Raising a Multilingual Child (Part 2)

May 15, 2009

I've also heard, and seen, that bi/multilingual children learn to speak later. I know this to be true from my own experience raising my two year-old boy. He can say words and phrases in Mandarin, English and Vietnamese, but his speech was probably delayed a little compared to if he had just learned one language. I feel this isn't necessarily a drawback, because there really isn't that much of a delay. But I'm sure it can be frustrating for him when he knows exactly what he wants but can't communicate it. His personality, though, is like the opposite of mine -- he's totally outspoken, not shy and will talk in his own made up language when he can't find the appropriate Chinese/Vietnamese/English words.

Though there are some learning challenges, there's a lot of longterm gain, I think. For example, instead of focusing on speaking (which I should also), I delved into writing. I loved it because I could express myself more clearly in writing than speaking. They say that people who are fluent in multiple languages tend to be more creative, and may be interested in writing and other creative outlets because they see the world in a different way. You know how it is; sometimes you want to describe something and the best way is in your native tongue, not in English. I'm curious to know if there writers and other creative people out there who think that knowing another language has ultimately helped them. 

I do agree with a previous commenter that it's up to the child how far they want to take their language skills, or if they will completely drop it. As a parent, I was shocked to read about a kid who spoke (in this case, Hindi) all throughout his childhood to high school, then completely stopped and now can't really speak it! But that's the thing about language -- it takes years and years and lots of effort to build up to fluency, but it doesn't take nearly as long to lose it.

Lately I have been thinking about learning more Chinese. I can't read or write and would love to be able to teach my child some basic reading/writing skills.


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.



Hey Momo,Interesting posts! I actually started in Cantonese, and switched to English. The plan was that we were going to be raised bilingual, but of course, the language of the country we were in took precedence.When we moved to the States, I wasn't yet two, and my sister was four. After a few frustrating months in which she couldn't find any other children to speak Cantonese with, she announced that she wouldn't speak Cantonese anymore. My mother continued to try to speak it with her, but she refused to respond. You can fault my mom for not insisting, but imagine how difficult it must have been to have your four-year-old stop speaking to you, on top of all the other issues of settling in to a foreign country.As an adult in Berlin I met a young man who had a similar story: his father was American, mother German; they moved to the States in his early childhood; he declared he wouldn't speak German at one point. But his mother decided to out-stubborn him. He told me that it ultimately took a WHOLE YEAR for him to give in and start speaking with his mother again. Imagine how hard that must have been for her. Yet, he spoke excellent German.All of this was decided before I reached the age of two, so I basically started over -- at about 2.5 or 3 y/o -- with English. And, although we spoke mostly English at home, some of the language support was, of course, missing, especially when it came to idioms. It took fully until I was in college before I was completely comfortable with the American idiom and could speak slang comfortably and naturally ... or understand song lyrics.And now I teach writing.My point is that I was mostly raised monolingual, and STILL had minor language issues until adulthood. So I don't think that should be a major consideration. I visited Ireland and kissed the Blarney Stone when I was 22, and it DID seem to magically affect me. :) But I think it had a lot more to do with leaving school and having to represent myself and communicate with others out in the real world that cemented my language skills. And ultimately, all kids will get that opportunity.
I agree with you, Momo. I am not a parent but I was raised bilingual, and struggle with identifying how to use my Mandarin more, so I can embrace that side of me that I tend to forget. Perhaps taking some refresher courses would be the right thing for both of us!
I just finished an article on learning a second language helps boost children’s brain power, making children stronger, quicker and smarter. The effect is more obvious the earlier that a second language was learned.So I totally agree with you. That is why we as parents should encourage our children to learn a second language when they are young.Right now I am teaching my baby to learn Chinese, hoping she will become a bilingual in the future and not worry about running out of time of starting learning a second language. 
Momo, I identified with much of what you wrote. Cantonese was my first language. Even though I was born in the States, I took ESL classes my first few years in school. I was also very quiet in school and unwilling to speak unless I had to. Even in college I didn't want to talk in discussion sessions. Because I didn't feel comfortable communicating verbally, I took to reading and writing instead. Now I am a writer/editor and work at a writing arts organization.I've not heard that bi/multilingual children learn to speak later, but that makes so much sense to me. That was certainly the case in my family. My brother, who is six years younger than I, was a very late speaker, and when he did speak, he spoke in a mix of both languages that no one at his school coud understand. The school started pulling him out of class for special speech therapy sessions. Eventually, my parents took my two younger siblings to see a speech therapist regularly. The therapist recommended we stick to one language at home, so my parents chose English.I wonder what would have happened if the therapist had not recommended that (and if speech therapists today would recommend the same) and how much my parents debated about assimilation and retaining their language. I know they did what they thought was best. But I wish we had continued to speak Cantonese at home so that we would have a better grasp of it today. You can see the loss of language not within generations, but just within my immediate family. I can converse and speak, though with a 9-year-old's vocabulary. My sister (the middle child) can understand most of what is said to her, but can't speak as well. And my brother wouldn't know it if someone was talking about him in Cantonese to his face.
Thanks for another insightful post about this topic, Momo.It's certainly true that since having my own children I've wondered a lot about the decisions my parents made about language when I was a kid. I know it must have been hard for them when I began "losing" my Mandarin skills, and I do credit them for making me interested enough to start studying it formally again in college.As for the drawbacks of being a bilingual child, I have heard many times that bilingual children start speaking later than monolingual peers, and I'm sure it's true, but I know I've also read many times that in the end, there is no proof that bilingual children eventually grow up with language difficulties--at least on the technical, linguistic side.As for being quieter and more introverted, my gut feeling is that this probably has more to do with culture and psychology than language. I'm not saying that Chinese people are quieter (!) but rather that children who come from homes that are outside the mainstream in a significant way (eg, immigrant families, families with gay or divorced parents, etc) probably feel less inclined to be extroverted.And as for Melissa's comment above, I would be appalled if a speech therapist today were to suggest to her parents that they "stick to one language". I just can't see how parents speaking to their children exclusively in a language that they don't know well (in her case, English) could be the best option for children. How could hearing stilted, labored English at home be better than hearing nuanced, idiomatic, and fully expressive Cantonese?
Thanks all for sharing your stories!Claire: Yes, those darned idioms! Had a lot of problems with those. And prepositions too (still do, though I catch the mistakes now). I don't know if this has anything to do with being bilingual but I'm always in awe of people who seem to be able to turn every sentence into a metaphor or simile.Ann: I was thinking about borrowing some cds or something. I went to Chinese school for a few months and dropped out. I don't like learning in that kind of traditional environment. Maybe I should also start watching more Chinese movies. I knew someone in high school who picked up Mandarin (she spoke Cantonese) from watching TV shows and movies!best4future: Keep me posted on how that's going, and if you find some good resources, please share!Melissa: Wow, your brothers and family really went through it. I also wonder what experts would recommend today -- i.e. did your brother truly have such a serious speech issue such that focusing on one language was required, or was it just natural that they he mixed the languages for a while? And how much of it was just the fact that the teachers and others couldn't understand him and thus felt that something was wrong or needed to be fixed? Boys also tend to speak later than girls, I've learned (though not that much later, usually. Still, there are so many pressures to compare, so a one or two month difference may seem like a lot. Why isn't my child talking yet? etc. etc.).LYG: "...children who come from homes that are outside the mainstream in a significant way (eg, immigrant families, families with gay or divorced parents, etc) probably feel less inclined to be extroverted." After I wrote the post, I also thought about this -- that just being, in my case, one of the only Asian students at the school (this was in South Carolina) was probably a huge factor. I was just different from all the rest of the kids, period.
I was raised bilingual, Hoipingnese as my first language, a dialect similar to Toisanese. I was pulled out for ESL classes and remember hating every minute of it. It was taught by a Cantonese speaking teacher and then a Mandarin speaking teacher who looked down on Toisanese people and would constantly make me feel ashamed. I remember as a young kid not understanding why there was this underlying feeling of inferiority for them. Toisanese and Hoipingnese people, like my great-grandfather, were the first Chinese to settle here in America. They helped build the agricultural system, the famous railroad system, appeared in films, challenge the educational system, and helped build this country's economy, not to mention help sustain China's economy. My family and I lived in an affluent suburb of Boston. Why the attitude? Not Chinese enough. Too Chinese. Not the right kind of Chinese. Good grief!Now I have my own children. And as I help them navigate through the American public school system and life, I find myself just as insecure as when I was young; but in my children, I find the courage to participate in school committees and make it a habit of speaking out for what I believe in, even when I'm the only Asian American on the panel and the only Chinese American resident of Hoipingnese heritage in town. I encourage them to speak up and ask questions in class. To make a smart mistake is better than being mute.I once enrolled my children in the only Chinese language class (Mandarin) around. Then we stopped. They weren't enjoying it and since we didn't speak it, why take it? Now I teach them the Hoipingnese I know. It may not be much and it certainly doesn't have the luster of Mandarin or Cantonese, but it's my family's language and that's what I'm trying to preserve. They're learning Spanish at school and some Korean from my husband. It's the meaningful communication which matters most.Oh, and about the English skills...the white Americans don't get it either. If you really read and/or listen to white Americans, you'd see they're flawed too. They're just too ignorant and arrogant to admit it.
Just became a parent and want my baby to learn Tagalog (it was my first language). I hear more now that learning more than one language is better for kids because their capacity to learn a language physically (their vocal cords are still forming) and mentally is at the most before 5 years old. It will not confuse the child. It show them that things can be described in more than one way.
I was born in the United States the year Sesame Street began broadcasting. My parents -- so I understand -- deliberately spoke to me only in Taiwanese (Min Nan) so that I would not speak English with a Taiwanese accent. Apparently I learned English first from Sesame Street, then from public school. (I don't remember a time when I did not know English, so I can't verify this.) My ability to speak and read English was never questioned by teachers; I always got good grades in English. Today I work as an English-language copy editor and occasional reporter.My younger brother, on the other hand, was put in ESL classes in elementary school, though I don't think he needed them. I know he began speaking late, and that when he was learning to talk, I was already coming home from pre-school and chattering at him in English even as my parents spoke to us in Taiwanese. He was always quieter than I. For a time he insisted on using only Taiwanese to speak to my parents, but now he uses English.Today, I continue to understand Taiwanese, and can carry on a basic conversation. However, because I speak Taiwanese rather than Mandarin, I rarely have the opportunity to practice, and I know my skills are deteriorating every day. I studied Mandarin a little bit in college, but to me Mandarin is a foreign language, like French or Japanese. My husband does not speak Taiwanese.I have tried teaching my now 6-year-old son a few phrases and having him visit my parents as often as possible, but we usually all converse in English. I am also having my son take Mandarin-immersion classes once a week, but since neither I nor my husband speak Mandarin, I'm not sure it is doing anything for him except possibly laying down a linguistic foundation should he want to study Mandarin again in the future. Ideally I would like him to study Taiwanese rather than Mandarin so we could converse and continue our cultural heritage, but I can't find any place near where I live that teaches it. We did visit Taiwan for three weeks last year, but we can't afford to visit regularly, and I don't think moving there would work for the family. What to do?
I think I will try to recommend this post to my friends and family, cuz it's really helpful.