Aug 6, 2011

The Art of Nagging

My kids don't always speak to me in English. No, let me rephrase that. My kids hardly ever speak to me in English. They know I speak Japanese, even though I only speak English to them in the house and have done so since they were born. They understand everything I say in English, but what they have to say is in Japanese.

I wonder what other bilingual parents do to get their kids to speak in their language at home?

Usually, in real life, when I talk to people about this, they say to just stop answering when my kids speak in Japanese. I know that's probably the fastest way to get results, but I just can't do it that way. One of the things I love about my kids is that we talk about everything, and I don't want to give them the message that I don't care about what they are saying.

So I try a couple of other approaches. First is the gentle reminder. "English, please." Then there's the misunderstanding. "You ate what for lunch?" Then there's the one I use most often with my daughter, repeating her sentence back to her in English (because her vocabulary is smaller in English). I also use the silly, overly dramatic way. I pretend my heart is broken because they won't speak in English and fall on the floor writhing, or something else. There's always the ever popular exasperation. "Why won't you speak English with meeeeeeeee?" Last is, as I call it, the "Dale McGowan way" of questioning them on something I know they know the real answer for.

For example, today my son said "Mite, Mukku mitai na inu ga sanpo shiteiru." (Look, a dog like Grandma's is taking a walk.) So I said, in English, "oh, really, a dinosaur? A dinosaur is taking a walk?" First they dissolved into giggles, then he said the whole sentence in English just so his dense mama would really get it. It works. The sillier the better.

These are all what I do when the kids speak Japanese. But when they speak English I always try to use praise. It's hard to know when to fit it in though, I don't want to interrupt the flow of conversation, but I do want to make sure I like what I am hearing.

The problem, of course, is that I usually end up with exasperation at least once a day. Mostly because I am so sensitive to it. For some reason not speaking my native language is a personal affront in the way leaving sharks on the floor is not.

I know there are other options out there, like reward systems, that I just haven't tried. I'm not against bribery as a parenting tactic, I just haven't used it for English. Yet!

What tactics do you use to get your kids to speak your language?


  1. I'm still trying to get my kids to speak more in Mandarin and Cantonese instead of English(which is their strongest language) For my 7yr old he is getting better in communicating in Mandarin as there is constant exposure in school and I've step up with verbal practicing at home. For my 4yr old he can read and do simple sentences in mandarin but still needs a lot of encouragement.

  2. I like that you call it encouragement. I'm thinking more along the lines of coercion. ;)

  3. I had a little refusenik on my hands, too - what got her to slowly but surely speak the minority language were all the things you mentioned in your post, plus a lot of patience, encouragement, bribery, persistence and consistency.

    But what helped her most was humour - similar to what you are describing. Her favourite game from that time is one we sometimes still play today, a couple of years later, and it still works like a charm: I used to tickle her until she was able to speak German (our minority language), making a big deal out of her needing to be tickled to bring the German back. She used to laugh her head off and once she caught on, it usually worked very quickly.

    Good luck!

  4. Oooh that's excellent! Nothing wrong with a little tickle torture is there? ;) Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I don't have any words of wisdom to add, as my concerns are the opposite. Is being monolingual (English) at home impeding my kids ability to function in Swiss German in their every day lives.

    But I just wanted to comment and say I enjoyed your story, and whatever our kids speak, we will worry about it! That's what parents do.

  6. Thanks for visiting Fiona!

    Yes, I completely agree that we are hardwired for worrying. Just another day in the life of a parent.

  7. My husband has this problem, but taking my son to Russia (my husband's first language is Russian) without me really helped. I think my son just needed to see his Papa as a Russian speaker, not an English speaker who knows Russian really well, so the immersion thing helped. I shall pass on some of your tips though. I really like the Dale McGowan one (and the tickling one too).

  8. I love this Dale McGowan way! I have to remember it.


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