It's a reasonably common phenomenon that kids in bilingual families who are correctly raised tend to prefer the language of their country of residence (English, in case of USA).

Even if the parents teach them both English and the family birth language, and they are fluent in both equally, at some point they tend to start favoring English, unconsciously.

I have observed that some parents in this situation, as a way to enforce the bi-lingual development, refuse to respond, or do what is asked, if the child speaks to them in English instead of another language, until what was said is repeated in the "correct" language.

Are there any downsides to this approach?

Note: assume that the child is old enough AND fluent enough in both languages that this isn't a major hardship for them.

Note: The relative benefits or downsides of the goal of forcing the children to be bilingual are outside the scope of this question (it was somewhat covered here and here). Only a specific method of enforcing this goal is being asked about.

  • 4
    There is the word again, "force". As if we have any choice about literacy, wearing cloths or eating with a fork. I will play the "I don't understand gambit", but I plan to be willing to use all other communication tactics, like ignoring the English but paying attention to the context, gestures, and so on. For this gambit to work, you need to really act like you don't understand, you can't act like a punitive brick wall. Commented May 22, 2014 at 13:51
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    I don't think it's quite possible to prevent a preference for the language for the area they live due to the increased use of the language (any time they aren't speaking to you, they are speaking the language of the area). I've seen some families say that in the house, you must speak another language. Always, every day, all day. This only works though if the child is old enough and fluent enough, which you state in your question. Don't make it a lie though, just make it an agreement (e.g. don't say you don't understand them, just don't give a true response, similar to @dotancohen's answer)
    – Doc
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 14:58

2 Answers 2


I'm assuming that the parent does understand? So the tactic features a lie as its central feature. And the lesson this is supposed to teach the kid is... what, exactly? Lie and be stubborn to get your way? I would consider imparting that lesson to be a major downside to this approach.

An example of a more constructive approach might be to actually treat them as sentient creatures with some desire for control in their life: "The advantages to being bilingual are enormous, it's a superpower most people don't have, and it's many times harder to come by as an adult than as a kid. So I think it's really important that you not squander the opportunity to become fluent in this language while you're young and have unfettered access to native speakers to practice with. So here's what we're going to do: On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, let's only speak Urdu at home. All of us. On Tuesday, Thursday, and the weekend, we'll speak only English, and you can give me tips to help improve my English."

You don't have to shoulder the burden yourself, either. Outsource so you aren't the bad guy. Enroll them in an after-school or weekend activity that involves speaking Urdu. Send them for a month to visit Urdu-only-speaking relatives during the summer. There are all sorts of ways to make picking up a language fun and interesting, and if you have to describe it as "forcing", maybe you're not using the right tactic.


In my experience and opinion, the downsides to the approach of refusing to respond if the child speaks in the native tongue instead of the desired language, is the confusion of the role and abilities of the parent. The parent's job is to raise a human who can communicate effectively and directly, without relying on manipulation and subterfuge to reach his goals. By relying on manipulation and subterfuge himself, the parent is displaying this as an acceptable approach to getting what he wants.

Additionally the child should always have the security that, of all the confusing and hapless people in the world, he can always confide his feelings, needs, and confusions to his parent. Pretending that the parent sometimes, depending on circumstance does not understand the child completely destroys this security. This could be devastating latter in life when the then-no-longer-a-child must confide that he failed an exam, crashed the car, or is gay.

The way that I deal with the situation is by listening to things said in both languages, but only giving the wanted response in the language that I want to encourage. For instance, on the evenings that I randomly choose to encourage English:

Daughter: אפשר לקבל גלידה?‏
Me: לא!‏
Daughter: May I have ice cream?
Me: Sure!

This gives both positive reinforcement to the target language and negative reinforcement to the 'default' language. Additionally, it teaches the children that how they ask a question is no less important that what they are asking for.

Note that I ease the girls into this routine at the beginning of the evening by speaking English to them first, so it is not a surprise when I'll only be amenable in a certain language.

  • This does NOT answer the question of what the downsides are
    – user3143
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 11:12
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    @DVK: You are right, I will address that in an edit. Thank you.
    – dotancohen
    Commented May 28, 2014 at 11:34

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