We rarely give actual advice on this blog, and for good reason: We generally don’t know what we’re talking about. This post will not be much different, except that it’s loaded with hubris. In short, I’ve spent the past two weeks with my 3-year-old daughter here in Taipei, and I’m seriously impressed with her ability to communicate in Mandarin with her grandparents, her 4-year-old cousin, and those strangers she’s not to shy to talk to. So, I figured I’d give all of you a short tutorial in how to do what I’ve done.
N.B.: This advice applies in a very specific case—when one parent is foreign-born (and therefore foreign-talking), and both are living together in the United States, preferably in a cosmopolitan urban setting. The rest of you are screwed.
1. The foreign-born parent must speak the foreign language to the kid as often as possible. This isn’t always easy. My wife, Jean, is as comfortable speaking English as she is Mandarin, and frequently lapses into the former with Sasha. But probably 70% of the time, they converse in Mandarin, and when Sasha responds in English, Jean will often demand she switch languages. Sometimes this causes Sasha to pause and think of the appropriate Mandarin equivalent; other times Sasha flips out, refusing to speak Chinese. But Jean stands her ground, and Sasha always eventually gives in.
1a. It doesn’t matter what the other parent (i.e., me) speaks. I speak primarily English, but my Chinese is good enough to converse on a basic level with Sasha, and anyone else who doesn’t mind my sounding like a retarded preschooler. Although occasionally Sasha will hear my accent and yell, “You don’t speak Chinese!” But really, it doesn’t matter.
2. You must surround the kid with foreign-language material: books, yes, but especially songs, movies, and TV shows. Like it or not, pop culture is part of your kid’s life, and if you can ensure the pop culture exists in the right foreign language, the kid will want to partake of it. This is great, in that the material doesn’t necessarily have to come from another country. Sasha loves Dora the Explorer, Diego, Winnie the Pooh, and Miyazaki movies—all of which she watches dubbed into Mandarin. Are there any Taiwanese shows she likes? Not that I know of, and it doesn’t matter. Disney may be evil, but at least they’re globally evil. Take advantage of it. (Also, then any time you want the kids out of your hair, you can plant them in front of Chinese Dora and call it educational. Awesome!)
3. Bilingual preschool. Find one, and enroll. Don’t worry about what the curriculum is exactly. As long as half the teachers are underpaid FOBs who have difficulty communicating in English, your child will get the appropriate exposure to the foreign language.
Honestly, that’s about it at this stage, and probably up to about 5 or 6 years old, when kids start learning how to read and write and things get linguistically more complicated. But if you want to ensure your child can talk to Grandma back in Lahore, Lagos, or some other foreign city beginning with ‘L,’ then you should follow my instructions.
There is, however, one weird aspect to this that I have to remark on. The other day, when Sasha and I were walking down the street here in Taipei, she started speaking to me in Chinese—and in complex enough language that I truly didn’t understand what she was talking about. I asked her a couple of times to switch to English, but she didn’t, perhaps because she doesn’t understand that English is called English.
But during these few moments, I had this terrible premonition of what life must be like for immigrant parents who arrive in whatever country not speaking the language fluently, only to watch their children effortlessly master it—so much so that those children fully live in the new language, and are effectively cut off from their parents by it. As Sasha babbled in Chinese, the very real possibility that I might one day no longer understand my daughter hit me—crushed me, almost.
Then again, I think this happens no matter which language we all speak, and even if we all speak the same one. Eventually—if we’re lucky—our children become strange to us, their lives different from, separate from, and, we hope, better than our own. How they speak to each other (and one day, to their own children) will and should remain a mystery. We can’t hold onto them forever.