I’m excited about the bilingualism panel at the Four Seasons in Beijing. The event will be held on January 23rd. I’ve already registered. First, one of Beijing’s favorites and my friend, Dr. George Hu, will be speaking, (he didn’t ask for any biased promotion from me, by the way).
Secondly, my husband and I are both concerned about how we will raise our own bilingual, bi-literate and bi-cultural children. FYI, bi-cultural means along the lines of living in-between two cultures. These children are also referred to as “third culture kids” to describe children being raised in a culture different than the one belonging to their parents.
I think monolingual parents believe in a bit of an illusion that bilingualism just happens under the right circumstances. But bilingualism, and more importantly bi-literacy, is hard work.
In one of the most bilingual areas of the United States, Fort Worth, Texas, educators began to see the importance of “bilingual and bi-literate” when native Spanish speaking students were using Spanish words as jumping words from English.
A Fort Worth educator from Cuba gave me an example:
“When students want to say, “Vacuum the carpet,” in Spanish, they’ll say “Vacunar la carpeta.” That actually means, “Vaccinate the folder.”” (We laughed together.)
The Spanish and English duo is an easy language partnering for achieving bilingualism. They are very similar, and there are many resources in the United States for both languages regardless of the student’s native language starting point. But, even with all of these great resources, students aren’t able to “naturally” form correct grammar and language usage.
I myself studied Spanish for twelve years. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to solidify the language in a completely Spanish-dependent situation. On top of that, when I started to learn Chinese, my Spanish knowledge slowly slipped out of my brain, through my ears, and onto my pillow each night. I can only understand fifty percent of a conversation if a Spanish speaker talks very, very slowly. I am incapable of verbally responding in Spanish without thinking for five to ten minutes first. My French, which I studied for six years, is even worse.
Imagine my concern while in a country not accustomed to large immigrant populations with less extensive research in learning the country’s language as a second language. Yes, I’m taking deep breaths as I prepare for the next fifteen to twenty years of education. I’ll be learning right along with my kiddos.
There are many other personal anecdotes about bilingualism I can give you:
- An American administrator at our school started to notice his son’s Chinese reading comprehension skills were far superior to his English reading comprehension skills. So, his son switched academic programs from a Chinese-based program to an English-based program.
- Young children with one Chinese-speaking parent and one English-speaking parent will not naturally be bilingual. My former student was almost completely non-verbal in both language situations, and his older sister has much stronger English speaking skills than Chinese skills.
- Non-Chinese speaking parents find that their children struggle to make friends or that they genuinely dislike school if the child has had no previous exposure to Chinese. In other words, sticking a child in a Chinese-only environment is not enough for English speaking parents.
- A co-worker who moved to the United States from Hong Kong when he was five, now has Cantonese language skills of a five year old, even though Cantonese was still spoken at home. His English is flawless, though.
- Refugees we knew in the States would rely on their children as English translators, but these children rarely had opportunities to develop their native language skills if their school did not encourage bilingualism.
I’ve heard that parents need to have one active speaker for both languages, and situations demanding both languages at a single time need to be provided for the child to grow linguistically. Our poor kids…. at this exact moment, their tones are better than ours, even if their vocabulary isn’t as advanced, I’m sure they’ll catch up soon.
I have lots of questions to ask if the host, CCTV’s Eyee Hsu, does not ask them. I’m assuming the audience will get some Q & A time.
I’d love to see and to meet you there. If you can’t go, you’re welcome to send me questions to ask! Of course, I plan to write about what I learn in order that you glean wisdom from the panel, too.