Education Tips – Should we force our children to speak the minority language?

This question comes times and times again when bilingual parents are faced with resistance to speaking the minority language (ml): how can I get him/her to use the ml?

Times and times again, I have read or heard (and no later than this week!) that we should not force our children. However, from our personal experience, I would like to qualify this assertion. As Adam Beck reminds us in his book “Maximize Your Child’s Bilingual Ability: Ideas and inspiration for even greater success and joy raising bilingual kids“, all families work with their own circumstances. So here are factors that -for me- need to be borne in mind:

  1. Your child’s personality – Children are pragmatic beings, some to the point that unless you push them they will not do what is good for them. In the same way as you decide to feed your child healthy food and they will protest at the sight of broccoli & co. in their plate.  You will end up insisting on them eating up this healthy food… the same applies with you insisting on your child using the ml. And over time, you will hopefully succeed and get them to get into this habit that is good for them. If I had listened to my eldest daughter, we would never have got her to speak her 2 ml. It is for her own good in the long-run, but she cannot reason nor make an informed decision at her young age. Some children are stubborn but with a little pushing will eventually do it, however others are simply so stubborn that they will shut themselves out. The latter is clearly not a favourable situation to pushing to the use of the ml, as it might antagonise them and breakdown family communication. This is why only the parent, who truly knows his/her child, can make the best decision. Hence, why I believe we cannot make it a rule of thumb of not “forcing” a child to use the ml.
  2. The method used – When we say “forcing”, it is obviously not in a physical way, but by putting pressure on the child to use the ml.  This pressure should not be verbal harassment either, but a kind and gentle persistence that can come in several shapes and sizes:
    1. Clear rule for all – setting a clear language rule for all.  And wherever possible, the ml@home is an excellent way to incite the child to use the ml as s/he will bathe in the language and see the example of the other family members. It might seem trivial, but children grow following our example, therefore seeing the family using the ml can act as a positive influence.
    2. Visuals – for instance our use of little flags to make our new house rule (see “ml@home:Setting clear language house rules”).
    3. Time & Place strategy – A nice gentle technique to initiate the obligation to use the ml.  A fellow bilingual mum used this method, imposing dinner in the ml for the entire family, including the Majority Language dad.  The child protested, cried and sulked for 2 weeks before eventually giving up to this new habit. The ml use eventually spilled over the set time and the child now uses the ml at all times of the day.
    4. Progressive transition with play and fun activities in ml – A bilingual mum I know once suggested this great idea to another mum facing ml resistance: children know what they want, so if you make fun stuff only available in the ml, the child may slowly accept the change, even if it is after some protest.  Her idea was to start with the TV time being only in ml, then the books being only available in ml and hence having to be read in that language, and finally games the child loves that would only be available in the ml. This would slowly but effectively change the language of communication to the ml.
    5. Explaining over and over again – A little bit of proselytizing with your child whenever the occasion arises (e.g: overhearing ml speakers on the street, a Skype call with ml relatives), to help them understand why speaking the ml is so important, why it will be good for them in the long-run, etc… As they mature, they will hopefully understand it and the language resistance will thaw.

Once again, I am not saying every family should force their child, but by this post I seek to bring moderation to both perspectives, so as not to make families feel bad or uneasy when there is no other option left for them but to impose the ml use to their child.  The child might not like it, just like eating his or her vegetables, however s/he is simply pushed to use the ml for their greater interest; an interest they are too young to appreciate and that as parents we make the decision for them.

Have you had to impose the ml use to your child?  If so, please share you experience in the Comment section.


1 Comment

  1. Our child’s will is strong, so any direct attempt to push the minority language would have failed. I have simply kept the faith and kept on speaking Spanish at home with our child. Your number three sounds very similar to our situation, English speaking Dad talking in conversational Spanish at dinner has been very popular and exciting for our child. Every little bit helps. The famous quote that “Rome was not built in a day” applies to language acquisition. Also, providing context, pointing out other ml speakers and implementing immersion techniques like books, movies and travel to places where the language is spoken (even if it’s just to a specialty grocery store!) Providing a multilingual family culture is not forcing the child, it is encouraging the child, IMHO. -Rebecca

    Liked by 1 person

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