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.
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?