Question: In our home we speak two languages: Spanish and English. Spanish being the first language spoken. I have two boys ages: 12 and 9. The oldest speaks almost perfect Spanish, but my youngest, most of the time, refuses to speak Spanish. We have set rules that inside the home we speak only Spanish, my youngest, will ignore the rule and speak English. I will either ask him to say it in Spanish or I will ignore him until he speaks in Spanish. Most of the time he will refuse to talk at all. I have explained to him the beauty of knowing two languages and how beneficial it would be for him in the future. Am I hurting his communication skills by insisting that he speaks Spanish?
Answer: I agree with you wholeheartedly on the beauty and benefits of a bilingual home. You are creating a rich intellectual and cultural advantage for your children. But children have a way, especially at certain oppositional times in their lives, to find ways to challenge our most dearly held beliefs. And you do not want to turn language into a battleground, even inadvertently.
Here are my suggestions:
Continue to speak Spanish in your home. You might have a family meeting to discuss recent events. Use this time to restate your goals. Explain that you (and dad if he is also living in the house) will continue to speak only Spanish in the home. Let your children know that you will not force them to speak Spanish but you absolutely encourage them to do so. Try to enlist the full cooperation of your older son before hand. This will work best with as many Spanish speakers as you can get! Then let your son speak Spanish whenever he chooses but always respond to him in Spanish. Encourage your older son to do the same. Once you remove the power struggle, you will diffuse your son’s challenge without compromising your goals.
Introduce some playfulness into your home language use. Find some jokes in Spanish that your boys will find funny. Tell stories in Spanish that do not easily translate into English. Have fun helping your children discover the limits of speaking one language. Be silly – pretend you are living in another country and do not understand English (but don’t put your younger son on the spot). Try to get your younger son laughing again rather than feeling defensive.
Compliment your son on his Spanish. Be sincere – let him know you appreciate all his efforts and recognize his improvements. Do NOT compare your younger son to his older brother. You want your son to have positive ways to declare his individuality in the family instead of rebellious ways.
Be reassured that the exposure you are giving your children will be lasting. The Spanish you are speaking in your home is already making a wonderful difference for your children. I’m sure they both understand Spanish very well and your younger son is capable even if he chooses to not speak Spanish when you want him too.
Sometimes, it happens that parents set a good rule but then get backed into a corner defending that rule. You and your son need a way back out – I’m sure it won’t take long!
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.