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Whenever I tell my friends and colleagues that I am Vietnamese while Mr. FAF is Chinese, I always get the same question from them: “What languages will you teach your kids?”
I always give them the most ideal answer: all three languages (English, Chinese Mandarin, and Vietnamese).
However, when we get into detail about the order of the three languages in which we want to teach Baby FAF, our 3 year-old son, not everyone seems to agree with us.
I gave birth to Baby FAF when I was still a graduate student in DC. Right before Baby FAF turned one, my in-laws took our son back to China to take care of him while Mr. FAF and I focused on our school and careers.
Our son just came back to DC in June 2017 after more than a year of living half way around the world from us. B
aby FAF was a few months older than two when he came back to the US.
By then, he had already started speaking some Chinese words (though not perfectly) such as “yeye” (grandma), “nainai” (grandma), and “bu chi” (I don’t want to eat).
My mother-in-law (MIL) said that when Baby FAF was in China, he was friendly to everyone and was always eager to play with other kids his age.
However, after coming back to the US, our son has become extremely shy.
The first time he saw our neighbor’s daughter who’s about his age, he started to hide behind my MIL’s back and didn’t want to say hi to her. He was and is still very shy in a crowded place and among other kids.
We think there are two reasons for our son’s change in behavior.
First, although Baby FAF lived in the US for almost a year before going back to China, he was too young to fully perceive his surroundings. Now that our son is older, he knows that the environment in America he’s in now differs from what he was used to in China.
Second, Baby FAF was used to hearing and understanding Mandarin and the dialect my in-laws spoke to him. Now that he’s surrounded by people speaking a language he doesn’t understand (English), he feels withdrawn.
At least, that’s my theory, and I can only test it with my observations of our son when he’s around other people.
Related: Why We Sent Our Son To China
The drive to teach him English
In a desperate attempt to help Baby FAF readjust, I have been trying to talk to him exclusively in English and teach him the alphabet and numbers.
My hope is that our son will soon understand and be able to speak English so that he can feel more comfortable around other kids.
When I first came to America at the age of 18, I faced the biggest culture shock of my life despite having learned English and reading about America for years. I saw myself in my son and wanted him to get used to the new environment as soon as possible.
People keep telling me that Baby FAF will soon get comfortable in the US after a couple of months. Maybe I’m impatient, but I want it to happen immediately. I can’t stand seeing Baby FAF feeling so lost and afraid among strangers. I want to help my son.
With that thought in mind, I have been prioritizing English with Baby FAF. Whenever someone asks me what language I speak to him in at home, I will honestly say English.
I think people are taken aback by my answer. They expect me to speak to Baby FAF in Vietnamese, which I totally understand. After all, my native language is Vietnamese, and I should teach it to my son.
But seeing Baby FAF struggle to readjust tells me to do otherwise. I want my son to be happy, which will in turn make me happy.
Once Baby FAF can communicate in English, I will switch to teaching him Vietnamese at home. Mr. FAF will be in charge of teaching our son Mandarin Chinese.
Related: Our 7 Expectations Of Our Son
Benefits of being multilingual
Being able to speak a foreign language fluently comes at a cost. According to a Daily Mail article, Chinese Mandarin (with 955 million speakers) is the most expensive language to learn, costing a person roughly $87,000 to be fluent, followed by Arabic at $82,500 and Japanese at $70,000.
If Baby FAF can learn to speak and write Mandarin fluently from Mr. FAF, he will:
— Save us $87,000 on courses, books, and tutoring (not taking into account inflation).
— Have an edge for job opportunities that require Chinese Mandarin proficiency.
— Communicate with so many more people in the world and get exposed to different perspectives in order to broaden his horizon.
— Be more effective at communication and more perceptive in different social settings than monolingual children, according to a 2015 study published in the Psychological Science journal.
If he can also master Vietnamese, Baby FAF will be trilingual in English, Mandarin, and Vietnamese. The possibilities are endless.
I realized the scenario I described above is ideal. We can have our hopes and dreams all lined up, but ultimately, it will be Baby FAF’s decision to work hard at learning all three languages.
Over the past 12 years of living in America, I have talked to many of my Asian American friends (i.e. Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Japanese) who say that their parents spoke their Asian language at home when they were young.
But as they entered elementary school and got used to the English language taught at school, they found it increasingly difficult to express themselves in their Asian language. The desire to assimilate into the American culture where English is the dominant language is also at play.
As a result, my friends got frustrated. They either responded in English or avoided communication with their parents altogether.
Some of them can no longer speak the language. Some can speak but can’t write. Some can speak and write fluently. I understand where they are coming from and sympathize with the frustration they’ve gone through.
Part of me hopes that our son will grow up speaking the languages we grew up speaking. But part of me is also preparing mentally for a day when he comes home from school and tells us he no longer wants to speak Vietnamese or Chinese with us.
We will try our best to teach him what we can. But I also understand the power of resistance in a child. The more I force him to do something, the more he will push me away. And that’s exactly what I don’t want to happen.
I always have to remind myself that Baby FAF is only 3 years old, and that I need to manage my expectations for everyone in our family to be happy.
As parents, we all want our children to grow up being successful and happy no matter what they choose to do. I want nothing but the best for our son. If Mr. FAF and I can give Baby FAF the gift of multilingualism, we will try our best to make that happen.
But we also understand that racism and discrimination still exists in America. Being able to speak multiple languages, though beneficial, can sometimes be misconstrued as being foreign.
I have met Americans who proudly say that they don’t speak any foreign languages because they’re 100% American. I am glad that people take pride in their identity. People should do what makes them happy as long as it doesn’t negatively affect the people around them.
But when that stereotype affects whether my son wants to pick up his Asian languages, that’s where I take issue with the misconception. Being American doesn’t necessarily equate being able to speak only American English and vice versa.
We chose to raise our son in America, one of the greatest nations on earth. But we want our son to remember that no matter where he goes and what language he speaks, the Vietnamese and Chinese ethnicity will forever be part of his identity.
What foreign language do you want to teach your children or want them to learn in school? Do you think it’s beneficial to be fluent in multiple languages in America?