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Can you do better than the Zuckerbergs? Some tips for heritage language speakers

My stepfather is a lifelong subscriber of The Times and every Friday, at our weekly family dinner, he would give me his collection of interesting newspaper cuttings from the previous week.

A couple of weeks ago, one of these news stories really caught my eye – it was an interview with Priscilla Chan, where she talks about a wide range of topics, from her charitable foundation to the Zuckerberg’s family life. My stepdad had very usefully highlighted one section of the article, where Priscilla confesses that unfortunately, she and Mark have not been able to bring up their kids to be bilingual, despite their best intentions – Priscilla was born to Chinese parents and can speak Mandarin and Cantonese (supposedly… more on this later), while Mark Zuckerberg has publicly talked about his effort to learn Mandarin and has even given an interview in Chinese.

Priscilla wryly adds that she and Mark try to give their kids a “multi-cultural” upbringing instead, meaning having Chinese food on Sabbath days, and Mark saying Jewish prayers with the kids in Mandarin at bedtime.

I was frankly quite astonished to learn that the Zuckerbergs, with all the resources and help at their disposal, have not managed to bring up their kids to be bilingual!

To this, my stepdad replied: “But they’re just a family, like everyone else!”

So how come a family like the Zuckerberg, with a net worth of US$79.4 billion (as of April 2022), has failed to achieve something that countless other ordinary families have achieved?

Obviously, I don’t know the Zuckerbergs personally (in case you were wondering!), but based on what we do know about the world-famous couple, let’s try to figure out why things didn’t work out for them and what you can do differently to successfully raise bilingual/ multilingual children!

First of all, the Zuckerbergs’ situation is actually far from unique. Their problem is typical of many heritage speakers who want to raise bilingual children, but are perhaps held back by their lack of proficiency in the target language.

OK, I think we all know that Mark is not a native Chinese speaker, although he does speak it pretty well judging from the Tsinghua University interview. But how about Priscilla?

According to Wikipedia, her parents are Vietnamese Chinese immigrants who moved to the US in refugee boats. Priscilla herself was born in the US in 1985. She grew up speaking Cantonese, and is supposedly fluent in both Mandarin and Cantonese (and Spanish too, according to Wikipedia).

But having watched this video, I hope it is not too unkind to say that most Chinese speakers would agree that Priscilla’s Mandarin is not exactly… fluent? Which is, of course, totally understandable, considering she was born in the US and has spent all her life there!

My husband and I have lots of Australian and British friends with Asian backgrounds who speak their parents’ languages to various degrees of fluency. When they had children of their own, many of them had the intention to bring them up to be fluent in those heritage languages, but one recurring theme was that it just somehow “doesn’t come naturally” to them, for the simple reason that they themselves grew up in an English-speaking country and rarely get to speak their heritage languages except when communicating with their parents, which makes it much harder to actively use those languages with their own kids.

The same is probably true for Priscilla. Having being raised and educated in the US, English is without a doubt her dominant language. Being already one step removed from her “mother tongue” probably just makes it that much harder to commit to using that language with her own children.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Are you a heritage speaker of your parents’ language who grew up in an English-speaking country, and are now trying but struggling a little to raise your child to be bilingual?

What actions can you take to maximise your chances of success?

1. Evaluate your linguistic ability honestly and set realistic goals.

Needless to say, not all heritage speakers are the same! Some speak their heritage languages with native-like fluency, while others may only feel comfortable having basic conversations.

You need to evaluate your linguistic ability and decide for yourself if it’s realistic for you to raise your child to be bilingual. Do you feel comfortable using the heritage language with your child exclusively? Can you (more or less) effortlessly communicate all your thoughts, feelings and emotions in the target language?

I’m not saying that you need to be a native-level speaker, or that you must have a flawless native-like accent. It’s okay to stumble occasionally when you’re trying to recall a very specific but trivial word (e.g. what’s the Chinese word for “clothes peg”??)! But you do need to be fluent to a certain level, where you feel comfortable using this language day-in, day-out.

If you think you’re not quite there yet, but are confident that you can improve with more practice, I’d say go for it – you can always improve your language skills at any age. More on this later.

However, if you are far from fluent, it may not be realistic to aim to use the target language at home exclusively with your child, as being able to communicate with your child should rightly take priority over language learning. However, this doesn’t mean you can’t teach them target-language words that you know, and try to help them learn the target language in other ways, such as enrolling them in a weekend language school.

Remember that there are being “bilingual” is not a monolithic concept – any degree of proficiency in a language is better than none!

2. Be consistent!!!

So, if you’ve decided that you are sufficiently fluent and are comfortable using the target language with your child, then absolutely you should just go for it. And by this I mean you should use the target language with your child ALL THE TIME.

In my book and my other blog posts, I have explained at length why consistency is the number one key to bilingual success. But just to sum it up quickly – consistency is important to ensure a) sufficient exposure to the language; b) there’s a concrete need for the child to use the language.

In practice, this means that you should always talk to your child in the target language, and also make sure that they reply to you in the target language, if indeed your goal is for your child to be an active speaker of the language and not just have a passive knowledge of the language.

However, if you find yourself getting into the situation whereby you habitually speak to your child in the target language, and your child habitually replies in English – a very common “problem” for bilingual families – there are lots of things you can do to activate your child’s expressive (i.e. speaking the language) language ability. Check out my book and also this blog post for some practical tips!

3. Improve your own language skills

As a heritage speaker, it is quite likely that your language skills are not quite at the same level as those of a native speaker, especially when it comes to reading and writing. If you just want your child to be able to understand and speak the target language, then literacy may not be such an important factor for you.

However, if you’d like your child to learn to read and write in the target language, or even just to acquire a more sophisticated vocabulary, then I’d really urge you to improve your own language skills so you can read with your child and help them develop those valuable literacy skills.

These days, learning a language has arguably never been easier – there are literally countless resources online right at your fingertips. Gone are the days when you had to physically go to a classroom and sit there for 2 hours a week to learn a language!

But as a busy, modern parent, time is probably the one thing that you don’t seem to ever have enough of. So don’t be over-ambitious and try to study for an hour a day – 15 minutes of studying a day, done consistently, can yield excellent long-term results.

There are countless videos on YouTube that will help you develop your own language learning routine, so I won’t go into too much detail here. My number one tip is to make sure you do something in the target language for 10-15 minutes every day – this can be something as simple as listening to a podcast while you wash the dishes, or reading one short article in the target language during your lunch break.

If you need a tutor to help you stay on track, I highly recommend the iTalki website (Disclaimer: I have NOT been paid by them!!!), where you can find language teachers who offer affordable language lessons. I myself have been using iTalki for learning Russian for a few years and cannot recommend it highly enough!

I hope today’s blog post has given you some useful tips on how to raise bilingual kids as a heritage speaker. While raising bilingual/ multilingual kids is certainly not easy - even for billionaires like the Zuckerbergs – with persistence and the right approach, you can definitely do it!


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