We are a Spanish family who has recently relocated to England with our children. Our 6 year old boy can't speak nor understand English; he knows some words, basic phrases and a few numbers, but that is all.

He keeps saying that he wants to go "back home" and that he doesn't want to live here. We have explained to him that we are here to stay, that our new life is here and that all will be good in the long term, but he rejects the idea and says he will leave as soon as he is 18. I assume in his mind this is temporary, he thinks he has only to wait those 12 years and be gone (he obviously can't grasp how long 12 years really are).

When we try to teach English to him, he does not pay attention, runs away or simply says "I don't know ".

We expected school to help him, staying all day with local children and playing with them and all; but it has had the opposite effect. I can imagine how frustrating it must be to sit all day long in a room full of strangers babbling incomprehensibly, doing things you barely understand and who can't understand a word you say. He is bored, making trouble and will most surely lag behind his classmates as the year goes on.

We keep explaining what is going on, trying to teach him English, and telling him that when he has learned everything will be easier, but to no avail.

We don't know what else we can do.


There area couple of assistants and a few children at the school that can speak both languages, and they are helping a lot, but they can't spend the whole day helping my son, so in the end he has to fend for himself.

We use Spanish with our children and among ourselves, but watch local TV. We still watch some films with them in Spanish but not much.

And just to clarify, or main concern is not if (or when) will he learn English. Our main concern is helping him cope with such a difficult situation and ease the transition as much as possible. I want my children to be happy, an currently he can't.

Second edit Added involved languages in order to make the question more clear.

How things have evolved After some weeks going to school, we have come to the conclusion that we were looking at it from the wrong angle. It's not that he refuses to learn because he wants to go back home, the main problem is that he wants to run away from the difficulty of learning the language. Now that he has started to communicate with others, his behaviour and attitudes have improved dramatically. He still needs help, but now we have a clear understanding of what is going on.

Two years later and my son doesn't want to hear about going "back home". He still has some difficulties, and is definitely lagging behind in reading and writing, but in general terms he is very well adjusted.

The key was encouragement and help. My wife was asked by the school to stay in class with him, explaining and translating what was going on. Having a familiar person with him helped him settle in and gain confidence. When he was used to the place and people, she gradually left him on his own for longer periods until she didn't come anymore.

And he now switches back and forth between the two languages with no effort.

  • 1
    Is there a bilingual school available, local and yours? That would surely help the transition. Or any groups with kids who, for one reason or another, share your sons language? That would certainly help the transition, possibly with at first a strange mix of vocabulary and grammar between both, but at least he'd have a chance to understand...
    – Layna
    Sep 24, 2015 at 12:39
  • There are some bilingual children in the same school, but that is not helping much. A bilingual child helps him, but he has his own problems as he has also just arrived. Sep 24, 2015 at 12:49
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    Maybe you won't see this comment anymore but I would be interested in how things have evolved - we're faced with a similar situation but only with the added difficulty that we also don't speak the native language (German) and my daughter is having a hard time at kindergarten.
    – sirrocco
    Sep 12, 2017 at 10:24
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    @sirrocco edited to add how it all ended up. Sep 13, 2017 at 7:49
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    Thankyou for the long-term update! Happy to hear things are going great! Sep 13, 2017 at 9:03

3 Answers 3



I suggest getting him into fun programs. Get him on a local football team with some kids his age. He will hopefully have fun and start to see the local kids as his friends. Even better if you can find a coach that knows a little Spanish and is willing to help him feel comfortable.


Gradually introduce incentives focusing on his favorite things as rewards. Also translate words he uses regularly into English when he uses the Spanish version. As a child, I had to go through a similar transition and for me television played a big role. I don't know if he enjoys television, if he does dedicate some time to shows he likes that are in English and encourage him to ask about words he doesn't understand. In the beginning, this encouragement might involve you spending time with him watching the shows and translating the words and sentences you think are complex. As his confidence increases you can gradually extract yourself and introduce a dictionary.

As a side note, if he has completely rejected the idea that you are there to stay, he is probably still in shock and/or experiencing a great deal of anxiety. I would suggest you spend sometime discussing this with him and listening to him. Intelligent children often want to be heard. If this doesn't help I would suggest getting a psychologist involved as the problem may involve other factors you haven't considered like bullying or isolation at school. Changing environments often also means changes in etiquette, this is often confusing for young children as what was perfectly normal becomes somewhat taboo in another environment. What was taboo can also be deemed normal.

Hope this helps and good luck.


Although I certainly would not do this suddenly, I recommend using some incentives. You don't get dessert if you don't ask for it in English. You can't play on the ipad* (or whatever item rules your 6yr old's attention) unless you ask for it in English. Christmas presents? Your list had better be in English. You get the idea.

As I said though, I wouldn't spring that suddenly. I would introduce it gradually with clearly marked (and frequently reminded) timelines.

The problem (as you've described it) is that you are worried about the long-term consequences your child doesn't have perspective to appreciate. But we deal with this as parents all the time: kid darts into the street? We punish with an artificial consequence because we can't have the child learn the hard way about the danger of being hit by a car. Likewise, we incentivize our children to do well in school with punishments and rewards because we understand the long-term importance in a way they can't, and we know they can't, so we give them artificial incentives they can relate to on their level.

Trying to tell a young child that this will be important long term is like trying to teach a cat to scuba dive by providing written instructions. It doesn't matter how clearly you write them, the cat will not learn. No matter how articulate, you won't be able to persuade without giving something (no matter how clearly artificial) that matters to the child now.

*and if, like mine, your child is completely enamored of a piece of tech, changing the language setting will definitely give some incentive to learn that language. Or maybe incentive to put the thing down and do something more active. Win-win.

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    Forcing English down the kid's throat at home is unnecessary and likely counterproductive. They'll learn English astonishingly fast at school, and as the OP says, the main issue here is getting over the initial rough patch. Jan 17, 2016 at 9:10
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    @jpatokal if the kid were 16 (or maybe even 10) instead of 6 I'd agree with you. But 6 year olds respond well to structure and (frankly) ham-handed incentives: I'm not aware of any research that does not support that position. Jan 17, 2016 at 16:23

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