In my family (including extended family), everybody speaks both German and Danish. It also means that everybody can speak whatever language they happen to prefer, and we even throw in a word from the other language if it carries the meaning better. We live in Austria so German gets lots of exposure.

I asked this question about speaking to my children and some of the answers mention the idea of requiring the children to respond in the same language. I'm not sure whether that's a great idea or not so I thought I'd collect some thoughts on this.

On one hand, it will probably help the child to a better active vocabulary, but on the other hand I don't think I can actually make my kids do this. The kids know that I'm fluent in both languages, so why should they be forced to speak Danish to me? Especially given that they see me using whatever language I happen to prefer at the moment (except that I always speak Danish with the kids).

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    My youngest says she doesn't want to talk English, but the other day I honestly didn't understand what she was trying to say in French, and she just trotted it out in English, which was reassuring. You could try to augment the exposure by only allowing TV in Danish :)
    – Benjol
    Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 7:08
  • @Benjol: I'm at a drawback because everybody knows that I'm fluent in both languages so I can't credibly claim to not understand. TV in Danish is a good idea - live TV isn't available outside Denmark and the DVD material I've found so far is not very good but I need to look some more! Commented Feb 8, 2013 at 7:24
  • topical anecdote from this weekend: "Why do I have to call you 'Daddy'? Everyone else in Switzerland calls their father 'Papa'!"
    – Benjol
    Commented Feb 11, 2013 at 10:21

2 Answers 2


In an effort to raise a child with exposure to anything other than just English like many US kids until high school, (which I think puts them at a HUGE disadvantage). I did a little research on the matter last year. The book I liked the most for readability and its seeming ability to support its own theses with corroborative evidence was "The Bi-lingual Edge."

In this book, they suggest that it is common for kids raised to speak a "family language" in the home while hearing and using another popular language outside of the home to stop using the "family language" shortly after entering school. The result (here in the states) with many of these families is a child that grows into an adult that understands a second language fluently, but can't recall vocabulary and sentence structure well enough to effectively communicate in that second language once their parents are no longer around and using the second language.

The suggestion the book's authors make, is to refuse to "understand" or "respond" to the language popularly used in your area in regard to use with your child. While I understand that you are clarifying they already know that you can use German, it is possible to use this tact anyway. I have always used it even within English alone if I don't like the tone used.

"But Mo-om. I don' Wan'na clean my rooo-ooom!"

"Oh I'm sorry I don't understand Whine. Could you say that in English (or on "German Days" German) please?"

For you, It might be more like, (In Danish) "I Choose not to respond to German. Could you try again in Danish Please?"

Your child may sometimes choose not to try again. This may mean he solves the problem for himself, or goes and seeks out Mom. However, if you start from a very early age (where you are at now and what you are already doing) a lot of times, just trying again in Danish will be easier and that is the choice your child will most likely make, most of the time.

When, sometime your child complains about it, you can simply explain that it is to their advantage to know as many languages as possible and to retain and maintain their language skills they have to regularly use the language. If they know that is your stand and know you will not repsond to the use of German, but will only respond to the use of Danish, they may get that adolescent annoyance with you at points in life, but you are the parent and are doing what you believe is right, and enforcing what you value. Of course, in mixed company, you should all be able to use the language best suited to the situation, (Use German with their German friends rather than awkward, forced translation . . .) but in regard to the day-to-day that is what I've seen as the supported hypothesis for best handling the situation.

I'll admit, I'm still testing the waters with my own and far from fluent myself, so my experience is pretty thin. At the same time, I've seen so many friends and family members lose active speech for lack of practice (myself included) and think it is a tragedy to toss away such a gift lightly. Parents don't like to admit to "forcing" kids to do things, but realistically, it is part of the job. No one wants to do dishes, but we teach them to do dishes because it is a life skill they need. No one likes losing, but check out the question about letting a toddler lose or not. If you value teaching the language to your kids, they'll understand that, even if it does annoy them at times, they'll feel the love behind your choice.


The wording of your question is going to color your answers. As soon as you say "Should I make X do Y", "Should I force X to do Y" you'll get a lot of reaction to the "make" and "force" part. (current answers excluded!)

From my reading of "Raising a Bilingual Child", Zurur, it's common for kids to switch to their stronger language because their goal is communication, they don't really see the importance of practice for the long term goal of acquiring and keeping a skill. So if your child thinks it is easier to get you to understand him in German, he'll speak German. For young children it is easy to feign ignorance of the other language and very young children sometimes think it is impossible to speak to Dad in Mom's language even if they see Mom and Dad both using that language.

The other thing I learned from the book is that there is a lower bound to the # of hours of exposure a week a child needs to a language so that the minority language doesn't lose out to their dominant one. Often the minority language parent only has time to chat a bit each work day evening and a bit more on the weekend (let's say a round 6 hrs a week), that's 14 hrs short of the exposure necessary to keep it from becoming the weaker language (the boundary is actually fuzzier, the point is, 20 minutes a day isn't enough). And then kids switch to being passively fluent (able to listen and understand) but not actively fluent (not speaking back).

If it's any consolation, this is a common phenomena.

Oh, and an idea for dealing with diglossia-- if you can pick which domains are German and which are Danish, you can trigger switches more often. For example, with my soon to be born kid, we're planning to do Russian at home, Tagalog at Grandmas, English outside of the home. The existence of a trigger (walking through the door) helps encourage a language switch. Indians (and filipinos) digloss--rapidly switching back and forth between 2 languages and they get away with it, but they digloss all the time. I've only seen Swedish comedians and Icelandic hipsters digloss like that.

  • Based on my reading, that minimum number of hours measured out to somewhere around 20% of the time the child is speaking with anyone. Commented Feb 9, 2013 at 14:21
  • "Diglossing" is an interesting concept. I didn't know it had a name. With my family, we often even "trigloss" but we keep that among us adults. Just as you point out(!) our focus is on content, regardless of what language the most suitable word happens to be in. Commented Apr 23, 2014 at 7:40

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