The old saying “Use it, or lose it” is quite true. If my kids couldn’t remember what they learned, it would be a waste of effort to spend the time to practice Chinese with my kids. So we speak Mandarin at home. Yes, we mix some English in, because sometimes it’s just easier or more efficient to say it in English. But for the most part, I speak Chinese with my kids. But what do you do when your kids only want to speak English?
When I was a kid, my parents would tell me straight-up that are “forcing” me to speak Chinese, or I’d get a spanking (actually, a chopstick to the hand). It was a totalitarian method. I won’t say that it didn’t work… because today I am more fluent than many of my ABC friends. But as a child, this method caused a lot of anger and desire to revolt in me. My parents simply demanded a certain behavior without explaining to me the reason or benefit behind the behavior. So I felt like I had been unjustly sentenced to some sort of punishment without a fair hearing. Hence, a lot of fights with my parents over the subject. Which only made them dig their heels in deeper, re-stating that they are forcing me to speak Chinese, and reaching for a chopstick from the kitchen drawer. I got a lot of hits on my hand from that chopstick as a kid!
My parents would also employ a “tactic” of replying to my English with “I don’t understand English” – something I never say to my kids, because we all know that’s not true. It wasn’t true with my parents either. They weren’t native English speakers, but I knew they were fluent enough to understand my English sentences. Because my parents’ “I don’t understand English” statement was so ludicrous, it spurred the same anger and feelings of injustice in me (more chopstick to the hand! ouch!).
So with my kids, I explain to them that fluency in Chinese is important because it will be very helpful to their futures. I’ve explained that when they are able to converse and exchange ideas with other Chinese-speaking people, they gain access to a whole other world (including future career benefits). And, that they are to be proud to be Chinese, and therefore learn their heritage language. Also, that learning multiple languages helps their brain develop so they’ll be smarter.
I don’t do the “totalitarian thing” with my kids. I try to do the “subconscious thing” instead. I don’t outright declare that they “shall” speak Chinese or otherwise get a spanking. If they start with an English sentence, I will reply in Chinese. They usually, by default and quite subconsciously, then respond back to me in Chinese. And we are back to having the full conversation in Chinese. If they want to speak some English, I let them. Then I try to switch them back to Chinese again. They don’t feel like they are backed against a wall or drilled into the ground. Less fights and more conversation. It’s worked so far.