Mar 052015


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!


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.


  4 Responses to “Q&A: How to motivate a preschooler to talk the minority language”

  1. Dear Judy,
    I completely agree with Isabelle, find ways of making it for for your son to use Cantonese and French.
    You also ask about the strategy of making strict rules about which language your son is allowed to use at home. I know of several families who have used this approach, and many of them have been successful in maintaining the minority languages this way. However, personally I am not too fond of this strategy. To me language is all about communication and you wouldn’t want your son not to say something to you because he does not have the words for it in Cantonese (or French), or is too excited to try to find the right phrase. You and your husband should both stay consistent in using your respective languages with your son, and repeat anything he says in English in your language if you feel he might not know some of the words.
    Wishing you all the best and please do let us know how you are getting on!

  2. Thank you for your very thoughtful response, Isabelle. We tried the suggestion on the “secret language” as it seemed like a great idea; however, I think it was hard to execute with our child. I think the idea didn’t seem as fun to him – he doesn’t have a full grasp of “secret” yet. Beyond that, we don’t do any obviously French or Chinese activities on any sort of regular basis that would feel like a reward.

    In the meantime, we thought to reduce the amount of English being heard at home. Although I speak French poorly, we thought that Mom and Dad would try to speak French with each other only, while continuing to speak our respective languages to our children. This seems to be helping a little bit – at least with encouraging the French. My concern with this approach is that the children will pick up my poor French skills (poor pronunication and grammar, wrong word choice,etc.)! Do you have any thoughts on that as a concern?

    Thank you again,

    • Dear Judy,

      Thank you for your answer and reaction.
      I feel like comparing speaking and walking. When your child learned to walk, you kept helping him and encouraging him, until he was able to walk on his own. It is the same with languages. You have to try again and again. Over the laps of one week, I do not think it is not enough to have tested the idea of a “secret language”. May I ask you how you did? Did you present it as a game? Did you do it in a funny way? How many times did you try? How did you present it to your child? How did he respond? What was his first reaction? Children need to play. And if you present the “secret language” as a game, your child will respond positively to it. Something which must not be forgotten as well is that you do not necessarily like a game the very first time you play it because you did not get the rule properly or because you did not see what you could win. So you have to try again. It is like food. Trying it once is not enough – that the way we are brought up: “Try it 13 times before you can say you really do not like the taste of the particular food.” The same with the “Secret language game”, you have to have your child try it more than once and over more than one week. Sorry if I sound a bit strong, but I do really feel that you need more than one week to see whether you child can play or not. It is also very demanding on parents. Raising a bilingual child is great fun, but you have to be committed fully to it; it is a full-time job on which you have to work every single minute.

      As for obviously French or Chinese activities, there are simple things I am thinking about. Cooking pancakes is French, Chinese cuisine is also very obviously linked to China. Playing bowls is also very French; bilboquet is also very French. You can play those games in French and other games in Cantonese. You do not have to invest in anything expensive to do “as the French do” or “as the Cantonese do”. Just take things that you and your husband have been brought up with. As language is linked to the culture, it becomes easier for you to use the “secret language” with you child at those times.

      As for you and your husband speaking French together to reduce the amount of English, I do not think it is such a good idea, except for you to improve your French as you said you have “poor French skills.” That could change things for a short while, but in the long run, I am not sure this would work. Your child is used to hear you speak English to his dad. Did you explain him why you change and are now talking in French to him? Did he understand?

      Sorry again to be very direct in my answer. I really do feel that everything takes time, especially with languages.
      Feel free to come back if you have any other concern.

      Kind regards

  3. […] to Swedish. Please check our previous answers on passive bilinguals and how to change that here and here and also read this blog post on the topic as well as this and this post. You can find more ideas on […]

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