A few close friends and family know that I have been a little on edge about my daughter’s language development due to the fact that when we walk outside everyone’s child is monolingual and they seem to possess a higher language ability than my own daughter. This creates unnecessary worry and anxiety in me than I need, but I have been asking around and learning different opinions and facts on this. For the record, my daughter is fine, and I am not worried that she will speak well when she is ready. In fact, as we speak her budding language ability is showing.
I was born into a monolingual English-speaking family, and have always had a fascination with languages. I took Spanish for seven years in middle and high school, a year and a half of Japanese in university, and even studied Korean through the Korean Integration and Immigration program. Currently, I am studying Tibetan when I have time and absorbing whatever Chinese I hear while I go about my day. My husband was also born into a monolingual Tibetan-speaking family, although he is bilingual in Chinese as the education system and current environment is such that most people will learn Chinese as required to function in society.
The most important language point for me with our daughter has been that I do not want her to speak Chinese in our home. We live in Chengdu, so we are surrounded by Chinese language speakers when we walk outside the house every day. Many people suggest she should go to preschool here, but my husband and I are both against it until she is at least five years old. One of the biggest reasons is language acquisition. I know for a fact that the moment she enters any type of school here her first language will become Chinese. If we end up staying here long-term, she will eventually learn Chinese and will pick it up anyways naturally while outside the house. However, if it is her first language it becomes a problem, as I do not speak much Chinese. And my husband does not want her to speak it if we can avoid it. It is really important to both of us that she learns to speak English and Tibetan.
Personally, I am not worried about English as much as her ability to understand and speak Tibetan. The amount of English learning resources is astounding and easily available here. I can put on English TV shows, we read English books together every day. If we stay she will learn English in school as well. I am the only English speaker in my daughter’s life most days, my husband also speaks some English to her at times. However, since I am at work during the week she hears English less than she used to which will eventually impact language development I am just not sure how. My hope is she is able to speak to both sets of grandparents in their respective languages so she can build relationships with them and experience both cultures through them as she grows older.
Why is Tibetan so important? It is a minority language with few resources available for children. Add on to this the fact that there is a wide variation in the spoken language it can be hard to find content for her which is in her father’s dialect. So, I try to buy children’s books in Tibetan, my parents have sent me some as well. We watch songs and tv shows in Tibetan if I can find them, however, spoken Tibetan is either in the Exile dialect, Lhasa dialect, or Amdo dialect. I haven’t come across any Kham dialect. I think it will give her a chance to understand different dialects as she is exposed to them and luckily she has really liked a lot of these videos. She is a huge fan of one Tibetan alphabet video in particular. Incubating our minority language in the city has been hard as my husband is the only Native speaker around her and I also speak it in front of her.
I sometimes wonder if it is because we do not have one family language that her language development is a little behind others. Is it because we mix Tibetan and English in the house that it may be confusing? Will she catch up with her peers? Will she lag behind them later in life by not being as fluent in her languages? I have asked around in a few wechat and facebook groups about bilingual children to see when most kids began talking. Many say around two years old or closer to three years old. And although speech development experts say there is not a delay in language acquisition in bilinguals, real-life anecdotes seem to prove that wrong. I know a few parents with bilingual or multilingual children who do speak at the same time as their monolingual peers. At times, it makes me wonder why she is a little slower to speak. Is it because she was a preemie? Is it because I am not teaching her enough? Do I need to point and talk more? Do I need to sit and drill language? Am I overanalyzing because social media and life outside make me feel like I am not doing something right?
I know I am overthinking this language development. I plan to let it be and watch her develop until she is about two and a half and if at that time if I think she needs help then I will look into a speech pathologist. But most people I know said closer to two and a half and three their kids had an explosion of language and now they are fine. I find that this path is a new one to me as although I considered myself raising a bilingual child, I am actually raising a multilingual child and it is starting to show. She speaks words in three different languages, which at times to me may have only sounded like a random babble sound, but could mean something in a different language such as Tibetan or Chinese. My Tibetan is low- intermediate and my Chinese is basic, so there is quite a lot of vocabulary I am missing. My husband and I are able to hear different words that she uses based on our own language abilities, which I find fascinating in and of itself.
My daughter speaks most of her words in Tibetan, then English, and finally Chinese. She currently mixes all of her words in three languages. Ask her, “Where is the dog?” And she will say, ‘Daaw” and point in the direction, sometimes she will add the syllable, ‘na’, which is from Tibetan and short from ‘gi na’ or over there. She only says thank you in Chinese. The word mom is mostly ‘Ama’ which is the Tibetan word for mom, although sometimes she will say, ‘Mama’ and rarely, ‘Mom.’ The word for dad is almost always, ‘Daddy’ and sometimes, ‘Apa’ the Tibetan word for dad. My husband wants her to say Apa more, but it is mostly Daddy. It has made me pause and think about why she uses Tibetan for me and English for him and it dawned on me that perhaps it has to do with her association with each person who uses the language to refer to the other. I use English mostly with Soby, but sometimes I use Tibetan. However, when I refer to her father it is always, Daddy, and then followed by Apa. Whereas when he speaks Tibetan he refers to me as, Ama, and if he speaks English he will say Mama or Mommy. So the word she hears most often for us is in the opposite language and is the reason she most likely defaults that way to how she calls us.
To be honest, I feel I did not pay enough attention to her language development until the long break I had in October. It made me realize that perhaps she has been communicating with us and we have not understood her, because she does speak three languages. She hears three languages daily. Although we know she understands Tibetan and English, we do not know to what degree she understands Chinese at this moment. I feel guilty knowing I may not have tried hard enough to understand her at times or open my ears more to the possibility of sounds she was and is producing. Raising a child is truly a journey. I am always learning something new from her and viewing the world differently.
So here we are at the end of October and her language development is budding, it may not be where some children are at this age, but she is on her way. I believe her language ability will keep budding and eventually she will surprise us with her ability to communicate more easily. I really look forward to that. The ability to communicate with each other and understand what she wants to say and express. I imagine it is frustrating trying to talk to the world and nobody quite understands what you are on about. Language development is really interesting and loving languages has made me realize that we are on this multilingual journey together as we navigate through the world with the languages around us.