A big concern when teaching my children my native language is that they will refuse to use it.
Especially after I spent all this time creating Cantonese lessons, printables, activities, and books for them. Not to mention the time I have invested in actually teaching them to speak and read in Chinese. In this blog post, we are going to go “behind the scene” and reveal one of my worst fears in raising bilingual children. At the same time, I will also provide solutions that are working for us.
Who likes to be uncomfortable? Nobody. That’s why we create new inventions and why people buy them. As humans, we love to figure things out to better our lives and create a more comfortable environment. But if you were asked to do something out of your comfort zone, would you say yes, or enjoy doing it? For me, the things I don’t like are: giving an impromptu speech in English, swimming in the open ocean, or going to a foreign place with no way to communicate. If you told me to do one of these things I would say NO right away, give an excuse, and run off. If you ask your kids to do what they feel is uncomfortable, guess what will happen next? The Same.
A couple months ago, I first asked and talked with my 5-year-old about learning Cantonese. We had a great talk and I was able to gain a better understanding of her. I found out reasons why she didn’t want to sing Cantonese children hymns with other local kids or participate in class at church. The reason was she felt uncomfortable using her “poor” Cantonese. In my heart, I was crying, and I really felt for her. I knew that feeling because even now, I feel the same way when I speak English.
- Find the reasons: What makes your children uncomfortable? What things bug them? Why do they feel that way? What do they wish was different? There is nothing better than just sitting down and listening to them, and feeling what they are feeling and experiencing in their lives.
- Show them that sometimes being uncomfortable is necessary and not all bad: There is no guarantee that our children will never experience any discomfort, so why not to teach them how to face it when they are young. As a Chinese mother, I always try to hide stress, worries, and fears. (I’m sure it shows once in a while) but I’ve learned that when I show an appropriate level of stress and worry to my children they actually react in a good way. They feel I trust them, and even work to cheer me up. After I express my true feelings, I show them how I face them, and talk about how I feel afterward. I hope they will gain an understanding of how to face uncomfortable situations.
Yes. There is always a challenge when we learn, that is how we learn. When dealing with difficulties we should face them with patience, hard work, goals, and a plan that uses the right methods and an appropriate time frame to allow us to accomplish our ultimate goals. But often times we make excuses, are lazy, and focus on finding short-cuts? Learning another language is a great way for our children to learn how to face and overcome difficulties.
- Set appropriate goals and plan to succeed: Since my top priority is to maintain my kids interest in learning Chinese, I set goals and make plans with that thought in mind. I know my kids are stronger English speakers than Chinese, so I am not going to compare them with the local kids here. I try to pick the right level Chinese books for them, and let them choose topics that interest them.
- Ask for help: There are so many resources which can help learn a language. You can easily find dictionaries, audio, video, and lesson plans on the internet. You can also hire language tutors and learn the language through Skype.
Lack of Support
This is a tough one. When you are the ONLY native speaker in your entire neighborhood or even city, when your children have no friends to speak the language with and there aren’t any resources in your local area, the chances your children will refuse to speak the language increases.
- Find native speaking penpals / friends : One of my friends did this, even though her kid was too young to write at that time, she would ask her kid to draw pictures, they took photos and then sent them to her friend in Hong Kong who had a kid as well. I think it is a great way to practice the language while having fun and making friends at the same time. It is also a great way for them to learn about your culture as well. But it takes discipline for both families to maintain this kind of long-distant friendship, I think it is easier to do with family and friends.
- Hire a private tutor: It would be best if you could find a private tutor to come to your home once or twice a week, if not, you can also find on online ones too.
- Don’t give up: You are the native speaker and the parent. You are a huge influence on them.
Lack of Reasons to Use it
When I was growing up learning English as a second language, the only reason I had to learn English was to pass exams, get into college, and get a good job. However, it never motivated me to understand English grammar or to actually study. Now, when I think about it, I don’t want my kids thinking that learning Chinese will get them a better job and a better life, instead, I want them to have a desire to know who they are, read letters from their grandparents, and learn about an amazing country. If I had these desires when I grew up, I’m sure I would have spent more time digging through all the English books in the library.
- Provide real-life situations for them to use languages in the future: If you have family and friends (like me) that you can write letters with, that’s great. If not, you can also create your own. For example: if you plan a trip, plan one to place that speaks that language and study sentences and useful phrases to prepare. Watch movies in the language or with its subtitle, learn how to order food in that language, etc.
- Show them how much you love your language and your country: I tell my children stories I heard when I was little, talk about what toys I liked to play with most, explain where my favorite places to go were, and my favorite things to do. Suppose I was a Mandarin speaker, I would teach my children to play traditional games I played when I was young. I would show my children old photos about our lives and Hong Kong. By sharing our past, our children are more excited to understand our past and our culture.
They are not Interested in it
It is hard to take interest in something without a connection to it. We can not force any relationship, but we can provide opportunities and let time to do the rest.
- Attend cultural events
- Play cultural and traditional games
- Go for a visit
- Read books in both languages and watch movies
- Play some cultural sports
- Try to find similarities in the life of your kids with the culture of others
Didn’t Spend Enough Time with it
This is what I imagine my children’s schedule would be if they were attending school in the states.
- Go to school [6 hours]~ English only
- Doing homework/ hang out with friends [2-3 hours] ~ English only
- Have dinner at home [1 hour] ~ half English & half Chinese
- Quiet time before going to bed [2 hours] ~ English likely
What?! Only about 30 minutes per day? Well. This is just a general idea, but the fact is my kids really won’t get as much exposure to Chinese as I want. And the chances they retain the minority language rapidly decreases if they don’t spend enough time using it. It is the easiest way to lose their minority language.
- Plan well and stick with it! When my kid’s schedule become like this, the best chance is for me to speak ONLY Chinese with them and ONLY listen when the speak Chinese .
- Set up after-school activities in your target language: Join activities, groups that use Chinese. Set up playdates, go to Chinese events, attend Chinese school, hire a Chinese tutor, etc to balance the time your kids speak in both languages. If you really have no way to find any of these, I encourage you to create your own. For example, I could form a ping pong training program, and speak only in Chinese. I would invite my kid’s friends, even though it may be awkward for them in the beginning. If the activity is fun, they will likely stay, and they may even want to learn Chinese together.
- Set up rules and a reward system for speaking and using both languages at home: Of course, we must explain the reasons, and make sure we all help each other as well.
- Let them travel: If I can afford it, I will send or go back to my home every summer, that way they at least have 3 out of 12 months living in a Chinese-speaking place.
These are just some of the reasons and suggestions that I found. Do you have any others that I could add?
You Might Be Interested
- Top 10 Reasons Your Children Aren’t Speaking Your Language (Multilingual Living)