I am a third-generation Chinese Filipino, and I grew up in a multilingual home. Speaking in different languages was something that came naturally because of what my siblings and I have been exposed to. I spoke Amoy (Chinese dialect) to my parents and other relatives, spoke Hiligaynon or Ilonggo (Visayan dialect) to my friends, learned and used Filipino in class, and used English for different occasions. Over the years, I’ve acquired a bit of Mandarin when I was in seminary, and learned to speak in Bisaya or Cebuano while I was working in Cebu.
We’ve used the Amoy dialect to speak to Little Miss for the first three years of her life. But she learned English and Filipino when she started school shortly after that. She now mainly converses in English, although we still try to speak to her in Chinese. She reminds me of my younger self who refused to speak Chinese because none of my peers would ever do so. I guess that is the dilemma most later generation of Chinese immigrants face. Perhaps we fail to see the practical use of speaking Chinese in the Philippines. Little Miss also learned to speak in Filipino by imitating us. Although she has a funny Chinese accent when speaking Filipino, most store clerks are surprised when a Chinese-looking little girl can actually converse in Filipino. She is a local, and she ought to speak the language!
I was asked by a mom in Instagram how to teach a second and third language to children. To be honest, I never really thought about a systematic way of doing so. But here are some practical tips we’ve applied in teaching (whether actively or unconsciously) kids any second or third (even fourth) language.
Once a child learns a certain term in one particular language, try to introduce the very same item using a different language. For example, my two-year old now knows the colors in English. I am now introducing the colors to him in Chinese when he tries to mention the words in English. Classical Education is all about content in the early stages, and it is the same with learning any language. Provide the content by defining animals, colors, places, actions, etc.
Repetition is Key
You may sound like a broken record. But that’s alright. Children learn by constant repetition. For example, if your child says “eat” you can respond by saying “kain” until they repeat it after you. Pretty soon they will realize that the same word means the same thing.
Mixing Languages is Normal
Don’t worry about them mixing up languages because that usually happens. They’ll learn to determine or categorize the words when they grow older.
You have to realize that there are different levels of fluency. It moves from Understanding, Speaking, Reading, Writing, and to Composing. Traditional Filipino schools teach English and Filipino proficiency through reading and writing. My aim for my children is to teach Chinese fluency in speaking or communicating. I don’t really mind if they don’t know how to read and write it. I’ve been schooled in Chinese for most of my school years, but I still cannot read a lot of Chinese. I’d be happy if my children learn to converse in Chinese. You have to decide how far you’d want your kids to learn a certain language. Your decision will also determine the lengths you’ll go to actively teach them proper writing or grammar rules.
Practice by Speaking
My husband and I can communicate in three languages fluently: English, Amoy, and Filipino. We usually interchange these languages at home, and the children are exposed to it. Nothing beats constant exposure and regular practice by speaking the language. The language loses its relevance when it is not being used, so keep using it if you want your children to learn the language. Simply put, if you speak it at home, your children will catch it soon enough.