GeekDad Goes to Taiwan: Bilingual Kids

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image: Jonathan Liuimage: Jonathan Liu

image: Jonathan Liu

I’m an ABC: American-Born Chinese, but my parents taught me and my siblings the language and as much of the culture as they could in the United States. I’m fluent but not really literate, and my knowledge of various festivals and holidays is mostly limited to the types of foods associated with each one. But I do strongly identify myself as being Chinese-American, and it’s really important to me to pass my cultural identity along to my own kids. The tricky thing is, my wife is Caucasian and only speaks a smidgen of Mandarin, and my kids are growing up in rural Kansas, which is not known for its abundance of Chinese folks. What’s a GeekDad to do?

I’ve read a bunch about raising bilingual kids so I’m convinced of the benefits. I won’t bore you with them here, but there are things like improved language skills, abstract reasoning, literacy, and even (for tonal languages like Chinese) perfect pitch. Not to mention being able to communicate with relatives who speak English as a second language or not at all. Of course, I also know all the recommendations: speak the language at home (exclusively, if possible); find peers for your kids who speak the same language; start young. I did manage to start young–I’ve been speaking Chinese to my kids since they were born–but the others aren’t really possible for me. (I opted against one couple’s solution: the mother spoke French exclusively in her daughter’s presence until the daughter was about twelve; until then, she didn’t even realize her mom could speak English.)

So, this summer I decided to take my five-year-old to Taiwan for three weeks (hopefully the wife and two-year-old will get to join us on the next trip). It’s not total immersion–I’m here after all, and lots of people understand at least a little English–but it’s a chance for her to be surrounded by Chinese for a few weeks, both the language and the culture. As a bonus, my mom’s friend has a six-year-old who only speaks a tiny amount of English and the two of them have been having a grand time together.

I’ll write some more about our trip as we go; so far we’ve been here almost a week and my daughter’s already speaking more Chinese than before. Of course, when she talks to me she still chatters away in English, but there definitely has been some improvement.

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