It’s quite common for children to refuse to use one of the languages they are exposed to and parents get often very frustrated. However this is very normal, and there’s no reason to worry about it nor to be bothered.
To start with let’s clarify the difference between active bilingualism (i.e. talking two languages- and possibly reading and writing them too), and passive bilingualism (i.e. understanding a second language without speaking it). Passive bilingualism should not be underestimated, being able to understand a second language is already a great achievement, particularly because the second language can easily become active in few days when the right conditions arise, typically a holiday back home.
That said it still helps to try to understand why the child is behaving that way and how to help him/her. There could be many diverse reasons for refusing to speak a language:
- The child could be making a pragmatic decision to speak the language s/he masters better and it’d be difficult to argue against such a sound line of reasoning…
- The child could be making an emotional decision, deciding to speak or not a certain language could become a way to express feeling for a person, for instance s/he could choose to speak the language spoken by someone they feel very close to
- Children don’t want to stand out, they want to be like the others. This could lead them to refuse a language that differentiates them
- For the same reason, i.e. that they don’t want to stand out, children don’t feel comfortable with being shown off as bilingual. Asking them repeatedly to show their linguist skills off could have the opposite effect
- It could be that a language has less social prestige that the other or that it is used to identify a social group, like immigrants for instance. Children are very sensitive to these nuances from early on
- May be the second language became part of the life of the child only recently, for instance the family moved abroad. In this case what we see is not quite a refusal of the language but rather a “silent period”. During the silent period children are all busy learning and taking new input in, something quite similar to what a newborn baby does, spending the first year listening before s/he talks. This is a very normal and active learning phase, although it doesn’t show, children are really busy processing stuff!
- May be people who don’t speak the second language are around, cildren are very sensitive to such things and don’t want to cut others out, and this is a very noble thing to do
So what can parents do?
- Keep talking in the minority language! Your child might refuse to speak the language for a variety of reasons, but this solution applies indistinctively. By insisting in talking the minority language you’ll allow your child to keep learning, even if at first it could just be in a passive way. As we mentioned, a passive bilingualism can easily turn into an active one, it just takes for the right conditions to trigger it. However when this happens the child will quickly start talking and even with complex expressions, because s/he already masters all the tools s/he needs to do so
- If you can understand what is blocking your child you might already be half way through. If what inhibites him/her is the feeling that s/he doesn’t quite master the language, all it takes is to give him/her more opportunities to be exposed to the language. If it’s a relationship issue, you might want to address them in however way you believe appropriate. It the problem is identification with what is perceived as a more prestigious society, you might want to propose them good role models belonging to the relative culture. If opportunities to use the language are lacking, you might want to offer opportunities to socialize in that language (like attending a Playgroup) or may be bring him/her back home to visit grandparents
- In any case avoid by all means to force the child or to put him/her under pressure. Bilingualism should develop naturally and each person will achieve it in their own way and at their pace, embarrassing the child or making him/her feel inadequate won’t help
- Have fun. Associate the minority language to play or other activities the child loves. Play is an essential component of and means to learning for all children, particularly young ones
- Lot’s of patience, empathy and resilience will go a long way. And in any case be confident that what you are doing is right, your child might not speak as and when you’d hope, but for sure s/he understands you and is bilingual. When the time will come s/he’ll be grateful for what you have done
- Look for other bilingual families with whom you can share your experience, you’ll soon realise this is happens quite often and hopefully you’ll feel less frustrated and demotivated.