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Bilingual Families

Bilingual Families: Lan

In the Bay Area, many families are bilingual or even multilingual, I believe this is a great gift but it can come with some challenges, not to mention that multilingualism often goes hand in hand with multiculturalism. I personally didn't think too much about it until my daughter started going to preschool. Then I had a lot of questions on the subject and I started asking the bilingual families around me to know how they were approaching the subject. Of course, there is not a one-fit-all approach to bilingualism, it depends a lot on your family, your objectives, and your life plans but seeing what other families are doing can help you think about the subject and maybe find ideas that can work for your family.

For the first interview of this series, I interviewed Lan. With her husband, they are the parents of 5-year-old Sophie and 3-year-old Thomas. They lived in Pleasanton for 10 years before moving to the South Bay last year. Their family has Vietnamese, French, Japanese, and American roots so this was really interesting to see how they are dealing with 4 different languages and cultures.

Where are you from and what languages did you speak growing up?

Lan - My parents originally immigrated from Vietnam and relocated to France during their twenties. It was there that they crossed paths, married, and subsequently welcomed my sister and me into the world. For nearly 18 years, I resided in France before embarking on a journey to the United States. Throughout my upbringing, my father was resolute in ensuring that we acquired proficiency in Vietnamese. Surprisingly, despite being born in France, I did not develop fluency in French until the age of five when I entered school.

Prior to our enrollment in school, a pediatrician recommended that we preserve the Vietnamese language. Consequently, they exclusively conversed with us in Vietnamese during our formative years. My mother experienced a sense of embarrassment when the school staff inquired about my birthplace, to which she promptly replied, "Oh no, she was born and raised in France." I’m glad that my parents stuck with their plan and continued speaking to me in Vietnamese.

Did you live in a Vietnamese community in France at that time?

My parents were the proprietors of a Vietnamese restaurant, where my father managed the business side and my mother became the accidental cook. With their business expanding, the demand for additional assistance became apparent, leading them to enlist the aid of relatives hailing from the Netherlands. Thus, I was raised in the midst of a vibrant extended family, and our shared language of communication was Vietnamese.

In France, restaurants stay open until the late hours of the evening, in stark contrast to the practices observed in the United States. Consequently, my parents would retire to bed around 3 or 4 a.m., necessitated by the demands of their establishment. Given this exhausting schedule and their desire to spend time with me, my father decided to forego my enrollment in preschool, which is optional anyway. As a result, I was not exposed to the French language until first grade.

What about your husband's language and culture?

Born in Japan, my husband is the son of a Japanese mother and an American father, who, serving in the military, serendipitously crossed paths with his mother during his time stationed in Japan. When he was one year old, the family relocated to San Diego. Despite being born in Japan, my husband laments his inability to speak Japanese. It is something that he and his siblings regret.

Their beloved grandmother and uncle, who reside in Japan, communicate solely in Japanese, leaving behind a treasure trove of familial heritage and stories that remain largely unknown due to the language barrier. Though we initially sought aid from Google Translate, which served as a starting point, it proved inadequate in fully unraveling the intricacies of the family's rich history.

Was he exposed to Japanese culture?

He was somewhat exposed to it. His mom was isolated when she came here. They first moved to San Diego and then to the Central Valley which has basically no Asians. Their mom exposed them to Japanese food and when the kids were about 10 years old, their grandparents would buy them round-trip tickets to visit them in Japan. These trips exposed them to the culture and foods of Japan.

And what about you, do you know a lot about Vietnamese culture?

Surprisingly not. Although I can speak and write Vietnamese, I was not exposed to the culture itself. When the restaurant business ended, we were isolated in France. My parents’ next business also required long working hours and we didn't have time to attend community events.

Do you feel like your parents wanted you to know the Vietnamese culture or did they want you to be immersed in French culture?

My father, a proud Vietnamese individual, is deeply proud of his heritage. He desired to preserve both the culture and the language. Since we lived in France, my parents believed that we would learn the French culture by osmosis. Vietnamese culture has always captivated my interest, particularly when observing the Vietnamese diaspora in America. Unlike some other cultures, Vietnamese communities in America do not exhibit such strong interconnections. It seems like this lack of cohesion stems from a fundamental mistrust that exists among Vietnamese individuals. The war, which divided the nation into two factions, played a significant role in this. There were those who embraced the newly formed Vietnamese country under communist rule, while others remained loyal to the anti-communist government that previously governed. This created a stark division between the North and the South. In that era, individuals were encouraged to report on their neighbors, fostering an atmosphere of mutual distrust. Consequently, even within their own families, people became wary of one another, unsure of who might betray their secrets. As a result, the Vietnamese community lacks the tight-knit unity often seen in other communities.

When you and your husband decided to have kids, did you have a plan regarding the languages and culture you wanted your kids to be raised in?

Our approach to language acquisition was deliberate, prompted by my husband's profound regret regarding his lack of fluency in Japanese. It is remarkable how early influences can shape one's trajectory. His American family, convinced that speaking another language would lead to confusion and reduced intelligence, advised his mother to exclusively converse in English. Unfortunately, when his mother eventually attempted to introduce Japanese when he was around 10 or 12 years old, the children, including my husband, resisted the language. The timing seemed too late, and ultimately, his mother relinquished the endeavor.

Subsequently, during their college years, both my husband and my brother-in-law embarked on Japanese language lessons, with my husband even pursuing a minor in the subject and my brother-in-law relocating to Japan for a year. Alas, their efforts proved insufficient to grasp Japanese as a second language comprehensively.

When I was expecting our daughter, we engaged in thoughtful deliberation regarding our language preferences. We agreed that our foremost priority would be for French to serve as the second language. To ensure consistency, we made a pact that each of us would adhere to our respective languages: my husband speaking English to the children, while I would exclusively communicate with them in French unless we were conversing together.

During our family meals, the majority of our conversations unfold in French (the kids’ primary language is French), occasionally transitioning to English. Despite my husband's lack of proficiency in French, he understands the necessity to adapt to this. Sometimes he can feel left out of the conversation but he recognizes the long-term goal of fostering our children's French fluency.

Furthermore, we thought it would be beneficial for the kids to hear French adults speaking to each other. Consequently, my mother, who possesses fluency in both French and Vietnamese, embraced the decision for us to communicate in French during our interactions. In parallel, my father undertook the responsibility of conversing with the children in Vietnamese.

How did you come up with this plan, did you read books on the subject or was it based on your experience?

Our plan was both based on experience and literature on the subject. Our key principles were:

  • Expose the second language to the kids as early as possible. The longer you wait, the more resistance you face.
  • Be strategic on the language you choose: we chose French mainly because it’s a language I can reinforce more easily. My Vietnamese is not as strong as my French, so we did not choose Vietnamese. We did not prioritize Japanese because only my mother-in-law speaks it. She doesn’t see the kids enough to reinforce it.
  • Use TV to your own benefit. I make the kids watch TV in French.
  • Peer pressure. Whenever possible, we try to immerse the kids in a language. For instance, on our last trip to Japan, we encouraged our kids to spend as much time with their cousins. I was surprised by how much Japanese they picked up!

After the birth of your children, were there things that you did not expect that happened?

I was pleasantly surprised, and continue to be amazed, by the rapidity with which children can acquire a new language. Sophie started daycare when she was five months old and quickly learned to speak English there. Unfortunately, my demanding work schedule limited my ability to engage in much French conversation with her. However, when the Covid pandemic hit and we found ourselves confined to home, she became fully immersed in a French-speaking environment. I recall watching a video captured of her two months prior to the pandemic. In the video, she calls me "Mama" and then speaks in English. However, in a video taken two months after the onset of the pandemic, she’s only speaking French and calls me “maman”! It truly is astounding how children can shift from one language to another!

Was it a choice to have an English-speaking daycare?

I would have considered a French daycare but options were limited. The priorities were safety, a fun and loving environment, and extended hours so we could work. Language was secondary.

For elementary school, when you moved to the South Bay did you think about going to a French school?

Attending a bilingual school has always been in the back of my mind. Because there were so many things happening at the same time when we moved, we ran out of time before I even did the research. I found out my daughter was eligible to join TK at a school across the street from our home. That quickly ended the search.

However, for Thomas, I actually considered a French preschool but I decided to cross out that idea because I felt like the area wasn't safe enough.

I do a lot of things at home to keep their French strong. For example, when the kids get to watch TV, it's in French. We subscribed to Disney+, the top reason was because they had content in French. I have cousins in the Netherlands and I was surprised by how good their English was. Because in the Netherlands they don’t dub TV shows or movies, it’s all in English and because they watch so much TV, they pick it up. This made me realize how influential TV can be in terms of language.

Reading is around the corner for Sophie, do you think she will need help learning to read in French? What's your plan?

She's taking French lessons at the Alliance Française in Los Gatos. I’m letting her French teacher handle this part. She started taking lessons there last fall. It's a small group, there's one teacher for 3 or 4 kids and it's wonderful. It's 45 minutes a week which I think is just the right spot: not too long but enough to keep and improve her language. It's also great because now they have a little community of French-speaking friends.

Do you think she is receptive to all the languages? Does she like all the languages or does she have a preference?

Yes, I think she's very receptive to it. I believe there's a gender effect to it. It seems to me that girls tend to be more social, they want to connect and therefore they're willing to learn other languages.

I also have incentives for her. For example, I tell her “You and I, we have a secret language. If she’s uncomfortable with someone, she can easily communicate with me without anyone knowing. I think she likes that, the secret language with Mom. We also discuss future plans for trips to France and she's excited to go there. And I also think that having French-speaking friends is a good incentive.

Is it the same for Vietnamese? Do you think your children understand it and are they able to speak the language?

Thomas can understand Vietnamese more than Sophie, because he has more face time with his grandparents. During the covid shutdown, we didn't have the opportunity to see my parents that much, except for outings at the park, so Sophie lost exposure. Now Sophie has expressed an interest in learning how to speak Vietnamese. She said, “Can you teach me Vietnamese?” And I told her, “Well, okay, well maybe we can have grandma switch back to Vietnamese with you” and take Vietnamese classes.

Do you try to integrate French, Vietnamese, or Japanese culture into your life?

I'm closest to French culture. I try to pass along French food because I'm a baker and a cook too. My children know a lot about French food. We also read stories about Paris and France.

Vietnamese culture has been a bit more challenging for me. Because I'm a second generation I don’t know as much as someone born there.But as we live in the Bay Area and there are many Vietnamese families, I feel like I'm actually learning the Vietnamese culture now, at this stage of my life. There's Vietnam town in San Jose and some of my friends have brought me there. I've been learning how to eat more authentic Vietnamese cuisine. It was funny because I saw my sister yesterday and then she said, “Where would you go for Vietnamese soup?” And I said, “Oh Vietnam town has a lot of good restaurants” and she said, “I’ve never been here”. I think Sophie knows more about Vietnamese food than I think I did at her age just because of how much we eat out now.

Are they curious a little bit about Japan?

Yes, they are very curious. We've been to Japan twice since Sophie was born and on our last trip, she was older, she was five. She's very curious about our family in Japan. She got to visit the country, she loves the food there and actually, she knows a lot about Japanese food, even more than French food, because Sophie enjoys Asian cuisine.

How do the kids describe themselves, do they know they come from mixed backgrounds?

When you ask Sophie, she'll say, “I'm a little Japanese, I'm a little French, I'm a little Vietnamese, I'm a little Irish”. I found out through genetic testing that I'm half Chinese. So now she adds “And I’m a little Chinese”.

And does it feel normal to her or does she feel different from other kids?

I think we're very lucky here because it's quite diverse in the Bay Area so here it's very normal to be a mix of something, which is wonderful. I think, for me, when I grew up in France, we were the only Vietnamese in my school, and so I felt very different, whereas for her she is just part of that batch you know. I think that's great, she doesn't feel like she doesn't belong, she is just another kid. And I try to make her feel like this is very special, you have this whole unique background and so you'll be able to learn like the best of every culture that you have knowledge of. I think she feels proud.

Do you have any tips for parents who are expecting bilingual or multicultural children? And is there anything you would have done differently?

I think my first tip is don't be afraid about confusing your child. I had seen data before having children of my own, regarding intelligence level and the child's exposure to languages. They had shown that in the beginning, they might look slower because they're exposed to all these languages but after that, their growth curve is deeper and then they can bypass someone who only speaks one language. So I think knowing that study was reassuring for me that I was doing the right thing and I was not confusing my child. I mean, yes, it might seem like she was confused in the beginning, because for each word she had to know it in different languages. So, I expected that and I did not get scared, and I felt very confident. I think a lot of parents, especially first generation here, kind of missed that opportunity because they are just so scared about confusing their child.

My second tip is to start as soon as possible. There is just less resistance when they're younger. They are curious and open, you can teach them anything and then the longer you wait, the harder it is.

My third tip is to try to have immersive trips in the other country. I have a Vietnamese friend, she came here to get married to her American husband. When I met her two years ago in Pleasanton, she only spoke English to her kids, which was really surprising to me because she's straight from Vietnam so her English was not perfect but she was only speaking to her kids in English, because she was also scared about the confusion. Then, as time went by, she was hoping to teach Vietnamese to them, but she didn't know how. Last summer, she went to Vietnam for two months and I told her, “You know, this is the best opportunity, they're gonna be exposed to family 24/7, switch to Vietnamese only, because of the peer pressure of the family, I bet they will respond to you in Vietnamese” and it worked like a charm. She missed the first five years but this was not too late they just needed a long exposure. Peer pressure is actually really important and you should use it to your own advantage. So finding friends, going for a long trip in the country of interest and staying with family, it’s important. You don't want to stay in an American hotel and go with your American friends, that's just gonna kill it. Sophie started speaking Japanese because when we spent one week with my husband’s family, they only spoke Japanese and she stayed with her Japanese cousins. So the kids were learning Japanese and kind of responding back to them. I mean, they learned so fast, it's amazing. So my advice would be to try to do those fully immersive trips.

Lan’s favorites

Favorite kids stores

Family favorite places to eat

Favorite places to have fun

Favorite family-oriented online resources