Tongues of potential

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am

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My husband and I are trying to raise trilingual children, but I'm not sure how well we are doing. I see parents and families doing just that every day, and it all seems so easy as they banter back and forth in different languages.

In theory it should be just as easy for my husband and me. We speak different mother tongues, and we live in China, with all the possibilities for raising a child fluent in Putonghua that our geographical location allows.

And yet it doesn't seem to have worked out that way. At least it isn't proving to be as easy as we once believed. While pregnant with our first child, I read pretty much everything there was to read on raising bilingual children. And everything I read suggested that this was an easy thing to do, as long as you started early; that is, when the baby was born.

It seemed to be simply a case of each parent communicating with the child or children in their own native language, as well as filling the house with books, music and DVDs in each language. Nearly everything I read stressed that a child's native accent was set before they are a couple of months old, and that if not exposed to a language early enough, they would never master a native accent. I believed it at the time and tried to make my husband believe it, too - even though his sister, whose parents do not speak English, speaks fluent English with an American accent honed from years of watching US television shows.

Unfortunately, our children speak just one language fluently, English. My first language is English, and my mother's first language is English. (She lives just two blocks down from us.) It is also the language our children use to converse with our helpers, the language they use with most of their friends, and the language they use at school. Even when we get together with friends from my husband's home country, the children tend to talk and play in English because it is the language wherever they go and whatever they do in Hong Kong.

And it is also the language my husband increasingly uses with our children. As our family has grown, and his career with it, the time he spends at home has decreased, so it is more precious. That means he is less inclined to spend that precious time trying to get our English-speaking children to understand Hebrew, his language.

Our eldest child understands the most of what his father is saying when he reverts to Hebrew. His understanding is pretty good, and the older he gets, the more interest he seems to show in his father's language and culture. Our daughter, on the other hand, knows only the occasional word. And the baby's exposure so far as been limited.

It isn't all my husband's fault. If I spoke Hebrew, the children would also, and it would be another language we could all share. And much as I would love to learn more of it, I don't have the time. So, making our children trilingual is proving more difficult than my husband and I ever imagined.

This has led us to increasingly pin our hopes on our children's Putonghua skills. As a family that call Hong Kong home and with no plans to leave, we believe it is essential that our children speak the language of our neighbours to the north. This may be ambitious considering neither my husband nor I speak any Putonghua, but we are forging ahead regardless.

In the next couple of years, our children will enter primary school, and the classes they take will propel them into a world of reading and writing in Putonghua. And the after-school classes we will pay for will be a small price for fluency in the language.

Just last week our five-year-old insisted on showing us how he can write the Chinese character for 'fish', and then went on to teach all of us the Putonghua word for fish. We were all quite proud of that. And while it is a small start, at least it is a start.

The challenge facing my husband and me in teaching all three of them his native language is an entirely different hurdle. And short of my mother-in-law moving in with us, it is something that is going to continue to challenge us as parents as our children grow.

Rebecca Tomasis is a mother of three and was co-winner of the inaugural Proverse Prize for unpublished writers