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New video: What Should You Do If Your Child Always Replies To You in English

Hello everyone! In this week’s video, I talk about one of the number one most common problems parents have when trying to raise their kids to be bilingual or trilingual. And that’s when your child understands everything you say in the target language, but always replies in English.

Sounds familiar?

Check out my video, or read this blog post to find out exactly what we did as a family to overcome this problem!

Some background

Let’s start with an anecdote. A while ago, I was with my kids at their Saturday Russian school in London when a little conversation between a Russian mum and her daughter caught my attention. The little girl was maybe 3 years old. Her mum was talking to her in Russian the whole time, and the little girl would reply to her in English every single time. For the whole time that I was listening in to their conversation, like 10 minutes or so, the little girl did not say one single word in Russian, although it was absolutely clear that she understood everything her mum said!!

This scene reminded me of another time when I was walking around in Hampstead a few years ago. There was a middle-aged mum walking in front of me, talking to her teenage son in Russian. The boy looked about 12 or 13. The mum was speaking to him in Russian the entire time, and the boy would reply 100% in English. This scene left a very strong impression on me because, at that time, I thought that surely by 12 or 13, a child would’ve become bilingual already? Has this mother actually been talking to her son like this for the last 12, 13 years?

It was only when I ran into the same problem with my son that I realised how common and frustrating this problem is.

Long story short – by age 3, my son could understand English, Russian and Chinese perfectly well, but would only talk to us in English, ALWAYS. He might use the odd Russian and Chinese word here and there, but otherwise, he would only talk to us in English. At the time, people would make well-meaning comments like, Wow, your son is like your translator!

My husband and I were actually quite desperate for him to start speaking our languages, but we felt totally stuck. We were reasonably strict about using the One Parent One Language method, so why was this happening?

To be totally honest, we basically felt resigned to the fact that he would not be an active user of our languages. We thought, okay, he understands everything we say, and that’s better than nothing… Which of course, it is! But then, deep down, I guess we knew that this wasn’t what we would choose.

But soon after he turned 3, at a friend’s birthday party, I had a conversation with another parent which… pretty much changed our life. Well, at least in terms of our son’s language development, this conversation was a real turning point!

That parent was raising his kids to be bilingual in French and English. I explained our situation to him, and his reply was simple: next time your son says something to you in English, make him repeat the same thing in Chinese or Russian!

The Bootcamp Method

Based on this parent’s advice, I have formulated something called the Bootcamp Method, which I explain in detail in my book.

So, the basic principle is very simple:

If your child can understand your language but will only reply to you in English – next time they say something to you in English, repeat that word or sentence in the target language yourself, then make your child repeat it in the target language!

And you have to do that every single time.

To be honest, my immediate reaction while talking to that dad was… No way, this is going to be torture!!

But ask yourself this question: do you want to be that Russian mum in Hampstead, and can’t have a normal two-way conversation in the same language with your 12-year-old son? Are you really okay with the idea of your child always replying to you in English, forever?

Because the truth is, without some action, they probably won’t magically start speaking the target language a few years down the line. OK, if your child is very young, say under 3, then of course, there’s a good chance that they will become active speakers if you just continue speaking to them in the target language, but if your kid is older, then there’s a good chance that they will never make that switch if you carry on doing what you’ve always been doing.

So I asked myself… Right now, am I just taking the path of least resistance by allowing him to reply to me in English? Are my husband and I prepared to put in the hard work to help him become an active speaker of our target languages?

After that birthday party, I was determined to give this method a go. In fact, I started doing it on the same day! Long story short… I saw real progress after just a couple of weeks, and after 3 months or so, he was consistently speaking to me in Chinese!

Why speaking is important

OK, firstly, I want to emphasise that there’s nothing inherently wrong with a child being able to understand a language but not speaking it.

This is known as “passive bilingualism”, whereby a speaker has had enough exposure to a language in childhood to have a native-like comprehension of it, but has little or no active command of it in terms of speaking.

I’m sure you’d agree that having passive knowledge of a language is still better than having no knowledge at all. Of course, I totally agree.

But if, deep down, you do want your child to be an active speaker of the target language for whatever reason – maybe they need to be able to communicate with relatives back home, or maybe you simply want to be able to have a natural two-way conversation with your child in your native language – then it really can’t hurt to give the Bootcamp Method a go.

In my personal opinion, if your child already has a good passive knowledge of the target language, it would be a pity not to help them become active speakers by putting in some extra effort. One major reason is that it helps you persevere with the whole bilingual trilingual thing in the long run.

Why is that? What’s wrong with my child replying to me in English if they understand everything I say?

But for many parents, this conversation style is simply not sustainable in the long run. Remember that Russian mum in Hampstead I mentioned earlier? You know what, actually, even though I presented her as a quote, unquote, bad, example, she actually did pretty well to even keep this up for 12, 13 years! I reckon 99% of parents in this situation would have given up a long time ago. We would have given up a long time ago. I’ve seen it so many times – so many parents have told me that, “oh, my child was bilingual before they started school, but then they started speaking English at school, and now they won’t speak to me in my language anymore!”

In other words, having your child always replying to you in English is a slippery slope to giving up on being bilingual.

So, if your goal is to help your child become bilingual or trilingual, I really think it’s important in the long-run to help your child become an active speaker and to have the ability to have a natural two-way conversation in the target language. Please don’t give up on this so easily! It’s worth trying just a little bit harder!

Key Takeaway

OK, so just to recap – if your child can understand the target language but will only reply to you in English, and you’d like to help them use the language actively, try this: when they say a word or sentence in English, repeat it for them in the target language, then make your child repeat it.

Don’t forget this last step – you need to make them repeat it. And trust me, while it can be a painful process, I am confident that if you follow this method, you’ll very likely see results in a few months, if not weeks. It’s a classic case of short-term pain for long-term gain.

Thanks for reading! I hope you found the video/ this blog post helpful!

Please share, subscribe and comment – I’d really appreciate it!


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