Question

I have 2 boys (3.5 and 2 yo) growing up in the US. My husband and I speak different languages (French and Cantonese) exclusively to the children since birth. However, we speak English to each other because neither one of us knows the other’s language well enough. Until my 3-year-old went to preschool, he was responding in Cantonese and French appropriately. Ever since preschool started, he speaks to either my husband or me in English 85% of the time because he knows that we understand English, too. I feel this is the beginning of a slippery slope to losing his verbal skills in the other languages and that it will happen to his younger brother once he starts school as well. I’ve considered explaining that we will speak Cantonese together exclusively and that I will respond to him only when he speaks Cantonese (or something to that effect) and have the same setup for my husband and French. Is this too extreme for my son’s age and/or would it cause him to dislike the multilingualism? Do you have a suggestion for how to frame this kind of language arrangement for a 3.5 year old? I saw your other suggestions about using stickers etc, but I’m don’t think we could be consistent enough about that sort of structure.

Thanks in advance for any thoughts!
Judy

Answer

Dear Judy,

Many thanks for your question. I do understand your worries. A child can change language, i.e. drop the minority language, when he realizes that you understand the majority language. In your case, as you always speak in English with your husband, he perfectly knows that you master that language. However, you can set rules in your home and your child is old enough to understand. You could tell him simply and clearly that in the house Mum speaks Cantonese and Dad speaks French with him, and that outside the house and in school they speak English because they do not understand English and Cantonese – that he is very lucky. You can present it as two secret languages that he has between you and him and between his father and himself. Presenting it as a game more than as an obligation is way better. You have to make it fun. That is the most important part of it. Your child must be happy to have a “secret language” that he can be rewarded for. When I say rewarded, I do not mean giving him presents. I mean there must be things that he likes in the French culture and other in the Chinese culture. Doing very French activities with his father will encourage him to speak French, the same with Cantonese, make him discover the Chinese culture linked to your language.

Children would understand rules and you can tell him that the rule of the house is: only mummy and daddy are allowed to speak English in the house because they do not understand the “secret language” that he has with both of you. You can make a big board where he can see the rule and how it works. If he goes somewhere with you, he speaks Cantonese and when he is with his father, he speaks French.

Obviously, he has realized that you and your husband both speak the majority language. I think that having a “secret language” should make him happy as long as you present it as a game. What do you think of playing this game? Please let me know. I would be delighted to hear about the developments.

All the best.
Isabelle

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