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If your child responds in English

Question from a parent: What to do if my child keeps responding in English when though I speak to him in our family language? He understands, but keeps answering in English.


First, why is the child answering in English?

It may depend where you are. If, for example, school is a place to speak English for your child, that’s what the child is supposed to do.

It may depend on what the child did before. The child may keep speaking English right after school. As long as this is temporary (the first few minutes), there’s nothing to worry about.

What if the child always (or most of the time) answers in English? Intuitively, parents say, “Because it’s easier for him”. And they are right. A fluent bilingual switches to the language in which people talk to him. If he uses another language, this is a red flag – it means difficulties with expressing himself in the language in which he was addressed. The difficulties include both word knowledge and grammar, and grammar is more of a problem. The child might not know some words, but in this case, he might switch to English just for those words and say the rest in the family language. But if the child finds it difficult to build a sentence, supplying all the necessary pieces (like the correct case and gender endings in Russian), he might abandon attempts to express his ideas in the family language. This is especially true for children who are afraid to be embarrassed by their mistakes.

So, before we get to the direct solutions to this problem, create an environment to help your child learn more of the family language. Make sure that your child hears enough of the family language every day: in conversations with various adults and children on various topics, in books that you read aloud or he reads with you, in cartoons, in language lessons. If you are the only (or the main) source of the family language for him, spend with him as much time as you can and talk only in the family language as much as you can.

Now, how to get the child to speak in the family language?

When he speaks, you might be disappointed (that’s exactly why he didn’t want to speak). He will likely speak slowly, make grammatical errors, choose wrong words, get stuck in the middle of the sentence – any or all of the above.

So, first, create a safe environment, preferably when there are no people who can make the child feel uncomfortable. Be patient and encouraging. Do not correct the child at first, as long as you understand his message. Never let anybody laugh at the child’s errors or otherwise make the child feel ashamed. As one of receptive bilinguals in my Labrador Inuktitut study said, “The worst you can do when a person makes a mistake is to laugh at them”. Never force the child to speak in the family language. You want to motivate him, not the opposite.

Create situations in which the child has to respond in the family language. It’s great if there are people who speak only the family language to him. What works for me (though we only had this issue temporarily) is simply pretending to be too tired to understand English and keeping asking “What?” in Russian until I get an answer in Russian. If that alone does not work, I answer in French, which my children don’t yet understand enough. You can try role play with a toy who speaks and understands only the family language, or the toy who wants to learn the family language. And, yes, my children did get a child-friendly version of a lecture on language forgetting, with some scary but real stories (but that will be a separate post).

Most importantly, keep speaking your language to the child anyway. Learning is still going in even when he is only listening. But keep trying: to learn to speak, the child needs to speak.

Good luck!




Receptive bilinguals: Myth and reality

You might have seen such a picture: a mother speaks to her child in Russian (or whatever heritage language), and the child answers in English. The simple definition of receptive bilinguals is “people who understand but do not speak”. This is reality for quite a large number of heritage speakers. After testing Labrador Inuktitut receptive bilinguals, I can say that there are two myths about them. One, that they understand everything. The other, that they cannot speak the heritage language at all.

There is definitely a huge difference between their speaking and listening abilities. But even in listening, they miss some parts. Of course, they encounter unfamiliar words, but they also have problems with grammar. They might not be able to get the difference between sentences like The boy is pushing a girl and The boy is being pushed by a girl, even if they know all the words. Fluent speakers might not be able to explain the difference, but they imagine the right pictures when hearing these sentences. Without our implicit grammatical knowledge, we wouldn’t know how words in a sentence relate to each other, and be left to guess, unless our knowledge of the world helps us.  Receptive bilinguals still have at least the most basic grammatical knowledge, but some pieces are completely missing, and for others, they have trouble connecting, for example, a suffix and what it is used for. Because of that, it is difficult for them to build a sentence when they are speaking – they, for example, know that the verb needs an ending but cannot remember which ending; in languages that have cases, they may not know what case suffix a noun needs, and so on. If they try to speak, their speech may be very slow, they may make errors, and may give up and switch to English. That’s why they avoid speaking in the heritage language, but it’s not true that they cannot speak at all.