A story of a monolingual mother raising a trilingual child.
Will he hate me in three languages?
“Mommy, what are they going to speak to me today?” My son asks in between yawns and morning stretches trying to get his little body (and mind) ready for the day. This may seem like an odd question from a soon-to-be four-year-old. But if you had me as your mom, you’d probably ask that question too.
I’m a monolingual mom, trying to raise a multilingual child, so our days are never like they “should” be.
Believe it or not, our language journey started randomly one day in 2013. When my son was just an infant, I looked into his big brown eyes and made a life-changing decision.
I decided that I wanted my son to learn Chinese and Arabic. Most people would see this as an unusual choice, especially since I don’t speak either language. In fact, I don’t speak another language at all. But, as a self-proclaimed nerd, when I stumbled across study after study detailing the benefits of being bilingual, and the competitive advantage learning a critical language like Chinese could provide, I naturally couldn’t resist!
To be honest, I had no clue where to start, let alone how I was going to get him exposure to either language. So, I went digging for any and every language-related class, book, or flashcard I could find.
Chinese and Arabic Language Immersion
And after a 3-hour research binge late one night, I finally found what I was looking for! There it was in front of me, a Chinese language class designed for “Parents and Tots.” Despite the objections my son’s father had, and even though my son was technically too young to start, I enrolled him in the Chinese classes anyway. He enjoyed the songs, fingerplays, and art activities and didn’t mind only hearing Chinese a few hours a week. So, I upped the ante and hired a full-time Chinese nanny for a year to add in daily Chinese exposure.
Last year, for Christmas, I bought him a collection of Disney movies in Chinese and Arabic. As any three-year-old would be, he was eager to watch them. I was anxious to see if he would get frustrated by to hearing his favorite movies in another language. But, he didn’t mind at all and never asked to hear them in English again.
I had a Chinese nanny for a year before my son started a Chinese immersion school Then I hired an Arabic nanny.
Now, I’ve managed to jam pack his preschool life with the usual: fun school days, time with friends, outdoor play, and even the occasional trip to the toy store. Yet, unlike most kids his age, my son experiences it all rarely in English, at least Monday through Friday anyway. From sun up to way past sundown, his world is a mix of Chinese and Arabic. Since I can’t give him the foreign language exposure, I have to bring in the language reinforcements by way of a Chinese immersion preschool and an Arabic-speaking nanny.
Would my son become confused with all these languages?
The first time my son asked me what language he would hear that day, it shocked me. I didn’t realize he would understand that there was a difference or even be able to articulate such a question. But, then the doubts started to creep in.
- Was he confused?
- Did it make him anxious?
- Did he need me to give him reassurance that he would understand what was being said to him?
- Was I doing something wrong?
- Or, even worse, did he already resent me for what I was doing?
As a parent, you never really know what question or event will bring about the parenting panic that we all experience at some point or another. And, that simple question had me wanting to stop the language learning madness and just hold him.
So, I did what any parent in my shoes would do. I got him dressed, gave him oatmeal for breakfast, took him to school, and cried in my car. In the midst of my crying session, it dawned on me that just as kids ask, “Where are we going?” maybe he was curious about what his day of learning entailed.
I pulled myself together and arranged with the babysitter to take him to the park later that afternoon for a fun activity (still in Arabic). The next morning, it happened again. “Mommy, what are they going to speak to me?” But, this time I was prepared. I answered him, as I always did. “When you go to school, lao shi (teacher) will speak Chinese to you. And, when it is time to go home, Yasmine will pick you up and she will speak Arabic to you.” He sat for a moment, smiled at me, and said, “Yes, sure—sounds like a plan!”
Children have it all figured out
Sounds like a plan? Are you kidding me? I had been wrecking my brain thinking my child was plotting a way to take me out, and that was his nonchalant response. So after all, it was just a simple question! A quick clarification he needed to mentally prepare himself for the day. His response was the reassurance I needed. Now, I could let myself relax and revel in the moment knowing that he was actually okay with hearing other languages.
I naturally have times when I think, and worry, that exposing him to so many languages at once will confuse him, or if nothing else, drive a wedge between us. But, it seems my worries have been for nothing. And to think, my investment may actually be paying off!
As a Millennial parent, I’d like to think I’m still in tune with my inner child, but as the mastermind behind the bilingual learning, I’m never on the other end, like my son is. I hear English day in and day out. I understand what is being said to me and can respond back with a wide array of words to convey what I need and how I’m feeling. Yet, my young son may not have that same luxury throughout his day as he builds his comfort with and fluency of Chinese and Arabic.
I remember those late 1990s days spent in a stuffy French classroom, trying to dodge eye contact with my French teacher, hoping like hell she wouldn’t ask me a question. And, I didn’t and don’t want that feeling of dread for my son. I want my son’s language learning to be a love affair of sorts where he can appreciate the words, fall in love with the culture, and in the end, emerge as a well-rounded human being.
Stepping out of my comfort zone for my child’s multilingual future
I still can’t help but wonder if he will, one day, appreciate the sacrifices and discomfort I have gone through for him to hear other languages. I’ve stepped outside of my comfort zone on too many occasions to count on this multilingual quest. I even went off the digital grid (which for Millennials, you know is mission impossible) to take him to a Chinese immersion camp in rural Minnesota.
For seven days, we heard nothing but Chinese, ate authentic Chinese food, and experienced life in a recreated Chinese village. And, now, as I plan our next Chinese and Arabic adventures, I’ll do so with a slightly different perspective. Knowing that my son is down for the ride and willing to trust me, as long as he knows what language to expect that day.
I envision on Mother’s Day in 2042, when he is the same age I am now, that he will turn to me and say thank you. That maybe, just maybe, he will have more opportunities than most, have seen the world from a different lens, or understand the lengths I’ve gone for him to be multilingual. Or, if nothing else, maybe he will turn to me and say, “I hate you.” But, as long as he can say it in three languages, then this all would still be worth it.
If a Nanny or immersion school isn’t an option for your family read about other options: How you can raise a bilingual child if you don’t speak a second language
Author: Llacey Simmons only speaks English, however she is raising her young son to speak English, Chinese, and Arabic. She writes at Our 21st Century Kids about her journey.
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