Multilingual Households: A Dilemma

“One foot cannot stand on two boats.” -Chinese proverb

Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan

Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan

I grew up in a bilingual household. My parents made it a priority to teach me English first because my older sibling had difficulty when he first started kindergarten. For a while, I used my own shortcut language, and I would pick the quicker version (think: less syllables) of the languages I knew to speak with others. I often got odd looks for my efforts.

I know that “One foot cannot stand on two boats,” but I think language is a large part of retaining and respecting cultures. Here’s the quandary in my household: I speak Cantonese; my husband speaks Taiwanese; we both semi-speak Spanish; and the kids go to Chinese school (Mandarin). How can we maintain it all, and make sure we communicate well in the process?

Here are some methods that I’ve witnessed:

  • Parent A focuses on one language; Parent B uses the other language
  • Immersion school (institutions taught exclusively in one language)
  • Alternating days of the week (Monday=German, Tuesday=English, etc.)
  • International travel (kids get dropped off for a chunk of time, say the summer, in a different country)
  • Films (learning via media–cartoons, movies, etc.)

Any thoughts, advice, or experiences on how to keep languages flowing?

Foodie Friday: Popcorn Chicken
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  1. I know it well! My children speak English, Czech, French and two of them can muster up enough German to get by. They all went to French Immersion and we spoke German, Czech, and English at home (with my older ones…first marriage) and French, Czech, and English by the time my youngest arrived. They survived…lol…hasn’t hurt them any or messed up their brains. I did spend an awful lot of time…like months of the year…in Europe with them, usually in Geneva, Austria or Prague, and great grandparents who spoke very or no English were a big part of their young lives. We didn’t have many rules but books were in all kinds of languages, TV was often French, and all magazines were only allowed in French or German. That probably helped. :)

    • Jennifer J. Chow says

      Thanks for the tips, Veronica! We’ve been doing video conferencing with the grandparents, but it’s hard for them to stay focused. I like the idea of having literature in different languages lying around!

  2. Like Veronica, I grew up where I heard English, French, and Japanese on a daily basis from infancy. I spent time in both France and Japan during summers as well. I even studied at the Alliance Francaise when I was 13. My own kids grew up with the sounds of Samoan, Japanese, English, Hawaiian, Tagalog, Cantonese, Mandarin, and more surrounding them. They went to Montessori preschool at a Chinese (Cantonese) temple. I can’t say that any of us are stellar linguists, but it has enriched our lives.

  3. It has been easier for my kids born in the States to learn both French and English since both my husband and I speak French. But the idea of one parent speaking one language and the other another one is the best. I have met families living your situation and this is what they did. It is challenging to stick to the discipline but it pays off for the kids.
    I love the Chinese proverb. And this post, as always, triggers reflection. Thank you.

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