Part 1 of 3: Laying the Basic Foundation
By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, AAV Contributing Editor
When my first child was born, I spoke to her in Mandarin Chinese. It felt very natural—the language in which I had been mothered, so I knew how to talk to babies in Chinese. I was so proud when my daughter’s first words were in Chinese. However, people had always generally regarded me with wonder, as an anomaly, upon discovering that I was American-born and Chinese-fluent. If that was already a miracle, what were the chances that my third-generation multiracial children would also be able to speak Chinese well? I figured the best that I could do was to hard-wire the language into their brains while they were young so that after they forgot everything, they would still be able to learn it later in college and not have an accent.
Then I read about a couple in Australia where the father had spoken to the child only in college-learned German. Amazingly, without any German community or television or relatives, the child grew up fluent. Certainly, then, I should be able to teach my child the language I learned from my parents. Right?
With renewed enthusiasm, I began to ask everyone I met what they were doing to teach their children their language. I asked Indian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Filipino, Italian, Swiss, Spanish, Greek, and French friends. I asked parents of young and grown children as well as grown children themselves. I asked language teachers, read books and articles. I asked first, second, and third generation people. Here are some of the lessons I have gleaned from this research, along with some practical tricks to help those of us second-and third-generation Asian Americans with more limited language skills (despite years of language school and endless lectures from our parents).
Lesson 1: Just Talk that Talk
“The most important thing,” says Mei Wu, a Chinese language teacher at the International School of the Penninsula in Palo Alto, “is to just talk to them.” The kids need to hear the language on a daily basis. Relying on occasional visits to grandparents may not be enough (unless they live with you or babysit every day). Do not worry about how good or bad your command of the language is (it will improve as you use it), or if you have an accent. Just speak so that the children can hear it. You can always supplement with videos, cassettes, relatives, and friends to compensate for your shortcomings.
If your spouse does not already speak the language, make your spouse learn it. If your spouse insists that it is too hard, s/he should at least understand key baby words (milk, rice, potty, ouchie, smelly, etc.) in order to know what the children are saying and feeling (as well as when the in-laws are making fun of him/her). This prevents having to switch to English every time your spouse is present. My husband started learning Chinese alongside the children, but he has no talent for languages and they surpassed him within days of uttering their first words. He is, however, able to follow what a conversation is about without knowing exactly what each word means (especially when it is about him). The children also really enjoy teaching him new Chinese words, and they are thrilled (and very surprised) when he says a Chinese word correctly.
Make a point of finding other people to speak to them—grandparents, great grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbors, daycare providers, housekeepers, teachers, classmates’ parents, etc. The kids should hear many different accents and vocabulary choices to realize that the language has relevance and sub-contexts, as well as for conversational practice. My girls know that when they see a Chinese “auntie” they must say in Chinese “How are you, Auntie,” and “Good-bye, Auntie.” The aunties then invariably say, “Good girl,” which is great for positive reinforcement. (One hitch is that they cannot always tell the different Asian ethnicities apart, so they sometimes speak Chinese to the Thai restaurant owner and the Japanese American Buddhist minister, who usually respond in the one or two Chinese words they know, or else teach the girls something new in Thai or Japanese.)
Be sure that these people know they should speak to your kids in the target language. Many people will defer to English, which they know the children understand, especially with multiracial children. Or they just forget. When my parents speak to my children in Chinese, the kids often respond in English, then my parents forget to switch back to Chinese and simply continue in English. So I tell the kids (loudly), “Remember to speak to your grandparents in Chinese.” Hearing this subtly reminds my parents to switch back into Chinese.
Lesson 2: Start Young and Work on Your Own Skills
It is also important to start young. Early language development studies show that children need to hear the language by the time they are 6 months old to ever have the possibility of being able to speak it without an accent. Hearing multiple languages actually creates additional neural pathways in the brain. Other studies claim that two or three years is the age by which the hard-wiring of the brain is complete.
Another important reason to start young is that it gives you two years to practice and improve your language skills before the kids get a chance to talk back. At two years of age, they will start asking you 101 consecutive “Why” questions. At four years, those “Why” questions become really sophisticated and science-related. I often find I simply do not have the vocabulary to handle “Why is Pluto the farthest planet,” or “How did the first chicken come,” or “What happens when people die?” I can barely explain these things in English! Mabel Wai of Hillsborough, California, said that it was easy to talk to her daughter in Cantonese when she was a baby and did not talk back, but when her daughter turned four, the questions became so hard that she had trouble concentrating on her driving and answering in Cantonese at the same time and nearly crashed the car more than once.
Starting at birth also gives you time to make speaking your language to the children habitual. Before my children were born, I only ever spoke Chinese at my parents’ home. At first it felt strange to speak Chinese all the time, especially in public, but it is a habit as much as anything else that needs to practice to become ingrained. Now it feels more natural to speak Chinese to the children than speaking English to them. In fact, I often speak to other people’s children and the dog in Chinese, now, too, much to the amusement of any onlookers.
Lesson 3: School, Tutoring, Travel, and Other Training
Enroll them in language schools, or schools where the language is spoken, starting as young as day care. I used to send my children to the only Chinese day care in our town, even though it was on the opposite side of town, so that they would hear more Mandarin. It also gives them a space to play with other children like them and to learn cultural activities.
Language schooling can range from Saturday language schools to after-school language programs, from private tutorials to dual language immersion schools (both public and private) and summer camps. As these programs may not be listed in the yellow pages, ask people in your area about available resources (I always find out everything I need to know from the Chinese hairdresser and the Chinese grocery store owner). If local resources are limited, ask relatives around the country what is available in their area and if you can come visit for the summer. I spent this past summer living at my mother’s house in California and commuting two hours a day, five days a week, so that my children could attend a dual language immersion summer school. It was hard, but their language improved significantly.
If you can, take the children to travel and study abroad. Kaori Ohara of Ann Arbor, Michigan, a Chinese woman from Taiwan raised in Japan, takes her children to Japan for two months every summer and enrolls them in the regular public school, and then goes to Taiwan for a month and enrolls them in the regular schools there. She started when they were daycare age, and now all three children are completely fluent in Chinese, Japanese, and English. The kids even speak to each other in Japanese—something I have never before seen in American-born siblings.
Remember, however, that language school alone will not be enough, especially if it meets only once a week. (How much of that high school French do you remember?) It is up to you to practice the songs, lessons, words, and homework throughout the week with your child (and not just the night before the homework is due). We have Chinese words written on Post-It notes all over our kitchen that we review at breakfast, and we sing the week’s song or finger rhyme when we take walks and before bed every night.
One last note for now: As much as you may have dreaded language school when you were a child, and as hard as their homework may be for you now, try not to let it show. The childrenwill pick up on any ambivalence you may have and will quickly start whining, “Chinese School homework is too hard.” And you remember what that’s like.