031: Why Your Bilingual Child Does Not Respond Back In Minority Language

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Today’s question is the most popular in my blogging experience.

It is been asked by so many parents of different languages, family circumstances and kids’ ages.

But the core of the question remains the same:

Why my bilingual child does not respond back in minority language.

It certainly could be frustrating: you were always speaking the target language with your child and maybe he/she even spoke it to you back as a little kid but eventually started to use more majority language with you and finally completely switched to it.

No I boiled down all possible reasons into 4 major groups, and I would like to share them with you.

 Reason#1: Not Enough Need To Speak Minority Language

The NEED to speak the language is essential.

I started to learn English in middle school. Not to brag, but I was an A student in most of my classes, including English. But when I met my husband, I could not speak it at all. Surprise!

The real language learning began when I had to explain him what I do in my life. I simply had no other choice, but work hard to make myself clear.

It is no different for children. Our little ones have to connect regularly with people who do not speak their majority language. Here are some ideas how to do it:

  • Travel to the countries of your minority language
  • Meet with people who do not speak child’s majority language
  • Host an Au-pair
  • Sign up for full immersion languages classes
  • Organize Skype lessons in target language (it does not have to be focused on language itself – your child can has singing, drawing, guitar, craft and other lessons with native speaker)
  • Try summer language camps
  • Hire a nanny
  • Create family rules, for example: only minority language in the house; regular reading in the second language; all media only in your mother tongue; pretend that you don’t understand (works good with small children) etc.

The last point could be considered “made-up” need – not real – because parents who need family rules usually speak community language very well. Some parents don’t feel comfortable pretending that they don’t understand the child; or imposing strict language policies. The tactics mentined above definitely need “to agree” with you as a parent. Nevertheless, family rules can become life-savers that keep the language alive until real need will appear.

Reason # 2: Low Vocabulary

When you enroll your daughter in piano class or sign up your son for a basketball team, it is very unlikely that they will be learning those skills by passively watching their teachers perform. No. Your daughter will have to practice her scales everyday to master piano. Your son will have to shoot hundreds hoops to become a good player.

It is no different with second language.

In order to actively use the language, your child will need to practice speaking it.

As opposed to monolingual peers, bilingual children have a choice in which language to speak. It is especially true for families, where parents speak majority language. As a result, they absorb the language and understand it very well, but they don’t want to practice speaking it.

Note, that understanding the language is a very valuable skill. But if your goal for your child is active language use, you will need to work on building vocabulary with her.

Here are some practical suggestions on how you can be improving children’s fluency on a daily basis:

  • Interactive reading: ask a lot of questions; stop and discuss whats happening in the book; dramatize the story; ask your  child what is going to happen next etc.
  • Ask your child to repeat after you. I literally ask my kids to repeat the words after me in Russian or Ukrainian. After several times they are able to use them on their own.
  • Practice hand writing
  • Learn poems and rhymes
  • Sing songs with them
  • Teach them jokes in minority language
  • Take turns telling stories before bedtime
  • Do what ever possible to make them SAY it. In a very loving way, of course.

Reason #3: Poor Consistency and Language Discipline

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.


When we were picked up from the airport in Ukraine by my relatives, they were so surprised that our two older children buckled up in the car without any reminder from my side. I actually was surprised that they were surprised!

But then I saw the reason why it was eyeopening for them.

A lot of Ukrainian kids don’t use seat belts consistently. They are given a choice to roam free in the car if parents don’t drive too far, or take back roads, or if they don’t drive fast. Hence when children are asked to fasten their seat belts, they often complain about it and even refuse to follow request.

It is crucial to be consistence with your language strategy. This takes out all the question, like “why do I need to speak it?”. They say habit is the second nature. Strive to create a habit of speaking minority language. Whatever you do, do it consistently.


Reason #4: Peer Pressure, Lack of Pride

One time when we were skating on the outdoor rink with my daughters, we witnessed a sad instance of bullying because of the language.

Two Spanish speaking boys were chatting with each other, but a group of teenage girls busted into laughter hearing their conversation. They kept butchering the words and making fun of boys.

Unfortunately, only one episode of disapproval by peers can cause your child to be resistant to speaking his minority language.

Also, if your country or culture is being criticized by media due to war, terrorism, riots, poverty or other, your child can start feeling ashamed by her heritage. Not a good thing.

That is why raising a child open minded global citizen is as important as preserving the language. Here are few great resources to help you with this important task:


 Please don’t get discouraged if your child does not to want to speak minority language despite understanding it. It is very valuable skill. Who knows, maybe in 10-15 years your child will have a perfect real need to start speaking the language she has been hearing all her life.