Happy Bastille Day to any French readers who stop by World Adventurers! How about that…an American who wishes the French well. It seems to happen less frequently nowadays. Well, most Americans forget that if it weren’t for the French, we probably would not have won the American Revolution, and the French sold to us about one third of our country in 1803. And of course America since 1803 has often come to France’s aid. It’s a shame that we have neglected our common heritage and that our relations are strained now. Maybe someday we will find more common ground.
My son is really starting to talk. For now he speaks primarily Chinese with some English phrases. Most of his English phrases come from videos and DVDs he watches, especially from the series, "Thomas the Tank Engine." (Yes, he’s still a "Thomas" fanatic.) Both his mom and I speak to him in both English and Chinese, although she uses mostly Chinese, and I use mostly English with a smattering of stock Chinese phrases. This is unfortunate, because we hear so often that in order for our son to grow up bilingually we need to segregate our languages so that his mom only speaks Chinese and I only speak English to him. However, it’s so easy for both of us to lapse back into talking in whatever common language combination we find most convenient. I wonder why it’s so hard to segregate languages and speak only in our native tongues at home. I’ve given this some thought, and I came up with a few observations that might be interesting to mixed couples grappling with bilingual issues.
For one, I also want to practice my Chinese. Speaking to a toddler in a foreign language really is a good way to improve your own foreign language skills if your own language ability is lacking. My wife speaks fabulous English, so she does not need to practice her English. Most bi-racial couples speak primarily in one language because one partner is typically not as fluent in the other language. Still, those of us who do not speak the second language well often appreciate the opportunity to improve our language ability. Our children give us that opportunity.
Secondly, I think there’s a natural tendency for social groups to deconstruct existing languages and create new dialects. It happens worldwide. The French spoken in Haiti is not the same as French spoken in Paris. Groups tend toward linguistic commonalities, and families are no exception. In our family, Chinese and English are both spoken, and as our son learns both language our entire family tends towards a common lingua franca. For example, my son might say, "Mommy yao kan D." "Mommy" means "mommy," "yao kan" is Chinese for "want to watch," and "D" refers to "DVD." "D" is a word made up by our son because a few months ago he could not pronounce the word, "DVD." So now his mom, my son, and I all say "D" in lieu of "DVD." It’s the foundation of a new language.
Thirdly, he is still learning both languages. Tonight I told him the English word "stimulating" for the first time. As a toddler he has no idea what I mean by "stimulating." Using standard English or Chinese phrases that all of us understands helps us all communicate better. Still, in the long run this can be an impediment to his language learning. At some point our son will choose one language (probably English) and will adopt it as his native tongue. He will likely understand spoken Chinese and may speak it, but perhaps not very well. And he never learn to write Chinese characters. Of course that’s not what we want. We want him to be fluent in both languages. It will be better for him in the long run. I’m convinced that everyone should learn a second language. That’s why this week I started speaking to him only in English and encouraged his mom to do the same in Chinese. Names such as "baba" (daddy) and "mommy" will still remain spoken either English or Chinese. But it’s no longer "Baba shang ban," it’s "Baba goes to work." I hope this won’t confuse him too much and will help him better learn both languages.