There are several reasons why a child refuses to use their parents’ language. I used to teach a girl in a Polish Saturday school who was very uncertain about her reading skills in Polish. Every time I asked her to read a text, she would say “please no” or she would whisper.
Once we had a Polish reading competition at school and all students had to read the text in front of their classmates. The girl refused and she had tears in her eyes. During the break, I asked her to read the text only to me. She agreed. The girl read fluently, made only a few small mistakes. Taking into account her age (9) and the fact that she was brought up bilingually in Ireland (from birth), she had very well-developed reading skills in Polish. ”
Why don’t you want to read aloud? You’re doing very well” I said to her. She admitted that someone once laughed at her when she read in Polish aloud and made a minor mistake. She remembered the embarrassment and since that day she had no confidence in her own abilities.
After the school holidays, she agreed to read a text in front of the class and she won the 3rd place in the same competition. Since then, she has read more and more confidently in the classroom.
This story is an example of a situation when a child knows the language, but s/he is not convinced of his or her skills and think ‘I’m just not good enough at it’.
Sometimes, such lack of confidence may result from experiences that the child may not be able to remember or explain if asked. In my experience, I have seen parents correcting the children’s errors very often when they talk, and this can have a negative impact on the child’s confidence in speaking the language. That is why it is better to use the correct word or phrase to naturally show the child the correct form, rather than pointing out their mistakes.
Sometimes the reason for a child lacking confidence or refusing to speak the parents’ language is really related to poor language skills.
In my classes, I have come across children who are extremely fluent in English, but comparatively, have poor language skills in Polish. Children usually choose the language they know better, the language in which they can communicate their thoughts clearly and express their emotions precisely and easily. That is why it is crucial for parents to not only to provide many opportunities for the child to use the minority language, but also to offer a rich language environment.
This means exposing the child to the heritage language in a variety of situations and places, reading books, playing games, and meeting people with whom the child can communicate in the heritage language. In my opinion, all kinds of extra-curricular activities carried out in the language, Saturday schools or contact with the family and friends (even via Skype), are very helpful at every age.
Another problem is a ‘rebellion’ which appears in many bilingual children and teenagers. The child may start to display a negative attitude towards the heritage language and may not want to use it even with their parents. Very often the child then tries to “force” other members of the family to use the majority language at home. Such a ‘rebellion’ does not necessarily have a linguistic motivation, it can be a form of rebellion connected to searching for one’s cultural identity. At this time, it is important that parents and families present their positive attitude towards both languages to show that they are equally important (that the heritage language is not in any way less valuable). Parents can also try talking with the child about bilingualism, asking about the way s/he feels, discussing challenges the child may face and discussing the benefits of speaking two languages.
Parents should also be aware of the possibility of speech development impairments. If you notice that your child does not speak at all (in any language) or does not want to speak in specific situations, or you just have any doubts about his/her language development, it is always worth consulting a speech and language therapist that work with multilingual children.