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 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.
A: On the Korean school side, I think it’s not as important to someone like me living here. Because I don’t have to take any tests in Korean, and if I can speak it I think it’s ok. As long as I’m able to communicate with my parents. But then I feel like when I was put there [in Korean school] to learn in that way, instead of actually using it around Korean people, I learnt way less than I could have. I found that if I read Korean manga or just something enjoyable, I learnt way more out of it. And even watching drama… yeah, I learnt way more from it. Especially for language: applying it is the most important.
Q: So if someone like you, born in New Zealand Korean, they want to maintain their Korean language, what is the best way, do you think?
A: Having their parents speaking it to them, even if they don’t understand it. I think that’s the best way to do it. You just pick up on it, randomly.
Q: Especially when you are motivated.
[Talking about advice for other Korean parents] I’d say that you shouldn’t abuse one language. You should evenly share out two languages… or even just focus on your own language. It wouldn’t affect their education, that’s what I believe. Cos they’d end up learning English outside, at school, and then when they come back home, like I said, the amount of parent time you’d speak your own language is very short. So it wouldn’t completely fade away your English language ability.
As a mother, I gave her life. I was determined to teach my child to speak Chinese partly for my benefit, as it would facilitate our emotional communication and daily life communication. Besides, I believe it will help her future life as well.
I always respect my daughter, and in fact she decided to learn Chinese when she was five. At that time, I went to China quite often to visit my parents. I have a good friend whose daughter is one year older than mine. Every time when I went back to China, she would pick us up, and drive us to visit many places and had fun. My friend’s daughter was around 6 at that time, and studied in a local kindergarten. Once, my friend picked us up to hang out, my friend and I sat in the front seats, and our daughters sat in the back seats. My friend’s daughter started to read out when she saw the shopping malls’ names or the billboard. Then my daughter asked her “Why do you know all of these? Why can’t I read them out?”. My friend’s daughter answered “I learned them”, then my daughter said to herself “I learned Chinese in New Zealand too, but I don’t know the characters at all.” So my daughter said to me “Mum, I need to come to China to learn Chinese!” I asked her whether she decided or not, she said “yes”, then I respected her. So when she was 6, I took her to China to learn Chinese. I believe my child is so endurable and insistent, and I won’t forget that experience in my rest of my life. I also believe as long as my daughter has made the decision, she will achieve it.
Sometimes I feel really sad, as I heard some people saying “Learning Chinese is not important any more, as we live in an English society.” I think it is a big loss for Chinese who is unable to speak Chinese. I also heard some parents saying” Do not speak two languages with your children, they will feel confused, and speak slowly.” I just want to say this kind of thought is really unwise. I can’t say everyone has the same situation, but take my close friends and my children for example, bilingual education won’t confuse children at all! My daughter knew how to pronounce “grandma” in Chinese when she was 7 months old, and knew Chinese pronunciation of “dad” when she was around 8 months old. She can speak many words when she was 11 months old.
Q: What would you advise to parents when they get children: raising them bilingually or not? And if bilingually, how can one do that most successfully?
A: Well, I would certainly say raise bilingually, because for me… it had no negatives. It is only positive. And I love it. And yes, when you are a child you learn quickly.
And… how. I don’t quite know. I would say, yes most of all speak to them in that language. especially when they are young, that they most hear the language. And yes, perhaps… It is difficult as a child I think… my sister had a lot of problems with it: “What’s the use? I live in New Zealand after all? So if you can get it across to them that it is important and something great to have, than they will be more inclined to learn two languages. While if they think: “What is the point, it’s no use.” Then probably not.
When they [her children] have been in Belgium or The Netherlands, well then they rattle on in Dutch. Then it suddenly… then it surfaces and they are really fluent. With errors of course. You always hear that they are not really native speakers. They are obviously English speakers, but fluent [in Dutch]. After those two weeks.
When my eldest daughter was born and that was not in The Netherlands but in Italy, I spoke only Dutch to her. So she was my Dutch speaking eldest daughter. Then two years later we had a boy and until he was 2 I spoke Dutch with him and my husband English. But he read Dutch books aloud as well: ‘Jip en Janneke’ [a classic Dutch book] for instance… and this oldest boy told his father: “You’ve got a bad voice for Dutch Dad!” And he was not allowed to speak Dutch any longer.
And that was very difficult because from then on we switched more and more to English. And by the time my third child appeared the home language had become English. So though we had intended to bring up the children with Mum: Dutch, Dad: English… by the time my youngest daughter was born it did not happen at all. It was purely English. She spoke English to siblings, to me, to her father. Dutch was not used.
When she was 4 we went for quite some time to Belgium and there she heard people speak Dutch, daily, and she spoke it herself with granny and aunt and uncle. With them she could speak Dutch. So there Dutch appeared again.
Then we tried to keep that up when we came back home, but within a week it was all English again. There were no Dutch friends in New Zealand. There was no input from outside the family. Nothing at all. The only input was when we went back to Belgium.
Family was incredibly important. Not only for speaking with when we are there but also because I have a wonderful sister who sends books. My mother always sent books, my sister always sent books. And not only paper books but when the older children were little we had those little cassette tapes… so endless listening to Fairy tale series. And later we had videos. A huge amount in Dutch. And later we had DVDs and also computer games. So the children had a large amount of computer games in Dutch.
I regret we did not continue to speak Dutch at home. Today my eldest son, who put a stop to it all in the family that is also his biggest regret, that we did not continue to speak Dutch. So that is something to recommend to other people. If you don’t speak Dutch because one parent does not speak the language for instance or because the children put their foot down and refuse… you can always bring Dutch in through the back door. So read aloud. Read aloud all the time. Read books, give books to the children to read. Give films. And when you watch an English film , do so with Dutch subtitles. So they can learn it that way. Nowadays there is so much… computer games. The Internet…
A: Parents who come here… they see this environment and then try as fast as they can… Yes we want to be New Zealanders, we must speak English… and our children must speak with a Kiwi accent” and our language drops away”.
And you have children who refuse. Because they don’t want to be different from the other children at school. And it could be a reason to be unhappy… so the parents will say: “Ok we will switch to English because we don’t want to disadvantage the children. They must not be unhappy at school because of being different.” So that is another reason why parents don’t transmit the language.
And yes, sometimes it is simply easier not to. Especially if one of the parents does not speak Dutch. So those are all valid reasons why the language is not passed on.
Q: Because sometimes people don’t even think about it. It is an automatic process.
Q: Isn’t it. The children come home from school… they have done everything in English that day and even though you have spoken Dutch in the morning… they come home and continue in English. There are English friends and you cannot be impolite. So you have to speak English… the friends go home and you simply continue in English.
A: Yes exactly, it comes automatically.