Raising Bilingual Children: what’s your strategy?

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. 

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7 thoughts on “Raising Bilingual Children: what’s your strategy?

  1. Thanks for writing this, and also for linking to my piece.

    I have seen a lot of successful people blogging about their experiences bringing up bilingual families and it is always made to look so easy. ‘Just speak in English/Mandarin/whatever and you’ll be fine’. It’s good to find other people who are facing similar challenges but confident of overcoming them.

    I can’t figure out if you have an advantage or a disadvantage over us. English and Portuguese are much more similar than English and Mandarin. Mr T, our son, sometimes confuses the two or mixes the languages in the same sentence. Have you ever noticed this?

    Finally, I am part of a very good group on Facebook for bloggers raising Multicultural children. If you would like to be introduced, just let me know.

    • You raise a good point about the distance between Mandarin and English. Our son does mix when talking to mom; however, my thought is that it’s not usually because he’s confused—it’s more often because he’s run into something he doesn’t know in Mandarin. In those moments I’m torn over what you were talking about in your post—should my wife should be modelling in Chinese? Sometimes it seems like the most helpful thing to do, and sometimes it feels like it can derail a conversation…… [still torn]. The Facebook group sounds interesting— what’s it called?

    • forgot to add– your blog is really interesting because the majority/minority language orientation is reversed in that I am the English-speaking parent in an English-speaking society, whereas you are the second-language parent in a Portuguese-speaking society. I find that, in addition to the general idea of trying to raising a bilingual child, some of your perspective is interesting for considering things from my wife’s perspective.

      • It’s always good to think about the other person’s point of view. One difference, though, might be that value attached to the language. English is a high status language here in Brazil, so they wider community appreciates and supports our efforts. I don’t know what kind of status Mandarin would have in your community.

  2. On that score, I completely agree! I often think about that part of my son’s experience of speaking Chinese– I sometimes wonder if he feels like a circus act when people look at him with excited eyes, saying “speak Chinese! let me hear it!”. People mean well, but I’m sure many kids don’t feel that comfortable being socially put ‘on stage’ for someone outside of their everyday reality; there’s a whole other aspect of being biracial that plays a role in all of this that likely has a completely different vibe when you bring the relative prestige of different languages into the picture.

    I’m glad my son is getting to grow up during a time when being bilingual is much more socially acceptable; this is especially true in western Canada. When I was younger, I remember having the sense that friends with parents who spoke other languages somehow felt some mini-shame when their parents would speak another language in front of friends like me; their eyes seem to somehow say “mom! talk to me in English– I just want to be normal in front of my friends”. It’s a heartbreaking idea, for sure—happily, I think the times are changing.

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