My #MomFail: When Your Child Hates Language Learning

“No, Mommy, I want to be a niño normal.” A normal kid. My two-year-old was glaring at me from the top of the playground structure.

“Oh yeah?” I asked him, “What’s a niño normal?"

“One who just talks English,” he replied. 

And with that, my heart broke into a thousand little pieces. 

You see, I’d been raising my son bilingually since the day he was born. At my baby shower, friends and family had gifted me with many Spanish language board books and a bilingual Bible, and I had been faithfully reading them to him ever since he came home from the hospital. I talked to him in Spanish during our long days at home, played traditional Latin American folk songs for him in the car, and taught myself Spanish lullabies to sing to him at bedtime.

So when my (very verbal) toddler informed me that he no longer wanted to speak Spanish with me, it was a wake-up call. I had dreamed of raising him to be bilingual, traveling with him to Latin America, and helping him to make friends around the globe. As a first-time mom, I honestly hadn’t imagined that he might not want to go along with my idea. 

I knew then that I needed to make some serious changes to win his heart and convince him (even at this young age) that it was worth practicing his Spanish. 

Are you facing similar resistance with your language learners, homeschool mama? Maybe your family is bilingual and you’d like for your child to be able to speak your mother tongue. Or maybe your high schooler is studying French to prepare for college, but really hates grammar practice and vocabulary review. Or maybe you’re learning Latin together as a family, but one child keeps insisting, “This is just so boring!” 

You’re not alone. 

homeschool language learning resistance.jpeg

But what do you do when language learning meets resistance? 

Well, I can tell you what I did, but before I do, let me say something to reassure you: this is totally normal. 

There is loads of research on why kids struggle with motivation in language learning. So let me say it again: this is totally normal. Language learning is hard: it’s awkward, it requires lots of practice, and it takes a lot of mistakes to finally get it right

However, it’s not impossible. You can do this—and so can your child! So if your family has a reluctant language learner, here are some thoughts on how to address the situation: 

  1.  Take a step back to evaluate the situation and determine the source of resistance.
    Is your child struggling with a particular linguistic concept, with developing effective study habits, or with finding a good reason for language study? Depending on the issue your child is facing, your response will be slightly different, so try to answer this question as best you can.  
  2. Get support. If your child is studying a foreign language through a local co-op or homeschooling group, be sure to check in with his/her teacher to share your concerns and ask for advice. If you’re studying on your own, you can find support from other homeschooling parents in the Language Learning at Home Facebook group—we’ve got MANY world language represented. If you’re a bilingual family, you might also find encouragement and ideas from blogs dedicated to bilingual parenting; reading Adam’s work at Bilingual Monkeys and Monica Olivera’s writing at Mommy Maestra has been critical to helping me develop confidence in my own bilingual parenting and home educating. 
  3. Help your child think creatively about reasons for language study. If your child is older, you can work together to brainstorm ideas about how language learning could be useful in the future, even if your child doesn’t plan on traveling much. You might be encouraged in this by listening to this episode of the Scholé Sisters podcast, where they have a great discussion of the reasons for Latin learning. As these ladies observe—and research bears out—the process of learning a language is itself a form of character education. The habit formation that real language learning requires is a virtuous end unto itself—so even if your child doesn’t plan on ever speaking the languages he is studying, there are still reasons to study them. If your child is younger, you can have simplified discussions about the issue. For my extroverted son, I often encourage him to speak Spanish with the refrain: “the more languages you speak, the more friends you can have.” This is especially evident to him whenever we visit our neighborhood playground, where there are usually at least five different languages being spoken by the families there! And of course, as with anything related to student motivation, showing is usually more effective than telling, so you may want to think about incorporating some fun cultural education activities into your homeschool day to help with motivation. This really doesn’t have to be complicated—for us, it meant buying some picture books about Mexico to read as a family and making time to reminisce over the months that we spent living in Mexico City when my older son was a toddler. Both of those activities gave him a personal connection to Spanish that had been previously missing. 
  4. Make language learning into a game. This was probably the most important thing that we did to help my son with his motivation. As it turns out, I think that I was putting a little too much pressure on the whole Spanish situation (I can be a little happens). So instead of continuing our power struggle, I decided to make it into a game—I pretended (wink wink) that I couldn’t understand English anymore and that he would have to speak to me only in Spanish. To my surprise, this went over great—he immediately caught on to our “game” and is still a willing participant. But what if you don’t speak the language that your kids are studying—how can you “gamify” language learning? One idea is to use an app like Duolingo, which is specifically designed to cultivate student motivation by rewarding progress in language learning, but another idea is to develop a reward system that reinforces the language itself. For example, if your daughter reviews her French vocabulary words every day for a week, she can pick a new show in French to watch on Netflix or have a brie and baguette dinner to celebrate. 

I hope that those ideas are helpful for you! If your family has found other ways to motivate your language learners, would you mind sharing them here? I know that we would all benefit!