“The Never-Ending Journey: A Monolingual Mother’s Quest to Raise a Bilingual Child” by Llacey Simmons, founder of the blog Our 21st Century.
“Chinese! Are you serious?”
Those were the first words I heard when I shared my life changing decision to raise a bilingual child.
It was March 2013, and I had already mapped out every educational decision for my then four-month-old son. He would learn Chinese, go to a STEM focused preschool, then a prominent private school, and the rest would all fall in place. To be fair, choosing to teach my son Chinese was an unorthodox decision. I’m African American and his father is a red-headed White guy. Needless to say, our exposure to Chinese or foreign languages was very limited. Outside of the required Spanish classes required in high school, his father and I didn’t know the first thing about raising a bilingual child.
I was up for the challenge. But his father wanted nothing of it.
I’m always asked, “Why Chinese?” People see me and my biracial son and the questions start flying. So let me explain…
When I was pregnant I knew I wanted to teach my son a second language, but didn’t know which one. It was at 3 am in the midst of an intense research binge that I came across a list of “critical languages.” These were languages that serve an importance in our country’s national defense – languages colleges would give scholarships for. On the list was Chinese, Arabic, Russian, Korean, Hindi, and a few others. Chinese and Arabic immediately stood out to me.
I went back online and searched for studies on each language, ones that would help me differentiate the benefits and pros/cons of each. I was amazed at the research on Chinese. I came across study after study that showed that Chinese could boost mathematical fluency and that the Chinese language inherently teaches addition. As a math nerd by heart, I was instantly drawn to Chinese.
So, step one for my son – he had to learn Chinese!
I scoured the internet and found the perfect Mommy & Tot class to begin my son’s Chinese exposure. But at the time, as a single mom, sharing custody with his father meant I had to get his consent. His dad had been hands-off with everything else, so why not this? I needed him to agree and to take him to the classes on “his weekends.” I was so sure that this would be a walk in the park.
But, I was wrong.
I approached the topic of raising a bilingual child with caution and tried to appeal to his fatherly side.
“Don’t you want the best for our son?” I started off, to which he immediately agreed.
“Did you know bilingual kids score higher on the SAT?” He seemed slightly interested, and no objections yet.
And, then…it came.
“Not again with this…No! I want to be able to speak with my son!”
For him, learning another language was a “comical” topic. Something that wasn’t important and could be shelved for middle school when it was mandatory. But for me, raising a bilingual child was very important because it was the fabric that I wanted my son’s educational foundation and view of the world to be built on.
As a monolingual mom, I knew I could help my son master the ins and outs of the English language, but that’s where my linguistic skills stopped. I had done hours of research and read every article about bilingualism I could find. But it didn’t matter to his father. To him, it was a waste of time and nothing really to take seriously.
Just as I could recite dozens of benefits, he could outline even more objections. See my comebacks below.
- We don’t have the money – I thought of creative ways to save money
- We don’t have the time – I gave up my 9-5 job for a freelance gig so I was home all the time
- It will delay his language – I found this study that opened his eyes a bit
- He’s a baby, you’ll confuse him – I went back to the drawing board and dug up this article
- We won’t know what they’re saying – yes, true, so I gave him this point
- We can’t help him with the language – again, true, so I hired a Chinese nanny
- He won’t ever use it anyway – I found a few Chinese playmates for him to practice with
If you’re exploring another language for your child, you may have run up against these same objections or have considered them yourself. I would challenge you to think about the What Ifs. I did, and it helped me to see the bigger picture. Choosing to teach your child another language takes commitment, and letting those seeds of doubt creep in can make the bilingual journey more challenging.
For the first three years, I wasn’t sure if I was getting my son enough exposure and did doubt if my investment in Chinese was worth the cost.
Then one day my son left me speechless.
We were at a restaurant and a couple overheard my son playing a Chinese app. They stopped by our table on their way out of the restaurant, excused themselves, and asked if my son was learning Chinese. I smiled back and replied that he had been taking lessons since he was an infant. The husband stooped down to my son’s level, said something to him in Chinese…and my heart sank.
In that moment I feared my son would not know how to respond, or even worse, that I had “wasted” money on teachers who hadn’t taught him enough Chinese. But for the next five minutes, my son, a child from two monolingual parents, carried a conversation with a stranger in Chinese. The husband stood up, came over to me, patted me on the shoulder and said, “You’re doing a great job with him. His Chinese is impressive!”
I couldn’t help but to tear up. I was crying tears of joy, relief, reassurance – all in one. I hadn’t been told that I was doing a good job. After all, as far as his father was concerned, I was ruining him by teaching him Chinese. As parents we always have those inevitable moments of doubt, and I had my fair share of them with Chinese. But suddenly this bystander had given me the inspiration and proof I needed to know that my efforts to raise a bilingual child were coming together.
Fast forward to today and my compassionate and inquisitive four-year-old can read 50 Chinese characters. He loves learning Chinese and even teaches me a new word every week. He’s adjusted well to only hearing Chinese at his immersion preschool and, now, only Arabic in the evenings through a babysitter who speaks to him only in that language. Despite my initial reservations, he’s okay with his language packed days!
His dad is now completely on board about raising a bilingual child. He even agreed to let me take my son to China next summer for what will be the trip of a lifetime. It took several layoffs and over 8 months spent desperately looking for a job for him to realize that I wasn’t teaching my son Chinese for the hell of it; I was giving him an amazing competitive advantage. Seeing this tiny human being conquer such a difficult language has brought him to tears on several occasions. In the end, the knock out shouting matches we had over Chinese have come full circle. Now, we fight over who will post the next video on Facebook of our son speaking Chinese. I’ve softened him up so much that he didn’t even bat an eye when I told him I was adding on Arabic.
Since that decision made over three years ago to raise a bilingual child, I’ve spent hundreds of hours researching materials and even more shuttling him from one language play group or class to the next. So if you’re contemplating another language for your child, just know that you can do it too! If you’re bilingual and wonder if teaching your child your native language will confuse them, know that it won’t. Our kids are incredibly resilient and love learning – just make it fun.
If you take the language journey, you’ll be blown away at how resourceful, motivated, and powerful you can be. For me, I’ve had to channel my inner Einstein to come up with ingeniously creative ways to pay for his Chinese lessons. Most by trial and error, but many have worked.
I’ll let you in on some of my money-saving secrets on raising a bilingual child. In exchange, be sure to use them, add to them, and share them with others.
- Barter for language exposure. Make a list of things that you’re good at — things other people would pay for. I did that, and my list included copywriting, tutoring, website design, and online research. I then approached a small Chinese immersion school who lacked a website and social media presence, and I bartered. In exchange for me creating their website and Facebook page, the owner agreed to give my son Chinese lessons three times a week for a few months. I’ve done similar arrangements with my Math and Science tutoring. Bottom line, I save money, and my son gets the much-needed Chinese exposure I can’t give him myself. This has worked well with his Arabic learning too – I just had to do a little more digging.
- Make use of a spare room and create a cultural exchange. I sacrificed having a home office to bring the Chinese learning into my home. I contacted local universities and asked professors if they had Chinese-speaking international students that would be interested in living off campus. At first I was sure they would think I was crazy, but it worked very well. I found an international student from Beijing, and she lived with us for 8 months. I provided her free room and board in exchange for her spending time with my son in the evenings during the week. She experienced Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter with us and even tasted spaghetti for the first time! During those months, my son had a playmate that read to him, played with him, and took him to the park, all in Chinese.
- Record language lessons to view later. The first time I did this, the tutor (and my son) thought I had really lost it. The idea came to me one day after watching the shows I had saved on my DVR. If I could record, save, and rewatch a TV show, why couldn’t I do the same thing with my son’s language classes? After all no one says that a tutoring session can only exist in the present. I have been lucky to find great tutors who sing songs to my son, read books with him, and teach him Chinese nursery rhymes. He enjoys them so much during the lessons, but I couldn’t repeat these things to him later. Yet if I recorded them, then they would live forever. Now, during the car ride on the way to school, I turn on a recorded lesson on my son’s tablet. Within a few minutes, I can hear him singing and playing along as if he is recreating his own backseat Chinese lesson.
As we start Arabic, I may need to revisit creative ways to get him more access to the language. So far though, the same strategies I used for Chinese have proved to be very effective for Arabic.
Just remember, we’re all in this bilingual journey together, find a good support system and stay focused! Let my story be a testament that despite the objections you may face, you CAN raise a bilingual child. As for my son, who knows how far he will take his Chinese (and Arabic) learning, but I know I’ve done everything I could to plant the seed of language. I’m excited to see what new adventures my budding linguist and I will encounter along our multilingual language journey. Who knows, maybe I’ll come out fluent in Chinese and Arabic, on the other end!