Q&A: Two family languages, children want to speak only one

by | Jun 4, 2015 | Coaches, Q&A How to motivate a bilingual / multilingual child to speak a family language | 2 comments



I was wondering if you could give me some feedback on how to encourage my passive bilingual kids to “produce” or speak the minority language in our home.

I have 4 children ages 10, 9, 6 and 4. Both my husband and I are bilingual English/Arabic speakers. I am a native speaker of Arabic and my husband learned to speak Arabic as an adult. My kids have mostly lived in Lebanon which is an Arabic-speaking country but we are currently in the U.S. For one year only and will be returning to Lebanon this summer.

I deeply desire for my kids to learn to speak Arabic but I have faced some unique challenges which I will attempt to explain.
– First; although Lebanon is an Arabic speaking country, English is widely spoken and at school the primary academic language for my kids is also English. So we have struggled to find environments where they can be immersed in Arabic.
– Second; although my husband and I are both Arabic speakers we have found it difficult to relate to our kids deeply in that language and feel much more comfortable using English when disciplining, expressing emotions, or conversing about deep subjects. Basically, English has been our default language in the home although I make efforts to communicate with them in Arabic as much as I can (without stress). They are able to understand most everything I say but they will not willingly respond to me in Arabic unless I force them and even then their vocabulary is limited. I feel that they know a lot of words but cannot easily create sentences to speak. So simple hearing Arabic spoken (whether it’s by mom and dad, TV, or other people, etc.) is not translating into them being able to speak it.

I realize that we are doing neither the OPOL nor the mL@H method but honestly neither of those work well for us. Most often we are using both languages interchangeably at home but I am hoping that the kids will be able to speak both but I don’t know what to do now to help ensure that.

Any input would be greatly appreciated!
Thank you so much!


Hi Joelle,

First off, I just have to say I love Lebanon. One of my favorites countries I’ve been fortunate enough to visit.
You are correct that hearing and understanding Arabic will not translate into productive (spoken and written) fluency. These are separate areas of the brain and require separate practice and stimulation. Many of your children are a bit on the older end, so a switch to a different strategy, such as OPOL, would be very hard and probably not the right choice at this point. It sounds like that’s not a good fit for your family anyway.

Language building takes a long time, so there is no real easy answer for your situation. I’d say, realistically speaking, your goal would be to get your children comfortable in having basic conversations. If you can give them that foundation, then, one day, when they’re ready to pick up the language more fully, they should be able to.

There are a couple of different things I would try:
– The more the children are interested in the culture and the language the better. Talk about the history, get into music and literature. If they pick up an interest in these areas, this will translate into a desire to learn the language to learn and understand more about their areas of interest.
Family language hour. As their productive ability is fairly low at the moment, this would be structured to really contain conversation topics, activities, or games that they could handle. You could do this yourself (which I’d recommend) or hire a tutor. You would want this to be low pressure and fun for all, so maybe something like making cookies together or making a play dough recipe and then make different animals with the play dough and talk about them.
Camps. As you usually live in Lebanon, find week-long summer camps in areas of the children’s interest and send them. Just seek out camps where most of the children will be Arabic-speaking only. This will have the benefit of an immersion camp, but also be fun focusing on another of their interests. The US also has these, so look around in your area while you’re here.
– Start sending the children on errands. If you need bread, send the children to the store together. Have them go ask an Arabic-only speaking neighbour for something.
– Take trips to areas of Lebanon where English is not widely spoken. Again, you can make this fun by assigning roles to the children, like one helps book the hotel upon arrival, one orders the meal at a restaurant, etc.
Translation games might be a good bridge for the older children. Use English and see if they can come up with the Arabic and then vice versa. You can time them, they can be clues to a scavenger hunt, they can try to stump each other, anything to make it fun and engaging. After playing, sit down and compare the languages side by side. Research has shown that children who are able to analyze their languages in this and learn the similarities and differences are more successful learners of the languages.
– In the US, you can find sometimes find fun children’s courses that focus on engaging lessons and conversational language. Look around in your area.

Good luck!

Nick Jaworski

Nick Jaworski


  1. Carolien

    Awesome tips Nick! Thank you. I’ll def keep this in mind as my kids are starting to show similar signs as Joelle is mentioning.

  2. Joelle Merrifield

    Thanks for your feedback Nick! You had some good ideas. I think you’re right that if they get a good foundation in Arabic then they can always build on that later in life. The key for me is to do my best to expose them to the language and help them learn to use it without getting so discouraged that they’re not at the level that I would like.

    I can’t believe you’ve been to Lebanon! That’s awesome 🙂


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