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.