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My children are raised multilingual; we live in Austria and they learn all their German from my wife and from the world around us. I'm Danish and I want my kids to know that language too, so since birth I've exclusively spoken Danish to them even though I'm perfectly fluent in German. So far, my 3yo understands 100% of what I say but always responds in German - that's good enough for me.

Eventually my kids might not want me to speak my native language but rather the language of the country we live in, because they might feel it's "not cool" to have a dad that doesn't conform to their peers' social norms - or whatever other reasons (pre-)teens might come up with.

I want to avoid that my kids don't want to talk to me, but I also want to make sure they know the language.

Should I just tell them, tough luck, you'll have to accept that I speak this language, or should I respect their wish?

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I would go with "tough luck, you'll have to accept that I speak this language" only, I would say it in Danish if I were you. I am forever telling Alice, "it isn't my job to be cool, it is my job to be your mom." –  balanced mama Dec 7 '13 at 22:43
I think you're asking about this too early - SE is for problems you have, not theoretical problems you might have. It's impossible to give a truly good answer to this hypothetical, as all the behaviors and motives are basically being made up differently by each answerer. –  mxyzplk Apr 22 at 15:10
@mxyzplk: We actually welcome all questions that are reasonably precise even when the asker isn't facing that particular problem at the time. The reality doesn't prevent good questions from getting good answers. The answers below also prove this. –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Apr 23 at 7:35

6 Answers 6

From my experience growing up bilingual, the problem won't be that your kids don't want you to speak the "foreign" language, but that they will refuse to speak the "foreign" language. (The fact that you will do uncool things is a given: you're the parent, anything you do is by definition uncool.)

The only way to counteract this is to build up a good foundation before they hit that rebellious age, and then to stick to your guns. You're the parent, so you make the rules, including what language you use and when.

Again from my experience growing up as a member of a foreign-language speaking ethnic group in an English-speaking country, the kids whose parents were at least somewhat strict about speaking the foreign language all eventually "saw the light" and realized that knowing a second language is a Good ThingTM; some of them now live in the "mother country" (even though they weren't born there) and/or have spouses from there. The kids whose parents "gave in", on the other hand, are basically no longer bilingual: they know the meaning of some words, but they can't really hold a conversation.

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I'm uncool but I get to make the rules :-) Great answer! –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Feb 8 '13 at 19:58

Your children are probably choosing to respond to you in German because they are more fluent in it, and they know that you understand it, not because they don't want to use Danish. If you are the only person who speaks to your children in Danish, then probably around 70% of their input is in German. Children won't understand why you are telling them to respond in one language or another - they are just interested in expressing meaning in the manner they are most comfortable.

Research has shown that the most successful bilingual language learners are exposed to more than just one parent who speaks the second language. They need to be members of a community of speakers of both languages - they need to have a reason to use both languages beyond "Daddy told me to." So if you want your children to be comfortable in German and Danish, do your best to integrate them into a community of Danish speakers. Whether that means spending more time with your relatives, finding a Danish nanny, or Danish playmates, you need to find a way to make "Danish speaker" an important part of their identities.

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Your first paragraph is true for young children: pre-pre-teens, if you will. When they get older, though, which language they use is a matter of choice, and worse, peer pressure: they will choose to speak German because that's what all their friends speak, and they don't want to be different. Which is where your 100% correct second paragraph comes in: if you can arrange it so that peer pressure gets them to speak Danish, you will have won your battle. –  Martha Feb 13 '13 at 15:21

I will probably soon have the same problem - I am Russian and I live in the Czech Republic. My wife is Czech (although she speaks perfect Russian too) and we have a son. He is 2+ years old at the moment and we have made the rule that she speaks to him in Czech (sometimes in Russian too, as I'm often at work and can't be with my son as often, as she can) and I only speak to him in Russian. When I ask him about something, I almost always tell him to answer in Russian - when he answers in Czech, I ask him something along the lines of "And how do you say that in Russian?" He doesn't always remember, but from time to time he does and sometimes even tries to correct either me, telling me that the correct word is the one my wife uses, or my wife, telling her that the correct word is the one I use.

We've decided that, as he grows older, I will only speak to him in Russian and we will try to make it interesting/fun for him to speak Russian too. A couple of thoughts about how to do it that we have:

  • his grandparents (my parents) don't know any Czech. He loves them and I think he will want to communicate with them - and for that he will want to speak Russian;
  • I myself am a linguist and have always tried to learn new languages. Haven't stopped, still learning in my spare time. I hope that, in trying to become more like his dad, he will try pick up my hobbies too - one of them being learning and speaking other languages;
  • we plan to somehow explain to him that knowing other languages makes him cooler, as @Uko suggested in his answer. Or smarter. Or anything else, whatever makes him happy;
  • we are trying to have another baby at the moment and I intend on giving them this idea that Russian could be a kind of a secret language for them, that no one around would understand and that they could use just for fun when they don't want people around them to understand what they are talking about (or, even more likely, what they are writing about - because of the Cyrillic alphabet);
  • I am showing my son Russian cartoons and when he gets a bit older I want to show him some Russian movies that I know I liked as a child. They aren't available in Czech and I hope he likes them - that way I can from time to time show him more, and he would need Russian to understand;
  • to expand the previous thought - there's also great Russian books and music that one wouldn't understand without knowing Russian.

Those aren't confirmed strategies, but something I've come up with and intend on trying to use. Hope it helps or at least gives you a successful vector of action. If I remember anything else, I'll post later.

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+1 for cartoons. It shows that knowing another language can be a source of FUN, not just a duty. –  Viliam Búr Feb 18 '13 at 16:16

I was raised in a solely Spanish speaking home in the U.S. and have friends that come from English and Spanish speaking homes watching their sibling that only responded in English to their parents Spanish commands really hindered their ability and comfort speaking the language as they got older. I highly suggest insisting your child respond to you in Danish so that she becomes fully proficient and comfortable speaking the language.

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Welcome to the community matt! I fully agree - I wish I had been pushed to maintain my German more. I have wonderful pronunciation (so I am told) but horrible grammar and my vocab is almost non-existent anymore. –  balanced mama Dec 8 '13 at 0:28

I know family that does this way that father speaks with children in language and mother speaks to them in another one. I think it's very important to know as many languages as possible, and I think that it will be useful to make your children fluent in Danish.

I suggest making a rule that they can only talk to you in Danish and this should work well. As the family I've mentioned about dose it this way. Also I think that you can find out how to do this not a as "tough luck" but as a possibility for your children to become "cooler". Firs of all you can make them understand that they are more than people around them, as they know the German language as anyone else, but they also have extra skills. Also an idea of a "safe" language to communicate with each other while no one around understands you can be motivating too.

Good luck with your multilingual adventures :)

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Being multilingual myself, I feel discomfort at speaking to someone in a language I know doesn't "fit".

For example, my dad is Italian, but my brother and I were born and lived in Argentina. We always spoke Spanish at home, but always Italian with my grandparents (his parents). We effectively learned Italian that way. In my adolescence, my dad started sometimes speaking Italian to us, maybe because he wanted to, maybe because he wanted us not to lose the proficiency, I don't know. Anyway, I almost always responded in Spanish, or felt distinctly uncomfortable responding in Italian to him. On the other hand, talking in Italian to my grandparents always felt natural.

So maybe it's a question of time and patience. I'd say that the best tests would be a trip to Denmark, or watching a Danish film/performance with them: do they understand and respond in Danish? What I can assure you is that sooner or later they will be very thankful for what you are doing, if anything because learning further languages is easier.

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