Unfortunately, most bilingual families go through this crisis at some point; despite best efforts to provide good and consistent input, despite the ability to use the language if necessary… most bilingual kids, at some point, figure out which language gets them the most effect for the least effort, and choose to use that language, all the time. I’ve worked with parents who have tried bribery, threats, enticements, and the old stand by “I don’t understand you.”. The bottom line is, once your child figures out that you *do* speak, or at least understand, the majority (or other) language, it’s very, very hard to get them to make the effort to use the less popular language. So, what’s a parent to do?
Here are my suggestions:
Firstly, don’t try to pretend that you don’t understand. It usually doesn’t work (either they don’t believe you or they don’t care…), and it can cause bad feeling between the parent and child. In the moment that your child is trying to communicate with you, it’s important to support that, even if it isn’t in the *right* language. In this case, what you can do (although not, obviously, all the time) is recast – restate the phrase, in your language, and continue the conversation. This gives them input in your language, but doesn’t interrupt the communicative act.
Secondly, work very hard to find or create “monolingual situations”, where the child needs to use the language to be understood, and preferably to play with other children. The reality of play dates is that as parents we often spend time with people simply because we have our kids in common – even if you wouldn’t normally seek out your language community to socialize with, it’s worth it if it helps your child have the motivation to communicate in your language.
Thirdly, continue the discussion with your kids about why you do what you do in terms of language. Every bilingual family should have an on-going discussion about who does what and why (and who does not and why…). It helps your kids better understand the languages in their family and their world, and have a better understanding of why they need their different languages. Each person has the right to make their own language decisions, and so you have the right to continue to use your language of choice, just as they have the right to use the language of their choice. Sometimes, just by keeping an open dialogue and transmitting the message of importance, kids will come back to using both or all their languages (in their own time, of course…).
And finally, don’t feel guilty. If you are doing all you can do to give your kids good quality, consistent input in your language, you are doing your best. At the very least, they will have a solid foundation in the language when one day they decide it would actually be useful to speak that other language… and at best, your consistency and communication will help the come back to your language sooner rather than later.