Raising a bilingual child: alternatives to pretending not to understand

by | Dec 2, 2015 | Being the parent in a multilingual family, Challenges, Family life | 1 comment

Raising a bilingual child: alternatives to pretending not to understand
What to do when your bilingual child avoids using the minority language and speaks to you in the majority language instead? I am all for keeping the communication going with your little one, no matter what, so you will not be surprised to hear that I do not recommend pretending to not understand what your child is trying to tell you.

I am not saying it is wrong to do it; many parents use this approach and are in the end successful in getting their children to speak the minority language. What I am saying, is that this would not be my preferred way, as I would not like to give the child the feeling of not being understood or listened to, or even worse, for the child to decide to stay quiet instead of expressing his or her thoughts or asking a question.

So in place of refusing to understand the majority language, what are the other options when trying to motivate your son or daughter to keep speaking the minority language of the family. To start with, I always suggest trying to understand what the underlying reason to this behaviour is and try to tackle the issues you find. Then try one of the following approaches – most likely you would use a mixture of these, depending on the situation.

  1. Misunderstand

This approach is not far from refusing to understand, so I would use it with caution and in a joking manner. Let’s say your son speaks the majority language and asks you for a mug from the cupboard. You know he knows the word, so you could just give him a plate, and when he is bemused at what you are giving him say something like “Oh, I thought you wanted a plate – what was it you asked for?” You might get the answer you are hoping for!

  1. Translate

You could translate the word or phrase that your child is saying in the majority language. Especially do this when you are aware that the vocabulary is not familiar to your little one. I wouldn’t start translating everything, though, as that could easily lead to your child thinking that there is no need to speak the minority language as you always translate anyway.

  1. Discuss and rephrase

The best approach in my opinion is to engage the child in a discussion about the topic at hand. Use different ways of expressing the same thing your child just said to you in the majority language. Ask questions, incorporating the words that your child needs to be able to say the phrase in the minority language. Depending on your child’s age, you can also ask if there was a specific word they did not know. Of course, this way of handling the situation is not ideal when you are in a rush and need to communicate something quickly. For those situations, you might want to choose the next option.

  1. Understand but continue in minority language

Some parents choose to ignore the fact that the child uses the majority language, and they continue speaking the minority language independent of which language the child chooses to use. If you are persistent enough, you child will most likely at some point come around and switch back to the minority language.

  1. Switch to majority language

For a bilingual person, the natural instinct is to answer in the language you are spoken to. This is no different when the person speaking is your child. This is also the main reason for why many parents struggle to stick to the minority language. Although the parents are aware that the more easily they switch to speaking the majority language with their children, the higher the chances are that the children’s willingness to speak the minority one will lessen with time, it is often still difficult to stay consistent.

How are you handling such situations in your family, or what did your parents do if you chose the “wrong” language?

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1 Comment

  1. Elisa

    I normally translate if it is a newish word (at all or in my language) or ask “how mama say that?” if I know he knows the word. If we have a majority language companion other than husband I will probably do the short approach and continue with him in my language. My son is 2.


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