Avoiding the Dreaded Point of No Return

By Yalda Modabber

As children enter school systems, they often reject their heritage language (or minority language) in an attempt to assimilate with their environment.  They are also challenged by the effort it takes for them to communicate effectively in a language that becomes less and less fluid for them.

There is often a point of no return with children who choose not to speak their heritage language (as opposed to those who just struggle with it due to lack of exposure).  Once they reject the language, these children become increasingly averse to responding in that language, often leading to their parents pressuring them to stop speaking English, which in turn results in a vicious cycle.

Once a child refuses to speak a language, more often than not, they will not pick it up again (as a child) because they have made the choice not to speak it.  As we all know, it is very difficult for any person, be it a child or adult, to renege on a proclaimed action.  All parents of bilingual children should keep an eye out for cues that their child might be heading in this direction.
It is my recommendation that you attempt to minimize your child rejecting a minority language by using some or all of the following techniques:

1. Expose your child to other children who speak the language in a closed - not public - environment, as often as possible.  In a public environment, the children are more likely to speak the majority language to each other.  In these play dates, as tempting as it is to spend time with the other parents, take turns engaging and playing with the children in the minority language.

2. As much as I do not want to promote any screen time for children, occasional television programming that is educational can be beneficial - if watched together.  Note, children under 3 years of age should not be exposed to televised programming.  Other more innocuous media include music and audio books.  It is important to participate in these activities so that you may answer their questions about the programming or new words.

3. Read to them in the heritage language daily.  You can do this by translating books from English if this is your preference as it is mine.

4. Tell them made up stories and fairytales daily.  The beauty of this is that you are not limited by the context of a book - you can embellish your story to your (and your child’s) content.  Have them participate in the storytelling.  Use language that is increasingly sophisticated and articulate clearly so that they may hear and learn new words for a richer repertoire.

5. Speak only one language to your child - the minority language.  Even if you’re not completely fluent in that language, you can use this as an opportunity to increase your own fluency.  If you have more than one child, encourage the older sibling to help you teach the younger one.

6. Do not respond if spoken to in English.  Your child should be asked (or subtly prompted) to respond in your minority language.  If stuck, use the sandwich method: “Aab - water - aab” and have your child repeat the word “aab.”

7. Let your child attempt to finish his/her thoughts, even if it slows down your conversation.  If a word is used in English, gently repeat the word in your language and have him/her repeat it.  Eventually, your child will repeat independently and will not need to be asked.

8. Do not finish your child’s sentences for him/her, but offer guidance when s/he gets stuck. Have them repeat the word they were stuck on by asking them “do you mean xyz?” (for example).  When he/she responds affirmatively say: “what did you mean?”  Conversations may be tediously slow to start, but in time you should notice a reduction in the level of effort your child makes if they are allowed to complete their thoughts while gently helped to get there.

9. If you sense your child is speaking in English out of laziness, ask them to think about what they’re saying before they speak.  Ask them to repeat their last sentence because you didn’t understand it.  Remind them to think about what they want to say before repeating the sentence.

10. As difficult as this may be, try not to speak English to other people who speak your language in front of your child (this includes a spouse or family member).  Hearing us speak English sends them conflicting messages, as does mixing languages.

You should never be stern with your child.  With loving and playful yet consistent encouragement, your child will soon embrace his/her heritage language.

These are all common sense, I know.  Please forgive me for stating the obvious.  I just want to be sure that after all this effort, we, as parents of bilingual/bicultural children, do not reach that dreaded point of no return.