Monday, 10 February 2020

Why won't you speak: The Perfectionist Child

Last week we've talked about my most frequent type of client: The Perfectionist. Perfectionists frequently think they are bad languages when they just think differently from people who are traditionally good at languages.

The perfectionist child can frustrate bilingual parents. - 📷Ryan Franco on Unsplash

Unsurprisingly, most of the children I tutor for Play&Learn also happen to fall under this umbrella. The initial consultation with the parents normally goes like this: "She understands most of what I say in German but responds more and more in English."
To parents who want to bring their child up bilingually The Perfectionist Child is an often frustrating challenge and many parents will give up (often these Children then come back to the language as Perfectionist Adults who think they suck at languages).

If you are trying to pass on a minority language to your little Perfectionist here are a few steps you can take to help make the process less frustrating for everyone.

  •  Forgive Yourself
    The Perfectionist Child normally comes with at least one, sometimes two parents who feel like they failed as parents. Bilingualism is meant to be easy, so it must mean you have failed as parents. STOP! Bilingual parenting is hard. Lots of parents struggle and many give up. If you are speaking to your child in your language, you have probably passed on a lot of knowledge your Little Perfectionist is not ready to use yet. Guilt is an unproductive emotion and coupled with frustration is likely to slow your progress down. Acknowledge that you are doing your best/ and start again on a clean slate. 
  • Understand why your Child is Reluctant to Speak
    Before you fix any issues, it might be worth to do some detective work and find out what it is that's holding them back. There is a variety of reasons why your child might be reluctant to speak the minority language. If your child tends towards perfectionism, it might simply prefer not to make a mistake out loud. Language acquisition is a prime opportunity for mistakes so your child might opt for the language he is most comfortable in. But make sure that there aren't any other reasons such as negative responses / attitudes from friends / family members / teachers. It's also very likely that your child simply doesn't see the point of the minority language, especially if you are the only speaker in her environment. If you have reasons to suspect special needs, you might need to change your approach post diagnosis.
  • Speak your Language Consistently
    It might seem tempting to give up if your child is indifferent or even hostile to your efforts but make your approach as consistent and predictable as possible. If you are already speaking to him in your language only, great. If the majority language has slipped into family conversation, gradually re-introduce your language. The more negotiable your use of the language is, the more likely you are to default to the majority language. This is easier said than done, especially with a Perfectionist child. The key to success is consistency. Pick a time / day where you will speak in your language to your child. Do this with as much agreement co-operation from your child as you can. Pick a day or activity together that you will always do in your language. Positive, low key activities such as boardgames, arts and craft, baking are ideal because they are fun, have a set vocabulary that you can gradually expand on and you can use instructions / recipe in your language. If you pick an activity your child will probably try to negotiate you out of speaking so it's important to agree some clear rules in advance of the activity and stick to them. This is an example set, feel free to adjust for your family:
    1. I will speak my language, you don't have to.
    2. If you don't want me to speak my language, we will put activity away and do something else.
    Naturally, it helps if you pick an activity that your child really enjoys. Once you have established a routine you can build on this.
  • Model and Practise Moving on from Mistakes
    Like in life, mistakes are unavoidable in language learning. The Perfectionist Child is anxious to avoid mistakes at all cost, so it's important how you deal with mistakes: theirs, yours and everybody elses.
    If a broken glass is a massive drama, you beat yourself up about that silly thing you said three hours ago, if your partner is in big trouble for picking up the wrong apples from the shop, you will reinforce that mistakes are to be avoided at all costs. If you aknowledge a mistake as something unfortunate, that you won't do next time, hopefully your child will be more comfortable to try, even if it might result in a mistake.
  • Praise liberally, Correct sparingly
    You may have heard of the study, that people perform best in businesses that have a positive feedback - negative feedback ratio of 5:1. They are definitely onto something. In order to improve, we need to occasionally be corrected, but if we only get told our mistakes it very quickly feeds the narrative that we should just stop trying. This is true for adults, how much more impact will a negative comment (and every correction, no matter how kindly worded is a negative comment) on a confident child? How much on The Perfectionist? Watch your child and praise trying new, difficult thing that might make The Perfectionist anxious, Be careful to praise the effort and bravery of your Perfectionist, rather than cleverness or correctness. When it comes to mistakes, concentrate on frequent mistakes or mistakes that could lead to your child being misunderstood. The best way here is to repeat the phrase correctly and praise your child if they repeat it back correctly but don't push for them to repeat.
I hope you will find these tips useful with your Little Perfectionist. If you have a question about bilingual parents, feel free to e-mail me or comment below. I will be pleased to help.

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