Growing up Bilingual

Bilingualism is the new black. More and more families are seeking immersion programs so their children can acquire a second, or even a third, language early on. Along with the need for language immersion, comes the question of timing as well, whether there will be confusion when multiple languages are at play in children’s upbringing.

In a home video from around 1991, my three-year-old sister asked my dad,
“把鼻,dinosaur的英文怎麼講?” (bǎbí, dinosaur de yīngwén zěnme jiǎng)
“Daddy, how do you say dinosaur in English?”

To which my dad responded, “dinosaur is already in English.”

Even though my sister didn’t realize that “dinosaur” is already an English phrase, my sister’s awareness of  language differences at her age amazed all of us who watched that video.

bilingual, language, learning, shenyunwu.com, xdxs.tumblr.com

Image: courtesy of shendywu.com

Parents who are trying to raise bilingual children receive different feedback on how to approach bilingualism. Some are adamant about introducing a second language later in life,  others try to immerse the child in two languages as early as possible. Sociolinguistics studies present different results as well. But real-life experience and observations has taught me that perhaps children have the natural ability to distinguish between languages.

I don’t remember ever being confused about the difference between English and Chinese. But similar to the “dinosaur case,” there were times when I mistook certain words as Chinese when they were English. That’s mainly because of how it was used when I was introduced to the word. My parents always referred to “penguin” in English, with an accent that made it “ping-guin,” so for a long time, I thought the Chinese and English for that word were similar–and was fascinated (although incorrectly) by the closeness of the two languages.

Recently, I spent some time with a 3-year-old, Benji, who is raised by biracial parents–the mom is Chinese and the dad is a Kiwi from New Zealand. When Benji received a gift from his uncle, he immediately said, “thank you,” and said, “謝謝!” (xiè xie), without hesitation, when his mom asked him to say it in Chinese. I was amazed.

I asked the mom how they taught him the difference between English and Chinese. She said he just picked it up naturally. He even recognizes the difference between Chinese characters and English alphabet. For story time, he brings Chinese books only to mom, and English books to dad, as he recognizes that dad doesn’t speak or read Chinese.

Nick Jaworski, a father and blogger who is raising a multilingual child, also shows examples of how mixing languages has not hindered his child’s language learning: “Mixing languages is a normal part of the learning process and is a perfect indicator of just how smart your child is.”

It seems to me that the challenge of raising bilingual children goes beyond the initial immersion, but to keeping that language skill and improving upon it over time. Benji’s mom tells me that their approach now, is to instill in Benji that Chinese is cool, so that when he starts school and becomes immersed in the English-speaking world, he will still feel pride in knowing and learning Chinese.

I feel fortunate to have spent eight of my formative years in Taiwan before returning to the States to complete high school and college. Without it, my Chinese skills may have stagnated at an elementary and conversational level. It is difficult to keep up with a language that isn’t used constantly.

What is your bilingual experience? How did you learn a second language? How are you raising a bilingual child?

Happy learning!

6 Useful Phrases to Learn in a Foreign Language

I recently returned from a trip in Spain. I had such a great time in the historical country and immersed myself in its culture and devoured its delicious food. I’m pretty sure though, that if it weren’t for my sister-in-law’s fluency in Spanish, getting around would have proved difficult. While most of us English speakers may view English as the lingua franca and feel that everyone should speak it, that is not always the case.

Basic Phrases for Travelers to Learn_Language

It became clear to me half-way through my travels that knowing some basic phrases in the language used in the country would make life easier. The ability to communicate, even a little, with the locals in their own language, also makes me feel more adequate. I don’t think it’s fair to expect everyone to speak English when we are the visitors to someone else’s country.

The following are 6 phrases I found useful. I’ve also wrote them out in Chinese for travelers who are traveling to a Chinese-speaking country.

1. Where Are the Restrooms?
請問洗手間在哪裡?
I learned before Spain how to ask for the restrooms in Spanish, and it probably is the Spanish sentence I used the most, since we were outside all day traveling and touring the various landmarks. Figuring out how to say “Where is” and “How do I get to” in the foreign language will definitely come in handy.

qǐngwèn (請問) = excuse me, or may I ask. 請: please.  問: ask.
xǐshǒujiān (洗手間) = restrooms. 洗: wash. 手: hand. 間:  room.
zài nǎlǐ (在哪裡) = where is. 在: at. 哪裡:  where

2. Directions: Straight, Left turn, Right turn
直走/左轉/右轉
Knowing how to ask directions is one thing, but understanding the directions you get is another. In a museum in Spain, I asked a staff member for directions to the restrooms, and he was friendly enough to give me detailed instructions. Unfortunately, once he started speaking I knew I was in trouble–I couldn’t understand a word! All I could do was focus on his hand gestures and body language and hope that I will eventually find my way.

The ability to understand or recognize basic direction phrases will help you make sense of the friendly guidance you receive, and of course, get you where you need to go.

zhízǒu (直走) = to walk or go straight. 直: straight. 走: walk.
zuǒzhuǎn (左轉) = to turn left. 左: left. 轉: turn.
yòuzhuǎn (右轉) = to turn right. 右: right. 轉: turn.

3. Numbers. One to Ten.
一、二、三、四、五、六、七、八、九、十
Knowing your numbers will help you pay the right amount, get the right change, or get on the right bus.

On my flight back from Spain, the stewardess came up to me and asked me a question. While I couldn’t understand, I assumed that she was asking for my seat number or row number since she was directing others to their seats. 25F was my seat, but while I knew two (dos) and five (cinco), I didn’t know twenty-five, so instead of speaking I gestured two and five with my hands. Hand gestures work, but knowing how to say your numbers is important as well!

One to ten in Chinese:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
èr sān liù jiǔ shí

For numbers beyond ten, there is an easy formula, demonstrated below.
Two-digit numbers
11 = ten one = shí yī
25 = two ten five = èr shí wǔ
69 = six ten nine = liù shí jiǔ

3-digit numbers
Hundred = 百 bǎi
300 = three hundred = sān bǎi
350 = three hundred five ten = sān bǎi wǔ shí
356= three hundred five ten six = sān bǎi wǔ shí liù

4. I Don’t Understand Chinese
我聽不懂中文
If you’re in a position where you can’t understand a single word, no matter what is said, just let the person know. If you are asking for help, maybe you can find a different way to communicate—-through pictures, hand gestures, body language, etc. If you’re lucky the stranger might be able to help you find someone else who can speak your language.

wǒ tīngbùdǒng (我聽不懂) = I don’t understand or I can’t comprehend.
zhōngwén (中文) = Chinese.

5. Sorry
不好意思/對不起
Getting people’s attention in a polite way is important, especially if you want help.

In Chinese, you can say bùhǎoyìsi (不好意思), which literally means to be embarrassed. This is used in scenarios when you feel that you are inconveniencing someone, such as when you’re asking for directions from a stranger.

duìbuqǐ (對不起) is used when you are apologizing, usually for doing something wrong.

6.Thank you. 
謝謝 (xièxie)
We are polite travelers, so of course we need to say our thank yous.

What are some phrases you find useful when traveling? Leave a comment!

Safe travels and happy learning!

Tips and Tricks on Learning a New Language

I was fortunate to have spent time in both the United States and Taiwan while growing up. Although there were difficult transitional periods, bilingualism still came easier with cultural immersion. I am not fluent in any other languages but Chinese and English, but I know from my experience with Japanese how difficult it is to learn a language from scratch. This got me to think about how language learners who cannot go abroad and spend time in the language can learn faster. Here are some of my ideas. I’d love to hear your tips and tricks as well!

  1. Take a class. The most basic and widely used language-learning method. The benefit of a large class is that you have a larger resource base; although the downside is that each student receives less individual attention from the teacher.
  2. One-on-One Tutoring. Personal tutoring sessions will help you focus on topics and areas that are important to you, be it conversational skills, vocabulary building, or grammar. You can also set your own schedule (depending on the availability of your tutor) and devote a whole session to use and practice the language.
  3. Find Movies or TV Shows in the Foreign Language. Watching shows with subtitles will enhance your listening skills and you can match what you hear with the text you see. The visuals and story lines make it easy for you to understand the context, so you’ll still be able to follow the story even when you slowly stray away from the subtitles. When you’re entertained, you  learn faster. I watched a lot of Korean dramas and Japanese dramas during my college years. Through the hours of me-and-TV time, I not only became familiar with the Japanese and Korean culture, but also picked up vocabulary. Because I watched the dramas with Chinese subtitles, it also helped me keep up with my Chinese skills.
  4. Read Short News Articles in the Language You Want to Learn. As you slowly build up vocabulary, you can move on to read more difficult or longer pieces. Studies show that it’s better to read material that’s slightly above your level because a) you’d feel more encouraged by how much you know, b) when there’s less new information to retain, you actually learn better. 
  5. Translate as a Learning Tool.This doesn’t have to be formal at all. You can translate in your head a line on TV, a short ad on the bus, or even a few sentences that strikes your fancy. Training your brain to think in the foreign language is the key here. And when you find that you can’t translate something off the cuff, write down the words you need to complete the translation, and figure it out when you can access a dictionary. Baby steps, right? A free website called Duolingo, a “translate the web, learn a language” program, actually has brought to the fore conversations about translation as a learning tool. They currently have the site set up for Spanish and French learners, and have plans to launch Portuguese and Chinese sections as well. I’m not sure how I feel about using people’s desire to learn to get free labor for translating the web (and stealing jobs from translators!), I’m also not sure if there are copyright issues here, but maybe this is a program worth exploring. What do you think?
  6. Find People to Converse With. It’s not always easy to find people to speak with in the foreign language you want to learn and in a level that could benefit you. Some cultural organizations might offer language sessions or meetings, though, so that’s an avenue to look into. You might also want to try meetup.com, a site that helps organizations and groups facilitate meetings with people of similar interests, and see if there are conversation groups that may suit your needs.
  7. Listen to the Radio. Depending on your language skill level, this may or may not work for you. I’ve tried listening to the Korean news station, hoping that with time I’ll be able to pick up more words or learn the grammar, but without a large enough vocabulary base, the news was gibberish to me. One way that could be helpful to new language learners, is listening to podcasts that also have transcripts online. Going through the transcript first, to translate the material, and then listening to it will help you understand the text, build vocabulary, and improve your listening skills.

In the end though, learning a language is all about spending time with it. The more time you spend with the language, the better you’ll get. I hope some of these tips are useful to you!