Every day, when I pick up my daughter from daycare or school, one kid always looks at us with wide opened eyes. Some won’t say anything but simply stare, amazed. Some ask, “Are you speaking French?” My daughter always responds, “No, it’s Chinese. My mommy and I speak Chinese. We’re very special.” These are my proudest moments.
My hard work to make my daughter proudly bilingual pays off.
My husband is American and doesn’t speak a word of Chinese (fine, if you want to count swear word, he knows a few).
I was born and raised in Hong Kong and my family speaks Cantonese. When I became a mother, my number one goal was to make sure my child could talk to my family without any difficulty. (I had other goals too but they all failed.)
I have lived in Vermont for 19 years. I’ve seen so many ABC (American Born Chinese) who refused to speak their parents’ language. The excuses they give are, “It’s too hard,” or, “We work too much.” These parents simply don’t talk to their children in their mother tongue.
It makes me sad because language is not just words, it’s culture.
You’re teaching your children your culture through language. Language is not just words, it’s a socially constructed tool (my social work pals would love reading this) that people develop to communicate to each other. Many words can’t be translated to another language. By teaching your children another language, you’re teaching them way more than just words – you share with them the values and inner workings of an entire culture.
There is only one way to teach and learn a language, and that is to talk!
You have to talk to your children and they have to respond to you in the same language. Which makes total sense and sounds easy, right? But when you and your daughter are the only 2 people speaking the same language in your house, or even the whole town, it adds challenges.
Raising a bilingual child is a lot of hard work. But it can be done. Here are some ways I’ve encouraged my daughter to be bilingual:
- You have to have thick skin. You can’t care what other people think or about the looks they give you in the grocery store, the restaurant, the park, or at school. They don’t need to understand what you say. It’s not their business.
- You have to be very very patient. I have been speaking to my daughter in Cantonese since day one. My husband speaks to her in English. She goes to school and daycare speaks English in both of these places. Home is the only environment where she is exposed to Cantonese. There are a lot of words that she first learned in English and has no idea how to say in Cantonese. I have to consistently teach new words to her and ask her to repeat the words back to me. I have to spend double the amount of time and energy during family gatherings and even at the dinner table because I am speaking my language to my child and English to the rest of the family. We want to make sure our English-speaking grandma and grandpa know we’re not talking about them! It’s also very good to model to your children that speaking both languages is cool and acceptable.
- You have to be firm. I told my daughter I didn’t know English (this worked until she was 4). And I would pretend I didn’t understand when she responded to me in English. Once you talk to them in English, they know you can understand and they will stop trying to speak another language.
- Celebrate differences. My husband and I tell our daughter that speaking two languages is a very special thing. Most of her friends don’t, which makes her even cooler. She totally buys it.
- Don’t rely on TV. Simply letting them watch Sesame Street in another language won’t cut it even though Sesame Street has programming in over 100 languages. It is essential for children to use their mouths to talk so they get the mechanics of pronunciation. Research finds that bilingual children have better problem-solving skills, perhaps due to the flexibility of their language skills.
It warms my heart when my daughter talks to my family on Facetime in Cantonese, especially when she converses with my parents. Their relationship is so much stronger since she can speak to them in their language. Even though there is a great distance between us, language keeps our family bond strong.
Raising bilingual children is hard work but it’s worth it.
Guest Blogger: Linda Li
Linda was born and raised in Hong Kong and came to the America 20 years ago. She became a Chinese-English interpreter and translator in 2004. She noticed many families struggling with raising bicultural and bilingual children in Vermont. The cultural crash is real. She’s passionate to use her own experience to help other families. She’s now a licensed social worker and she works at the Community Health Center of Burlington as the Pediatric Social Worker and Child Therapist.
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