About the time when she turned 4.5 (three months ago), she totally switched her language preference at home.
Up till that point, she would speak Mandarin with me, and French with Nicolas, 100%.
Then one day, suddenly, she switched to English, 100%. Just like that.
Nothing had changed at home: I still used only Mandarin when speaking to her, Nicolas only French. The only plausible explanation is that her English had finally caught up through her pre-primary schooling experience. Perhaps she felt confident and more comfortable to express herself in English. Perhaps she started to have more English vocabulary than in Mandarin and French.
Anyway, although we were a bit shocked and puzzled initially by the sudden change, we acknowledged that it was something to happen sooner or later. After all, many experts say that most of us need one dominant language, and that usually is the one that the child is schooled in.
However, we continued to speak Mandarin and French respectively with her at home. She would understand totally and reply in English. So officially we had three languages all spoken at home, for the first time since she was born.
Then two months down the road, things started to change again.
She started to speak Mandarin with me again. Initially only when I invited her to, but fairly quickly she would initiate conversation with me in Mandarin. However, she continued to speak English with her dad, even though Nicolas never switched to English.
It got to me think why. Then I found one, and perhaps only one possible, explanation.
I invited Nina to speak Mandarin with me, after about one month following her switch to English. Sometimes I would just casually say: ‘I would love to hear you speaking Mandarin with me’, or ‘Could you say it in Mandarin please?’. Sometimes I just repeated what she said in Mandarin. Sometimes I needed to help her with a particular vocabulary. Sometimes I would make a fuss ‘wow, I love how you said that in Mandarin – it’s perfect!’.
Don’t get me wrong – I never pushed her. If she continued with English after I reminded her, I didn’t insist her switching to Mandarin. I knew it would have only pushed her to be rebellious. I never pretended that I didn’t understand her – because she knew that I understood English perfectly so there was no point to lie (and I didn’t want to teach her that lying was ok). I would happily carry on the conversation, even if she chose to reply only in English. For me, the fact that we are communicating is still much more important than in which language we communicate.
But I persisted. I carried on reminding her – about twice or three times a day when I felt she’s receptive. I continued to praise her efforts – every single time that she made an effort and spoke in Mandarin. I remained relaxed. I focused on the quality of our communication rather being frustrated by it not happening in Mandarin.
Then I noticed her throwing in more and more Mandarin, two months after her switch to English! Initially she would say something only upon invitation or being prompted. Then she started to initiate conversation in Mandarin.
It’s now three months after her switch to English. She’d use Mandarin when speaking with me about 2/3 of the time. And it’s definitely trending positive. Sometimes even in tantrum, she would speak Mandarin! I consider that pretty good (minus the tantrum part!).
In comparison, she hasn’t really switched back to French as much, yet. She’d still speak just English with Nicolas, up till about two weeks ago, when I had a conversation with Nicolas, sharing my observation and my technique of ‘inviting’ Nina to speak Mandarin. Nicolas just never really invited her to speak French up till that point of time. Nicolas since then has started to use the same trick – reminding her, inviting her, repeating in French, helping with her vocabulary, and praising her efforts. And I’m happy to report that Nina has started more French when speaking with Nicolas. I am hopeful that we would hear more and more French from her too.
So the message?
Invite your child to speak your language – it really works!