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Motivating a Child Who Refuses to Speak Your Language
Kids are smart, and when there is no real need for something, they just don’t do it — and that goes for foreign languages as well. So, try to create that need. At home, be consistent and request from the start that your child uses your language with you.

That way you ensure a need for the language, at least between the two of you. You’ll also create a positive habit and offer more exposure and more active production opportunities if you keep consistent. And, the more adept he becomes, the easier and more natural usage will be, and the likelihood that he’ll refuse further down the line decreases. Conversely, if you yourself mix languages, your child will quickly learn that he can use either language and will inevitably choose his own favorite — almost always the community language. If this happens, it isn’t the end of the world of course, but it also isn’t ideal.

Still, all children seem to go through a period of not wanting to speak the minority language(s). It’s a balancing act to see what behavior is temporary and what is structural. No one knows your child’s idiosyncrasies better than you. Some parents say that language refusal is just like refusing to brush one’s teeth or go to bed — the child protests endlessly until one day, it’s accepted as a part of life.

Whatever you do, keep going

So, how do you reverse these bouts of language rebellion? The old truism ‘persistence prevails’ is particularly true when dealing with children, so put it to good use when it comes to their languages. You too can be strong-willed! Despite your child’s refusal and tantrums, keep on going with your language system. As long as comprehension is there, production can always be worked on later. I can’t say it enough, but the key truly is to keep on going, especially when the going gets tough.

Start out by focusing on what he already knows — the easy stuff — and shower him with praise about how good and clever he is. Then, make the more difficult stuff into a ‘game’, with lots of help to boost his self-confidence. If he knows a word, but can’t think of it, provide the first sound or syllable. This is the perfect way to ‘cheat’ and spark his memory. If he doesn’t know the word or has forgotten it, tell him the word and ask him to repeat it. Keep recycling the word in conversation for a little while to reinforce it. Also, if your child is old enough to understand your reasoning, explain how lucky he is to have this advantage over his peers.

The bottom line is that as soon a language becomes associated with effort in your child’s mind, he will become reluctant to use it. "Why do I have to say it in Dutch, when I know how say it in Italian already?" This is a fair question, and the answer needs to be either one of necessity, fun, or flattery. Not much else will fly. Here are some possible answers:

  • Because I/granny/everyone else here only speaks Dutch.
  • This book/this game/this song is in Dutch.
  • Because you did it sooo well yesterday.
  • So you can teach it to baby Ethan when he is a big boy like you.

Here are some ways to add language ‘supplements’ and create a need for a suddenly ‘endangered language’:

  • Invite family to stay. Other kids are best, but can be a lot of work.
  • Join (or start) a language playgroup or an immersion program.
  • Create you own summer camp with a caregiver/teacher in the minority language, and share the expense with a couple of other families.
  • Add reading, singing, games, movies, and TV in the minority language as much as you can.
  • The absolute best is to take a trip to the country where the language is spoken.

If all else fails, adjust your goals. Maybe passive knowledge is sufficient for now. You can still bring strive for active use later. It will still be significantly easier for your child to pick up the language later than if there was no foundation. But whatever you do, keep him in contact with the language. You never know when he will change his mind.

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