A child can be bilingual if the parents speak both Asian and English languages at home. But there are unusual circumstances.
“Most of the third-generation Japanese Americans don’t speak Japanese,” said Charlene Grinolds.
“After the war, our parents wanted us to be American. Even if they sent kids to Japanese School, they spoke English at home.” The internment experiences of Japanese American parents during World War II discouraged many to immerse their kids in their Japanese heritage, including the language, for fear of being labeled as un-American.
Chang-Rae Lee, a bestselling author who doesn’t speak Korean, said, “My parents felt that there’s no use in learning Korean [in America].” His parents who had deliberately not taught Lee Korean, perceived that English is the gateway to success in mainstream America. Ironically, much of the subject matter in Lee’s books deals with Korean history, culture, and society.
Another example is my young friend’s immigrant parents from Taiwan, who opposed her majoring in Chinese and international trade in college. They preferred for their daughter to be an engineer.
However, my friend argued that China is now a major power and that speaking Chinese is an asset.
After much persuasion, her parents relented.
Why is learning one’s cultural tongue challenging? “It certainly would have been easier to pick up Korean as a child,” said Martha Choe, an American-born Korean and chief administrative officer for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Her parents didn’t encourage her to speak Korean. “Despite taking Korean language at the UW, it was hard for me to apply it because I was speaking English all the time.”
“In retrospect, I would have gone to an immersion program for a summer in Korea during college,” said Choe.
I have another immigrant friend whose children don’t understand any Chinese at all. My observation is that she wanted to learn English herself. By speaking English with her kids, she could improve her English skills, but it was at the expense of her kids being unable to keep their native language.
Another challenge for Chinese Americans is deciding which dialect to learn since there are more than a hundred dialects.
“I don’t know why people expect me to speak Mandarin or Cantonese,” said Ron Chew, an American-born Chinese and executive director for the International Clinic Health Services Foundation.
“One, I was raised in America. Two, the Chinese immigrants I grew up among didn’t speak either Cantonese or Mandarin. They spoke the village Chinese that I still speak. Many of the new immigrants who have come from Taishan also speak it as their first language.” Both Mandarin and Cantonese sound like foreign languages to Chew.
“That’s why for many American-born Chinese like myself, English becomes the language of choice during conversations,” Chew explained. ♦