Just Start!

I really hoped my daughter would be fluent in multiple languages. At least that’s the goal, but taking my own advice, do I implement it? Not really. I tried, but not enough and not consistently. So, what should I do? Continue reading.

One of my greatest struggles as a bilingual parent is that I get stuck on my comfort language: English. Although English isn’t my first language, it is my first official language. It is the language I use to communicate with friends, family, career, and it is the language I think in.

I watched a segment on PBS “Is Bilingualism a Superpower?” by Dr. Erica Brozosky. There are two kinds of bilingualism: simultaneous and sequential. Simultaneous people learn both languages at the same time in infancy while sequentials learn their dominant language first and a second later in life. While a sequential may learn a similar level of proficiency, there are fundamental differences in how the languages are acquired and used. One of the aspects is phonetics. Humans can make about 800 distinct verbal sounds, called phoenemes, such as “ch” and “oo.” In any one language, there may be a few dozen, but if we don’t use it in our mother tongue, we can’t really hear or distinguish specific phoenemes, but babies can hear the whole spectrum. Sadly, after six months of age, we lose this power and our brains are trained to only retain the sounds in our native language, or the language(s) we have surrounded ourselves by. Bilingual children can keep all the phoenemes from both languages. Even as a neonate, they can distinguish the two languages and as they age, they can figure out which sounds are for each language and the syntax since they have different sounds, rules, and rhythms.

When M was first born, I tried to be bilingual with her, but it was difficult. I often felt like I was talking to a wall. It wasn’t even like talking to myself because if I talked to myself, I could talk respond. I could make up another personality, but when talking to my child in Chinese, I couldn’t be both parts of the conversation. Yes, my mind is jumping to the protagonist in “Pyscho” too. Anyway, when she was a baby, I would try for a couple sentences, but I often fell back to English, most of the time not even realizing the transition.

Before I knew it, M was in preschool and one of the moms, a fellow American Born Chinese was speaking to her daughter in Chinese and her child was responding. It was then that I remembered to practice Chinese with M again. Unfortunately, I was welcomed with “what you say? What’s that mean?” At that point, I realized I had failed my goal. I beat myself up for a long time and gave up.

At the same time, I started to learn Spanish. Although, it is one of the easier languages to learn, it’s still hard. I felt I was staring up at a mountain as a tiny, tiny ant. Nevertheless, I’ve faced many mountains before and this one shouldn’t be any different. Except this mountain, for once in my life, was truly an optional choice. Looking up at this tall mountain, I felt somewhat discouraged, I took a deep breath and started at the best place to start: the bottom, lifting one foot at a time.

So, I started Babbel back in May. As a parent and good working bee, my schedule does not accommodate time for a traditional class or online classes with a teacher. The Babbel app is on my phone, so I only go through two short lessons five days a week-one review and one new lesson. It takes about 5-10 minutes to finish those two lessons. It’s not a lot and I could learn more and faster, but I rather turn this into habit than a chore.  Practicing a little bit every day and being consistent is better than nothing. Now, it’s September and I can pick up words in conversations or get the gist of what someone is saying. More importantly, I can read Peppa Pig Spanish books. Could I do a Ted talk in Spanish? No way! But at least I feel the progress!

Inspired by own relatively old brain in learning and feeling like the best way to start is now, I started to incorporate Chinese into M’s vocabulary again. I only started with one phrase “Good night,” mainly because I tend to remember to speak to her in Chinese at bedtime. At first, she responded with the frustrating “what are you saying?” I felt even more deflated when she would be so reluctant to repeat any Chinese words. The next day, I repeated “Good night” in Chinese and her response was to go off into a tangent of her own made-up language and I would have to corral her back. Frankly, it was exhausting, and I was getting discouraged. But finally, I wore her down, she started to respond! The first Chinese “Good night” coming from her mouth was music to my ears. It was the best high. In hindsight, it was probably a week, but it felt like forever. She became accepting of our night routine. I’m happy to report that after several weeks, she has picked up a few phrases and we can say almost our entire night routine in Chinese, communicating as if we had spoken like this for ages. I’ll just have to remember to keep at it and turn this into a habit too.

If you’re wondering if it’s too late to start or you have much to catch up on, don’t think about it. Just do it. Just start!