refusingA friend of mine wrote to me, saying that her pre-teenage sons have decided they won’t speak her language- Romanian- despite the fact that they both learnt it well as small children. Living currently in the USA, and with a German speaking father, they have realised that they really don’t want to use Romanian. And being kids, it’s very hard to just tell them that they should. Right? When did that ever work. As parents we know the benefits- that it will pay dividends to our children to be able to speak more than one language, that it will be one less thing for them to have to worry about when at school, that they will have access to more than one culture and be able to identify with more people. But how do we get our kids to practice what we want to preach?

Kids are natural sponges, when it comes to language. Without even realising it, they will pick up words, expressions and grammar, so as parents that’s what we need to do- provide the data. The important part is how to keep a language once your child has started to learn it, and here are some tips:

  1. The “secret” to any retention is constantly doing it! Practice makes perfect, and this is the same for language learning. Exposure of any kind is essential. Encourage your kids to read, watch tv (if you allow it), and speak in the language as much as possible. As painful as it is to get them going, it will help.
  2. A language needs to be needed. If a child knows that they can use their other language(s) all the time, they will chose the lazy option and stick to them. If you can hide your own knowledge of other languages from your kids, at least for a few years, they’ll see the need to speak the language. Even if they already know you speak the language they want to use, persist with responding to them in your language, and they will (eventually) get the message.
  3. Make persistent use of music in your target language. Playing music regularly in the background, when your children are at home, or in the car, will quickly increase their input. You may even find your children starting to sing along to a catchy song! I can still remember songs that I learnt back when I was a kid… it’s amazing how the combination of music and lyrics is so much easier to remember.
  4. Work to your children’s interests. Maybe the resources you have been using up to now haven’t been what your children are interested in, so they are resorting to other, more accessible material in their preferred language.  Find out what interests your child the most and, if you can’t get hold of it where you live, see if family can send over some specific materials – or perhaps you can order some on-line?
  5. We’ve all seen the last scene of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where Ian (played by John Corbett) is walking his complaining daughter to Greek school. Well, it works. Although your kids might not like it, Saturday school is a great idea if there is no way for you to increase the need or exposure in another way. And they get to meet other kids who also are learning the language, slowly building their interest.
  6. Hire a foreign au-pair, preferably a chatty one! You and he/ she can have conversations in the target language, so your kids hear the language more, and they will learn different vocabulary from that which they would learn at school. “Pick up your socks” or “Have you brushed your teeth yet?” don’t sound like much, but they will make a difference later on in life.

At the end of the day, it’s hard to say why one child will happily speak a second (or more) language while others resist. Keeping a positive attitude is the best encouragement for most children- so without explicitly telling them they are learning the language, just keep it up and in the long run you’ll see the results.