Well, first of all, when they were very little, it had only been a few years since I left France and French was very important to me. So I think that with the eldest it was very natural for me to speak French to her when she was young. Now, it’s been a good number of years since I left France and I am so constantly immersed in the English language that this habit of speaking French has slowly faded over time. For a few years now I’ve tried to make myself speak French to them on a more regular basis because, on the one hand I think it’s important that they get to know their culture and their roots and, on the other hand, there’s the matter of communication with grandparents, cousins and so on. I’m conscious that they need a minimum of French for that communication to happen naturally.
I believe that language is related to emotions and these [language and emotions] are also related to culture. So I told them they should know the Korean language because they are Koreans. Speaking the Korean language doesn’t simply mean being able to speak the language, it means that those 3 factors [language, emotions and culture] are related to each other like chains. So I thought if they were not able to speak the Korean language there would be big gaps between us, I believed that. That was why I encouraged my children to use the Korean language at home and luckily our home language gradually changed to Korean even though we sometimes spoke ‘Konglish [Korean-English]’.
Bilingual children don’t have only one perspective. They can have multiple perspectives for dealing with things. Understanding languages, even if they are not fully understood, makes it easier to become familiar with a new culture. And whatever they [bilingual children] study or work, they can see not only one side but also the other side of the culture. For example, talking about colours, there are different ways of describing colours in Eastern and Western cultures. So I believe being bilingual is helpful for their schooling. My daughter may not realise this. Because it has been natural for her to be exposed to a bilingual environment all the time at home and at school.
A: I disagree with some Korean parents who speak English at home to their children from birth. I have met some [Korean parents] who did that [spoke English at home] and they regretted in the end.
Q: Why did they regret it?
A: Because the parents were Korean and they had many chances to interact with other Koreans. But their children couldn’t interact with other Korean children to maintain friendships because their children couldn’t speak the Korean language. They regretted a lot.
Q: It seemed parents kept interacting with other Koreans even though they wanted to raise their children as primarily English speakers.
I brought many Chinese books to New Zealand actually, and used some books to teach my older son, but my husband did not agree. Children are smart. When my son saw his father’s reaction, he told me that “Mum, I don’t want to learn Chinese.”, then I asked him to learn 5 Chinese characters each day, and write down each character once. You know, it’s actually very easy, I mean it doesn’t take the child too much time, and after that he could go to have fun. However, my husband thought that I was forcing my child, and he believed our child won’t go back to China, so it is unnecessary to learn Chinese here. Then I thought: what a good chance to let my child learn two languages! Two years later, my son knew some simple Chinese characters, but without the good environment to practice, it’s difficult for him to know many Chinese characters.
A: Now it seems it is a trend that people can speak multiple languages. What I mainly consider is her future. I don’t know how this society will develop, but I guess the skills and knowledge will still be needed in the future. If my daughter can speak more than one language, she can not only benefit from it, but she can also help others. For example, my daughter met an elderly lady who asked her for directions, the lady spoke Chinese to my daughter as my daughter looks exactly like a Chinese person. However, my daughter’s Chinese was not good enough to help her, so she called me to ask me to help that lady. Then the lady said that my daughter is a “banana person”, as the skin of her is yellow, but inside of her, it’s white.
Q: Do you think “banana person” is a positive or negative expression?
A: I don’t know. Maybe that elderly lady thought it was a pity, as many Chinese people who were born overseas forget their culture. Maybe she was sad about it, she did not mean to judge. I think I am a Chinese no matter where I go or live.
I think we should not forget who we are and where we came from. No matter what extra languages we speak, we cannot forget our heritage language and our original identity.
P2: [Talking about why they taught their children German] I guess the main reason is that we know that it’s good for their future and gives them more opportunities. It would be easier to not do it. English is much more natural to us. So sometimes we start a sentence in English and realise oops we should actually speak German.
P1: Yes we lack consistency.
Q: What advice would you give other parents in your situation?
P1: Speak German more consistently. Perhaps only German at home.
P2: No maybe that’s not true. Maybe just the travel would be important, or the exposure to the language and the culture. If you have 5-6 weeks there is quite a lot of learning that happens at that time – that is happening naturally.
Q: What influenced your decision to raise your children speaking French?
A: So we always spoke French at home and I don’t think we really thought about it (laughs). For us of course it was just easier to speak French [the children’s mother is also French] and then instinctively we always thought that since we had suffered (laughs)… it’s true though! When you’re not bilingual from birth it’s harder. So it happened naturally and we don’t regret it. And the children are happy about it too, I think.
[Talking about what other people think of his children’s bilingualism] Most people think it’s fantastic, because we know a few couples in our situation who did not do the same as us – they preferred to speak English – so we feel a bit of regret from them, or a bit of longing [for our situation]. Because it’s true that having kept up this practice helps them [the children] a lot. Even if they speak with a bit of an accent, or they haven’t learnt to write well in French, they confidently know that they can go to France on their own, no worries. They would be able to get by.
Q: What advice would you give new parents about transmitting their native language if they are not native English speakers?
A: Well I think there are parents with regrets.
Q: Who regret not having spoken their own language with their children?
A: Yes, that’s right. Yesterday, for example, I was with a friend from Quebec, who has two sons. He was married to a New Zealander, and he didn’t speak much French to his second son, who was also here with us yesterday. But he is motivated: what’s interesting is that he’s so motivated. They’re just back from a trip to Quebec – they spent a few weeks there in June-July – and we could sense how much he wanted to try [to speak French], since he was so recently back from Quebec. He really wasn’t afraid to try. But the father, he didn’t say this yesterday but he’s often told me, that it’s a shame that he didn’t [speak more French with his son].
Q: And the son, do you think he also regrets not learning it [French]?
A: Yes, I think so. Yes.
I think that if both parents are French, or French speakers, it is crazy to speak English just because we live in an English-speaking country. Our language is still French, in this case, and it’s the same in any other language. My daughter has friends whose parents are Catalan, so they speak Catalan at home, and I find this completely normal.
P1: So when I had him in Palmerston North I had Kiwi friends, but when I was with him, on my own, since he was my first born, I talked only German to him. So when he started the Steiner Kindergarten in Palmerston North he couldn’t speak English at all. But he learnt it in three months, and he was fluent. That’s fine but I suppose that’s already the decline of the other language I think. I can remember when I talked German some mothers at play centre would say, you know, “but we don’t understand what you are saying to the child!” so they felt slightly offended or something. So I actually talked in English to him but this wasn’t probably right either.
I never called my dad “Dad”, it was always “Papa”. And when I would go to France and come back here I was like “Papa, we’re speaking French now! Not English!”. I think it was a bit harder for my brothers because there was less time to read in French with mum, and boys yell and all of that. And with my dad who doesn’t speak French it was just more and more English. But I think that even when I was very young I liked words and languages and all of that. I loved reading books. Now I love languages and all of that still – like my mother! [Laughs] But my brothers are not like that. They don’t like words in the same way so I think it’s different for them.
Q: When you were little do you remember your mum taking you to French groups with other children?
A: I think I really didn’t like it [those groups] because I was very shy and in French it was more umm…
Q: It was even harder?
A: Yes! [Laughs] Especially as I got older and I started to become more aware of things. It was quite a judgmental space… like, you know, some parents spoke a lot of French to their kids, and then some didn’t so much and there was quite a lot of… it wasn’t an extremely friendly sort of atmosphere I think. I mean I was really shy and anxious so that didn’t help! [Laughs]
When I went to France 6 years ago – so I was 11 – I found it so much easier to speak French. It was like a switch just clicked and being in that environment with French everywhere all around you just makes such a big difference. It was just so much easier, I was just so surprised. I mean it was easy, but it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. You know sometimes I’d have to think what I’d want to say in English and then translate it, but then sometimes I could just go straight French, which was pretty cool. And then my dreams were, like, half in English half in French [laughs]. And I was on the phone with my dad and I think I started the sentence with “alors” or something like that and it was like oh! [Laughs] I caught myself. It started becoming quite natural even though I was only there for a few weeks.
When I started at high school and I decided to do French as one of my subjects, writing was quite hard because I’d never really written in French. It was always reading or listening or speaking. And so that was quite different. I think… um… I’m glad that I read because otherwise I wouldn’t have known how words were spelled. I think that was quite important. So I sort of had an idea of how words looked, but writing – you know, learning the grammatical rules for writing – and all that was quite difficult. Nowadays I sort of wish that I’d done more French when I was younger because… it was… I can tell… I have an ear for it, and I wish I had more of that.
I felt quite proud of, you know: “I’m half French”. That was quite… that was really nice for me, that was like, my ‘special’ thing about me. You know like, it became quite a positive thing and I think that’s quite an important thing which really helped me learn French, whereas if a child had grown up thinking that: “The French part of me isn’t as good as the English part” or you know… that would’ve made a big difference. Especially with different… um… cultures, I think… that are sort of… seen as, like… ‘inferior’ in a way. I don’t want to sound mean but you know like… I’ve got a friend who’s Chinese, and he doesn’t speak very much Chinese because he doesn’t really like that part of himself, he doesn’t like that culture and, you know, he got quite bullied…
Q: Because it’s less desirable or something?
A: Yeah. So he sort of began to resent his culture and so he really never wanted to learn Chinese or any of that. So for parents and that community to be able to celebrate their culture and all that I think it makes a big difference.
Q: Like it’s something of value…
A: Yeah, and teaching their child to be proud of their heritage and all that.
Q: Do you think that because you were brought up with the French and English, do you think it had a positive impact on your schooling?
A: Yeah. I think especially with languages and anything with words. I think I’m more proficient even in English, than if I had just been brought up just with English. I don’t know… I had more of a learning and an understanding of language and words in general. Even if I look at a big word in English that I don’t know then I can think: “Oh that looks a bit like that word in French, so it’s probably from French” and then I can guess what it means. I can sort of figure that out. And other European languages I think too, would be easier to pick up.
Q: How well did you achieve in school in general, and in English as a subject?
A: Umm… really well actually [laughs]. It’s sort of my ‘thing’ really, languages.
I think for new parents, if they’re struggling with the idea of: “do I keep pushing for it or do I give it up?” I think you should push for it. Especially when they’re quite young because they don’t really know what they want [laughs]. I think that… I really appreciate growing up with French, and I would’ve preferred to have a little bit more nowadays, so I think they will appreciate it later on.
[Talking about what advice she would give to parents of bilingual children] I think different forms of the language is quite good. You know like, have some books, and some films, and… it sort of becomes more of a language than some words or something you say here and there. Like it becomes more of a culture almost, if that makes sense? I guess it might depend on the child and what they lean towards. But I really leaned towards reading, I really liked that, so… especially for anxious children like me, if you find something they can feel confident and, you know, quite happy about doing then that’s good. If my main form of learning French had been around Alliance [Française] with lots of people and then I felt really anxious, or if I’d gone to France and everyone had been quite like: “Oh that’s wrong! You said that wrong!” then I would’ve really withdrawn and not felt comfortable speaking it and it probably would’ve got a lot worse I think. So I think feeling comfortable with the language is quite important, no matter what age.