IIt’s frustrating when your child won’t respond to her mother tongue, even though you know she understands what has been said to her.
This annoyance can quickly turn to anger because her grandparents only know that language, and so her lack of response means they aren’t able to communicate with her effectively.
Bilingual children: do’s and don’ts
Unless you have clear evidence that she knows more than she shows – perhaps because you have seen her react when others have used that language with her – otherwise give her the benefit of doubt.
You can also encourage her grandparents to speak to her more slowly. Look at the situation from her perspective.
After all, given that your preschooler doesn’t hear her mother tongue constantly, she may need time to tune in to the special words and intonation. Their talking to her more slowly, therefore, could be helpful.
And the last factor to consider is that perhaps her lack of response to them is simply due to shyness. Most children can become withdrawn in social situations, particularly when their confidence is lacking.
Shyness can certainly play a part if your child doesn’t see her grandparents regularly, but only on holidays and birthdays.
If you think her lack of social confidence is the problem, give her plenty of reminders that her grandparents will be visiting, and time to get comfortable in their presence before expecting her to respond to their spoken language. The less social pressure there is on her, the more likely she is to relax and be sociable in her own time.
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First, explain to her that her lack of response is upsetting her grandparents. Use positive words to express this feeling, for instance, “You are such a wonderful child and I know you don’t deliberately mean to upset your grandparents. So that’s why it’s important to react when they speak to you.”
Remember, you can’t force her to react to them – coercion won’t work. Getting her to willingly cooperate is the only way forward. Be prepared to persist with this approach for a few weeks before seeing change.
Second, suggest to her grandparents not to get agitated when she doesn’t react; nor should they try to force her to be responsive to them. A low-key approach will probably have more impact than direct confrontation.
And lastly, on those occasions when your kid does show signs of positively reacting to her grandparents when they speak to her in her mother tongue, make it clear to her that you are delighted with her behaviour.
Tell her also how she has made her grandparents happy. That positive reinforcement will further encourage her.
Diana Ser: TV host, mummy and now, champion of Mandarin