I always knew my son would inevitably be bilingual, what surprised me is that neither of the languages is English and the challenges that has presented. My baby boy is three now so he’s still developing his language ability but is quiet conversational and talkative at this point. Somehow or another, he has grown up in America learning to speak Mandarin and Shandonghua.
The fact that my son doesn’t speak my language was kind of alarming. Seriously, how did that happen? Didn’t I read stories to him in English? No, not really. For the most of his babyhood, he was more interested in chewing on the book or flipping through the pages than letting me finish a sentence. I used to take him to story time at the library but that wasn’t enough. Didn’t my family speak English to him? Yes, but they rarely saw him. My friends? Wait, most of our friends speak Chinese; when did that happen? We didn’t not expose him to the world around us, but without being in daycare, his world was mostly our home and we simply don’t speak much English at home.
Not a big deal though, he will learn English when he goes to preschool, right? My first realization that my son doesn’t speak English was at the playground. He was 2 and there was a bigger 2 year old blocking him from going down the slide. The older kid was yelling at him and Kai had no idea what he was saying. Both toddlers ended up frustrated. Upon continued observations, I realized that my outgoing baby boy clams up with English speaking kids. He is very outgoing and talkative with Chinese speaking kids. In fact, he seems to come alive whenever we are in China and everyone speaks his language. This brought up two points – 1. He can quickly discern which languages people speak. 2. Not speaking English might hinder his socialization. It also affects my family. My mother has seemed to use it as another excuse to ignore him, my father gets frustrated and yells at him when he doesn’t understand, and my brother just seems sad he can’t interact as well with his nephew. Most strangers just shrug and say he’s shy when he doesn’t respond.
While it is sad that he doesn’t speak my native language, I’m utterly perplexed that he speaks my husbands. How does a child growing up in America end up speaking Shandonghua? My husband and I speak Mandarin at home. I used to speak English when it was the babies and me, but with Kai speaking to me in Mandarin, I speak it back. My Inlaws don’t speak Mandarin though. For almost half of his 3 years, my Inlaws have lived with us off and on. Apparently their influence is stronger than that of the English world around us. We also regularly video chat with relatives back in China who also only speak Shandonghua. He has not spent much time in China at all, but his language ability seemed to blossom when he first went. Chinese people seem to interact with (strangers’) children more than in the US. Among the Chinese community here, hearing him break out in a dialect is kind of an oddity.
Actually, having him speak Chinese at all is an oddity. Around here, most Chinese kids my sons age speak primarily English. My son’s closest friend is also half Chinese and a couple months younger than him. His baby years were primarily speaking Chinese. Just like Kai, his first words and sentences were in Chinese. His friend actually lived in China for almost a year before he turned 2. Then one day he turned it off and started only speaking English. That seems to happen a lot. A lot of our friends complain about their children refusing to speak Chinese. If our friends are any indication, this preference for Chibese won’t last.
We will wait and see what happens when my Chinese speaking son starts preschool in a couple weeks.