Strategies for guiding a child to speak in a foreign language

By | September 9, 2019

As if raising a child isn’t difficult enough, raising a child to speak a language different than the primary language(s) of the country you live in further complicates things. There are various reasons for why parents want their child or children to speak another language, but I’ve heard many stories where the child ends up growing up with only the ability to understand, not speak fluently.

I’ll be using Japanese as the foreign language, but this discussion generally applies to any language.

Let’s say you try to say something to your child in Japanese, for example:

  • You: 今日は何食べたい? (kyou wa nani ga tabetai?)

If the child responds in Japanese (“ハンバーガー食べたいな”), then the conversation continues as normal. But what if your child responds in a different language, say English:

  • Child: I want a hamburger.

In this post I want to go over a few strategies for how you can respond to this sort of situation.

Strategy 1: Pretend that you don’t understand

This strategy is simple: just pretend you don’t understand what they said and continue in the language you were speaking in.

  • You: ごめん、意味わからない。何が食べたい? (gomen, imi wakaranai. nani ga tabetai?)

I feel this strategy is perhaps the most effective (if done consistently), and yet the hardest to execute. I’ve heard of a handful of parents that have tried to strictly maintain this attitude, but the majority seem to stay away from it.

Strategy 2: Acknowledge understanding, but repeat their answer in your language

This strategy is much kinder and allows the conversation to continue while teaching the child the proper word(s) for future conversations.

  • You: ハンバーガーが食べたいんだ。僕も食べたいよ (hanbaagaa ga tabetai n da. boku mo tabetai yo.)

If you are careful, you can slip in the word (or phrase) in the language you are speaking without sounding like you are complaining or scolding the child.

The problem with this strategy is that the child can then continue speaking in English for the remainder of the conversation, leading to half-half conversations. While such conversations can work, personally I don’t enjoy participating in (or even hearing) them and I think they can cause a child to develop bad language habits. If the child really is unable to speak in Japanese (or whatever language), then the parent should just switch to English.

Strategy 3: Ask the child nicely to answer in your language

Rather than continuing the conversation, this strategy emphasizes (in a gentle way) that the child has done something undesirable.

  • You: 日本語で答えてくれる? (nihongo de kotaete kureru?)

If you are lucky the child may then try to answer in the desired language, and if they struggle you can help them figure out the right words to use.

A variation of this strategy is to first tell them how to say what they just said in your language, and then ask them kindly to repeat it.

Strategy 4: Tell the child strictly to answer in your language

This is a variation of the previous strategy, except you use a stronger tone and wording that is more pressing.

  • You: 日本語で答えなさい (nihongo de kotae nasai)

Strategy 5: Switch to the language the child is speaking

While this strategy seems to be giving up, if used selectively I think it can still work. For example, if the child is used to speaking about a certain topic in English (maybe it is something commonly talked about in school) then you can acknowledge that and switch to English, albeit only temporarily.

  • You: Ok, I guess you’re used to talking about food with your friends at school. Let’s go get some hamburgers. But I’d like you to try and speak in Japanese for me once we get in the car, OK?

In the above example, the parent has set a specific time when their preferred language should be spoken.

Final thoughts

Personally I think I have used all of the above strategies, but more often than not I tend toward #2 and #3. The last one (switch to their language) I use very rarely.

Details how you handle each conversation are important, but I feel explaining to a child why they should learn a second (or third) language is the most difficult thing––and perhaps the most important. Saying learning multiple languages will help in their future may be true, but convincing a young child of this is likely to be a challenge. From a short-term, functional point of view it makes sense to just do whatever works to get your point across, and children typically aren’t that strong regarding long-term thinking.

Also, I think it’s important to remember that a parent can only force a child to speak a language until that child moves away (to go to college, etc.). After that point, the parent has little control over their life, and if the child so desires they can simply ignore the language in question, forgetting it surprisingly quickly.

Rather than just forcing a language on a child, I think it’s important to teach that child what is special or unique about that language and culture. If the child gets a genuine interest, they are more likely to continue learning the language on their own, even after moving out.

I think the more people that a child is forced to interact within a certain foreign language––relatives, friends, teachers––the more motivated they will be to learn that language. Cases where only the parents (or only a single parent) speak the language in question are the most difficult, especially if the parent(s) understand the language of the country they are living in (i.e. English). Once I met someone who said his son had learned Russian by simply speaking to his dad in that language (and nobody else), but I think this is a pretty rare case.

If you are raising one or more children bilingually please feel to leave a comment. I’m always interested in hearing about parents’ experiences.

(Note: featured image of children taken from

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4 thoughts on “Strategies for guiding a child to speak in a foreign language

  1. Jim Miles

    I was recently talking to a friend about this topic, specifically the fact that one of my Italian colleagues was heartbroken when his daughters suddenly decided they only wanted to speak English and that the Italian he had been teaching them since birth just wasn’t “cool”. I found that really sad! I think eventually they grew back out of that though and now love Italian again.

    My friend offered her own second hand experience that one of her Chinese friends was always sent to her grandparents over summer. Her grandparents…who didn’t speak any English! Apparently it worked really well because going to the grandparents was seen as a fun thing, so speaking Mandarin also had a fun association as well as being a kind of “cost” of this enjoyable trip to the grandparents.

    When I have my own children I want them to speak multiple languages too. I found your post really good! 🙂

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Thanks for sharing two interesting stories. Glad you appreciated my article (:


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