The Benefits & Challenges Of Raising Multilingual Children

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.

Background

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 Now that he’s surrounded by people speaking a language he doesn’t understand (English), he feels withdrawn.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.

Challenges

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.

Conclusion

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?

Related:

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Why We Sent Our Son To China

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17 thoughts on “The Benefits & Challenges Of Raising Multilingual Children”

  • I think it’s a great idea to teach baby FAF more languages. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, you’re supposed to start them young so they can get a feel of speaking in different tongues. I read somewhere there’s a lot of benefits to the babies brain if they grow up hearing more than one language.

    I want my kids to learn Chinese, German and English because I’m sure those are still going to be useful in 30 years.

  • I think it’s good to teach children a foreign language too.
    However, I’m not very good with Thai. Mrs. RB40 can’t speak at all. So it’s pretty much impossible for us.
    Also, our son has hearing impairment. At this point, we’ll just go with English exclusively. I don’t want to confuse him with more stuff. Once he’s a bit older, he can take a mandarin class.

    • It’s totally understandable. Our toddler is 3 now and he can’t really talk yet. We’re told by the pediatrician and other people that the two languages (English and Chinese) are confusing him and delaying his speech development. We try not to stress about it and just let him pick up a couple of words here and there.

  • It’s so sad to me, as a monoligual 100% American, that people would ever look down on such a gift as being multilingual. The BEST time to pick up any language is when you are super young, so even if he chooses not to pursue it later in life you are definitely giving your son a huge gift. I can’t believe there are still people in the world so narrow-minded as to judge and insult others for being able to speak more than one language. You clearly have an awesome outlook in that you are following your best judgment but will also respect your son’s decisions as he grows up.

    • Thank you for your kind comment! 🙂 Learning languages when you’re at a young age will make things much easier down the road. I think being monolingual is also fine. I will let our son decide 😉

  • I wish I was taught a foreign language, it would be so much easier to pick it up as a kid. And people who are raised bilingual always impress me – and I’ve never noticed their English being behind at all.

    My friend’s son was slow to develop speech wise and went to a special nursery. In true middle-class style, she was advocating for him to go to special school, but the authority wouldn’t let him – apparently, they said most kids here don’t speak English when they start school, so he’ll be in the majority.

    • Our son is also slow to develop his speech too. He sings songs and says a couple of words here and there, but he can’t form a full sentence yet. We’re still waiting for that miracle to happen hehe.

  • Being multilingual is awesome, opening more opportunities then you can imagine.

    We usually end up using a mixture languages, as word substitution can sometimes be difficult. You may hear, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, and Japanese all in one conversation or sentence. Lots of confused looks to be had! 😅

    On the more serious message in these post. All you have written is 100% relatable.

    For the younger generation there seems to be an existential crisis. Many of the times it was encouraged by immigrant parents for their children to fit into the culture as soon as possible, to become more “American (or xyz)”. But it was well meaning, as they themselves were subjected being outsiders.

    However, their children are now more American than Asian, but society still sees them as Asian. Neither American or Asian, unfortunately many become “lost” as there is no rooted identity in either culture. Some find the spark to revisit their culture, while others will out right reject it.

    Due to the increasing presence of Asians in Western countries, if Westernised-Asians give Internationals Asians (of all ethnic origins) a chance, they may find some of the answers to their questions, and find they have more in common than they think.

    • “However, their children are now more American than Asian, but society still sees them as Asian.”

      Many of my Asian friends face the same problem. It’s frustrating. They might be born here and have never gone to China or Korea, but people still see them as foreigners. It’s worse during those teenage years when you’re still forming your identity. But as they grow older, it no longer bothers them as much. They’re just happy being themselves and don’t care much about what other people think. 🙂

      • Definitely, the view is expressed by a lot of Asians in their 30-40’s too.

        The best way, is to build you’re own group with the same values. Whether they’re Asian, Black, Hispanic or White.

  • The rule in our household when I was growing up was that Chinese was spoken at home, English at school/elsewhere. This worked fine and had no effect on how well I did at school – I only needed extra language tuition for a couple of years and ‘caught up’ with all the other kids by age 7. However, as a teenager, I recall that I got embarrassed if I had to speak Chinese in front of my non-Chinese speaking friends if for example my Mum called me. However, I never considered giving up the language completely – how else would I communicate with my grandmother and other older relatives who speak virtually no English? When I went to uni, all my friends thought it was well cool and were a little jealous that I could speak a different language so all was good there!

    Whilst the rule on speaking was enforced in the home, the rule on reading/writing was not, so consequently, I can speak fluently but cannot read or write beyond the very basics, ie numbers, some of the mah jong characters (haha!).

    My niece who is 11 is fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. Knowing all those languages just opens up lots of opportunities for her.

  • We are from Malaysia and being multiracial means multilingual is common here. Most of us are fluent in Bahasa (our national language), English, Mandarin and Tamil as these are taught in schools. We have also learnt different dialects from our grandmothers – for me, Cantonese, Hakka and bits of Hokkien & Hainanese. My 8 year old are exposed to all these languages and dialects at home. So i guess that your son will somehow pick Vietnamese and Chinese as he grows older. By the way, i am picking up bits of Korean too from the K-dramas.

  • Very interesting!

    I may be faced with the same challenges in the coming years. I’m speaking french and my girlfriend is speaking Chinese and we are speaking English together. I think it would be great if our children could learn at least French and Chinese, but we don’t know how to do it exactly. I think it could a great advantage to the children if they were to speak multiple languages. Now, I got to learn Chinese better first 🙂

  • This is definitely something I’ve thought a lot about. My wife is Chinese but raised in Central America and I’m an “ABC” We wanted our kids to speak Spanish and Chinese (Cantonese) but with our oldest, he only speaks English but understands some Cantonese. He knows a few words in Spanish from School. Once a young child starts school or interacts with other kids, they will pick up English quickly so I wouldn’t worry. Our problem with our older son was that he wasn’t speaking much at all so he needed speech therapy. He’s better now but only speaks English. We tried to speak Cantonese to him at home but it’s tough since we’re more comfortable speaking English. They will have Chinese as an afterschool program when he starts kindergarten but it’s Mandarin…which is more useful than Cantonese…though it will likely confuse him even more!

  • Much to my shame, I am hopeless at languages, but I need to get over this as we are buying a small (tiny) apartment in France. We could get by in English, but I personally think it is important to speak French if I am going to stay in France for extended periods. However, as I’m 48, I suspect learning French is going to be difficult.

    I have a German friend, whose wife is French, and they live in an English speaking country. Their kids are a little older than yours, but they speak English, German and French. For school, English is the spoken language, when Mum speaks to them it is in French, and when Dad speaks to them it is in German. It seems to have worked well.

  • I am an aunt and not a parent. Our parents were bilingual, but refused to let us learn. We all went on to be very interested in languages, but it is definitely harder as an adult. I’m now fluent in an (undisclosed) Asian language, and now want to go back and learn the language my nibling and his mother speak. I had planned on learning a language more helpful to my career next, but I would rather be able to speak to my nibling in both of their languages.

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