Episode 94: Q&A – How strict should I be with my child about answering in the target language?

How strict should I be with my child about

On this episode of Bilingual Avenue, I answer a question from a father who is wondering if he should be stricter with his daughter since she is refusing to engage with him in the target language.  I give him seven different strategies that he can implement at home.  I also share with him the strategy we use in my family and which one the research has shown to provide the best results for boosting vocabulary.

Don’t have time to listen to the whole episode? NO worries, I have a cheat sheet just to help you identify a strategy that works for you!

 Click Here to Get a Cheat Sheet with Strategies To Get Your Child To Answer You in The “Right” Language

Transcript #94

Hello and welcome to another Question and Answer edition of the Bilingual Avenue podcast.

If you like what you hear you can catch this podcast every week by subscribing on iTunes or Stitcher Radio.

 As some of you may remember we conducted a survey recently and had lots of great feedback on what topics you would like to see featured on upcoming episodes of the podcast.  If you didn’t have a chance to give your feedback then but have something you want to hear more about, let me know.  We are always looking for ways to provide you with the best tools to help you on your language journey!  You can provide feedback through Facebook, Twitter, sending me an email on the contact tab at Bilingual Avenue however you prefer.

We have another great question today submitted via the Multilingual Parenting blog.  You can check out the transcript for this question at bilingualavenue.com/episode94 or on the multilingual parenting website.  I will have a link on the show notes for you.

Here’s the question:

Hello! How strict should you be when your child answers in the wrong language? My almost two year old is learning Spanish, Catalan and English. Spanish and Catalan from nursery (we live in Spain). Spanish from mum and English from dad (native) and English is spoken when we are all together. I know my daughter is only 2 but I get frustrated when she answers me in Spanish. I correct her many times but still she answers in Spanish. I’m patient and repeat the English over and over but sometimes I feel I should be more strict and tell her off otherwise she will answer how she wants. Thoughts?


 Thank you Trent for submitting your question to the Multilingual Parenting Language Coaching Team!  One of the most common obstacles I hear from multilingual parents is exactly what you have described here.  You are working really hard to pass on a specific language to your child and even though they show that they are understanding what is being said to them they answer in another language.  Typically, they answer in the community language which is exactly what you are describing here, your daughter is answering back in Spanish.

How you manage these obstacles will be a very personal choice.   However, you certainly have a few options and I will break those down for you.

  • Incomprehension.  When applying this approach you are pretending that you do not understand your child when she is speaking to you in Spanish.  This one may be harder to pull off if your children see you out in the community interacting in Spanish.  But I have heard from a lot of parents who have used this strategy, that they are able to “fool their child” into believe that they do not understand what they are saying.
  • Stop your child. Some parents choose to stop their child midsentence and ask them to express themselves in the “correct” language in your case English.
  • QuestioningIn this case, you may ask your daughter a question about what she is saying in English.  If she is speaking to you in Spanish or Catalan, you may still just ask her something about the story she is telling you in English to give her the words she will need to use to communicate with you and to try to encourage the switch from Spanish to English by starting a line of questioning.
  • Mommy words vs Daddy words. On an interview with Susanne Dopke, episode 17, she talked about how children that are 24 months or older understand the differences between mommy words and daddy words.  Just like they understand that mommy has certain shoes that she wears and they are different from Daddy’s, they also understand who uses which types of words and, therefore, who uses which language.
  • Repeat. You have the option of repeating what your daughter has just said in Spanish but in English. Again, this gives her the opportunity to hear the words she would be using to communicate if she were to choose to do it in English.  Based on your question, it sounds like this is the strategy you have already implemented in your home.
  • Pretend like nothing happened. Some parents simply let their child speak in the language they prefer but they continue to respond in the target language. 
  • Switch to Spanish. This is going to be the most extreme option you have at your disposal but it is a choice. You could always chose to engage with your daughter in the community language, in your case Spanish. 

If you need more time to figure out which strategy would work best for you, you can pick up the cheat sheet to guide you in your selection.

 Click Here to Get a Cheat Sheet with Strategies To Get Your Child To Answer You in The “Right” Language

As you can see there are several strategies that cover the entire spectrum.  You can go all the way from pretending that you do not understand what your child is saying to just switch into Spanish.  I wanted to just give you what all the options are so that you understand the landscape when it comes to strategies whenever you are dealing with this type of obstacles.

I can tell you that in our home we use the mommy words vs daddy words strategy and it has worked very well for us so far.  My daughter is 34 months right now at the timing of this recording and I speak to her exclusively in Spanish.  Let’s say that we are talking and she says a word in English, I will say something along the lines of “Ok, that’s how Daddy says it, how does mommy say it?”  If she knows the word in Spanish, she immediately switches.  If she does not know the word, she may not respond or just repeat the word in English.

I point out the difference in her behavior based on whether or not she knows the word because it is of relevance for this topic.  Often times when our multilingual children answer in a language other than the one we are speaking to them, it may very well be because they simply do not have the words they need to communicate in that language at their disposal.  They may have the best intentions but the words may simply come easier in another language, typically the community language since they are much more exposed to it.

The best way to address this issue is by increasing the amount of exposure.  This is, of course, easier said than done and in fact you are probably already doing plenty to provide your daughter with exposure in English.  But if you want more tips and strategies, you can check out episode 12 to help you think outside the box and create engaging activities for her in English.  There may be some ideas there that you have not tried and again you want to really increase that exposure so it is worth checking out and finding something that may work in your case.

Now, in your question you did ask how strict you should be and again I think that comes down to a personal choice.  I can tell you, however, that on a recent podcast (episode 85) Annabelle, a researcher in language acquisition, talked to us about some research she had done on this very topic.  She found that parents who responded positively when their child were answering and engaging with them in the “wrong language” and then just modeled the word in the “right language” provided the greatest boost in their child’s vocabulary.

This sounds very similar to what you are doing.  It sounds like when your daughter is speaking to you in Spanish, you are repeating it in English.  Perhaps you can take it a step further and after repeating yourself in English, engage in a conversation with her that then encourages her to use the words you just repeated.  Let’s say you are talking about her day at the park, repeat what she just said in Spanish but repeat it in English and then maybe talk about what you would do tomorrow at the park.  Try to stay on that same topic now that you have essentially given her the tools to communicate.

Start off with simple words, words that she finds easier in English and then continue to build on it.  Talk about things like routines with toddlers.  That is something that they are very comfortable with and that they enjoy talking about.  That may be a really good start for you.

Keep in mind that research has shown that how much you speak with your child does make a difference in how much they learn.  Therefore, do not hold back and chat away with your daughter as much as you possibly can in English that will very much make a difference.  And then, treat your daughter like a conversational partner.  You do not want to just talk at her.  You want to make sure she is also engaging and responding because how you say things also matters!

Above all, keep it positive.  You do not want your daughter to start disliking English or have a negative association.  Keep providing her with memorable experiences in English, increase the amount of exposure she is getting in the language and most importantly do not give up!  You will look back and be glad that you worked through this hiccup later on when she is engaging with you in both languages.

Alright Trent, I hope you found this answer helpful.

For anyone else out there who may have a similar issue or another question in general about multilingual children, I would love to hear from you and feature your question on a future episode.

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


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