking friends, make plans to spend time together. If there are young English-speaking children, even better! See if you can find an Anglophone playgroup in your area and participate as often as you can.

Rephrase, repeat. I like to alternate between methods of “correction” when my children speak to me in the “wrong” language. Sometimes I ask for clarification? “Oh, do you mean a shoe?” (if they used a “wrong” vocabulary word). If it was the entire phrase, I sometimes rephrase it in the “correct” language. Occasionally, I will ask the child to repeat either the word or phrase. A word of caution, I try to use these methods with regularity but parsimoniously! Avoid at all costs making this an unpleasant experience for the child. In my opinion, corrections (even when used sparingly) help the child to understand what is expected of them. If we let all the “mistakes” slide, the child risks not understanding that he is not doing what is expected.

Always respond to the child in the target language. (This one seems to go without saying, but for what it’s worth, here it is!) That said, if your companion occasionally speaks to your child in Danish, it’s not the end of the world. It’s better to remain in English (if that is your target minority language) but occasional slip-ups are part of a multilingual lifestyle!

Respect the child’s rhythm. I also have two very shy children and can understand this problem. It can be a challenge for a shy child to express himself in a first language, let alone a second. However, as the child learns and grows and gains in confidence, especially at the heart of your family, the possibility to express himself in the target language will grow. Then you will be amazed at how much your child does already know (thanks to all your great language input!). However, my child who is now almost three is not shy at all and still rarely speaks to me in English. I can see that he clearly understands (he also translates just like your daughter!), but I also see that his majority language is in such a phase of explosion, that he simply does not have time to focus on the English expression for now. This brings me to my final point.

Observe and assess. Even if your daughter does not express herself in English right now, there are plenty of ways for you to know how the language learning is going. The storytime game you described is a perfect example. Use your target language English to ask her to do simple tasks (pick up the ball, put this is in the basket, etc.) and then tasks of increasing complexity (Can you go find me a pair of socks? Can you bring me a red pair of socks? etc.). This will allow you to see what level her comprehension is at and where you might need a little extra work. It will also help her gain confidence in her knowledge of the language.

Above all, have fun! Experience joy along the multilingual journey! This will make a world of difference for both of your children and the parents!

Best of luck to you and your family!

Kind regards,

Maria Babin

Maria Babin

Maria, born and raised in the United States to a Peruvian father and a Mexican mother, is today the proud mama of four trilingual kiddos. She loves their multilingual, multicultural lifestyle, living in a suburb of Paris, France, taking family vacations to the United States and eating Mexican tacos. She graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah in 2000 with a Bachelor’s degree in French, completed undergraduate coursework in early childhood second language acquisition as well as graduate coursework in French literature. She taught beginning French at BYU before beginning her own in-home multilingual experiment. She blogs at Trilingual Mama in a quest to explore and exploit the secrets that lead to a family’s multilingual successes, including research, practical tips, resources and real life.


  1. Nadia Stubbs

    Hello Marie and Maria,

    this is a very important issue for multilingual families and a great article, I agree with Maria’s response.

    If I may, I would like to emphasise on one thing that Maria said. Meeting with the cousins is one of the most effective way of getting the children to start speaking the second language. If you are lucky enough to have nieces and nephews, then make sure your daughter spends as much time as possible with them when you are visiting your English speaking family. They are the best teachers because your child will want to play with them and she will make the effort to speak their language, even if the first few days may be a bit difficult. You can then try and maintain the link at home with Skype sessions, another fun way of using the language.

    If you don’t have little ones in the family overseas then try to get your child involved in some kid activities during the holiday so she can be with other kids her age. Take her to the playground a lot, if your partner’s friends also have children, organise play dates… The idea is to give the second language a boost while she’s having fun on holiday and then try to maintain that at home.

    My two kids love to play with their cousins when we’re in France and their French always improves a lot after just a few weeks holiday. Good luck!

    • Maria (Trilingual Mama)

      Hello Nadia! Thanks for your input. I agree that peer learning is by far the best tool! When children are motivated to play, language is no barrier! And children almost always adopt the play language of their peers. So if there is a way to spend time with cousins or participate or organize play dates with children who speak the minority language, then by all means, take advantage of these golden opportunities!
      However, sometimes, depending on where you live, those opportunities may be very limited. And in those instances, there are plenty of other ways to encourage minority language usage as mentioned in the tips above.


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