I stopped speaking my mother tongue to my children when they started answering me back in English. I would feel really silly speaking my mother tongue to them now. How can I do it?

I can empathise with that. I felt quite silly, too, speaking German to my children when they were too small to talk back. It didn’t bother me as much when I was on my own with them, but in public I felt like I was leading really pointless, one-sided conversations, a bit like talking to myself really. I’m sure it feels the same if your children are older and talking back to you in English.

The thing is, though, that if you are serious about your children becoming fluent in your language, you will have to maximise their exposure to the language. Even though the question sounds different from the one in my last post, the answer is pretty much the same. I hope you’re not too disappointed. In principle, raising children with two or more languages is quite simple. The difficulties are in the practical part, in the day-to-day details, as you probably noticed. So considering the simple part is to maximise exposure to the language, what follows is that you are probably the most important person to make sure that happens. Speaking your language to your children consistently is vital.

I can hear you asking “Yes, but how can I do it?” Well, at the moment, you are probably very used to speaking English with your children, just like they are used to speaking it back to you. To change your children’s habit, you have to change your own habit first. Even though it seems difficult, is is easier for you than your kids, as you know why you want to do it. So remember your reasons and your motivation when you find it tough. These techniques might help you: (You might remember some of these points from my previous post.)

  • (Re-)Immerse yourself in your language. Read books and/or magazines, watch TV programmes or listen to radio stations in your language. Ring an old friend from your country for a chat. Meet other people from your country where you live, if that’s possible.
  • Immerse yourself in your language together with your children. Read children’s books, watch kids TV programmes and listen to kids stories together. YouTube and other websites are great resources, you might look out for websites that allow downloads of audio files. Listen to nursery rhymes and songs on CD’s and sing together. Don’t worry if you’re not the world’s best singer, it’s not about perfection.
  • Once the two of you get used to the sound of the language and it becomes a more regular feature in your household, it won’t feel as odd to use the language in other contexts and conversations as well.
  • Find other parents from your country and meet them and their children for play afternoons. It’s a great opportunity to exchange ideas and it might be easier for someone else to start talking to your children in your first language. Again, this will help the two of you get used to the language featuring in your day-to-day lives.
  • Don’t be disheartened if it feels like you’re talking to yourself while you are leading two-language conversations. The more you get used to speaking the language, the more your kids will get used to hearing it. Don’t be disappointed, if they don’t start to speak it immediately. It might take a while. But be patient. If you are consistent, they will eventually get the point, in a good way.

If you start to feel less odd about speaking, but not being answered, in your language, start to encourage your children to use the language in conversations with you.

  • Repeat what they are saying in English in your mother tongue. Keep translating everything they say to you or other speakers of your language.
  • If they try, but get stuck on words that they don’t know, give them the words, but don’t finish their whole sentences for them. Let their brains work out as much as they can themselves.
  • Don’t correct them too much at first. Let them try it out for themselves. But do help them by making suggestions if it sounds too odd or if they’re unsure how to say something. Remember that monolingual children go through the same learning process.
  • If they start mixing the languages, repeat the words they say in English in your language, if they don’t know them. If they do know them, try to prompt them by giving them the first letter(s) or syllable(s).
  • When my daughter temporarily started mixing English words into her German sentences, I often just asked her, completely innocently, about that part of the sentence. For example, she might have said that she put a plate on the table and used the English word for ‘plate’ or ‘table’. I would ask her “Sorry, what did you put on the table?” Or “Where did you put the plate again?” This works if the child knows the words and is young and innocent enough to not find it patronising. Not everybody might find that this trick suits their style, but it worked for me, and still does from time to time.
  • Give them lots of praise for trying, even if they get stuck, or their grammar is all over the place, etc. This happens to monolingual language learners, too.
  • Be patient if it takes them a little longer in the beginning. It might be a bit of an effort for a while until it becomes more natural for them. Also, it’s not just the language department of the brain that needs to adjust, it is also the muscles in the mouth and throat that need to learn new “tricks” to form new sounds.

I hope you found these few tips helpful and wish you every success in re-starting your mother tongue with your children.