Struggling to Maintain a Minority Language with Kids

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My struggles, failures, and successes with raising multi-lingual kids and teaching them a minority language.

Ginger and Scotch Kids

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. 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…


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”.

Wee Scotch writing Chinese
My son learning Chinese characters

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!

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  1. Even us who are both Filipino are struggling to teach and speak to our kids with our local dialects. We are headed home for the summer and have instructed cousins to only speak to them in Filipino and Visayan language.

  2. The balance for multi-lingual children is indeed very difficult to get right! Though I speak to my son in Gujrati, our mother tongue, I have also introduced him to English, because I want him to understand what is being said when he is out in the world, and especially be able to communicate once he starts school. I still hope he does not loose his mother tongue, like my younger brother did, when we moved to the UK. My younger brother’s English-Gujrati accent has become the laughing stock of the family, and now he avoids speaking it at all!

  3. My mother forced my sister and I to only speak Cantonese at home and as much as I resented it when I was young, I thank her a thousand-fold now because I can still communicate to all my elderly family members who don’t speak English.

    To help strengthen our Mandarin, my parents started sending us away in our early teens for the summer to grandaunts and uncles in Beijing. They didn’t speak Cantonese or English, so we had no choice but to muddle through. After just 2 summers, we were accented but very fluent.

    Good luck and I promise you, they will thank you in the years to come!

  4. I know this struggle only too well. My son won’t speak in Hindi and I only have myself to blame! I haven’t been as proactive as you in getting him to speak the language he only understands by ear.

  5. A very very pertinent issue. With my elder one – I was so conscious and also had a lot of energy, so I spent a lot of time teaching her Bengali. But with the younger one, I have given up – no energy left what so ever!!!

  6. This is a real struggle. Even if I get my daughter to attend play dates with other Indian kids, they don’t end up speaking in Hindi as one is worse than the other. However, in the confines of my home, we do converse with her in our mother tongue as much as possible. Also, whenever she makes an attempt, we express our joy quite dramatically-almost ensuring to make a big deal of it!

  7. We’ve just had a little one recently and am worried as well how to make sure she speaks chinese. I speak mandarin at home with my parents and him, Cantonese, but we’re sorta westernised so we speak English to each other haha! Keep up the good work though, all the best and if I meet other Cantonese speakers with children I’ll let you know

  8. Consistency is the name of the game. Even if people look at you funny because you are using a different language ignore them amd plough on. Use stuff the kids like to help your fight. I use TV, programs he likes in one language (Jake and the Neverland Pirates in our case) I now only show in the minority language. Kids Audiobooks / Podcasts / Music in the car, we spend so much time driving in Dubai use the time as immersion therapy. Relax, breathe and keep going.