Raising a child to speak two languages doesn’t always go according to plan.
For example, your preschooler can speak and understand her mother tongue, yet, she doesn’t speak it – when you talk to her in Mandarin, she insists on replying in English.
No matter how much you encourage her to use Mandarin, she just won’t. Her attitude upsets and frustrates you because you are rightly proud of your mother tongue.
However, there are many possible explanations for her refusal, says child psychologist Dr Richard C. Woolfson.
Maybe she just wants to practise her English skills at every opportunity and thinks exclusive usage is the best way to achieve this.
Or perhaps she thinks she will be appear sophisticated and more grown-up by demonstrating her fluency in English.
She might even have realised that replying in English always gets a strong reaction from you and is a very effective way of getting your attention!
It could also be that she is able to express some feelings and ideas more easily in one language, and other feelings and ideas more easily in the second language.
There is also the influence of her peer group – if they are mainly English speakers, she’ll want to be like them.
Whatever the underlying reason for her insistence on speaking in English, try to avoid confrontation.
After all, you can’t force her to use a specific language when you want her to – you need her cooperation.
Depending on her personality, she may dig her heels in even further if she feels pressured to speak Mandarin.
And if her English usage is attention seeking, your strong reaction makes it likely that she’ll continue using that language at every opportunity.
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A relaxed, low-key approach is more effective and avoids unnecessary battles, Dr Woolfson adds.
Talk to her about her language use. Ask her why she always speaks in English even though she is fluent in Mandarin.
Listen to her explanation and discuss her reasons with her, all the time calmly pointing out that there is no need for her to speak in English all the time, even if she prefers that language.
And give lots of positive reasons for using Mandarin, too. For example, you’ll be pleased with her, her grandparents communicate with her more easily in Mandarin, and some of the children she mixes with speak only the language.
She might not have thought about the impact of her English-only attitude on her relationships with others.
When she does speak in Mandarin occasionally, to you or to her friends, give her lots of praise. Let her know that you are delighted with her, as that also encourages her to use her mother tongue more frequently.
It’s also timely to speak to her preschool teacher about your child’s refusal to speak her mother tongue.
Tell her your concerns and ask her and her colleagues to encourage your kid to use Mandarin as well. That will also help your little one to develop a more flexible attitude.
In addition, whatever happens and whatever the reason for her insistence on speaking English all the time, continue to speak to her using her mother tongue whenever you want.
What matters is that she achieves and maintains fluency in both languages, even though she prefers English at the moment.
Be reassured that, almost certainly, you’ll find her language preferences will change spontaneously in the future, depending on her friendships, her schooling, her age and stage of development.