Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Refusing to Speak a Language

The reasons a language may be rejected

Post written by François Grosjean.

We saw in an earlier post on dormant bilinguals that a major life change such as immigration, the loss of a close family member, a separation, a change of jobs, or simply growing up and leaving one's community may lead some bilinguals to no longer use a language. Since it is no longer needed, it is put aside. This is a normal consequence of the wax and wane of languages in bilinguals (see here).

But there are also instances where a decision is made not to use a language any longer. The reasons vary and cover both adults and children. For example, members of stigmatized minorities may opt to no longer use the language of the majority when they are able to do so. Thus, many German Jews during World War II refused to continue using German in their new countries. This was also true of some members of the resistance movement. For example, Austrian born historian and author, Gerda Lerner, joined the resistance in her home country. When she arrived in the United States in 1939, she rejected German even though it was her first language. It was only many years later that she reconciled herself with her native language.

Strong negative attitudes towards a minority language will also lead speakers of that language to refuse to speak it in public. This was the case for many speakers of regional languages in nation-states in Europe in the 19th and 20th Centuries. And it is true of certain recent immigrant languages among the second and third generations today.

To these political and social reasons should be added individual linguistic reasons. Some bilinguals, for example, fear that a particular language will taint their other language too strongly and so they decide to no longer use it (or use it on very rare occasions). A well-known example is the surrealist writer and poet, André Breton, who spent some time in the United States during World War II. He is said to have refused to speak and write English because he didn't want his native-language to be affected by it!

And, of course, there are those (I am one of them) who know a language so badly that they simply decide to no longer speak it. Of course, they still understand it to some extent but if they start using it, their interlocutor might think they know it better than they do and miscommunication will take place. It is simply easier, and safer, to close it down, often with regret though.

Children are also well-known for their decision at times not to use a language. We have seen in an earlier post on the person-language bond that very young bilingual children have an agreed upon language they use with the adults they know well. If someone uses the wrong language with them, they may become quite upset in addition to simply refusing to answer back in that language.

Older bilingual children and adolescents who become conscious of which language their peers speak may well reject a language (usually the home language) so as not to be different from them. An Arabic-English bilingual once wrote to me that as an adolescent he pretended he did not know Arabic. He continued: "I did this because I wanted very badly not to be different from the rest of my friends."

Researchers Stephen Caldas and Suzanne Caron-Caldas tracked language use in their English-French bilingual children over a six year period in Louisiana and in Quebec in the summer. The perception of peer pressure outside the home was such that the children were basically English monolinguals in Louisiana and French monolinguals in Quebec. In a revealing anecdote included in the study, the father, who spoke French to his children in Louisiana, was with his twelve-year-old daughter, Stéphanie, at a football game. He was getting ready to say hi to one of her friends when Stéphanie hissed to him, "Don't speak French to her." The authors tell us that the father did so anyway!

Parents often have to find creative ways of encouraging the use of the rejected language in order to ensure the development of active bilingualism in their children. It is no mean feat as their testimonies show!


Caldas, S. and Caron-Caldas, S. (2002). A sociolinguistic analysis of the language preferences of adolescent bilinguals: Shifting allegiances and developing identities. Applied Linguistics 23, 490-514.

Grosjean, F. Family strategies and support. Chapter 17 of Grosjean, François (2010). Bilingual: Language and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

"Life as a bilingual" posts by content area:

François Grosjean's website: