After posting about bilingual households, I came across a post about strategies for raising a bilingual child that really resonated with me. I liked the dad’s honesty about how he originally had plans of being able to talk about his effortlessly bilingual son who could possibly have been starting to learn a third language at some point. When my son was born I had the very same thought, and I definitely remember relatives fully expecting me to pour all of my language skills into my son’s little noggin. It’s hard to argue with the idea of teaching a child to speak more than one language; however, as someone who grew up in a monolingual household, I was left to ponder the not-so-small question of “how do you actually go about doing that?”.
My wife and I were confident from the beginning that we wanted to raise our son to be bilingual. We quickly settled into a pattern of her speaking to him in Mandarin, and me speaking to him in English. Surely, we thought, he would ‘naturally’ pick up both languages and would soon be speaking both languages with fluid ease.
As it turns out, my son had some opinions of his own:) It quickly became apparent that he wasn’t quite that excited about speaking Chinese. Mom would speak to him in Mandarin, but he would respond to in English– if she pretended not to understand, he quickly figured out that he could come to me and say “tell mommy that …….” or some other ploy to get me to interpret for him.
As we started to look around at other families that had aspired to raise a bilingual child, we saw more and more parents who somehow seemed dissatisfied or discouraged…..there were times when we wondered if we would actually be able to pull it off.
But we continue sticking with it—even now that my son fully realizes that mommy really does understand English, she continues to stick with one language. Whenever he expresses an interest in something Chinese we are both full of encouragement. One big “win” for us was when he dove into watching a Chinese cartoon called 熊出没 (both short clips and full movies). Many Chinese parents hold the show in great contempt because it it’s full of road-runner-esque violence, but we loved it because it was a major milestone on the road to him developing a genuine interest in Chinese. I enjoyed watching the cartoons with him, and we liked repeating one-liners from the show and tried to learn the theme song and put together the video at the beginning of this post.
We were happy with the engagement; however, even through that time, he wasn’t really speaking that much Chinese in terms of spontaneous comments or sustaining conversation.
Skipping forward to the present, my son is now eight; we’re finding that his Chinese seems to improve in waves—sometimes months will go by and it seems like we’re not seeing any progress, but then he’ll have a burst of confidence that encourages us to keep going. So– I’ve learned to celebrate the small victories.
As it happens, we just had a mini-victory the other night— my wife was doing a mid-week grocery run because she’s heading out of town for a trip. As she was walking out the door, she asked if we needed to add anything to her shopping list– quite unexpectedly, my son piped up and said ‘梨’ (lí). It was so out of character that my wife didn’t quite catch what he said the first time, so he repeated himself and said “妈妈，我要吃梨”, telling her that he wanted to eat those fruits that I always translate as ‘apple-pears’.
So–bit by bit it comes, and the road is paved with little happy moments like this one. My son doesn’t read very many Chinese characters, but he sees me practicing my characters and sometimes traces along with me. He likes to watch some Chinese TV with my wife, so the ‘input’ continues. I’m sure he’ll say the word 梨 at least once this week when we’re having a snack, or putting them into a smoothie, and that will make me happy.
and so it goes…
Going back to the article I mentioned— I thought one of the comments left by another reader offered some sage advice: he had always kept up with speaking one language with his child (in this case, English in a Portuguese environment); however, it was only when the parents stopped obsessing/worrying about the language that their son seemed to flourish.
Anyway, I don’t know if I have a cohesive strategy beyond trying to create an atmosphere around the house where speaking Chinese doesn’t feel heavy or onerous. I think if we stick with that, we’ll be ok; somehow, it seems like what you’re doing is less important than how your child is feeling about the whole experience.