Home Language Maintenance with Teenagers

[update May 2023]

If you have teenagers whose school language is not one of the home languages it might be difficult to make them read, write and “immerse” into the home languages.

If they don’t get any formal education in those languages it is very difficult to maintain them at home. The switching to the more dominant language, the language of school or of the community, together with a general “I don’t want to” or “you can not make me talk this way” attitude is often the reason why parents give up fostering the home languages when their children become teens.

I personally think and know by my own experience, that keeping the interest in the home languages alive throughout the school years is hard work especially when we don’t visit the countries where these languages are spoken regularly, when our teenagers don’t speak the language to peers and don’t have a connection with the teen-world in that language.

But this is a very critical period in language acquisition – yes, they are still acquiring the language! – and international parents need help from their community and schools to re-confirm the value of the home languages. Many schools are becoming more and more inclusive when it comes to home language-use in the classroom and the school premisses. It is a relief for parents like me to know that “school language only” policies are being abandoned in favor of “use your home language to foster your overall knowledge” practices. But what schools are not aware of is that these teenagers might not read in their home languages regularly. They might not have the words to even look up more complex topics. 

I call this work that we parents and caregivers are doing with our teenagers Home Language Maintenance: we try with all the tools and means we have at our disposal to maintain something that we instilled from a very early stage, but which suffered due to the fact that our children are schooled in another language and this became the most dominant and most “important” one at some point.
Some of us missed the moment to send our children to language lessons for many reasons:

  • Why should we do that, our child uses the language at home every day…
  • I can’t force him/her to take those language lessons on top of all the lessons at school… the school language has priority…

It is very difficult for multilingual parents to motivate their children foster all their language! We often need to let one language (or two) become less important. This is when we question our whole project of raising our children with all these languages and experience something I would call the multilingual parenting fatigue.

We have tons of books, resources and frantically search for more input that they might find appealing. But what if our children and teens are not interested in them anymore, if they simply don’t have the time to speak, maybe read and write in the language (if they ever learned to read and write in it…)?

This is when we have to come up with alternative solutions.

Some send their children to summer camps for a full immersion into the language for at least 1-2 weeks per year, to give them a real language boost.

Others spend their holidays in those countries year after year, hoping that somehow the language will stick and become interesting for the child.

Full immersion does wonders: we know that since we experienced the first language boosts our children had after every summer spent in the country where our home language was spoken!

What can we do to help our children stay motivated in speaking the home languages?

Here are 5 tips that I found worked with my children:

1) Make sure the topic is compelling and comprehensible! Especially when our children have a richer vocabulary and feel more confident in another language, making the target language as compelling and comprehensible is key! Let them choose a topic they are passionate about – there is no “off topic” when it comes to fostering language. 

2) Let them choose resources! We can not possibly provide input for every imaginable topic our children are interested in. Therefore resources resource that fosters the target language in some way are the best way to access the target language whilst living abroad! It can be news articles, comics, cookbooks, manuals about a hobby or a skill they are interested in, a game, short stories, poems, novels. It doesn’t matter what they read, it is important that they read!
By focusing on the topic and not on the format of the resource, they are less likely to be discouraged to reading in the target language. It will take them some time to feel more confident in reading in a language they are not used to read regularly. They can also opt for audiobooks (or podcasts) to start with.

3) Video, audio and text. Encourage them to watch shows, videos, series in the target language. Memorizing new words is easier when we hear them, read them and “see them used in action” on screen.

4) Music with lyrics. Everyone likes music. To foster language it would be obviously better to opt for music with lyrics. If they like heavy metal, find an equivalent in the target language. Remember that music is a very powerful learning tool – think about how they learnt the nursery rhymes when they were younger! Listening to music in the home languages that peers in the respective countries listen to will help our children feel less excluded once they meet.  

5) Look for diverse contexts for them to experience their home languages: at home we talk in the kitchen, the living room etc. and our children will learn the vocabulary necessary in these settings. Find places outside home and various contexts where your teens can use a broader range of vocabulary! Sports, culture, science, music, politics, ecology, literature, life in general: there is no limit to explore language! And don’t worry if they learn slang: it’s part of the broad repertoire of language our teenagers and young adults need to communicate with peers.

If you have teens, you will notice that what worked with younger children doesn’t always work with teens. The need we created to speak our home languages when our children were younger might have changed and shifted towards another language. Make sure that you find other ways to make your home language use a pleasant, enjoyable need for your children throughout their teenage years! During those years our children try to find out who they are, what they like and dislike. When the home language is considered “nice to have” but not a necessity and a pleasure, something to be proud of, chances are high(er) that the motivation will diminish.

I always recommend to negotiate language use with teenagers. They understand what it means to use a language in given settings and that everyone has the right to express their needs and feelings towards language, cultures, music, anything.
No matter your parenting style, if you want to keep the communication with your teenagers flowing, and if you want to stay connected with them, you need to listen and understand what their needs and worries are, what they are interested in etc..

So, my bonus tip here is to first stay connected with your teenagers and find an effective way to communicate with them. The language use and preference depends on each individual, and the more we understand what our teenagers need, the better we’ll connect and the more ready they will be to negotiate language use (and anything else, actually). Involve them in decision making processes around languages as well as other aspects of life.

What made me discover the positive sides of my parent’s language when I was a teenager, was connecting with peers, exploring the slang and music, discovering new books that were read by peers in the country. 

– Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments here below. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation!

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