Children can be sensitive about almost anything to do with themselves – be it their bodies, looks, family, friends, hobbies, the list is endless. Languages are no exception, so adults should be mindful when making comments or even asking questions to do with their languages.
1. “Where do you come from?”
This may sound like an innocent, everyday question you could ask anyone, but for bilingual (and/or bi-cultural) children the question can be hurtful and possibly hard to answer. Because, what you are actually saying is “You are not from here, are you?”, and the underlying statement is that the child is a foreigner in the country.
2. “Say something in [insert language]”
Never ask bilingual children to say something in a language just to prove they can. Language is about communication, not about showing off.
3. “You have hardly any accent when you speak [insert language]”
What you are actually saying is “You have an accent.” Children (and adults for that matter) can be very sensitive about their language skills and how they sound. Also, who doesn’t have an accent when they speak – even monolinguals?
4. “How come you don’t speak [insert language] as well as your brother/sister/cousin/friend?”
Never compare children’s language skills. Children learn at different speeds. Also, shy children may come across as less fluent, because they don’t speak as much as other, more talkative children. Not saying anything doesn’t mean not knowing how to say something.
5. “Can you come and translate for me?”
Translation and interpretation are skills that are taught at university. Bilingual adults are not born translators, never mind bilingual children. Don’t put undue pressure on bilingual children by asking them to translate an adult conversation.
6. “You said that wrong!”
Be very mindful about correcting a bilingual child’s language. Most importantly, never do it in front of others. Instead of pointing out what was wrong, first emphasise what was right and then suggest how to improve the part which was incorrect. It is vital not to undermine the confidence bilingual children feel about using their languages.
7. “You sound so sweet/funny/different when you speak [insert language]”
Speaking a different language doesn’t change a person’s identity. Children are not sweeter/funnier/more different when they switch to speaking another language, so don’t make patronising or judgemental comments about how bilingual children speak. They may come across differently depending on the situation, but so do monolinguals. For example, if an outsider overheard a man speak to his boss, his daughter and his friends (all in the same language), the man will display different personality traits. This doesn’t however make him have many different identities.
If you are a bilingual which comments wind you up?
May the peace and power be with you.
© Rita Rosenback 2014
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