By Marge Wang
For Northwest Asian Weekly
As residents of Seattle and nearby areas, we enjoy many pleasant parks with a variety of features such as hiking trails, rose gardens, ball fields, and wading pools. Most of these parks have playgrounds where one can often see Asian grandparents watching little children. However, I noticed that spoken communication between these two generations is rare.
The grandparents look bored and forlorn as they sit on the benches. They do get up once in a while to help their grandkids climb up the slides or to push them on the swings. The children almost always speak in English, while the grandparents answer with a few English words like, “No! No!” or “Sit down!” or “We go home now.”
I have talked to some of these grandparents. They all say that they miss their home countries and their friends. They feel isolated as their sons and daughters are off at work and they are left with grandkids who do not want to speak their native Asian language. I can empathize with them because my own children do not speak Chinese well, although they can understand many words.
When my husband and I were raising our children in the 1960s and 1970s, the emphasis was on making sure that immigrants’ children were fluent in English. There was also the misconception that learning two languages at one time would be confusing for the children.
In reality, young children learn new languages effortlessly compared to adults. Families are fortunate when they have ‘built-in resources,’ like grandparents who speak another language. It would be a pity to take the easy way out by speaking only English.
Thank goodness there is a growing awareness of the advantages of being bilingual. Studies show that bilingualism increases divergent thinking, concept formation, and general reasoning. Another benefit is in employment, where bilingual skills are necessary for many jobs in government, marketing and sales, banking, transport, tourism, and teaching.
There’s a cute joke about two little mice hiding behind their mother when they saw a cat coming their way. Immediately, mama mouse confronted the cat with a loud “Woof! Woof!” This startled the cat so much that he turned and ran away. Mama mouse then said to the little mice, “See, it pays to speak another language!”
The 21st century has major challenges. What is most important is the peaceful and harmonious co-existence of the different peoples in our world. Speaking one another’s language is a good starting point. It can only lead to greater mutual understanding and respect. How cool is that! ♦