My struggles, failures, and successes with raising multi-lingual kids and teaching them a minority language.
My two-year-old daughter recently stopped talking to me.
My six-year-old son stopped talking to me years ago.
In Chinese, that is.
When my daughter stopped speaking to me in Chinese, I felt like I had failed again as a mother and an educator. I had failed with my son when I let English slip into our daily conversations. I failed him when I spoke English in front of other English-speaking friends. I failed him when I spoke English with him at home when we were around my husband. I failed him by not giving him enough Chinese language exposure.
As a result of these failures, my son, who was speaking more Chinese than English until he started nursery at age 3, stopped speaking in Chinese and switched to English before I realized it was happening. I continued to speak to him in Chinese but he would always respond in English.
I had a second child when my son was four. I swore that I would do things differently with her. I would stick to the OPOL strategy – One Parent One Language – in front of my husband, in front of strangers, and in front of friends and family that did not speak Chinese. I had friends who had used this strategy successfully. My friends’ kids would speak to me in English and then turn to their parent and speak effortlessly in Italian, Swedish, German or French…
So I spoke Chinese exclusively to my daughter. I read to her in Chinese, sang to her in Chinese even though I knew only one Chinese song. Things were going well. Her vocabulary in both English and Chinese continued to grow and her retention of random words – mostly involving animals or nature – amazed me. Even though she was in nursery surrounded by English speakers, she continued to speak to me in Chinese. I thought it was safe to give myself a pat on the back.
Then out of the blue, a few weeks ago at the age of 2.5 years, she stopped speaking to me in Chinese. When she spoke to me, the first words out of her mouth were English. I would ask her to repeat herself in Chinese and she would just stare at me, not saying another word. I experienced this sick feeling of dread and failure in the pit of my stomach. How could I have failed another child so soon!
For the next two days, I did what my mom used to do with my sisters and me. I would refuse to answer her if she spoke to me in English. I would keep asking her (in Chinese), “Please speak Chinese.”
On the third day of her Chinese strike, a breakthrough occurred. When I asked her to repeat in Chinese what she had just said, instead of repeating herself in English as she had previously been doing, she paused for a second. In that second of eternity, I held my breath and on to a sliver of hope.
That second passed. She opened her mouth and out came CHINESE! I couldn’t believe it – she actually (finally?) understand the phrase, “Speak Chinese please”.
In the days that followed, I would have to constantly remind her to speak Chinese. That lasted two or three weeks and then she switched back exclusively to speaking Chinese with me. Although I was relieved, I knew I had to do much more than allow myself to be her only interaction with the Chinese language. And I had to double my efforts to help my son regain his fluency. Play dates with other Chinese children were not an option as I knew no one in Dubai that spoke our dialect of Chinese.
In three days, we will be leaving Dubai for the summer and spending a month with my parents in New York where English will become the minority language (at my parent’s house at least). I will focus on helping my son with his language skills and take advantage of the Chinese resources available in New York. He is not a complete lost cause as he does make an effort to communicate in Chinese but I will have to help him with pronunciation and vocabulary. He also shows great interest at learning to write in Chinese.
Hopefully by the end of the summer, I’ll have both children speaking to me again and I won’t feel like so much of a failure. Wish us luck!
Thank you for reading and if you have any tips or resources to share on raising mulit-lingual children, please feel free to email me directly or leave a comment below. And if you know any Cantonese speakers (with children) in Dubai, definitely get in touch!