It started when my almost 3 year-old son went to kindergarten and hadn’t started to make sentences as much as his peers could do, I consulted his pediatrician. She said I should consult a speech specialist and made a hearing test and then another test where your child would wear an apparel to measure something in their brain. I was not sure about that but it sounded scary to me, so I said No. She then said I should stop speaking Vietnamese to my son and my husband should stop speaking French to him so he could concentrate on developing his Thai and English at school. How is that possible?
Fast forward, my son now speaks and writes English and Thai. He is fluent in Vietnamese and understands French. His 2 years-old sister speaks Vietnamese, English, French and Thai. I take my time to write this now because 3 years ago, I couldn’t believe that my children can speak that many languages. I myself was confused. I searched the internet to see if any other families that were in the same situation and how they could help their children. Now I am confident about what to help, I am writing to share my experience for those who might need it.
We are a French-Vietnamese couple living in Thailand. Our children attend English curriculum schools in Thailand. That makes 4 languages for our children to absorb on daily basis. My husband speaks French, English, Danish and German. I speak English, French, Thai, Vietnamese, Mandarin Chinese and Korean. Growing up in Vietnam doesn’t make me a polyglot. I acquired other 5 languages by learning. It is not easy and I fully understand how hard it is to learn a language. So I don’t put any pressure on my children language-wise.
We don’t have a home language. I and my husband communicate with each other in French. My children speak to each other in Vietnamese. I speak Vietnamese to my children and my husband speaks to my son in English and to my daughter in French. We have a Thai helper who doesn’t speak English at all, I and my children communicate in Thai with her. We have a nanny from Myanmar who is fluent in English and Thai besides her mother tongues which are Burmese and Nepalese. She uses English with us and Thai with our helper.
It sounds like a Babel Tower in my family and it is if you are not used to it. It comes naturally for children to understand languages spoken in their entourage. The utmost thing you can do to help them is to speak to them in the language you excel (normally it is your mother tongue). It’s easier said than done, as the matter of fact.
Especially in Asia, where more and more people use English, you might find yourself speaking English to your children out of convenience or respect to the third person in conversation. Certain people find it uncomfortable if the others know where they come from if they speak
their mother tongues to their children. So they speak English. There are always good reasons why you don’t speak your mother tongue, it as same as why you don’t exercise!
In our case, when my son started kindergarten at 2 years old, his teacher said we should agree on 1 way to address him because his name is pronounced differently in French, English and Thai. In order to help him recognize his name, we use English pronunciation at home and school. My husband speaks English to our son to help him feel better at school. Because he is our first child, we were afraid he might feel left out and lonely in class if he couldn’t express himself or understand what was happening in class. With the arrival of our second child, we are more relaxed about this. Children will speak what they need anyway, we communicate in our own mother tongue to our daughter. She speaks 4 languages equally good for her age and recently started kindergarten with much ease and happiness.
All in all, you need to put your children in priority. There is no rule for this. Depends on your children, all we do is to help them. Some of the good things you can do are:
- Give them time
- Speak to them
- Read to them
- Don’t compare them with others