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The Difficult Task Of Raising Kids To Be Bilingual

Beth Lipoff

More and more research is coming out telling us that being bilingual is good for your brain. It makes you more competitive in a global marketplace, and for many of us, language is our strongest link to our cultural heritage. But even if you’re bilingual, when you live in an English-speaking community, it’s not always easy to pass that language on to your child.

To make the process easier many families turn to language schools, where kids learn language in a classroom setting on the weekend.

Teaching a second generation

Kansas City resident Charlie Sun came to the United States from Taiwan at eight-years-old.

"When I came over when I was in second or third grade," he says. "I noticed my Chinese abilities stopped at third grade. I don’t know if it’s psychology or if just when you’re younger, you absorb it better."

Sun is married now and has three daughters. At home, the family speaks English. Sun’s wife is not Chinese, but the couple decided before they had kids that they wanted their family to embrace Sun’s heritage.

"I want them to have the same language, to be able to speak and write a bit and have the culture and make some friends," he says.

That’s why his kids all go to the Chinese School of Greater Kansas City.

"Here in Kansas City, there’s not a lot of places you can go to have a gathering of 200 Chinese people around," says Sun. "We come here every Sunday for that."

In a sunny classroom, about a dozen kindergartners sit and learn the sounds of Chinese. Like more than more than 400 other students in the Kansas City area, they come to a Chinese school every Sunday. Most of their families have roots in China or Taiwan.

"Our mission is trying to raise kids interested in Chinese language and culture, so we expect when they bring their children over here, we like to have them to know more about our cultural varieties, so we provide them different kinds of approaches," says principal Yeong Wen, who came to the U.S. 25 years ago from Taiwan. 

Which is why the school isn’t exclusively about language. Kids can learn Chinese yo-yo and karate, celebrate the Moon Festival and the Chinese New Year and even take Chinese art classes. Wen says being bilingual offers kids an advantage in an increasingly globalized society.

"The most important thing is, like I said, this world is becoming smaller, and now there are a lot of business opportunities to Asia, especially to China, and they speak Chinese and Mandarin, and this will help them to understand, to know the country better," he says.

"It's a challenge to explain why Chinese is important"

At Charlie Sun’s house, Chinese has a specific place in their family life. When his 10-year-old daughter Sienna is working on Chinese homework, she knows her dad’s serious about it. 

Credit Beth Lipoff / KCUR
The Sun family from left to right, Sienna, Charlie and Sienna.

"Like my dad sometimes comes home and talks to us in English but then when my dad comes into the subject of doing Chinese, he talks to us in Chinese when we’re doing Chinese homework," she says.

"It’s easier just to speak English at home, so this way you don’t have to repeat yourself," says Sun."It’s a challenge to have to explain why Chinese is important to the kids. Over a billion people in China speak Chinese, so by demand, there’s a lot of people in the world that speak Chinese."

Sun says he would  like to bring his kids back to Taiwan someday for a vacation. Sienna says she’s getting better at Chinese, but talking to people in Taiwan would be challenging.

"I would probably know half of what they were saying, because I know like really easy words and some maybe like complicated words," Sienna says. "I speak really slowly trying to think of what words mean and stuff, and so like people who actually know like are from Taiwan and stuff, they know how to speak like really fast so it’s kind of hard for me to understand sometimes."

Language as a gateway 

Non-Chinese families who have adopted Chinese children come to Chinese schools too, like Joanie Porter and her three daughters. When Porter adopted each of the girls, she promised they would learn about their cultural roots.

"I think whether they’re Chinese parents or American parents with Chinese kids, we’re all there for the same reason," says Porter.

Her thirteen-year-old daughter, Sarah, says it can be tough to work on Chinese homework without parents who speak Chinese.

"I think it’s kind of hard for us to like know if we’re saying it right, because we don’t have anyone to correct us, so we could be saying the wrong thing, so we wouldn’t even know it until a week later, and by that time, we would have already memorized it," she says.

But they also have fun with it. Sarah enjoys teaching her best friend how to say things in Chinese.

"First, I taught her how to count from one to ten in Chinese, and then I taught her how to say, 'You have a rat up your nose' in Chinese, so we’ve always been saying that together," she laughs.

Becoming fluent

Kansas City Chinese Language School 6th grade teacher, Michelle Liu, says fluency will come with practice. Her main goal with students is to get them to a point where they can function in a Chinese language environment.

"I want them basically to increase their common sense about Chinese language," she says. "If they can go back to China, they can read a sign on a road or read a sign on a shop, and they can go anywhere and do some basic communication, which can be really helpful.

Liu isn’t the only one with that practical outlook. For many of the families at Chinese schools, becoming bilingual is about more than preserving the past. It’s preparing for the future.

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