I’m very proud of raising a trilingual family, but it wasn’t easy. My son didn’t always speak three languages. Just the two really. My husband didn’t feel that his Mandarin ‘was good enough’ for our child and since we both communicated in English, the language that glued our relationship, it was so much easier to speak to him, in English.
So much easier.
It was tiring to do it. Exhausting. Watching and reminding your partner to “speak your language” I would say, nag, pester, hound (please continue to add to this list). I did it. I did it all, all the time and so much so that I found myself annoying! It’s war. War against the language I studied in and loved, war against the outside, war against each other. How can something that happened to me so naturally be so hard now?
My husband was born in Shropshire, and I was born in London. When I was seven, we moved to the North West of England. There, hardy anyone I knew spoke another language. In fact, to speak a different language other than English felt wrong. Even my name, in another language, felt wrong. I was different, and yes, speaking another language made me different and yet how hard was it for a child to understand that speaking another language made me different but the same to others. There were others.
Sunday school. The hour drive there and back for a couple of hours of Sunday school made me realise that there were others. Not just a few, but a whole school of others. Other children like me.
We both spoke to our parents in our home language. Both of my parents were from Hong Kong and spoke Cantonese and my dad also spoke Hakka. My husband’s parents, both from Taiwan, spoke Mandarin and Taiwanese. Well, how did it work then when we got married and had children? We acknowledged the very fact that English is both of our dominant language; living in London, using it to each other and when we step out of the house. We understood this but nevertheless decided together to tip the scales to favour our native languages… even if it is an excuse to eat out in China Town every so often!
Stepping into most restaurants in China Town, a waiter/waitress would speak to us in Mandarin and hear snippits of our conversation as we tell our children in each of our native languages the typical boring commands such as sit down, go and wash your hands etc. It is then that we usually see some sort of bewilderment across their face as they try to work out the languages being thrown around as if though they were thinking “Who’s speaking what? Should I have spoken Mandarin as Mum is speaking Cantonese, but no the husband did speak Mandarin…actually wait, why are they speaking English to each other?!”
It’s confusing being a trilingual family. Sometimes, now that our son is 6, we play around and try and speak the language that we are not native in. We have a laugh. It’s fun and with our stange accents speaking in the non-dominant language, it sounds so especially funny (oh Chinese and it’s abundancy of homophones)!! Of course this hasn’t always been a fun and easy journey because of the years of effort poured in before arriving at this level. However, I know that clearly with the goals that I have personally set for myself and my children, the journey won’t be stopping here. I am thankful for my husband’s understanding and that we have set goals together as a family. We know that whatever we do, deciding to speaking our language to our children, although as difficult as it has been for us personally, will be and has been worth it. It’s lovely to see that my son is able to pick up the phone and speak to his grandparents, using the heritage language about how his day was at school. We can only hope that our children will understand their bilingual journey in future years to come and if not grow a love for language learning as I have then at least continue to be able to speak to their grandparents and understand a bit more about their culture and heritage. If nothing else then then for now, the confusion the waiters/waitresses have when we visit the restaurants in China Town always makes me smile a little and remind me that our efforts are worthwhile.