Transitioning from Dominant to Minority Language

When I first tried to speak Chinese to my daughter, she would get upset with the unfamiliar words.  She was comfortable with English and had started to speak in sentences before age 18 months.

 “No Chinese, mommy!  Please stop saying those Chinese words!  English only!” 

My daughter went through the same challenge when she was 3 and our new nanny was trying to teach her Korean. 

Chinese and Korean felt awkward for nearly a year before they became routine; I wondered how she would ever be motivated to speak the minority language.

During my childhood, I was also uncomfortable with conversing in Chinese with my parents, albeit for different reasons (racism).

Fast forward to now, Chinese is the main mode of communication between me and my kids (4.5-year-old daughter and 22-month-old son).

How did we manage to transition from speaking English, to a mix of English & Chinese, and eventually mostly Chinese?

The key has been to create a respectful, positive, prepared environment without feeling forced into the minority language. 

3 necessary steps to encourage the minority language

  1. The spoken language should be associated with at least one person
  2. New and interesting memories should be created in the minority language
  3. Written words should be linked to the spoken language

Of course, travel to Asia would be the easiest way for our kids to learn Chinese and Korean.

However, many parents like us want to implement language learning at home.  Even children who move to another country might take a few months to get adjusted.

As Dr. Oliver Tu writes in this advice post, “The concepts are simple but the devil is in the detail.  Execution is the key.”

A language learning environment is necessary for all languages and may require a change in mindset toward the minority language.

For example purposes in this post, I will generally refer to English as the dominant language and Chinese as the minority language.  However, the steps should apply to any language (our nanny has used these guidelines for Korean).

The following advice is based on my experience as a failed bilingual in my childhood, my current success in teaching my children Chinese as a non-fluent parent, and my professional knowledge as a pediatrician.

I will explain in detail how to implement the aforementioned 3 steps.

How to get your child to speak Chinese (or another minority language)

1. The adult must be consistent with the minority language

The first and most fundamental step is for your child to associate the minority language with the person who will be speaking it.

At minimum, one person should be speaking the language as consistently as possible with the child.

If you forget and switch to the the dominant language, then your child may follow suit.

I highly recommend parents to record themselves periodically while interacting with their kids. You may be surprised that you are not consistently speaking the target language, even if you think you are! 

Although I started introducing Chinese to my daughter when she was 2, it took almost a year for us to speak Chinese regularly.  When I look back at videos from when my daughter was age 2-3 years, very few words were spoken in Chinese!

As with anything, the beginning is the hardest, because everybody is getting used to the minority language.

If your child is an infant, the only task is for yourself to get in the rhythm of speaking a different language.  Infancy is the easiest time to introduce multiple languages (this is what we did with our younger son).

On the other hand, if you wait to speak the minority language when your child is older, you will likely experience some resistance from your child.

Toddlers and older children may struggle to speak the minority language because they have a dominant language.

Unless you are lucky enough to travel abroad for language immersion, kids who show a strong preference for English may need to be eased into the minority language at home.  Here are the steps that we used:

  1. First few months: Say each word or phrase in both languages.  For example, if your child tells you what she wants to eat for breakfast, repeat what she says in English once (acknowledges that you are listening), then again in Chinese at least 3 times while pointing to the food.
  2. If your child is overwhelmed and resistant, or if you feel embarrassed or uncomfortable, start with a few minutes per day. Gradually increase the duration and frequency until the goal of full language immersion.
  3. After your child has learned the Chinese words, if he or she is still inclined to say “I want to eat fruit for breakfast” in English, reply back patiently in Chinese only. For example:
    • You: 谢谢你告诉我你早餐要吃什么。你想吃水果, 对吧?
    • Child: Yes, I want to eat that.
    • You: 我明白了。我们一起用中文说吧! 水果。我想吃水果。 请给我水果。
    • Child: 请给我水果。
  4. Introduce commonly used words, such as verbs, directions, body parts, food, emotions, and daily routine. Your child will have a better chance at mastering words that he or she uses frequently, which will build confidence for learning more new words.
  5. Use contextual clues to explain new words in the minority language without resorting to English. For example:
    • If you are trying to express sadness or disappointment, frown and do your best fake-cry performance!
    • If you are talking about body parts, point to 眼睛,耳朵,鼻子,嘴巴,头发 while saying it in the minority language.  These words need no English translation.
    • If you don’t have the physical object, draw or show a picture as a visual cue. This can help prevent translating minority words in English, the dominant language, which may have the reinforce the importance of the dominant language.
  6. Try not to criticize pronunciation and grammar mistakes.  Mistakes are to be expected; frequent interruption and correction may discourage your child from wanting to speak. If your child says something wrong, try to remain neutral and objective.
    • Instead of “不, 你说错! (No, you said that wrong!)”
    • Try a response like “嗯,我不明白。你的意思是 ____? (Hmm, I don’t understand. Do you mean ____?)” which shows that you are actively listening and gives a chance to model desired speech language.
    • A “repeat-back-feedback-question” sandwich gives an opportunity to model correct pronunciation and invite a reply.
  7. Read books in the minority language, preferably with realistic pictures or photos. Even if your child doesn’t understand every word, he or she will have clues from the images in the book and your body language. 
    • I emphasize realistic images because cartoons may be confusing for a child who does not understand what the caricature represents.
    • For example, if teaching body parts with an image that is significantly distorted from reality, the child is subconsciously spending more effort deciphering the picture instead of listening to what you are saying.
  8. Be mindful of background noise. Passive language exposure has potential to enhance or distract from learning goals. Play music and audiobooks in the minority language, such as during car rides.  If you’re trying to boost Chinese learning for a child who actively resists it, consider removing English television and talking toys.
  9. Find friends who speak the minority language fluently!  Language is more interesting, meaningful, and useful when more people share it!!
  10. Try to stick with a consistent language routine.
    • Examples include one person, one language [OPOL] and minority language at home methods.
    • If you are a parent who is trying to teach 2 languages (eg, homeschool), you can designate certain days of the week for the language.  Other families may designate set hours in the day for different languages. 
Our Bilingual Homeschool
Image posted with permission from @ourbilingualhomeschool

Related: Teach Your Child a Second Language at Home with 5 Key Steps

2. Make new and interesting memories in the minority language

I strongly believe that interesting, hands-on experiences make a HUGE difference for multilingual families struggling with the minority language.

While my command of Chinese is rather weak, I believe that fun is the magic ingredient to our family’s current success.

Why does the minority language need to be fun?

When kids are doing exciting things in the dominant language at school and pretty much everywhere, they will naturally lose interest for the minority language.

After a fun day at preschool, my daughter often inadvertently slips into English when she reflects on the day, imitating her teacher and saying words that only her friends would say.

Shortly after I started Kindergarten, I rarely replied to my parents in Chinese.  English was the language I was using when making unique memories at school.

If Chinese is used only with daily routines, such as reminders to practice piano and brush teeth, the dominant language will naturally be preferred.  The minority language will be considered boring and less important.

Therefore I suggest brainstorming…

How can I make the minority language a little more special and appealing while I am interacting directly with my child?

I don’t want to dwell too much on this point since most of my website is dedicated to this.  But I have to emphasize that you don’t have to be Martha Stewart to do something interesting with your kids.

Babies and toddlers

For babies and toddlers, this step is relatively easy, because everything is new and exciting. 

They haven’t experienced much yet, so even going to the grocery store can be fun!

Ask your child to find certain foods for you – just make sure to remember to say everything in the minority language!

For older kids, you can make a grocery shopping list in Chinese, and get them involved by checking off items that you put in your shopping cart.

Follow your child’s interests

Yesterday, my son told me that he wanted to go in the kitchen pantry with the lights off so that we could play with the flashlight.

We had fun pointing to different things with the flashlight, and I named as many things that I could Chinese.  Then I would say “这是一个搅拌机。你能说搅拌机吗?”  Then he would repeat “搅拌机.

My son learned so many new things in a fun and simple way that was initially his idea!

Play an active game

Pick something fun and easy such as hide-and-seek, which is how my daughter learned to count in Chinese!

You can be active and include new Chinese words during chase (我在追你!), throw and catch, going to the beach, building a snow-fort, etc.

Do something new

Older kids who already have English as their dominant language will need more convincing that the minority language is appealing and “cool”.

This is when I think hands-on activities and new experiences can make a big impact.

An example is a simple kitchen science activity.  We frequently use baking soda and vinegar (+/- food coloring) because it’s fun to see the materials fizz!

You could preface something like: “Today, mama has something very cool to show you!  But I am going to tell you about it in Chinese.  It is a special experiment during which we will speak Chinese!”

Related: 10+ Ways to Find a Language Teacher for Your Child

Non-language classes in the minority language

Then when your family is ready, you can do an interactive Chinese literacy activity to hone in on all of those senses.

On a special occasion, you can set up a tactile Chinese literacy station as shown below.  Which leads me to my next point…

Look for music lessons, art classes, sports and dance studios where the instructors and peers speak the minority language.

Learning Chinese through natural conversation in these other educational settings is far more enticing than sitting in a Chinese class copying worksheet after worksheet.

Related: Fun & Educational Chinese Activities – A How-To Guide

Click here to see hands-on Chinese literacy ideas organized by topic!

3. Written words must be linked to the spoken language

When kids are infants, you can read books in any language.  In the early years, children are primarily looking at the pictures. 

Families who are in the process of adding a minority language often translate books in the dominant language they have at home.

Eventually, the written text should be associated with the sounds of the language.  Language experts generally recommend that children should be exposed to books in the minority language.

However, a print-rich environment is effective only if the text is linked to the spoken language.

Otherwise, words in the minority language will be squiggles on paper.

iSuper Science Chinese book on bookstand
iSuper Science Chinese books – full review here

Confusion often arises in the setting of a child who requests a book in the dominant language.

In order to foster a love for reading and respect for autonomy, children should be able to choose their books. 

But if you want to them to choose books in the minority language, the environment must support this.  Freedom with limitations is key. 

If you have minority language books in the forefront, such as with the cover showing and/or a book open on display, and English books less readily available, kids will be more likely to choose the minority books. 

Rotate these books so that your child can notice and explore them, and be sure to actually read them in the target language.

Two common scenarios that parents of young children may experience:

Scenario 1: What happens when my 22-month-old son brings me a Korean book that I cannot read?  Should I just ignore his request? 

Personally, I don’t have the heart to decline my son’s book choice when he looks at me earnestly.

I am also aware that my refusal to respect his choice can inadvertently cause him to have a negative association with Korean books. 

I learned the hard way when my 4-year-old daughter refused to read Korean books for 8 months.

Two effective approaches to this dilemma:

A) I welcome the book that my son has chosen independently and look at the pictures with him quietly.  If he asks questions about the pictures, then I’ll reply in Chinese.

B) In Chinese, I’ll reply “Oohhh that looks like a great Korean book! Sorry, hmmm I’m not sure how to read the words!  Can we save it for (Nanny’s name) so you can have special reading time with her?”

And then I redirect quickly and say, “Hey! Look at all of these great Chinese options! Which one do you want to read with mommy?!”

Scenario 2:  What happens when my kids want to read an English book?

A) I defer to my husband if he’s around.

B) If I am the only one available for bedtime story, then I say that I want to choose a Chinese book as well.  I emphasize the importance of turn-taking, and I read the Chinese book in Chinese.

Then I read the kids’ chosen English book in English plus translate and discuss some parts in Chinese.

Because English is the dominant language, I know that my kids will naturally learn English in the school years.

But speaking bilingually when the material is in the dominant language encourages kids to consider the minority language.

Conversely, in a monolingual country such as the United States, I discourage reading minority books in the dominant language

For example, if the child has a strong preference for English, don’t read a Chinese book in English as this could be counterproductive to learning the minority language.

C) If it’s time to do English reading practice or homework with my older daughter, I speak bilingually in English and Chinese.  If you are responsible for teaching multiple languages to older kids, you can create a schedule as depicted earlier in this post.

Organizing books by language

On the below shelf, the minority language baby books are sorted in different baskets. 

Related: 10 Ways to Encourage Your Child to Read

Of course, photos speak a thousand words!  Notice the following image from a bilingual English/French-speaking family.

Adding pictures of parents above the books is a concrete way to present the concept of OPOL to a child who cannot yet recognize different alphabets.

This French Mom - Bilingual family bookshelves for kids
Image posted with permission from @thisfrenchmom

Consistency, new memories, and visual/textual cues are key for encouraging kids to speak the minority language

Oh, and patience.  Lots of it.  Know that everybody might feel awkward for a while.  But if you can be consistent, bilingualism can become routine and fun over time!

Further reading

Advice on raising multilingual children

Tips on how to teach kids Chinese

Happy learning, friends!


2 Comments

  1. I live as a missionary in Tijuana Mexico. I am American and my husband is Mexican and we are both bilingual. I am with my 3yo daughter all the time and my husband only has a few hours with her at night. She speaks very well in full English sentences, but never responds in Spanish, regardless of the language we speak to her in. I have been speaking predominantly English and my husband does too, but we do switch back and forth a lot between language and she understands everything a 3yo can. How can I get to to respond in Spanish? Should I speak predominantly In Spanish now that she has a good handle on English?

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