The “Need” To Speak The Language: A Lifelong Quest


The door to our 100 year old kitchen swings open.

My 4 year old rushes through straight to the living room.

“Mama, where is my dolly?” she asks in perfect English while dumping the whole content of the toy chest on the floor.

“What did you say, lil’ bunny?” I sweetly ask in Russian while chopping cabbage for borscht.

“My dolly, the one with pink dress?” she continues without any effort to switch to Russian with me. Must be hard after playing the whole morning with her bestie, our adorable 4 year old neighbor.

“Oh, tvoya kukla!” (means “your dolly” in RU) I guess exaggeratedly. “Let’s look for your dolly, where is that dolly…” I continue to suggest her our minority language lexicon, hoping to hear her response in Russian.

No luck. She gets sad we can’t find the doll, expressing her frustration in English again. I have to go back to making borscht before it boils over, so I find her a perfect replacement – exactly the same doll (at least to me), only with purple dress.

“Look at this dolly, her hair is beautiful!” I keep enriching our conversation with minority words.

She lowered her wide eyebrows in disapproval: “No! I want my dolly in pink dress! And even [pause], why do I need to speak your language? You speak like daddy anyway!”

She storms back outside through the kitchen like a hundred of elephants, leaving me with unwanted doll. I take a deep breath. 5 seconds later she comes back, her eyebrows still lowered. Not to apologize, mind you, just to grab that doll in the purple dress: better than nothing, I guess.

Three things were clear to me now:

  1. My 4 year old just nailed fundamental principle of acquiring a language: Need To Speak It.
  2. My 4 year old figured out tactics I use to nudge her into using minority language.
  3. My borscht just boiled over.


There is nothing I can do about two last ones, but the first one could be explored more.

I turned down the fire on the stove and made myself hot cup of tea. Then grabbed my computer and fetched several books about bilingualism.

Francois Grosjean, the author of “Bilingual: Life and Reality” states:

Children will develop a language if they feel they need it and human interactants create that need.”

Sipping hot tea, I continue searching through my favorite blogs.

Rita Rosenbach of Multilingual Parenting says:

“If they [children] do not experience any real need to use a language, and they have an option they feel is easier – to speak the majority language – it is not surprising if that is what they decide to do.”

I also look up what Adam Beck at Bilingual Monkeys has to say about language need.

“In my experience, the most common frustration shared by parents is a child who largely understands the minority language but won’t speak it actively – and this can generally be traced to not only a lack of exposure, but significantly, a lack of need as well.

Children are pragmatic. If the growing child comes to realize that the minority language parent also has ability in the majority language, her need to use the minority language will naturally diminish. And if there’s little need to use the minority language outside the home, either, chances are the child won’t be as moved to communicate in that language as the parents desire.”

That’s precisely what is happening with my daughter’s minority language need:

  • She realizes I speak English just like daddy
  • Her social life is all in English
  • We don’t have any language support outside home
  • No daycare or school around either
  • Her last trip to my native Ukraine was when she was tiny baby
  • She does not have any obsession with learning the language – rather an obsession with dolls and unicorns,

Why does she even need to speak the language?

Wait, wasn’t it what she asked?

I glance out the window and see her perfectly content playing with her friend. Yes, she does not feel the need to speak second language right now, but in 10-20 years it all could change (hopefully even sooner!).

We all heard the stories about adults who regret not picking up second language from their families when they were younger. They simply did not need that language as kids and for various reason parents stopped speaking it to them.

There are also plenty of evidence that passive knowledge of a language (when one understands it but does not speak) can turn into active (understanding and speaking) when the right need comes. Think about work opportunity, exchange student program, romance, meeting friends

And I think this is the trickiest part of raising bilingual children:

The time when you, as a minority language parent, have the most impact on your child’s bilingualism, is not necessary the time when your child need this language. In facts there could be decades before real need shows up.

But the absence of real need in a given moment is not the reason for you, as parent, to drop the language all together.

And I am not giving up!

The need can come and go, but there are certain actions I can control on the daily basis:

  • Keep up with language exposure – live interaction is the best.
  • Read, read, read and read some more
  • Keep positive attitude
  • Have fun in our minority language
  • Travel to Ukraine.
  • Actively seek for language need for her: invite relatives and friend who do not speak English to visit us, Skype lessons with our minority language speakers, connect with new russian-speaking families in town and so on.

I have a plan now. Tea and books always make things better.

I hear door slamming and little feet running through the kitchen again.

My lil’ bunny hugs me and says with the smile “I’m sorry mama” in Russian. She still has the need to speak it! Yeah!

“What’s for lunch mama?”

Oh, no! My borscht……!!!

This article is a part of a wonderful project A-Z  of Raising Multilingual Children  organized by Annabelle over at The Piri-Piri Lexicon


the piri-piri lexicon