My partner and I speak and sign five languages and are trying to raise multilingual children

June 13 | Guest post by Eileen
The author's children. Photos by Eileen.

As a child of immigrants I ended up bilingual pretty much by default. My parents are from Taiwan and China, so I grew up speaking Mandarin Chinese with them and speaking English with my older sister and at school. Although I dreaded going to Chinese School on Sundays as a child, by the time I left for college I recognized the benefits of being bilingual and I knew even then that I would want my future children to be the same.

Fast forward a decade and a half, and I have acquired a couple more languages. I obtained my undergraduate degree in the very bilingual city of Montreal, so I can read and understand French. However, I cannot speak it very well, because people in Montreal automatically switch to English when they realize that a person is "Anglophone." For my Master's degree, I decided to attend Gallaudet University, a university for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing in Washington, D.C. I had been learning American Sign Language since high school, and I really wanted to become fluent in ASL.

Gallaudet University is where I met my partner of almost twelve years. She is a Deaf and from Taiwan, so she speaks Mandarin Chinese, signs Taiwan Sign Language, signs American Sign Language, reads English, and understands Taiwanese. Between the two of us, we know a whole mish-mash of languages to varying degrees. Thankfully, some of them overlap. We communicate with each other predominantly in American Sign Language, but spoken Mandarin, and written English are in the mix as well.

We now have two children, ages two and three, and it's fascinating to watch their language development. My partner either signs ASL to them or speaks to them in Mandarin. Initially, I was determined to use only my "minority languages" with them, because I know they will pick up English easily enough at school. Unfortunately, I often end up speaking English to them when my partner is not around because it is still my dominant language. I keep trying to limit myself to only speaking English when reading stories or singing songs, but despite my best efforts I keep slipping into English. My lack of persistence is coming back to haunt me, because whatever language I use my children respond to me in English, but they quite willingly sign ASL and speak Mandarin with my partner.

I will continue to try to expose my children to minority languages as much as I can, because I know first-hand how easy it is to lose a language when you don't use it. At this point, my French has all but disappeared — not to mention my high school Latin. Even my Mandarin has way too many English words thrown in to my liking, and I am pretty much illiterate in Chinese.

Recently, my daughter brought me one of my partner's books written in Chinese and asked me to read it to her. I told her that only Mama could read it to her because Mommy can only read English. I picked out a few Chinese characters I recognized — mostly numbers — and told her what they meant. This interaction just fueled my desire for my children to be fully multilingual. I never want them to have to tell someone "I can't read that" or "I don't understand" because these languages are part of who we are as a family, and I want them the be a part of their lives.

  1. Very cool, and it makes me very jealous. I speak one language, and can butcher another if I've had a few drinks. There was a time in college where I was getting very close to becoming bilingual. Then time and other priorities got in the way. And as you mentioned, the longer you go without utilizing language skills, the more likely you are to lose them completely.

    As for American sign language, do you have any recommendations for teaching tools for children? My family and I live in DC as well, if that helps.

    1 agrees
    • Hi! Washington D.C. is a great place to learn ASL. For children, I would start with DVDs and internet resources to build up vocabulary. My children love the 'Signing Time' DVDs. I'm not crazy about them (the songs are a little annoying, the signing is not in ASL grammer, and the host doesn't sign everything she sings) but I have to admit, my children's signing skills have improved from watching them. If your children are a little older, check out deafplanet.com for a show in ASL. The episodes are short and science-focused, but very entertaining. After they start picking up some basic signs, try to attend as many Deaf events as you can. Gallaudet University often will have shows or sports events. Most cities have ASL meet ups in coffee shops or 'silent dinner' type activities. You could probably even find a Deaf student from Gallaudet to 'tutor' your children. The best way to learn for both adults and children is just to socialize with Deaf and hard of hearing people. Good luck!

      1 agrees
  2. What a cool combination of languages in your family. I really recommend you keep up with speaking Chinese to your kids. It can be awkward at times especially as they get older and you are in public but in time it becomes second nature. My partner and I have a 2,5 yr old who speaks Finnish and Portuguese (our native languages) with us and is now in daycare learning some English too. Since our common language at home is English I'm sure she'll pick it up in no time. We just moved to Ottawa where French is prevalent so we want to eventually put her in a French immersion school. I am sure eventually her Finnish and Portuguese will become less important to her when she only gets to practice with us but I hope to be able to keep it somewhat active so she can communicate with her extended family.
    Being multi-lingual is such a benefit not to mention great for the brain. It's easier to learn a language when you have someone to talk to constantly so you should keep it up with them. I would be interested in knowing how your kids language development is with sign language. We tried teaching our daughter some sign language when she was small to help her communicate when she wasn't able to talk yet but it never really went beyond milk.
    Great post. Thanks for sharing. Cute kiddos.

    • Thanks! Finnish, Portuguese, English, and French is such an awesome mix as well. I wish there were public language immersion schools in the States, but, alas, I believe that only exists in Canada (if this is an incorrect assumption, please someone correct me) and other countries (English immersion schools are popular in Taiwan, although I believe they are private).
      As for sign language development, my children have picked it up quite naturally. They even babbled in sign language. I noticed the decline in the signing with me when my daughter started to talk more, but she still signs consistently with my partner. She also will sign with people who don't even know sign language when she is feeling shy and doesn't want to use her voice (we have to explain to her that they don't understand). She is quite adept in fingerspelling, and even can now spell some words that are fingerspelled in ASL (e.g. she figured out that 'bus' in English is spelled b-u-s because she knows her manual alphabet, and you sign the word bus by spelling it). My son is still signing most of the time, because his speech isn't that clear yet so it helps him get his point across. Sometimes, if he doesn't sign that clearly, we will ask my daughter what he is trying to say and she will 'interpret' for him.
      In my experience, it's rare for children to continue to sign consistently after they start speaking when neither parent is Deaf, even when the hearing parent is fluent in sign language. I think children just instinctively pick up what the parent's dominant language is and tend to use that.

      • Here in Seattle we have a public immersion school. At least my understanding is that it's immersion.

        • Wow! Thanks! I never knew that. They have Spanish and other languages, including Chinese. Very cool. I might have to move to the west coast…

          • Portland also has a few immersion schools. Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese for sure, and there may be more.

  3. I LOVE this. Even though my husband and I are English-speaking white folk, I'd love for our kids to be bilingual. My best friend is a 4K teacher at a German Immersion School, and I'm a huge fan of that model for learning another language if you're not bilingual at home. If we put our kids in a French or German school, at least one of us would be able to practice/understand them! My friend went to this school as a kid, and had a far easier time than I did in German class in college.
    Also, your kids are adorbz.

    • Thanks so much! Where are you from? Are these schools in the US? Are they public or private? I agree immersion is the way to go…

  4. I'm Romanian, my parents unfortunately don't speak another language, but as a child I loved watching cartoons in English, and I ended up learning how to read in kindergarten just so I could look up words in the English-Romanian dictionary. I loved English in school, I also took French and learned Spanish from soaps :)) I love speaking multiple languages and I intent on sending my future kids to a German-English kindergarten.

    • Television can be a great motivator! 🙂 That is amazing how many languages you picked up on your own. I honestly feel like other countries promote multilingualism more than the US. Reading the comments, I'm feeling a little jealous of all the immersion options other countries offer. Kudos to you for becoming multilingual on your own. I hope my children will be the same way and value learning languages just as much as you.

  5. I am like you. I grew up speaking German, Irish Gaelic and English. My sister is deaf, so our family also uses ASL. In college, I completed my minor in Russian and speak that decently (I also had to take Latin in divinity school, but I don't count that as really speaking anymore). My husband grew up speaking Hebrew, Arabic and English. We would love for our daughter to be multilingual too. Let me just share what we're doing.

    I think it's tough to assume that any child will pick up all languages equally. Sometimes, one is just easier than the others. For example, I speak fantastic German, but my Gaelic is tougher and less correct (I can speak it fine, it just takes me a while to think through what I'm going to say). I don't think you can assume that all languages will come at the same pace. Some truly are harder than others.

    To me, the key to langauge acquisition is that you make it normal and a part of everyday life. My daughter is so little, but I already try to speak to her in mostly not English. Even if she can't understand it, it makes it normal to her to live in a home where English is not the default. If you struggle with a language, you can make it a parent-child learning experience. There isn't anything wrong with you learning at the same time. My mother taught me a lot in normal situations. One of the most common was going to a grocery store to shop and pointing to random things and telling me the Gaelic words for them. You can build up vocabulary one word at a time. A lot of people tend to think that because there is a "best window" for language acquisition, it's a race against the clock. And it's really not. Use the early years to lay down the foundations for language learning – basic vocabulary, cultural awareness, a love of learning, that sort of thing. The best thing you can give your kids now is a desire to love languages.

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    • Oh my goodness, this is exactly what I needed to hear. I sometimes worry so much about 'the window' and I forget that I learned ASL after that window, and I use it now every day. Thank you for the amazing tips as well. I definitely will put them into practice.

  6. My son was a micro-preemie, who typically can have trouble with language acquisition. We`re in Montreal, I'm a francophone and my husband an anglophone so I really wanted him to grow up bilingual. I spoke with many medical specialists, including orthophonists who specialize in speech delays and they all said the same thing: A child can easily learn multiple languages at once IF one person speaks it CONSISENTLY to them, and not other languages. Also by 6 months the baby`s brain has already lost its ability to easily recognize foreign sounds. So I tuned into international radio as background sound, and made sure he heard many languages.

    So I speak only french to our son, my husband only english. He just turned 3 and so far he`s pickd up both fairly well. He answers mostly in french because daycare is 100% french. I wish I had a relative nearby that could introduce a third in the mix but oh well, two is already a big advantage!

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    • That is so awesome! Montreal is so amazing for both it's research and practice of bilingualism. And it's my favorite city in the world. 🙂
      I really have to remember not to mix my languages. My greatest weakness is when I am speaking in Mandarin and then I don't know a word, so I switch to English. I'm curious, which language do you and your husband to communicate with each other?

      • we speak mostly english together because our son is acquiring french much faster (due to daycare). Most of our friends are french so out of the house it`s french. There`s also the classic 'speak in the other language so the kid doesn`t understand'. But dang it, he often understands just fine and let us know in no uncertain terms haha

  7. Keep it up, even if you have fight your kids to do so. My parents spoke Russian to me and sent me to Russian daycare until I was four. Then, I went to an English preschool and refused to speak Russian at all. Instead of forcing me to speak Russian, my parents folded like a cheap suit and my Russian is nearly non existent to this day. Having spoken another language was helpful when I transferred to French bilingual school, but I still feel bad when I hear a Russian conversation and understand next to none of it. The daycare and the French school were both in San Francisco, btw.

    • Yes, I alway feel guilty for being a Chinese school drop-out (I stopped going probably around late-elementary age). At the time I was thrilled my parents allowed me to quit, but now I wished they had forced me to continue. When I took Mandarin courses in college, they were super annoyed because I was paying college tuition to learn something they tried to make me learn all along. Whoops. Good to know that SF has a French bilingual school. Seems like the west coast is calling me…

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