“Good job!”: Positive Reinforcement & Language Development

bilingual parenting bilingualism espanolita children language development

I’ve decided to eliminate “Good job!” from my parent vocabulary.

From now on, I plan to avoid telling my daughter, “¡muy bien!” when she correctly points to Harry the dog on the page in response to my ¿Dónde está el perrito?

I will refrain from saying ¡Buen trabajo! when she eventually learns to say Se me ha roto (“I broke it”) instead of the incorrect Se me ha rompido* that most young children say before they learn that the Spanish verb romper takes the irregular form in the past participle.

And, I will not exclaim, ¡Qué bien pronuncias la “rr” en río! when she succeeds in rolling her Rs with the tip of her tongue.

While I plan to employ many creative strategies to encourage her bilingual language development over the coming years, I will not use positive reinforcement.

Here’s why.

I recently finished reading the book Unconditional Parenting by American author Alfie Kohn. A provocative and controversial challenge to the traditional approach to discipline and parenting, this book has challenged me to reflect on the way I was raised; it has pushed me to reconsider my previous eight years of teaching practice; and now more recently, it has caused a shift in the approach I take – and plan to take – in my (bilingual) parenting.

While today’s post is not meant to be a review of the entire book (I highly recommend it), I do agree with Kohn’s assertion that positive reinforcement (including praise like “good job!”) does our children more harm than good, specifically as it relates to language development, production, and creativity.

I offer my own second language development in Spanish as an example.

Ever since I began studying Spanish as a second language at the age of twelve, I fell in love with it. Just as some people are “good at” math or have a natural ear for music, I found learning a second language easy (I have studied French, German, Portuguese, and Arabic). This ease for languages led, in part, to my love – and at times obsession – with all things Spanish.

But, at the same time, I have never known such paralyzing fear as when I at times speak (yes, that’s in the present tense) Spanish with native speakers. Okay, well maybe when I would give piano recitals as a young girl (but, as you’ll read, for the same reasons).

How could something that comes so naturally to me, something most people would later tell me was a gift, something I love so dearly, cause me to refrain from speaking the language?

bilingual parenting bilingualism speak espanolita language development children

 (Photo via Gustavo Devito, Flickr Creative Commons)

Two words: good job!

You are probably wondering, wouldn’t positive reinforcement cause you to speak more, to learn more, to produce more?

The reverse turns out to be true, as Kohn writes: “…[W]hen children are led to become preoccupied with how well they’re doing, they often take less pleasure from what they’re doing” (162).

The years and years (all 23 of them) of “Wait, where are you from? You mean you’re not from Spain?” and “You have a perfect accent!” and “You speak better Spanish than I do, and I’m a native speaker!” have actually caused me to speak less, take less risks in Spanish, and ultimately enjoy Spanish less.

Positive reinforcement for an action, or behavior, “…can interfere with how well a job actually gets done. Researchers keep finding that individuals who are praised for doing well at a creative task often stumble at the next task. Why? Partly because the praise creates pressure to ‘keep up the good work’ that gets in the way of doing so….Partly because they become less likely to take risks – a prerequisite for creativity – once they start thinking about how to keep those positive comments coming” (Kohn 34; Kohn cites here the work of Deci et al. 1999, p. 638).

The more I was told how well I spoke Spanish, the more my brain would freeze and the more pressure I would place on myself to continue to live up to the high expectations of my interlocutors.

Alternatives to “good job!” – 

Learning more than one language can be challenging at times for our children. How can we encourage them to speak more, especially the minority language(s)? Or, what about those moments when our children say a phrase or utter a word that leaves us so amazed and gushing with pride? Should we say nothing?

These are valid questions. However, I believe that the answer is not in endless – and often empty – positive praise.

I am only 15 months into my bilingual parenting journey, and I recognize that there are thousands of more seasoned multilingual families with more wisdom to offer on this question than I can. But, as I begin to process my own language journey of 23 years, and as my husband and I lay the foundations for our daughter’s language development, I’d like to share with you some alternative methods for encouraging and celebrating our children’s language development.

bilingual parenting bilingualism children language development espanolita

1. Make language learning fun –

I wrote about it here. What is your child interested in? Soccer? Ballet? Bugs? Trains? Use their interests to their linguistic advantage: encourage them to participate in those activities that they love on their own as a way to speak the language in question. The more time we spend with our children engaged in the activities that mean the most to them, the more inclined they will be to want to use (and thus, improve) the language. For example, my daughter loves animals, especially dogs, so at home my husband and I make a special effort to read books with animal characters, and I am intentional about organizing Spanish play dates to our local zoo as often as the weather permits.

2. Just listen –

Sometimes the best way to encourage someone to speak is to just listen. We can show our interest and enthusiasm for our children’s language production by the simple act of making eye contact with them, or by asking them follow-up questions, or by just letting them fill the silence with words.

3. Be the example –

One of the best ways to encourage our children to learn (and love to learn!) the heritage language is to be ourselves an example of what a life-long learner looks like. I’ve written about this numerous times (you can read about it here, as well as here). If little E. is learning two languages, then so are mamá and papá!

4. Pursue authentic relationships –

What do children, whether monolingual or multilingual, most need? Kohn asserts (and I agree): To know that their parents love them unconditionally. And, that includes regardless of how well – or not – and how often – or not – they speak a language. But, if our goal is that they do speak our family language(s), one of the easiest ways to encourage them is to simply pursue and deepen our own parent-child relationship with them.

What are ways you have celebrated and encouraged your own children’s language development? I’d love to hear from you! Are you interested in reading more about the idea of positive reinforcement (“Good Job!”) by Alfie Kohn? You can read this short essay.

5 thoughts on ““Good job!”: Positive Reinforcement & Language Development

  1. This is awesome! Thanks for writing this. As I am applying to speech language pathology jobs in schools, I think these are also great tips for fostering cultural linguistic diversity in the therapy room/classroom. Thanks!


  2. Pingback: Book Review: “Unconditional Parenting” by Alfie Kohn | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

  3. Pingback: ¡Besos! (E.’s First Word) | Españolita...¡sobre la marcha!

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