The Perils of Raising Bilingual Kids: They May Make You Feel Dumb

Family Matters on 06.23.11
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There is no shortage of evidence that raising kids to be bilingual is beneficial in terms of their future language and problem-solving abilities.  And if, like my kids, the children have extended family members who speak a language other than that of the country in which they are being raised, being bilingual is almost a necessity.

My wife emigrated from Vietnam with her family when she was a toddler.  And although her English is not bad (okay, it’s flawless, but I like to pretend I can’t understand what she’s saying sometimes, just to mess with her), she has never spoken anything but Vietnamese to her parents, grandfather, and scores of aunts, uncles, cousins, and other relatives of ambiguous kinship that alway seem to be at her parents' house. So when we visit her family on the East Coast, or when they visit us here in California, very little English is spoken.

When I first started spending a lot of time with her family, shortly before we were to be married (10 years ago today!), this used to frustrate me a bit.  I always wanted to know what was being said, and would pester my wife or her siblings for simultaneous translations. After getting the same response to my requests a couple dozen times, I finally got the message: banal family chit-chat was not worth the trouble of translating. If I needed to know something, someone would speak English, or recruit a translator from among the younger family members. I learned that during big family get-togethers, although it would be considered rude for me to go read a book, it was perfectly acceptable for me to gaze into the middle-distance with a beatific smile, daydreaming about snow-capped mountains or pie.

With our kids though (twin girls who are turning 2 on Saturday [!]), it’s different. The relatives want to interact with the cute little girls way more than they ever did with the hulking (average American size), ill-shaven, white interloper. They chatter at the girls, and, as does anyone who plays with babies, delight in the reactions they can elicit.

And the relatives are rarely disappointed, because my wife speaks Vietnamese to the twins about 75 percent of the time, so they're used to hearing and trying to speak it. The kids are well into the steep climb on the left side of the language learning curve, and they’re acquiring vocabulary and grammar at a breakneck pace. They know much more English than Vietnamese, of course, because that’s what they hear mom and dad speaking to each other, that’s what they hear everywhere besides home, and that’s the language we read to them in about 90 percent of the time. But their Vietnamese is coming along briskly as well. I would guess they know about 250 English words, and my wife estimates they know 100 Vietnamese words.

This is in sharp contrast to their dad, who knows about 25 Vietnamese words, and whose learning curve for language (and everything else, really) flatlined years ago.

I know what you’re thinking: He’s been with his wife for 20 years, and only knows a handful of words in her mother tongue? What a dolt!

Hey! Gimme a break, man! Vietnamese is hella-hard. And I’m pretty decent at learning languages, too. I’ve studied German, Spanish, Russian, and French at various times, and I was always really good at pronunciation and rudimentary grammar. At certain points in my life, I’ve been able to communicate like a native-born caveman in all of those languages. But not only is Vietnamese completely etymologically unrelated to English, it’s also a tonal language. That means that each word has, more or less, a melody. The way you intone the word can totally change its meaning. Imagine if, in English, when you said “excellent,” it had a completely different meaning than if you said “eeeeeexcelent,” or “EX-cellent!” or “excellent?”. I’m not talking about little nuances either: in Vietnamese, what sounds like the exact same word to English speakers, with just the tiniest hint of different intonation, can mean something totally unrelated to its virtual homonym. For example, if I don’t get the intonation exactly right on the word for “ear,” (tai), it could mean “hand” (tay), or “change” (thay). And to make this even more vexing, to a Vietnamese person, those words sound exactly as dissimilar as “ear,” "hand," and “change” do to English speakers. So when I try to speak Vietnamese to my wife, there’s a really good chance that although I think I’m saying “I love you,” I’m really saying “Goat medicine shoe,” or even more likely, “Goo-goo ga-ga mumble mumble mumble.” Years and years ago I borrowed some tapes from the library to try to learn Vietnamese. I would play them and recite the phrases on my way to work and then back home. And I had a half-hour commute in those days, so there was plenty of time to practice. I’m pretty sure the tapes were made by the Defense Language Institute back in the sixties, because a lot of the phrases were along the lines of “Where is the American Embassy?” and “Do you have any ammunition?” and of course the old mainstay of international relations, “Would you like a cigarette?”  The first phrase I dedicated myself to learning was “I don’t speak your language well.” I seriously devoted several hours to that one sentence. In my head, I can still hear the voice of the guy on the tape, and the exact pronunciation of every syllable. But when I tried the sentence on my wife, she just tilted her head like a confused puppy.

As you can tell by the above extended diatribe that I didn’t set out to write at all but could not keep from gushing forth like an uncorked reservoir of repressed childhood trauma, I have been frustrated in my attempts to learn the language of my wife’s family. But to my kids, it’s a breeze. I’m trying to learn more of the language as they do, but it’s clear that they’re in the accelerated class, and I’m in the back row, eating paste.

Don’t get me wrong—I don’t resent my kids for being better at Vietnamese than I am. I’m proud of them, and I love the fact that they’ll be able to communicate with, or at least, understand, their older relatives who don’t speak much English.  But more and more frequently, they’ll say something to me that I don’t understand, and I have to ask my wife to translate. And it’s about to get worse, because my mother-in-law is staying with us for the next week.  She’s been here one day now, and they already can say “right hand/left hand” and “right foot/left foot” in Vietnamese. We’ve all been saying those phrases throughout the day today. I’m sure they’ll say it to me when they’re putting on their shoes tomorrow morning. And I will have no idea what they’re talking about.

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