Bilingual and struggling
A bilingual parent tries to keep a native tongue alive at home, a problem faced by many immigrants.
(Page 3 of 3)
Parents like me still think there's a way to retain language in the US despite the odds.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Anthony Henriquez, 8, and his brother Jason, 5, sit at the dinner table in their Fremont, Calif., home doing homework. The conversation is a mixture of Spanish and English. Doli Henriquez, the boys' mother, says she's proud that her kids speak Spanish well and do so without pressure. Anthony plops on the couch next to his mother and says he thinks in English but dreams in Spanish. "I feel comfortable in both languages and no one ever makes fun when I speak it at school. But it's the best when we go back to El Salvador," he says of the trips the family makes.
For the immigrants whose countries are not at war and who can afford it, frequent trips to their native land can be the answer. But it doesn't seem wise to return with my daughters to a war zone like Afghanistan.
"From the day they were born, I have always told them when you're at home, you have to speak Farsi," Mr. Ahang says. "When they say something in English, we don't answer them back. They hear five to 10 times a day, 'Say it in Farsi.' When they don't know a word, they ask."
Ahang says their friends call the couple "the language police," but he and his wife are making their children's lives difficult now so that they can communicate better in the future. He says language retention was a matter of preserving cultural identity at first, but now it's the usefulness of knowing more than one language that drives the couple.
Language-immersion schools grow
In the San Francisco Bay Area, the rise of the Asian population has been accompanied by an increase in language-immersion schools. Zhenxi Dai and Yunfang Qian began their Chinese school from their home in 1998 with 10 to 20 students. They now have up to 100 students of Chinese descent enrolled.
Hieu Ta and Cindy Huang-Ta's children, Chloe, 8, and Alex, 6, were learning Mandarin in Ms. Qian's school before the family moved to Los Gatos, Calif. Ms. Huang-Ta has spoken to her children in Mandarin since they were born. Their first words were in Chinese, but as they get older, English is becoming more prominent. The couple researched more than a dozen Chinese schools before choosing Qian's, but their move to Los Gatos three months ago, where there are no daily Chinese schools, has distanced the kids further from Mandarin.
"It's a total struggle. We got a lot of advice from a lot of different people, and the vast majority said [teaching a second language] does not work," says Huang-Ta, a software engineer.
Their friends told them the best way for the children to retain Chinese is to live in China, and the couple may do that someday. But for now, Chloe and Alex go to a weekly Chinese school 10 minutes away.
As for my own family, we're going to follow Ahang's advice and continue to be the Farsi police.
One recent day in the car, Bonoo picked up a book and began to count the images she saw in Farsi, "Yak, do, se [one, two, three]." I grabbed my camera and pressed the video button. Ten years from now, if she refuses to speak Farsi to me, I can replay it and remember the moment when she could rattle off numbers in her mother tongue.