top of page

“I want to speak my friend’s language!”: The power of “peer pressure”

My cousin lives in Berlin with her German husband and their four-year-old son Oskar. In May 2022, we stayed with them for a week – little did we know at the time that this would prove to be a major turning point in Oskar’s language-learning journey!

At that point in time, he was fluent in German, and although he could understand everything his mum said in Mandarin, he would only reply in his native tongue (German). If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that this is one of the most common problems for parents trying to raise their kids to be multilingual. My cousin tried to implement the Bootcamp method (explained in detail in my book), but perhaps not consistently. At the beginning of our stay in Berlin last year, Oskar could say certain words in Mandarin, but not put sentences together.

Then his cousins (well, second cousins) arrived… And they didn’t speak a word of German! Oskar plainly saw that his mum, his auntie and his second cousins – both slightly older than himself – all communicated with one another in Mandarin. When he attempted to speak German to us, all he got was a confused expression or a giggle from us. And he was DESPERATE to communicate with us. Well, maybe not so much me (just a boring grown-up) but these two other kids who were staying with him in his apartment for a week! Two kids who spoke his mummy’s language, which he could understand perfectly!

By the end of our week-long stay, he was already showing signs of wanting to speak Mandarin, occasionally using Chinese phrases and very short sentences with us. Soon after we left, my cousin messaged me saying that Oskar was suddenly super keen to speak Mandarin! By the time they came to visit us in July 2022 (about two months after our trip to Berlin), Oskar was already speaking a lot more Chinese, even complete sentences, although, at this stage, his speech was still somewhat difficult to understand to people other than his mum.

Fast forward six months, and… WOW. I was *shocked* by the progress Oskar had made in half a year! He now speaks to his mum exclusively in Mandarin, and I can understand 95-99% of what he says. My cousin confirmed that our visit last year was a real turning point; Oskar apparently wanted to be just like his cousin Alexey, which included speaking Mandarin and becoming obsessed with Sonic the Hedgehog (disappointingly, Oskar would later discover that Alexey now had a new obsession in the shape of Pokemon). And now, my cousin is looking forward to finally visiting China later this year with Oskar, who will be able to communicate with his grandparents and extended family without language barriers. Without a doubt, his Mandarin will get another massive boost during his stay in China!

Here are some of the key takeaways from this experience:

1) Create the NEED for your child to speak the language

If your child has to speak a language to communicate with someone they care about, they will make an effort to do it! If my children were able to speak German, would Oskar have felt as motivated about learning Mandarin? Or if Oskar were able to communicate with them in English? It was this language barrier that created a need for him to speak Mandarin. So, always remember – EXPOSURE alone is not enough. Never forget about NEED, the other part of the equation.

2) Peers are a huge influence on your child’s language development

As anyone who’s interacted with children can tell you, kids love to copy other kids, especially kids they look up to (i.e. those who are slightly older and more capable than themselves). Try to create opportunities for your child to interact with other kids in your target language if at all possible.

3) It’s all about immersion

During our stay in Berlin, Oskar was with us 24/7 for a week, surrounded by people who spoke to each other in Mandarin. He could hear people other than his mum speaking Mandarin in everyday life (and my cousin and I talked a lot)! This was as close as he could get to being in China. It shows how important it is to be immersed in a language, surrounded by people who use the language in a natural way. Try to recreate this immersive environment where you live as much as possible; but obviously, there’s nothing better than taking an extended holiday in a country where your target language is the dominant language.

I hope you found this story inspirational and the above tips helpful! And may I wish you all Happy Chinese New Year too!


bottom of page