5 Strategies That Encourage A Child to Love and Speak the Minority Language

Does your multilingual child prefer the community (majority/dominant) language over the minority language?  This challenge is common when a child is attends school in the dominant language.

How do you encourage a child to love and speak the minority language?

To answer these important questions, I am honored to share the experience and thoughtful advice from Maeve Tan, a parent of trilingual children.

Maeve Tan is a Singaporean Chinese stay-at-home-mother who lives in Italy with her Italian husband “F”, and two children “S” (daughter, age 7) and “N” (son, age 3).  They are raising their kids trilingual in Italian, Chinese, and English in what she calls, a “relaxed” One Parent, One Language (OPOL) approach.

Maeve is fluent in Chinese and English and speaks some Italian, while her husband is fluent in Italian and English.  However, she mainly speaks to her children in Mandarin while her husband speaks to them in Italian.  Reading time for the children is usually in Mandarin, frequently in English, and less often in Italian.  Her husband reads to them mainly in Italian and sometimes in English.  The couple communicates between themselves in English.  Therefore, Maeve is the only source of Chinese language for her family.

5 Strategies that Encourage a Child to Love & Speak the Minority Language

What should I do when my child prefers the majority language over the minority language?

Several years ago, the first major roadblock on our multilingual journey was when my firstborn daughter, “S,” then 2.5 years old, started attending preschool.  A few months after she had assimilated into preschool, she began to switch from Mandarin (our original language of communication) to Italian (the majority language).  When I would ask “S” a question in Mandarin, she would answer in Italian.  She would also initiate conversations in Italian.

So how did we steer my then 2.5-year-old daughter back to communicating with me in Mandarin? Besides investing in physical materials such as books, Apps, audio, various forms of screen resources, (I assume this is already the first and foremost “given” step many parents are already aware of, therefore I will not cover this here), together with the support of my husband, here’s what we have done these years on the psychological front since those early days when my daughter had first attempted to convert me over to ‘the Italian camp’:

  1. We do not use the “do-not-understand-other-language” method
  2. We work on the older sibling
  3. We emphasize the usefulness of the minority language
  4. We reduce the use of the majority language at home
  5. “LOVE” is always the answer

Strategy 1:  We do not use the “do-not-understand-other-language” method

This method will work if it is a genuine fact that you truly do not know the language that your child is using with you. This method will likely work if it is ‘sub-contracted’ to a non-parental figure, someone your child is comfortable with but not emotionally attached to, such as a babysitter, a nanny, a tutor, a neighbour, etc.  Otherwise, this method MAY work on young babies or toddlers but by the time they reach the preschool ages; your child is definitely aware of what languages each parent understands.  For us, I have never ever used this “I don’t understand” ruse, as my daughter has always been aware that I have knowledge of all three languages in the family.

Like many bilingual parents of Chinese ethnicity who were raised in countries with a Western system of education, I consider English my mother-tongue; my default thoughts and feelings are in English.  Without a doubt, it does take me effort to re-activate my “rusty” Mandarin after all the years of non-active use for a major part of my young adult life.  Therefore, as the parent who practises OPOL of Mandarin with my children, I do break several OPOL rules, hence calling our practice “relaxed OPOL”.  I allow my daughter to use words or terms from her strongest language Italian, in order to communicate her thoughts, feelings and ideas to me, while I do use borrowed words from the other two languages, Italian and English, to fill conversation gaps when I lack the vocabulary in Mandarin.  I do look up the correct Mandarin terms after that and then position it as “learning” together with her.

One of my parenting mantras is the belief that building a close, reassuring, trusting relationship with open communication channels with your child is the foundation to imparting them any life values or skill set, in this case, a language, which is why I have never used the “I don’t understand” or the “I am slow to respond to you if you don’t use Mandarin” concept, as there are the risks of what this approach threatens that is important to me.

Recasting method

Where and when possible, I use the method of “recasting”, where I repeat the entire sentence or phrase grammatically back to my daughter in a conversation with her.  This video made by a speech therapist may help you to understand the method, even though its examples are done in English, it could easily be applied to our bi/trilingual situation where my daughter speaks a mixed language phrase to me and I reply-repeat what she said as grammatically as I can manage in Mandarin.

Strategy 2: We work on the older sibling

This is tried-and-tested good advice passed on from other parents.  Those with more than one child work on the older/oldest child first, have him/her getting interested to use the minority language with you, and your ‘battle’ is half-won.  The foundation of this strategy is that the siblings have a strong relationship with each other.  Younger siblings who absolutely adore and look up to their older siblings are extra facilitative!

Strategy 3: We emphasize the usefulness of the minority language

In the year that my daughter was turning 6 years old, I had several mini bonding “talks” with her, helping her understand and be attracted to the reasons why learning Mandarin is important for her: being able to communicate with her favourite Grandma (my Mom), being able to read a larger number of books in this world, having an additional skill compared to her monolingual friends from school, etc.  While she was receptive to these benefits, what really lit up her eyes was when I told her that at the playground, she could speak “secrets” to her younger brother and I in Mandarin and no-one else would understand, for example, telling her brother what secret fun they could have or which nasty kid to stay away from at the playgrounds in Italy.  Also, she loves the idea that she could help me “teach” her younger brother the language and also her Italian father (who has repeatedly expressed his interest to learn a little Chinese).

Strategy 4: We reduce the use of the majority language at home

[This is a particular situation for us, though families who feel that they are somewhat parallel from us may get inspired by our story to come up with your own customised solution to fit the linguistic landscape of your family.]

When my daughter, in all her innocence at 2.5 years old, had attempted to convert me to start responding to her in Italian, a random hypothesis popped up in my head.  I realised that it might have coincided with the fact that in my eagerness to boost my own language proficiency of Italian, I had started to practise and speak more Italian with my husband, when we had previously communicated in English only for the first 2+ years of her life.  Immediately I gave up practising my spoken Italian with my husband, we resumed speaking English to each other, and almost as quickly, within 2 weeks of that, things were back to normal as before.  We acted on my hypothesis fast and early enough, and managed to rescue Mandarin as the preferred OPOL language between my daughter and me.

Strategy 5: “LOVE” is always the answer

This is the biggest aspect that I am most passionate about.  As it is both broad and deep for me to express my suggestions on this topic, I have subdivided them below.

i) Encourage your child to love and respect languages in general

All multilingual persons know that very often, languages do not translate well from one to the other, leading to a “lost-in-translation” situation.  What is conversation fodder in my family is frequently discussing the pros and cons (the beauty vs. the limits, the easy parts vs. the difficult parts) of each language and of its learning.  In conversation, we avoid labelling languages with negative emotional tags, we don’t say “X language is a strange/weird/horrible-sounding/nasty/ugly/coarse/useless language”, so as to steer the children away from the invisible “list of languages by superiority” in the adult world. However, in connecting or supporting your child in their language journey, we do empathise with them at times to say, “Yes, I know learning {minority language} is not easy and can be difficult.”  So “difficult” is the only negative adjective we use at home to describe any language.

I have a similar set of ideas with regards to accents of a speaker in any language that I am in process of transmitting to the children when the topic comes up. I intend to explain to them that I am of the opinion that accents are cute, and reflect the identity of the speaker.  My belief is that as long as a child/person speaking a language uses it correctly and is able to be understood well by other users of the language, including the native users of that language, the presence of an accent gives the speaker a unique identity.  Assuming the language (let’s use English as an example) is used with correct language rules in grammar, syntax, etc. executed with an understandable pronunciation, (even if it doesn’t have the “textbook” British/American accent), in my opinion, English spoken with a French accent, an Indian accent, a Greek accent, and so on, is not necessarily a bad thing as it reflects the heritage of the child, and/or the parents, and/or the child’s growing up experiences and influences.

Read this: Auntie’s Advice on Accents: Be Patient, and Take the Time to Listen

ii) Speak minority language whenever possible with the children and in front of them, and stand tall and proud when you do so

I speak to my children in Mandarin regardless of who is around us, in fact, I make doubly sure this is the case especially in the monolingual city we live in.  Be it potential new friends who have Mandarin in their repertoire of fluent languages or the occasional Chinese person (provided that they look friendly) that I spot on the street, I walk the talk and speak to them in Mandarin as much as possible.  What I hope to model to my children is that I love that I can speak Mandarin, and I love that I can say that I am bi-to-trilingual, and these two statements are something to be proud of.

This factor is somewhat related to point 4 earlier, to ensure that the minority language does not come with a stigma, an inferior or a less useful association with it, for the children.  This aspect was relevant to us as unfortunately, my daughter has had some friends and adults in our environment who had made insensitive comments and/or ignorant remarks which once caused her to feel that by being multilingual among her monolingual peers in school, she was viewed as abnormal, and that Chinese was an inferior language compared to English, French, Spanish, etc.  There was a time she used to feel self-conscious speaking to me in Mandarin in public.  Case in point, this was what I observed of early peer pressure perception forces acting on her, the idea that it was normal to be a monolingual/mono-racial (Italian) child, it was moderately normal to be a bilingual/biracial child (with the combination: Italian + English or some other “useful” European language), but like the way it is for my children, where being bilingual or trilingual includes an Asian language — Italian + English + Chinese — the latter has invited relatively more stigma, that is the result of prevalent insensitive and/or ignorant individuals in our living environment as I have explained above.

(iii) Love the language you are transmitting

I cannot emphasis this enough; it’s what I think works for us as one of the magic ingredients in my family.  Even though my command of Chinese is not as strong as I would like it to be in order to transmit it effectively at a high level of proficiency, I make it a point to demonstrate to my daughter that I do love the language, learning it, re-learning it, and all the ways in which the Chinese language is beautiful.  She overhears and is present at many conversations with my husband when I expound the characteristics of the Chinese Language to answer the questions he has about it.  A reminder here, is that it’s very important that your spouse plays along and supports you in this, be it via giving you a chance to explain things about the language, talk about your love of and/or all the beautiful aspects of the Chinese language.  Sometimes the children absorb things better when they hear a “lesson” or “intellectual discussion” going on which doesn’t involve them. My husband plays along as the student and we are having these discussions over dinner.

Communication, love, and learning

With that, where we are at today in our language journey with our children, I would not claim complete success in transmitting Chinese to my children at the level my heart secretly desires.  However, I could very humbly, claim that my children understand and speak some Mandarin, they are very close to me and tell me everything about their day, their interests, what makes them happy, and what hurt them, and so on, even though not in pure “pristine” Mandarin, but predominantly enough to form a basis for continued learning, together with me.

Many thanks to Maeve Tan for sharing her heartfelt mulitlingual language story.  I’m very grateful for her testimony and hope the tips can help you, too! Hearing her experience and knowing that there are families out there like ours is a tremendous source of encouragement!  大家加油!(Dàjiā jiāyóu!)

Has your mulitilingual family struggled with encouraging the minority language?

Please share your experience!  Real stories can empower other families on their language journey and make this world a more accepting place for all languages and cultures!

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4 Comments

  1. My children are fully trilingual in Mandarin, English and German. I always noticed that usage and ability went down in any of these three when there was no one the grown up could chat to in this language. The child needs to see that the language is used for interaction and not only as a one way between one person and the child….

    1. Thank you for sharing! I agree with you that ideally our kids can see us interacting with other people in each language. It’s so difficult when there are few other people in the community who share the same language, but options can be limited depending where you live. We just try to do the best we can as a family. Hopefully we’ll have the chance to travel and meet new multilingual friends!

  2. Thank you Maeve. I feel sad that in this day and age your child had to face such narrow minded thinking regarding the ability to comprehend another language. Thank you for the reminder that we should proudly display our abilities, show our love for the language through being students ourselves, to show our children the way. Sometimes we feel we have to have all the answers as the adult. But sharing in the learning probably cements it better for both parent and child!

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