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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
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    I don't feel qualified for a full answer, but as there is more than one kid involved: how about you hint that it could be their "secret language", at least when you and your wife are not around? Or the "secret family language"? Would have sounded cool to me when I was a kid! – Layna Dec 19 '14 at 10:36
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    @Ian sure German has more international value than Danish. Following that logic, I should be speaking English with them instead! This is not about international value, it's about cultural values. – Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Dec 30 '14 at 9:14
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    @Ian: How could you deny the children their heritage? How can they ever find their place in the world if they don't know where they come from, and couldn't even speak the language? – gnasher729 Aug 18 '15 at 19:56
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    @olli, it's not about not being integrated in the new country, it's about being able to identify with, and communicate with, the family in the old country. – KlaymenDK Oct 26 '15 at 11:41

12 Answers 12

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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
  • "You're the parent, so you make the rules, including what language you use and when." Not sure what it has to do with being the parent; anybody, parent or otherwise, is free to speak whatever language they want... – user7953 Apr 11 '17 at 12:32
  • I think that success when the parents are "strict" will be far less certain when only one of the parents speaks the language, particularly the father. I think it's laudable to insist on kids speaking the parents' language(s), and this is definitely the way to go, but the result when it's just one parent can range anywhere from the kids being perfectly bilingual to them having reasonably good, but not perfect, passive ability, depending on how things play out. – user49640 Apr 13 '17 at 23:05
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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.

  • 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
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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
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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
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The user "Matt" posts an argument that your children are not speaking German because they do not like to speak it, but rather that they are not completely fluent in it. I'd actually like to offer a counter argument to that: I myself was raised with four languages, and have since observed my mother raise another child with the same languages. I'm also raising my own child doing the same. Additionally, my first language is not English, English happens to be my fourth language.

My experience as a child was frustration. I detested speaking German in an English speaking country, and the grievance was purely down to context. I remember telling my mother once that I would only speak German in Germany, and Afrikaans in SA.

It got to a point where, at around seven or eight I began to completely ignore my mother when she spoke to me in anything other than English, in England. after a few months of this, she eventually gave in (I was a very stoic/stubborn child) and I felt much more comfortable. The merit to all this is that I began to enjoy my other three languages much more, even going as far as to very occasionally drop a word or two in Afrikaans (my mother tongue) at sporadic points.

I'm very glad that the remainder of my childhood was spent as such. I can't explain, even now, why I felt so uncomfortable speaking languages in "the wrong country", but I witnessed the same issue with my younger brother. Our mother adopted the approach of using English most of the time with him, but took the time to teach him German as well. He has no issue with spoken or written German, but I could see the obvious change in character when he was spoken to in a language not native to the country he was currently in.

So, in answer to your question? I think you should respect that they feel more comfortable speaking German. I would naturally ensure they can speak and understand Danish, as its obviously a very important part of their heritage, but neither would I suggest that you "ram it down their throats", as they will likely begin to resent both that side of their culture and you for doing it.

Now that I think about it, perhaps I can offer an explanation:
The majority of young children and young adults dislike the concept of being different, or standing out too much. Many people make the mistake of thinking that they do not want to stand out at all, however this is not the case. Most want to have a sizeable proportion of their lives reasonably similar to their peers, and it is only once they begin to mature a little that they begin to explore other aspects of their lives.

Obviously, there are those who adopt radically different lifestyles and mentalities from an early age, but the majority of people do not. It is perhaps for this reason that we dislike foreign culture being applied to us at this age, particularly if it is a person whom is as close to them as a parent. The very thought of being vastly different (and remember, vastly is a considerably wider term here) makes them recoil, and causes embarrassment amongst a multitude of other emotions.

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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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From my experience (British father and Spanish mother) I didn't have any kind of problem if any of my parents spoke to me in a different language of the place we where.

If you are in public and there are other people involved, it's not polite to use a language they may no t understand.

Also you have to keep in mind that you should not be the only reference in Danish. If they have no other reason to use Danish, they will probably lose interest. I'm thinking here of family reunions, holidays, books, magazines, etc.

And two important things:

DO NOT FORCE them to use either language. If they understand you but don't feel comfortable speaking, do not make a thing of it.

DO NOT CORRECT them. If they use Danish though incorrectly, it's discouraging to be corrected and will lose interest in making the effort. Let them talk, even if they don't do it properly.

Oh.. and one last thing. In my childhood I learned dozens and dozens of children's songs in English. My father and my grandmother would sing them whenever there was an occasion ... Learning english was part of the fun.

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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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My brother-in-law is from Mauritius, his wife from Poland and they live in UK. His girls speak fluently Polish and English and understand some French. I've never heard them "refusing" to speak any of the parents' language. The eldest sometimes interpret for polish school mates. She looks quite happy to know more than one language, so your worries maybe for nothing.

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I don't think they hate to speak Danish, but maybe they don't feel good enough at speaking Danish yet. If you put them in an environment where they have to use Danish (like if their grandparents only understand Danish and you visit them) that would force them to use Danish if they want a cookie/drink or need something or want to watch cartoons. Right now, because you understand German, they don't really feel any "need" to speak Danish even if you speak Danish to them.

But honestly, I feel like your kids will pick up on it eventually. Don't give up talking to them in Danish. A popular thing kids like to do is have their exclusive "code" language that only they can talk in (and say stuff about people without them knowing in front of their faces... etc) So like why not. Maybe soon they'll come up to you and start wanting to practice speaking it with you.

For me, my mom always spoke to me in Mandarin and my dad spoke in Taiwanese almost exclusively and for the longest longest time, I didn't know the difference between Mandarin and Taiwanese. It was all "Chinese" to me. but I'd always spoke in Mandarin. (my mom took more care of me and I heard her talking/talked to her a lot more than my dad) Also when my dad spoke in Taiwanese to my mom, she usually replied to my dad in Mandarin. In recent years, she uses Taiwanese too.

It wasn't until I went to Taiwan as a teenager when I realized that Taiwanese was a completely different language. But what made me want to speak it were the friends I made there that spoke it and my relatives that spoke it.

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I was in the situation of your kids, my mom would speak to us in German and we would reply in English. I think our reasoning was we were in America so why speak German. I wish my mom would have been more stern with speaking German and not switching to English as soon as she did. Now I have lost most of it and I can not hold a conversation with my family in German.

I am not faulting my parents; I wish I understood the importance of it then.

I would suggest being stern with it but not too forceful and maybe explain the importance of why speaking both your native language as well as their language would benefit them.

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The fact remains that to truly understand a culture and a people, you have to speak their language. You are never truly going to understand a people until you converse with them in their own language.

You may speak a language as your native language that is not an official language in the country where you currently reside in, but that should not matter all that much when it comes to YOUR children and what is spoken in YOUR house even if your children only EVER speak Danish with their father this does not have any bearing on whether they should learn it.

You have chosen to be an intimate part of your children's lives. You live with them, you spend time with them as much as you can and you very much help support the family financially.

Believe you me, you could have very easily just decided to not pe part of the children's lives. It is much easier to just send their mother a cheque in the mail every month and call it that but you chose not to do that.

This should be enough to buy yourself some privileges. One of them being that you being part of the children's lives should buy you the right to share your culture with YOUR children.

This is by no means impossible. Don't for one moment believe a child can not learn two languages as a child. I have seen in my own teaching houses where there are one Afrikaans parent and one English parent and the language issue being handled well and in some cases not so well.

If it is to be handled well it takes a concerted effort from both parents as to make an equal effort to educate the children in both the cultures that led to their creation.

Unfortunately, this is hard to do. This takes that both parents not only have a deep rooted respect for their own culture but also the culture from which the other partner comes from.

It is much easier to just have a my-way-or-the-highway mentality. It is not all that impossible for one partner to manipulate to have there way.

At least if your wife forbids you from speaking your language, you would at least know what she really thinks of you.

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