Raising a Multilingual Child

May 13, 2009

I've been speaking to my son, who is two, primarily in Mandarin. I think it's paying off because he's like a little parrot now, repeating everything. The funniest thing is, when he really wants something, he will pull those Mandarin phrases out of thin air! I guess he's absorbing things even when I think he's not. 

One of the main issues I'm encountering is that my English is so much better than my Mandarin. I'm pretty confident when it comes to speaking in Mandarin for basic things and in conversations, and I think my accent is okay for the most part. But it is just so much easier to speak in English.

It's also gets more complicated because my partner speaks to our child in Vietnamese, and we speak to each other in English. Most of the time, we have no idea what we each are saying to our child, since I don't understand Vietnamese and vice versa. To me, the "easiest" combination is where one parent speaks English to the child, while the other speaks the second language. But that would require one parent to give up their native tongue in favor of the other parent's language.

I've been reading a lot about raising bilingual children, and the verdict is out there, something I know firsthand and know instinctively: there are so many reasons to raise your child bilingual, if you can and have the will to. They range from practical reasons to emotional reasons. A lot of times it's connecting to your roots, the older generation, and to your culture. Other reasons -- especially for parents who are monolingual but want their children to speak a language other than English -- it's for practical, worldly reasons.

Sadly, it seems that immigrants lose this huge piece of their history and culture, and very quickly.   

People have studied and written about how by the third generation -- immigrants' grandchildren (for example, my child) -- most will grow up speaking only English, after only two generations in the US! For Asian groups, it seems it's especially high, around 92 percent.

I'm curious to know about our readers -- were you raised bilingual? What was your experience like? I would also love to hear from other parents who are raising bi/multilingual children and how that has been. I also know friends whose parents spoke multiple languages, but chose to pass on only one language. And I now understand why that is. Many ethnic minorities (for example, ethnic Chinese from Vietnam) speak multiple languages, including a local dialect, Cantonese, Mandarin and Vietnamese. Their children may end up knowing a little of the local, less popular dialect but speaking Cantonese. Why did the parents choose this?, I wondered when I was younger and more naive. Now I understand! It's very tempting to give in to the dominant culture, and it gets more complicated the more languages you add.


Momo Chang

Senior Contributing Editor

Momo Chang is the Content Manager at the Center for Asian American Media, and freelances for magazines, online publications, and weeklies. Her writings focus on Asian American communities, communities of color, and youth culture. She is a former staff writer at the Oakland Tribune. Her stories range from uncovering working conditions in nail salons, to stories about “invisible minorities” like Tongan youth and Iu Mien farmers. She has freelances The New York Times, WIRED, and East Bay Express, among other publications.



I don't have a family yet but I definitely agree with the advantages of being either bi-lingual or multi-lingual. I grew up speaking Mandarin and Cantonese at home and still remember speaking English in early elementary with a f.o.b. accent.After spending two and half years in Taiwan after college my Mandarin became much improved while I lost fluency in Cantonese.I was thinking that when I have a family I'd love to be able to live in Asia part of the time or at least be able to take the kids back every summer. I would say living in a place is definitely the most effective method for picking up a language.Sure the moving around might be tough growing up and people nowadays, people that have lived in foreign countries and speak other languages are looked upon so favorably and have such a richer and more cultured understanding of the world.I would definitely want my kids to be empowered in that way!
I agree with Michael that living outside of the US during part of one's childhood is the best way to pick up another language at a fluent level. I grew up monolingual, and always envied my friends' bilingual abilities (Silicon Valley kid - nearly everyone at my school was 1st or 2nd gen).My husband is Indian and speaks/understands most of the languages in North India. To follow the conversation in his family you have to know at least Bengali and Hindi along with English, so those three will be our target languages when we have kids. I'm fairly fluent in German now (after, of course, living in the country for awhile), but I doubt I'll pass that along unless we end up moving to Europe. Ideally we'll live in India for at least a few years when we have kids.
I only spoke a little Mandarin at home when I was a child, although I did also live in Taiwan for a couple of years during elementary school and also studied Mandarin in college.Now my partner is an English-speaking Australian, and we have two children. I really would love them to grow up speaking Mandarin, but I find it extremely difficult to speak it to them with any consistency. Not only does English come much more naturally to me, but I find it odd and somewhat unnatural to speak to my children in a language that their father doesn't understand when we're all together as a family. As a result, they really only know a handful of phrases and words. I know I should work harder at it, but I guess at this point I might have to make sure we spend a year or two in Asia while they're growing up.
I know a Chinese guy whose parents were Vietnam born Chinese, but the mother spoke chiu chow and the father spoke mandarin. Each spoke to their kids in their respective Chinese dialect but spoke to each other in Vietnamese. Somehow he learn Vietnamese, Chiu Chow, and Mandarin from his parents and English in school. Growing up he wasn't as proficient with all the Asian languages as he was with English; in his early twenties made a decision to learn the Asian languages well, which, he claimed wasn't too difficult since his parents gave him the foundation for the Asian languages. We do want we can as parents, in the end it's the child's decision to learn.
I am a 1.5 generation Korean-Australian, who developed an interest in the field of language loss and maintenance amongst migrant communities whilst doing my Masters in Applied Linguistics.From my own experience, and from what is generally found in most research, truly bilingual second or third gens tend to be in the minority. By bilingual in this sense, I mean that someone who is equally skilled in both languages. The trend tends to be, that we develop fluency and communicative ability in the migrant language generally within a domestic and conversational capacity, with limited or less proficient literacy skills. Thus, whilst our proficiency in English covers a number of spheres, professional, academic, domestic etc., proficiency within the migrant language tends to develop less broadly and our ability within that language is less sophisticated.Using myself as an example, I have a dynamic L1. That is, Korean was my first language as a child, however, as I became older my 'first language' shifted to English. I did not lose my ability to speak or understand Korean within a domestic or general conversational capacity (due to interaction with my family), however, my literacy skills were poor and my use of the language was 'fossilised' to that of a young child. It was not until I became an adult, that I took an active interest in Korean, and through active learning and 'in-country' language courses, my Korean language skills have improved significantly, but are still very limited when compared with English.Psychology, attitudes and identity played a huge role in my language learning experiences, and this has also been found to be the case in a number of studies. It has generally been found amongst 1.5 and 2nd gens, that a period of rejection of the migrant language and associated culture is often experienced within the teen years. This is of course symbolic of larger issues of cultural hegemony and the lack of status non-English languages have within countries such as America and Australia, and it is not suprising within this cultural context, attitudes towards the non-English language can become negative. However, this period of 'cultural rejection' is generally followed by an 'embracing' of the migrant culture and language, what is often jokingly referred to as the 'born-again Asian' period.Why so much talk on attitudes and psychology? Those that tend to have positive attitudes towards the migrant language tend to be those who maintain the language most effectively. In addition to this, people who successfully maintain their migrant language with a certain level of fluency, also feel that the language is relevant and has immediate communicative value. Which is where language networking becomes significant, this is basically, just being around people who you use the language with regularly. Part of the reason that language attitudes can become negative during the teen years is that fact that our focus shifts from family to peers, and if your communicative network for the migrant language becomes limited to your family and does extend to your significant peer group, then of course, attitudinally, your appraisal of the language will be affected. Thus, immediate communicative value is incredibly significant in the fact that it not only allows for the use of the language, but also the development of positive language attitudes. Michael Yang and Gori Girl both previously noted the importance of actually going to the country where the language is spoken, and part of the success of this is because the language develops immediate relevancy within this context and your use of the language becomes varied and the language develops value.There are of course other reasons why an individual may successfully retain a language. For example, within the current 'language as a resource' discourse, a language that is seen as having more tangible (generally commercial) value may actively be retained because of this. However, often in the case of 1.5, 2nd, 3rd, 4th etc gen migrants, tangible value is often not the reason why we hope to maintain the language of our heritage. It extends beyond 'getting a good job' and has significance culturally and emotionally. The migrant experience with language is not universal, however, for myself, I hope that my children will experience the value that I myself have gained through my relationship with the Korean language. It is medium through which I hope that they will connect with my parents, understand that the world extends beyond what is constructed within a predominantly white- Australian framework, and hopefully understand and relate to me with a totality that is not limited to the English language. What I hope for my children, is of course, not what they may hope for themselves, however, we often acquire our values from our environment, so even if they're not able to acquire the language as fully as I hope, maybe they will still understand the value of it.Anyhoo, good luck with your kids and I wish you all the best!
The biggest problem is that once your son enters school, his English will overtake his Chinese/Vietnamese, and he'll want to try to use English with you. Especially if he knows you speak it, from, say, overhearing you using it fluently with Daddy.This is happening to my friend Farhad (a HK-raised Iranian married to a Taiwanese 1.5'er) right now. He knew it was coming, so for years he's refused to let anyone speak English to him in front of his daughter. Including his wife. Their life has turned into one giant conspiracy:
  1. They can't run errands in front of their kid unless it's to Iranian or Chinese-owned shops
  2. They don't let their friends visit them at home unless they agree to only speak in Chinese or Persian
  3. When he gets a phone call in English at home, he runs into the bedroom, shuts the door, and talks in a low voice
  4. He hides all their English books in the closet and won't watch English TV
  5. He talks Cantonese to his wife (which she barely understands and doesn't speak); she responds in Mandarin. When they can't understand each other, they use Spanish. They switch back to English when their daughter's asleep.
It would make a great sitcom. But it seems to be working. Last time I went to visit them I accidentally asked Farhad something in English, and his daughter solemnly informed me, "Daddy can't speak English", and translated.
Wow, thanks to everyone who's commented. I realized after reading the comments and thinking about this topic some more, I'd like to write a follow up post (to come).Michael and Gori Girl: I didn't mention this in the post, spending some time during the summers in Taiwan definitely helped me learn Chinese. My parents told us that when my sister and I got back from Taiwan, we would continue speaking to each other in Mandarin. That lasted only a few weeks, then we were back to speaking to each other in English. But these immersion periods definitely helped. We also watched a lot of Chinese soap operas.LYG: There are so many demands on parents, and learning a second or third language is just a part of it all. From the reading, it seems that some kids don't get a second language until they are older (though it may be harder for them to learn naturally than, say, a two year-old), and they can still become fluent in the second language. I've been visiting immersion and bilingual preschools, and have found that the majority of the parents actually don't speak the second language at home, at least in the Mandarin programs.Anonymous: I agree that ultimately, especially after 18 or so, it's up to the child to see where and how far they want to take their language learning. As parents, all we can do is provide the environment and lay the foundation for the learning.Seoulcitykitty: Thanks for breaking it down! I actually know very few people who are equally fluent in two languages. For me, I can get by with daily conversations, but can't read or write Chinese. "Born-again Asian" -- I love it! Definitely have seen this happen a lot. The relevancy issue makes a lot of sense. When my parents visit, my son will have an explosion of Chinese words and become super talkative. When he's just hearing Chinese from me, it's less effective. If our friends who visit/babysit speak Chinese or Vietnamese, we like them to speak those languages with our son so he hears it from different people.Eric L: Your friends seem very determined and are creating a true immersion experience in their household. I have heard stories where when kids start English school, they might demand that their parents speak English if they know their parents also speak it. I think one of the main things is to not give in -- otherwise, it's hard to go back. One a somewhat related note to you last sentence, I was reading that kids who grow up in a household with multiple languages may believe that everyone has their own "language."
People here need to focus on the bigger issue about multilingualism: institutional power.Ask yourself: Why is it that immigrant children are so easily assmiliated into the English Only world to begin with?It's because English sadly is the language of institutional power in the USA.It's the langauge of government, business, media, and schools for the most part.If people want want their children to become more multilingual then ultimately, they are going to have to fight English institutional dominance.For example, in some territories of the USA like Aztlan (aka California to Texas), why should English be the dominant language in government, business, etc--given that this region has historically had a strong Mexican/Hispanic presence and indeed was originally part of Mexico before the USA stole it?In some nations like Switzerland, there are *multiple* official languages, but not so for the USA.Those issues need to be raised, and English lingustic dominance needs to be challenged.That's the crux of the issue.You all want multilingualism in America?Fight for it.
My first lanugage was Tagalog/Filipino that I found out later was peppered with Bikolano words. I'm still fluent, or near fluent, today and can pass the native speaker phone test. My perspective is that being bilingual can only help you and your kids. What's interesting is that I'm in the same boat as the original poster, my wife doesn't speak Filipino, she speaks French, and we speak to each other in isiZulu when we don't want the kids to understand us(Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) so the burden of the cultural teaching/language acquisition falls on my shoulders, even though my wife is the catalyst and pushes really hard for it. I make the effort to speak to our children only in Filipino, with mixed results, and what seems to be happening is that our 3 and 1 year olds understand Filipino, but will respond in English, in the case of the 3 year old. He uses some words, here and there, but it's mostly English.I found that for us, there was some truth to the slower language acquisition, but that's largely disappeared by age 3. I know of some 1st generation parents actively attempting to suppress language/cultural acquisition as a way to cope with discrimination and perceived barriers "It will only confuse them, they'll have an accent, etc." and folks buying into the idea that assimilation is a desirable outcome and possible.The way I look at it, it's easier for my kids to say, "It's not useful, even though I have the skill." vs. "I wish you would've taught me Filipino."My brother and our sons godfather can still understand, but can't speak. Our sons godfather is 1.5 generation and still has a RP passport.
lxy: I agree. My post only addresses the individual issues of raising a multilingual child, but we can't forget the larger context, which is English dominance. A lot of English-only initiatives are rooted in racism and xenophobia. I may write another follow up post but another thing I wanted to point out is that a lot of people seem to mistake not knowing English with being illiterate. Even if the person is literate in another language! I saw this in the story around Lori Phanachone: http://www.siouxcityjournal.com/articles/2009/03/05/news/local/754d93a7a005ccb3862575700009cc99.txt.Jun Zuniga: Thanks for sharing your perspective! I totally agree with this:The way I look at it, it's easier for my kids to say, "It's not useful, even though I have the skill." vs. "I wish you would've taught me Filipino."