Raising a Truly Bilingual Child

Scarlett and Lan
Scarlett and her cousin, Lan. Two different approaches to language.

Nobody that I personally know was truly raised bilingual. My parents purposely taught me English first. Whatever Spanish I knew before learning it in third grade was picked up from visiting my grandparents. It was mostly limited to asking for food items and very generalized expressions of my state of being. Danielle was taught Vietnamese and learned English in preschool. Pretty much all of our cousins were raised with one language or the other as the primary language spoken at home. My house was pretty much only English unless my parents were trying to talk about something we kids weren’t supposed to understand. Danielle’s parents came to the US at a much older age than my parents (nearly twice as old) so English is laborious to them – they can understand it well enough to only be tripped up by the most esoteric of expressions (eg “like water off a duck’s back”), but can’t express complex ideas eloquently in English. Or, to put it another way, my father-in-law loves to tell jokes – he almost never tells any in English.

Life is very complex and it’s impossible to know the precise effects of our parents’ decisions without being able to re-run our lives with only that one thing changing. After all, both Danielle and I have degrees from Cornell University. (And I truly don’t mean that as some kind of sideways brag, just an example of how we ended up in the “same” place) Sure, I’m an Engineer and she’s a Chemistry and Sociology major, but it’s not as though all English-speaking people are Engineers. (In fact, English as a first language was a minority in my engineering classes) I like to read and Danielle is blasé about it, but again it’s not as though that’s limited to what language was learned first. I know tons of people who are Americans going generations back that don’t enjoy reading. My youngest natural brother, Dave, didn’t like reading until very recently, for example. Also, we both don’t have any accents other than regional accents – some words Danielle says have a bit of a NYC tinge and some of mine have a bit of a Miami tinge.

Because Danielle and I are from different language groups, as a practical measure the only language we could both raise her in is English. And that’s effectively what would have happened if she’d have gone to daycare. However, due to a variety of issues, Danielle ended up quitting her job to raise Scarlett. So she’s able to teach Scarlett Vietnamese over many more hours than she could if the baby was in daycare. I think that’s wonderful because as someone that eventually became bilingual, I understand the beauty of being able to communicate in the language best suited to convey a message. There are times that both Danielle and I have been unable to communicate something from our ancestral languages because it just falls apart when translated to English. One of the more striking examples (that I think I have mentioned on this blog before) stems from the fact that Vietnamese, like many Asian tonal languages, has puns and jokes that come from mispronouncing words. Based on my own experience, as long as Scarlett is exposed to Spanish she’ll have enough of an ear to be able to properly pronounce the words without sounding like most politicians when they pander to the Hispanic vote. She can learn the vocab later; it’s worked for me. Sure, I have forgotten a lot in Maryland since I don’t get to use it on a regular basis, but whenever I go back to Miami or talk to my grandparents for a long spell, it comes back.

So the effect of all this is that Scarlett is the first truly bilingually-raised child I’ve ever known. She doesn’t have a true first language because even though Danielle spends more time with her than I do, she still speaks to Scarlett in English – both to read her books and as a matter of helping her learn she often repeats words or phrases in both languages. The scientifically minded person in me would be fascinated to see how this is affecting her brain’s development and how her brain is different from both Danielle and I who learned the second language a little later in life. I am especially curious because Vietnamese is a tonal language. It’s no coincidence that you find so many Asians who are concert musicians or mathematicians – learning a tonal language forms a very different brain than one which learns Western languages.

Sometime between 13 and 15 months old Scarlett began to be able to understand commands and queries. About a month ago I had taken off my t-shirt and Scarlett grabbed it an ran off into another part of the house. A few minutes later I asked her, “Scarlett, where’s daddy’s shirt?” And she ran into the kitchen and brought me back my shirt. I was dumbstruck – she’d understood me and also understood the implicit command to bring it to me. The coolest thing to me is that she understands both languages equally well. Some time around the 13 month mark (if not a month earlier), we noticed that she understood whether we were asking her a question regardless of the language used. That’s also pretty amazing to me.

I can sense that things are about to get quite interesting and that her brain is going to be pushed a bit harder over the next few months as she begins to speak. From everything I’ve read on this subject and others, there is nearly no limit to the plasticity of the brain in children this young so the challenge can only serve to her benefit as her brain potentially makes more connections that the average kid. She’s already begun to say a few words like dog, Dad/Ba (Vietnamese for Dad), leaf, cat, and Di (go in Vietnamese) as well as Go outside in Vietnamese. But the only word she truly says consistently is Di. I think this makes perfect sense from what I know about baby psychology. Kids tend to talk only as much as needed to alleviate their frustrations. The only thing that consistently frustrates Scarlett not being where she wants to be; whether that’s going outside or going out of her seat (car seat, high char, etc). I’m also not surprised that for her first urgent words she’s chosen Vietnamese (although she definitely understand if I tell her to go outside – she gets excited and starts yelling “di di di”). After all, she’s with her mother most of the day so her brain would work harder on making her her mother can understand her. It’ll be interesting to see her learn to mode switch depending on whether she’s talking to Danielle or me.

I think it’d be even more interesting to know the internal logic she’s going to come up with to determine whether or not to speak English. As a kid growing up in Miami when everyone my parents’ age and older were political immigrant who’d fled Castro’s Cuba, my brain came up with the idea that all old people spoke Spanish. When I was about five I actually asked my father if he would only speak Spanish when he got old. Given that Danielle and I don’t associate with a bunch of mixed-race couples, I wonder if Scarlett would just come to learn race at a very early age even if she didn’t quite understand it to be race at the time. Basically, everyone that looks like mommy could speak both languages, but everyone that looks like daddy can’t. It’s also interesting that Dina is also dating a white guy so Scarlett might come up with some convoluted hypothesis about people who marry into mommy’s family. I’ll definitely be curious to know what she thinks.

Parents always wonder if everything they do is worth it or harming their kid. I have no doubt that Scarlett will be enhanced by being raised with two languages at once. She’ll be able to mode switch with even greater ease than her mother, uncle, and aunt. She’ll have an awesomely unique brain. But in the end will the inevitable issues (teaching her the polite way to treat being bilingual, etc) be worth it in terms of language proficiency? In a lot of ways that’s going to be up to Scarlett. It’s not like I forget Spanish because it was my second language – Danielle frequently forgets Vietnamese. The brain doesn’t maintain expensive connections if they aren’t necessary. Is Scarlett going to keep proficiency if there isn’t any daily practice? It’s not like Danielle likes Vietnamese pop culture. And how much she wants to speak with her grandparents in Vietnamese can’t truly be controlled. One of my brothers vehemently refused to learn Spanish and insisted our grandparents needed to learn English. No amount of parenting or prodding is effective in the long term and could end up making them resent family time.

So we’ll see, but for now the experiment seems to be going quite well.

Author: Eric Mesa

To find out a little more about me, see About Me

9 thoughts on “Raising a Truly Bilingual Child”

  1. So cool you’re teaching her to be bilingual. Are you teaching her English, Vietnamese and Spanish? Or mostly just English and Vietnamese?

    Your story about Scarlett using the Vietnamese word for “go outside” reminds me of all the words I learned/use in Chinses (mostly about family/relatives). To me as an adult, I thought it was intersting that they always seemed easier to learn (or rather closer to baby sounds) than their English equivalents. Like it’s way easier for a kid to learn to say “Di” than it is “go outside”.

    I’ll be interested to see how being bilingual works once Scarlett is old enough to go to school. Obviously by that time, she’ll have a good grasp of language switching. But I wonder if it feels alienating to young kids – like “oh speaking Vietnamese is something I do with my mom and it seems uncool so I don’t want do it around other kids”. Though I guess it’s either that or when she’s older having people think she can speak Vietnamese because she looks it (assuming that’s as common as it is with Chinese people).

  2. Primarily English and Vietnamese with a little Spanish here and there to make sure she hears the phonemes. She can learn Spanish a lot more easily when she’s older as long as she has the phonemes.

    It’s interesting that the words are easier – I wonder what that says about the origins of the language and what was going on when the languages were invented thousands of years ago. Unfortunately, I am not a language history nerd, so I have no idea.

    As for the last paragraph – the answer there’s complicated. First of all, the author of the book I was reading (who obviously has a bias) mentions that it leads to becoming a language of intimacy – it’s something she shares with her mom so she might use it for her more loving or vulnerable moments. Second, by the time she’s four she’ll almost certainly have figured out that everyone who’s not asian (even if she doesn’t understand the concept of asian yet) doesn’t speak Vietnamese. I don’t, my brother doesn’t, my sister-in-law’s boyfriend doesn’t. Third, if her elementary school is primarily from my neighborhood, then her school is going to be somewhere between 25-50% asian (using the British definition which includes Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis) Of the 10 or so houses surrounding my cul-de-sac, 7 or 8 of them are Asian. (Including a couple Vietnamese houses) If you add in the African-Americans, then her elementary school could potentially have whites in the minority – so it may be the case that she hears all the cliques speaking in their own languages in which case it’ll be important to teach her about the politeness of speaking the language that everyone in a group can speak.

          1. Oh man – what would her toddler brain even think about that? lol. Then again, it’s no different than what happens with Danielle and I when her family’s around.

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