How to encourage a reluctant child to use the target language?

with Patricia Zaballo (3)

The Question


We are a Spanish couple living in a bilingual area where Spanish and Valencian are spoken equally. Our son is 3.5 years old. I have always talked to him in English since he was born. His father has talked Spanish to him. And he has been exposed to Valencian since he was 2 years old, first at nursery school and now at school.

He understands everything I tell him in English but only on rare occasions does he answer me back in English. He says some words in English, but he’s hardly never able to build simple sentences spontaneously. I have used different strategies when he answers me back in Spanish. I usually repeat the sentence in English and then he says “yes”, but he doesn’t repeat them in English.

In the last days I pretended not to understand what he was saying in Spanish to see if I could “force” him to speak English to me. But then he went to talk to his father and asked him the question in Spanish. Sometimes I think he is not getting enough exposure to English. He is at school from 9 to 5 and some days I only see him in the evening for dinner. There the vehicular language is Valencian and he gets two hours per week in English.

My husband is also fluent in English and sometimes he speaks English to him at home. Should he start speaking English to him now regularly? At home or everywhere? Since both of us are Spanish it is a bit weird to speak English with each other. I teach English in a local high school and I feel confident with it, but I’m not sure if my husband could do the same.

Our son has a good attitude towards learning and speaking English. His tales, cartoons and films are always in English and his bedtime stories too. We have planned a summer school in English for him to foster his exposure to English. During the last Easter holidays in which we spent more time together he started to say some short sentences in English such as “I’m ready” or “I don’t know”, etc. but now that he’s back to school he answers me back in Spanish again. Sometimes I feel like quitting speaking English to him, but I’m afraid he’ll lose all that he’s already learned.

What can we do?

The answer

Thank you for submitting your question to the Multilingual Parenting Family Language Coaching Team.

Keep up the great work raising a multilingual son.  You are clearly committed to the journey so let’s dig into some strategies to get your son to speak more English.

Let’s start with what you can do to help you manage his reluctance to speak English. 

The best strategy is going to really depend on your parenting style and your son’s temperament so it’s hard to generalize as to which one to use.  To help you choose, you can check out this podcast episode where I share seven different things you can do when your son answers you in Spanish.  You are likely to find one that you think will fit within your family dynamics.

One interesting thing to keep in mind is that research has shown that one of the best way to boost your chid’s vocabulary in the target language is to react positively even if your child is not answering in the target language.  You can then model the “correct” response in the language you are working on with him which in your case would be in English.   

Managing his reluctance to speak is one part of the problem but what I would really encourage you to do instead is to get to the root of the problem.  Why is he not speaking English to you in the first place?

It does sound like your son could benefit from additional exposure to English.  Exposure is what is going to allow him to expand his vocabulary and learn the words he needs in order to communicate in English. 

There are many things you can do to address exposure.  For some inspiration, you can check out this podcast episode where I share several ways to increase exposure at home and throughout the community.

But remember that exposure is only half of the puzzle.  We also have to make him feel the need to use English.  Need is just as important as exposure and is an element often overlooked on the language journey. 

You mentioned that you have only spoken to him in English since he was born but he is still communicating in Spanish to you.  We ultimately want him to be able to speak to you in English but in the meantime, we may need to create that need elsewhere.  You can check out that same podcast episode where I also talk about how to create a need to use the target language.

Now, you did mention that your husband is also a fluent English speaker. If your husband is willing to make the shift to English instead of communicating to your son in Spanish, you are going to be able to increase both his exposure and his need to use English. 

He will no longer be able to just go to your husband and ask for what he wants in Spanish.  He is going to really need to use his English skills to get what he wants. 

If you do decide to switch your family language policy, I would caution that you do it gradually and that your son is aware of the transition. 

Remember that language is just one element of parenting and we ultimately want our children to feel comfortable in their home environment and around their loved ones. 

Whether your husband makes the switch or not, I encourage you to continue to increase the exposure and need to use Spanish.  Challenge yourself to expand on these two elements and you will see results. 

Keep up the great work you are doing with your son and make sure to stay motivated.  You and your family can achieve your multilingual goals!

May you have fun travels on your language journey. Hope to see you again on the Avenue!


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