Why Does My Child Reject His or Her Home Language?
The rewarding challenge of raising bilingual children can often take an unexpected turn into confusion. Despite your best efforts, you notice that your child refuses to speak their home language. The frustrations mount and parents often begin to feel helpless in this situation. But wait, the good news is up ahead! If you have a young one who used to speak Spanish at home and has stopped, then this article may help you to understand why. Parents understand the benefit of being multilingual but, the truth is, most children simply do not. Even so, how can you encourage them to speak Spanish at home when it’s their native language? Let’s look at the reasons why they may refuse to speak it and what we can do to encourage a change.
The Bilingual Child’s Dilemma
In general, the benefits of being bilingual are not clear to a child caught between two worlds. Very often, they will decide that the minority language – the one spoken by fewer people in their daily experience – has to go. Two prominent theories about why this happens are (1) due to peer pressure, and (2) the breaking down of the person-language bond.
According to Barbara Abdelilah-Bauer, a French linguist, social psychologist, and founder of Café Bilingue, “[Dropping the home language] is something that often happens because children don’t want to be different from their friends at school.” In countries like the United States, for example, an average of only 2 out 10 of children are bilingual. In other words, the minority of children do not speak English at home. Unfortunately, this may contribute to the peer pressure they feel to conform to speaking English all the time as the community language.
The person-language bond refers to a strong psycho-emotional connection the child makes to a caretaker that also involves the chosen language they speak to one another. Let’s look at an example: a mother lives in an English-speaking community and chooses to speak Spanish-only to her son. As he grows, he realizes that he speaks Spanish with mom and English with everyone else. This strengthens his person-language bond with his mother and he will very likely refuse to speak English with her. If at some point the child’s mother begins to speak to him in English as well, it will quickly break down the strong language association that he had had with her. This will erode his need to speak Spanish to his mother and lead to him speaking to her in English, as it is the majority language in this example. “Children use the easiest strategy when it comes to languages. When they see that you understand and talk other languages that are more important at the moment (social environment, school, and friends) they will prefer those dominant languages,” says Ute Limacher-Riebold of ExpatSinceBirth.
What are other possible reasons they are not speaking Spanish?
Aside from the examples above that do not apply to everyone, what might be some other reasons that your child is not speaking Spanish at home?
- Discomfort: Make sure your child doesn’t feel pressured to speak Spanish in certain situations. This can lead to a sense of embarrassment that becomes associated with the language. Also, kids tend to notice if a parent feels uncomfortable speaking a certain language and they will eventually end up feeling the same way toward it.
- Few language resources: Does your child have a rich collection of books, DVDs, board games, computer games, and other language-heavy types of media? If not, then it’s time to start gathering as many Spanish-speaking resources as possible and make a space that grabs your child’s attention.
- Spanish is being learned, not lived: An important fact about language acquisition and usage is that the language must be relevant and meaningful for the child in order for them to use it. If it is being taught inside the home instead of being used in a meaningful way, it may lose its sense of purpose and its appeal.
- Not enough exposure: How many hours a week is your child exposed to Spanish-speaking situations? If less than 30% of their waking hours are spent in this kind of environment, you may want to consider adding more “living resources” (such as people and family members who only speak Spanish) to their daily life.
- The parent speaks the community language more often: How often do you find yourself speaking Spanish with your child or with the people in your life? Do you notice that you speak more frequently in the majority or community language? This can affect your child’s idea of how necessary or important it is to speak Spanish when another language is more dominant or frequently used.
Dormant or Passive Bilingualism?
While a child may choose to stop speaking Spanish for whatever reason, the good news is that they don’t typically lose their bilingual ability (unless they go years without any practice). To be most effective in encouraging a change in the child’s language choice, it’s important to understand whether your child is dormant or passive when it comes to Spanish fluency.
Sometimes, a person will go into a mode called dormant bilingualism, where, despite knowing two languages or more, they choose to interact with the world in only one language. Swiss psycholinguist, François Grosjean, says that this could be due to a “major life change such as immigration, the loss of a close family member, a separation, a change of jobs, or simply growing up and leaving one’s language community.” In this case, they would still have a strong fluency level in Spanish, but they no longer choose to speak it while they adapt to their new circumstances.
Passive bilingualism refers to a type of speaker who was exposed to a language since birth and has a native-like comprehension of it, but who did not develop an active command of speaking the language. In this case, they would need educational reinforcements and confidence-building to help them establish an ability to speak Spanish (not just understand it).
How to Encourage the Use of Home Language
Knowing and understanding whether your child is a dormant or passive bilingual will help you to choose which of the following suggestions would be the best fit! What are some ways we can encourage usage of the home language?
- Seek out Spanish social groups or playgroups so that your child is encouraged to speak in the language in order to interact and play.
- Foster settings where your child will no longer have the choice of not using Spanish by exposure to a Spanish club, tutors, family members with whom Spanish is the only way to communicate, online Spanish classes at Homeschool Spanish Academy, babysitters, and other children. You can also invite home-stay guests, or have them home-stay with a family that only speaks Spanish.
- Actively promote a greater level of exposure to Spanish each day. Try to aim for 25 hours of active listening and speaking time each week with at least 15 minutes a day reading (and writing, if possible).
- Focus on making a rich home library with Spanish books and read with your child every night. Make use of effective reading strategies.
- Engage in lots of conversation by telling stories or folklore that you may know, talking about interesting events from your life, and sharing jokes and riddles.
- Introduce your child to Spanish music, computer games, TV shows, and other media that are fun and entertaining.
- Build up a fun collection of Spanish games: board games, card games, word games, and storytelling games.
- Balance your child’s Spanish experience with providing a need to speak it and maintaining constant exposure to it.
- Limit the amount of time you spend speaking to your child in any language other than Spanish.
- When you ask your child questions, offer up different choices or options instead of expecting a simple yes or no. This gives you the chance to model a richer, fuller use of the language.
Benefits of Bilingualism
While it is no easy task to get your bilingual child back on track, it is possible to do! We hope that with this article you have learned more about why your child may no longer be speaking Spanish and how to inspire them to change. If you would like to encourage your child to practice speaking with a native Spanish-speaking teacher from Guatemala, enroll them in an online Spanish class at Homeschool Spanish Academy! They are guaranteed to speak Spanish after the first class.
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