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Child from bilingual family reluctant to speak more than one language
Thread poster: Todd Field

Todd Field  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 13:21
Member (2003)
Portuguese to English
Apr 10, 2008

Hello colleagues,

I am writing in hopes of getting some advice.

Here is our situation: I am a native English speaker and my wife is a native Spanish speaker. Our son, three (almost four), has been raised in a completely bilingual home environment since birth. His environment beyond the home (school, friends, relatives) is primarily English, with some Spanish. Our goal is for him to be completely bilingual.

Our son has excellent overall verbal skills. He understands both English and Spanish equally well. However, he is extremely reluctant to speak in Spanish, insisting that he "only speaks English like his father". Sometimes he even becomes irritated if we try to coax him into speaking Spanish.

My questions are:

1) Should we be concerned about this? In other words, since our son is almost four, is he approaching some "point of no return" in terms of his innate language acquisition skills?

2) How can we motivate our son to speak in Spanish as well as English?

Thanks in advance for your input.



GoodWords  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:21
Spanish to English
+ ...
Been there Apr 10, 2008

I was the child in this scenario, and pushing me to speak (German, in my case) was counterproductive because it made me stubborn and set me against the "foreign" language. We tried to have weekly "German days" at home, but my parents would soon inadvertently slip into English, and it was never too soon for me! My main exposure to the language was weekly German classes, an obligation I found boring at the time (of course now I wish I had paid more attention—you may notice that my profile doesn't even include German).

Having been there, I suggest the following:

1. Collect age-appropriate music, and DVDs of films and television shows that include a Spanish sound track, and let them be the main things he listens to and watches. Keep collecting them as he grows so he can be exposed to more mature vocabulary and themes as he gets older. (If I had had this opportunity, I wouldn't have thought German was only a boring grown-up language, and my vocabulary wouldn't have become fixed at a 5-year-old's level.)

2. I encourage your wife to keep answering him in Spanish if he talks to her in English (and this is very important) not in a coercive "this is the language you are supposed to be be using with me" way, but in a matter-of-fact, natural "this is the way mamá talks" way.

[Edited to add:] Every relationship has a language. If your son's relationship with his mother is always in Spanish (at least on her part), this can be taken for granted as a special part of their mother-son relationship; i.e. the idea that "mamá speaks Spanish to me" will be a basic given, and he is less likely to question that she speaks to him in Spanish even if she speaks to other people in English. To put it another way, he would not expect her to treat everyone as her son, just because she treats him as her son, and analogously, she doesn't speak the same language to him (English) that she does to most other people.

3. If you have the opportunity to expose him to any friends or relatives of yours that speak Spanish, or to travel to a Spanish-speaking country, it will be a chance for him to see that he is not alone in speaking Spanish.

4. Don't feel you have failed if he keeps refusing to speak Spanish. As long as he continues to understand it (and this is why #1 and #2 are important), he should have no trouble soon becoming fluent if he finds himself in a situation where Spanish is necessary.

[Edited at 2008-04-10 18:08]


Stephen Rifkind  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:21
Member (2004)
French to English
+ ...
Rousseau was right in this case Apr 10, 2008

Dear Goodwords:

We speak "Hebrish" in our house, since my wife is Israeli and I am American. My daughter only spoke Hebrew and refused to speak English for many years. Only when we took a trip to the States and saw how important it was to her grandparents that she spoke English (my father was visibly angry at me that she did not speak English) did she understand the importance. Last year, the minute we arrived in the States, she all of a sudden started speaking English very well. She was "ripe" for the experience, both emotionally and intellectually. I did not force the issue earlier and do not regret it.

I should note that I forced her to improve her English reading skills as a condition for getting Internet mainly for safety reasons. In any case, she gets a lot of satisifation being among the top students in English in her class (even if she is not a native speaker).


Local time: 21:21
German to Italian
A link Apr 10, 2008

We have a three years old daughter too and we are olso a bilingual family (Italian/German). Our daughter is, at the moment, completly bilingual. But I know it is quite common they refuse to speak one lenguage somewhen... the one they think is "less" or even "no" important.
I think rifkind and GoodWords are right: don't force her and let her time. But don't stop speaking spanish!

There is much literature about this theme.
Have a look at this address:
I have already read two books of hers and they are very interesting and full of practicle examples and experiences of other parents.

I wish you good luck!


Local time: 21:21
Italian to German
+ ...
agree with Goodwords and Rifkind Apr 10, 2008

I totally agree with Goodwords and Rifkind.
I am German, my husband is Italian and we live in Italy. Our two sons (17+12) are bilingual now, but there were moments when they refused to answer in my language, which is not the dominant language.
Right from the beginning I decided to follow the principle of "one person-one language", which I can see also in other bilingual families works best.
I tried to find other italian-german families and so they saw (and heard) that there were other people who were in the same situation.
Children have times when they don't want to be different from the others so the more often they can experience communicational situations in the non-dominant language (other children, tv, books, relatives...) the better they will understand and be open to this language/culture.
But, as was said before, don't force the child.
When my son answered in italian, I would ask him back in German "oh, do you mean..." repeating in German what he had said in Italian.
When they started going to school I didn't insist on teaching them how to read or write in German. The letters of the alphabet are the same, it was ok at that time for them to concentrate on writing skills in just one language. Later on, they showed more interest in reading also in German, when there was something they were particularly interested in. It's easy to read or write in a second language when one already understands every word.
Don't worry too much, just follow the few principles mentioned and it all comes natural.


Elena Robles Sanjuan  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:21
English to Spanish
I am still there too Apr 10, 2008

Hi Todd,

I have a 5-year old boy who has always refused to speak English with his Dad, to the extreme of using me as an "interpreter" between them, to avoid having to speak in English.

I don´t want to get into the debate of what is a proper bilingual environment, but my experience taught me the following:

+ I managed to create a perfect bilingual environment for my eldest son (Liam), who was born in Scotland and came to live in Spain at the age of 6. I said "I managed" and not "we managed", because I was the one with a genuine interest in this. That proved extremely important with time, as Liam wanted to please me and my family by making an effort; however, I´d say that it was a lot easier for me to make him speak Spanish purely because I was there a lot more than his father.

+ Liam didn´t speak a word of Spanish for quite a while, but once he did -completely out of the blue- he never looked back. He had been absorbing absolutely everything there is to know about a language and shocked me with his perfect pronunciation in Spanish. So, the command of the language is there, even if we don´t have specific proof of it.

+ Adam has grown up in Spain, so his is the opposite case. Two years after we moved to Spain, I noticed that Adam´s command of Spanish was already better than Liam´s, being 5 years younger. The problem with his English is that his Dad is not around to work on his speaking skills as much as I was with Liam. Adam is quite happy with his Spanglish, because my husband´s family understand him, but, most importantly, because HE FOUND OUT MY HUSBAND CAN SPEAK SPANISH. That was a huge mistake, though something inevitable. The minute he heard his Dad speak in Spanish IN THE HOUSE, he decided there was no reason whatsoever to make an effort. Kids can understand that their parents have to speak two languages, with friends, family, co-workers etc. But what really matter is what happens at home. I feel that home is the environment where the rules are set: Mummy speaks Spanish and Daddy speaks English, and that´s that.


Catherine Brix
Local time: 21:21
Swedish to English
+ ...
Been there, too Apr 10, 2008

I'm an American living in Sweden and I have two children with a Swedish man. My "children" are adults now, 21 and 23, but when they were growing up we lived in a suburb to Stockholm that, like many suburbs in Stockholm, had a large immigrant population. Their father lived in the "almost-exclusively-Swedish" part of the suburb, I lived in the "not-quite-exclusively-Swedish-but-definitely-not-the-immigrant" part of the suburb. My son, the oldest, was so proud of being an American and was only too pleased to show off his skills - but he's an outgoing type of person who as a toddler would happily hug anyone who asked for a hug, stranger or not. My daughter however refused to speak English and if I spoke a word of it in front of anyone except her or her brother she'd snarl, turn red and tell me in no uncertain terms to speak Swedish. This started around the age of 4. So as to discourage any attempts on my part to speak English with her she flatly refused to speak any English, not even on a very private one-on-one situation. She however was very shy - she would stand very, very close to me in public situations and would always walk one step behind her brother when entering school grounds. (Note here, the two of them waged a no-holds-barred war with each other from when he was 3 and she was 2 until he was 17 and she was 16 and in no way whatsoever was the war solely his doing. She was and still is tough as nails. They are each other's best friend today.)

So I let it be. When she turned 10 we had her classmates over and I, completely by accident, I was just having so much fun, said something in English. Her face went a deep red and I could see the tears swelling up. Her voice dropped very low and she told me to stop speaking English, I certainly knew how to speak Swedish. Something like that. Which was when one of her classmates asked her why and asked me if I could speak English and why I was speaking English. So I explained that I was from the States...blah blah... and the kids were all excited. A real live American and would I please speak more American, "it sounds so cool". Meanwhile, my daughter was on the sideline and I'm trying to exit the living room so it can go back to being her party, but her friends are so excited. Anyway, one of her friends asked why she never said anything and she just said she didn't want them to know that her mom was an immigrant.

See, kids pick up on things real soon in life. We have a capacity as babies and toddlers and small children to sense and smell things much like any other animal (I know dogs so I compare with dogs). I don't think we ever loose this capacity, I think we just rationalize situations to suit our immediate wants or needs and we stop listening to what many refer to as "our guts". But children notice things. It's how they pick up survival tactics. The way an adult might pull a child close to them when someone of a certain race or color or religion walks past, the way certain terms are used (and it doesn't have to be particularly "violent" or aggressive terminology), the way we divide communities into "us" and "them". After all - actions speak louder than words and kids watch and see everything.

And children have a lot of caregivers in their lives - much more than just their parents - daycare staff, teachers, babysitters, neighbors, new "extra" parents, etc...Children want to belong, they want to fit in and they want to be part of the popular cliche. So indications that they are somehow "lesser" will trigger a survival response and make them do whatever they have to do to climb the ranking ladder.
Once my daughter realized that people accredited different values to different types of immigrants and that I was one of the top-dog immigrants - she accepted my English.

Anyway, to make a long story short, both my children studied one year at a university in the USA. My daughter went to Italy in January last year to learn the language and then in July took an exam to get into university in Florence where she now studies marketing and fashion - courses are in Italian. She's doing fine. Both my children are fluent in Swedish and English and she's added Italian. She's thriving in the power that words have and the doors they open once you master them. She's 21 and has the world at her feet.

You might want to critically consider your surroundings. This doesn't necessarily mean that immediately family is an issue, but your son may be picking up on influences around him - indications that Spanish speakers are of a lesser value.
Or, maybe more basic - he's relating to you as his dad and is weaning himself from his mommy. He wants to speak the language of "the guys". He's not even 4. Give him a break. "Point of no return" - what a depressing idea - the thought that human beings have a limited capacity for learning, developing and evolving. Are you in for a surprise!

I feel compelled to add here that I in no way condone the superior vs inferior concept. I abhor all forms of racism, bigottry, xenophobia and religious intolerance. I have raised my children along these values and can proudly say that as adults today, they have chose to share these beliefs, just as they chose to share my language.

It's great to have goals but when it comes to children, we need to respect their integrity and admire them for the very special individuals they are.


Annamaria Arlotta  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:21
English to Italian
I wouldn't worry Apr 10, 2008

I don't think you need to worry. My husband is American, I am Italian and our daughter was born in England where we lived until she was 6. Like other children of bilingual families she privileged the language spoken by everybody rather than the "secret code" that her mother wanted her to use. Children can see that the language spoken in the Country they live is the one they need to function in the world, and the one accepted by others; they probably don't want to be different from the other children too.

When we moved to Italy our daughter did not have the slightest dfficulty switching to Italian, and even when we lived in England I found it amazing how one moment she could play and speak in English and a few hours later play while communicating in Italian with her cousins with the same ease. This is to say that probably your child is storing Spanish somewhere, ready to use it when necessary but only then.

I agree with Goodwords about finding songs and videos in Spanish, because they prove that the language is real and not a "strange invention" by mum.
I read somewhere that children from bilingual families will have a limited vocabulary in both languages until the age of 15-16. That's alright! My daughter, who is 15 now, reads substantial books in both languages, so I happy about the outcome.


Local time: 21:21
Danish to English
This is more for other parents who may be reading this Apr 10, 2008

My own experience with my son doesn't apply in your case, but I'll tell it here for the benefit of others.

My wife always spoke Danish to my son, and I always spoke English, so there was mommy's language and daddy's language, though she and I spoke English to each other.

The "experts" will say this is too confusing, let them acquire one language first, etc., which is all total bs.

Hearing both languages from birth "wires" their brains for languages--an advantage he has which I wish I had.

He was never confused, and always understood the difference between the two languages.

The funny thing was when he went to Denmark when he was two and spoke English to the adults--he was really surprised and delighted to find out that they all spoke Danish--he always thought only his mommy spoke Danish.

In your case, your son heard and understands both languages, so he also has the language "wiring." If you visit a Spanish speaking country on vacation, he'll start speaking Spanish as soon as he finds his playmates are speaking Spanish.

You might also search for Spanish-speaking playmates for him in your area.

The main thing is encourage, but never push or make it tedious or annoying for him.


MariusJacobsen  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:21
English to Norwegian
+ ...
I went through the same thing Apr 10, 2008

My parents are Norwegian, I was born in Brazil and moved to the States when I was 3. At that time I only spoke Portuguese - No English, no Norwegian. By the time I was 4, I spoke English, Portuguese and Norwegian. Don't worryicon_smile.gif


John Cutler  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:21
Spanish to English
+ ...
I agree: don't worry Apr 10, 2008

I second the, “I wouldn’t worry” advice.

My three children (now 17, 13 and 9) have grown up in a trilingual environment. This area of Spain is bilingual with children learning both Catalan and Spanish in school, with friends, TV, music, etc. In our case, I was the odd man out. I speak English with my wife but when my children were younger they became angry and defensive if I spoke English with them. They went through a phase when they only wanted to speak Catalan, and even Spanish was more or less taboo for them.

Fortunately, as they’ve gotten older (they started to change around 8 or 9) they’ve discovered for themselves the value of knowing more than one language.

My youngest daughter, who was probably the most obstinate of the three, recently told me I should speak more English with her.icon_eek.gif The other two took it upon themselves when they were between 12 and 14 to start watching TV and movies in English.

I’d say be patient. Kids go through phases and they need to discover for themselves what’s important to them. Just keep the flow of the two languages going in your house without forcing anything on them. Kids are always picking things up and absorbing information, even when it doesn’t look that way.


Ana Castorena  Identity Verified
Local time: 15:21
English to Spanish
Don't worry he'll start speaking Spanish when he's ready Apr 10, 2008

I went through the same with my older son, now 16, and the same is happening with my younger one, 10. In our situation both my husband and me speak Spanish, but when we moved to the States we decided that one of us will be the English speaker and the other the Spanish, we didn't want our son, who was 1 1/2 at the time to be in disadvantage when he started school. There was a time, when he didn't want to speak Spanish at all, peer pressure is terrible, in our case, since we are hispanics the kids get teased or worse because they are "hispanic kids" and don't speak English, we did not worry at all we just kept speaking Spanish and English at home, and English when in public, now my son Speaks very good Spanish, with american accent, and he has been learning French at school for the past 3 years and his French is very good too, all his friends at school know that he speaks Spanish and even ask him for help with their homework, he has some friends who have limited English since they have recently arrived from their countries and he speaks Spanish with them.
My youngest son is going through the same phase and he understands Spanish perfectly well but he chooses not to respond in Spanish but in English, we are not worried because we know that he will come out of the phase and start speaking Spanish when he's ready.
My advice is not to worry to much, but to keep speaking Spanish to him, he'll start speaking Spanish when he's ready!
Good Luckicon_smile.gif


Elin Davies  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Member (2008)
English to Welsh
+ ...
Sponges Apr 10, 2008

My first language is Welsh, and as a toddler and child I was more or less completely immersed in Welsh with my whole family speaking Welsh at home (I'm the youngest of five children), most of the adults and children I came into contact with also speaking Welsh and all the books and music I had also in Welsh. I can still remember the surprise on the faces of my family when I spoke English for the first time: they couldn't understand where I'd learnt it, but I must have picked it up along the way just from having English as a background noise on TV, occasional non Welsh speakers coming into my childhood bubble and a Canadian family with a daughter my age newly arrived across the road.

Until about the age of 4 or 5, my contact with English was minimal, but I still managed to pick it up, so as long as your wife continues to speak Spanish to your son it's bound to sink in and take hold, even if he isn't speaking it himself or seems not to be taking an interest in it.

I you want to be proactive about it, the best thing in my mind would be peer interaction. If you can find any sort of group where Spanish speaking children are brought together, then your son would see that Spanish is useful for making friends, as happened with me and English.


Daina Jauntirans  Identity Verified
Local time: 14:21
German to English
+ ...
Don't give up Apr 10, 2008

I am in a similar situation and have posted before about our situation on this board. I speak Latvian to my kids and my husband speaks English. We both also speak German, but don't use it at home. We have done Latvian music, books & videos, playgroups, Saturday school, family camp, etc. - you get the picture. Unfortunately, actually traveling to Latvia from the US is very expensive for a family of 4 - I know that would make a positive difference.

Our older daughter (8) used to refuse to speak Latvian, but now does pretty well, even though I remind her a lot. Our younger daughter (almost 5) for the most part refuses to speak to me in Latvian.

The thing all of the discussion groups, articles, books, etc. on this subject seem to forget is that kids have a will and personality, and they may (for whatever reason) decide simply not to speak the language you wish they would speak regardless of what method you use. Maybe it's just because they know I want them to!

Believe me, I have thought of giving up - constantly having dual-language conversations gets more absurd as they get older. BUT I have decided to simply give them as much exposure as I can, focusing on the fun things they like, and hope that if they get the passive language, they will eventually start to use it more actively, too. I believe this is important, because with lesser used languages like this, you can't just take a class later and often not speaking the language alienates you from the community, too. If they don't learn the language, they won't be able to read the books my grandfather wrote, etc. I don't want that to happen, so I keep plugging away!

I guess I don't really have great advice, but just wanted you to know that others are in the same situation, and it's not always as easy as it's made to sound.


Simpa  Identity Verified
Local time: 21:21
French to Italian
+ ...
A language must be a practical tool Apr 10, 2008

I have not read all the other threads so I do not know if others have already talked about the practical issue.
In my experience and knowledge, language speaking is associated for a child (and a grown-up as well..) to a logic link to reality.
To put things straight: I am Italian, my husband half German (from mother) half Moroccan (but does not speak Arabic only French) - took his diplomas in France so bilingual French-German (English is the other language), we live in France. At home we speak French to each other.
My husband speak to my child in German, myself in Italian and at the baby creche she has French (next year she will go to the International school with Italian -French).
The result is: Alma speaks Italian to me with some words ihere and there, n French, she replies with repetitive words in German to her dad.
But this is the result of a practical excercise: we tend to go more than once per year in Italy, visiting the grandparents, friends and go out, here in France, with other multi cultural family where there is Italian or German spoken.
We live on the border of Germany and this is another advantage, Alma find it useful to say bread in German as she is forced to do it when we are on the other side of the border.
As a result for Alma these two languages are not an abstract tool for comunicating, but an useful one, if not even a necessary one, as her grandparents do not talk other languages but Italian.
So my advice is do not give up, and try to make "spanish" as usefull as possible in the daily life in the long run the child will automatically switch to this language whenever needed.
Good luck on this beautiful multi-cultural journey!

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