“How do you say water?” (Family Fridays)

I’m so excited to introduce our next installment of “Family Fridays.” JK is my best friend from college waaaay back in the day! Even after more than a decade living apart, we still keep in touch. She lives with her husband and two children in China, and she’s kindly agreed to give us a peek into her trilingual family. So, grab a cup of coffee, find a comfy chair, and read on!


Give a brief snapshot of your family’s language dynamics and your family’s language policy (what language(s) do you speak, who speaks what with whom?).

We are a family of four: ommah (me), abbah (my hubby), H (4 year-old rambunctious son) and Y (2 year-old I-want-everything-my-way-daughter). I am Korean but Hong Kong is where home is and my husband is a gravy biscuit eatin’ white Southern boy from the U.S. My hubby and I speak English with one another, I speak Korean with the children and they speak mostly in English with their abbah (means ‘dad’ in Korean. That’s what the kids call him). We live in China, so when we are in the local community, we use Chinese (Putonghua). It is not uncommon, however, to catch us use a mix of all three languages in any given sentence!


What prompted your decision to raise your children bi-/multi-lingually?

There are multiple reasons why we decided to be intentional about raising our children to speak in Korean, English and Chinese. First, we would like for our children to enjoy having a relationship with their family members on both sides. My hubby is from the U.S, so naturally English was a no-brainer. Our children would be learning one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, plus, be able to communicate with their grandma (even if it is in a Southern accent!). My family is for the most part in Korea, so it was imperative to me that my parents would be able to have fun with their grandchildren. I don’t doubt that a lot of lovin’ can happen without the exchange of many words, but it sure is much easier and more enjoyable when everyone can freely speak the same language.

At home, we are primarily focusing on Korean and English, because these are the two ‘heart’ languages that are spoken in our family. Seeing that we are a blend of American and Korean, I desire for my children to be comfortable and confident in both cultures and learning the language is imperative for this to happen. In turn, I am hoping that their confidence in conversing in these two languages will result in them feeling firm and secure in their ethnic identities.

The one regret I have (asides from never practicing the piano) is not having learned Cantonese during the 18 years I lived in Hong Kong growing up. My family moved from Korea to Hong Kong when I was a year old and I grew up there until I went to the U.S. for university, yet, embarrassingly, my proficiency never extended beyond a few essential phrases such as, “Where is the bathroom?”, “I don’t understand.” or “I would like har gow and shiu mai please with a lot of chili sauce on the side.” My hope is that my children will be a lot more proficient than me in conversing in Chinese, not only because it is spoken by more than 20% of the world and is becoming an important language to learn, but more so because I would like for my children to become acculturated into the host country in which we live.

What positive growth or results have you witnessed in your children/family because of their multilingualism?

Hands down, the best thing has been their ability to make friends and form a sense of belonging and community in all our ‘home’ countries. In our neighborhood playground, H and Y love playing with their Chinese buddies and have also received a lot of love from the local yeye’s (grandfathers) and nainai’s (grandmothers). When you’re a cute toddler, it doesn’t matter much whether you can speak, but once you get to pre-school age, being able to speak the ‘sandlot’ language becomes a huge difference in that process of socialization. We were in Korea for one month this summer and now we are currently in the U.S. for a short period of time, and I’ve been pleased with how effortlessly my children have made friends in all three countries, using the host language in each place.

What challenges have you faced or are you facing with language rearing and learning? How do you handle them?

My son, H, spent the last 3 years in China. He attended a Chinese pre-school for 2 mornings/week and an English pre-school for 3 mornings/week. He attended a Korean Sunday School and played almost everyday with both Chinese-speaking and Korean-speaking friends in the afternoons in our apartment complex. Needless to say, we had a pretty rich and ideal natural learning environment for all three languages. Well, for the past three months, we have been back in the U.S. and as expected, the children’s English vocabulary has increased at a faster rate than the other two languages. In fact, H, started pre-school here 5 mornings/week and he has started speaking to me in English, which is a first. I must admit that I feel as though I am watching all my efforts of exposing my kids to Korean and Chinese go down the drain very quickly! Unfortunately, we are currently living in a small town with non-existent Korean or Chinese community (I literally double the Asian population when I am here), so the pressure is on me. OK, so here is my game plan for now:

  • Continue to converse only in Korean with my children. If they speak to me in English, I politely say in Korean “would you repeat that in Korean? I don’t understand what you are saying”. Stay firm and consistent.
  • When H mixes in English vocabulary, repeat those words in Korean when I respond to him so that he can learn what it is in both languages. Don’t get angry or too ‘teacher-like’ (something I am often guilty of) but just weave it naturally into conversation.
  • Spend two to three afternoons (while lil’ sis is taking a nap) for about 30 minutes each time, working through our Korean alphabet workbooks, which I brought with me from Korea. They are a ton of fun and H seems to be enjoying it.
  • Read, read and read in books from all three languages (My Chinese is not good enough for my four year-old now. Sigh)
  • Make a concerted effort to limit screen-time and music listening to Korean language programs and songs. This is so easy to do now with the Internet.
  • Encourage my hubby to use the Korean he knows with the kids.
  • Make an effort to speak Chinese as a family now and then. I must admit that we are not doing this as much knowing that we will move back to China in a few months.


Can you talk about the cultural aspect of bi-/multilingual parenting as it relates to your family?

I think I covered this in question 1.

Share a memorable moment you and your family experienced with language learning, something that shed light or taught you a lesson about bi-/multilingual parenting.

When we first got to the U.S. this summer, our 18 year-old nephew, wanting to hear H speak some Korean, asked him, “Hey H, how do say water?” Without skipping a beat, H looked up and asked with all seriousness, “In which language?” This tickled us adults and this story was repeated several times in the company of other friends and family. Although cute and funny, this prompted me to realize that often times, our children can unconsciously become arrogant about being multilingual, especially as older people “ooh” and “aah” over their skills. My kids are a little bit too young to have this consciousness yet, but I want to be sensitive to this and teach my children that their ability to speak multiple languages does not make them better than anyone, but is a gift and a skill that God has enabled them to have to use for good.

How do you involve your family, community, school and/or world at large in this bi-/multilingual adventure?

Exposing your children to other people in a particular language is so important because this reinforces their language learning and also increases the child’s scope of vocabulary in ways that you could not imagine.

OK, so my mother has been really great with the kids. We Skype with her about 2-3 times a week for at least 30 minutes at a time. In fact, she goes to her local library in Korea and checks out books to read to them. She holds the book up to the screen so they can see the pictures and keeps them captivated. Recently, she started doing flashcards over Skype with H to help him learn the Korean alphabet. Despite being geographically far apart, my mother plays a key and active role in my children’s language development.

What advice or encouragement can you share with other families raising their children bi-/multi-lingually?

 The earlier the better – A common question I get from adults is “do your children ever get confused?” If they were adults, that would be a fair question, but for children, this is a non-issue. Start them when they are in your womb or at whatever age your child is right now. If you are entertaining the idea of teaching your child another language, do it now!

Be intentional – Yes, language learning is very natural and children soak it up like a sponge, but for language development and true proficiency to occur (in reading, writing and speaking), parents need to be very intentional about either using/teaching the language or making sure the child is getting the right exposure, especially as the child gets older. For us, English is our dominant family language (and the strongest language for both me and hubby) so it requires less effort to teach our children English. So this means I need to be intentional about getting my children exposed to Korean and Chinese. This has meant doing things like speaking to my children consistently in Korean (even when I don’t want to), making that extra trip to Korean church, researching around for a Chinese pre-school and making play dates with our Chinese and Korean buddies and not just our English speaking ones. Simply put, it takes sacrifice and work.

Don’t give up! – There were many times when I wanted to quit going to Korean School every Saturday as a youth, but I am so grateful my parents didn’t give in to my whinging. Instead, they gently, yet firmly, encouraged me to press on. The result has not only been an ability to speak another language, but an ability to develop a real deep friendship with my parents and other Korean people, which would not have happened otherwise (plus watching and understanding my Korean soaps is another perk! ;P). There will be times, especially during those tween and teen years when you just want to throw in the towel. Assess what your goals are and why you have them. If they are worth the fight, then press on and don’t give into the path of least resistance. I promise you it’ll be worth it. Let’s press on together!

Freebie! Anything else come to your mind about the issue of bilingual/multilingual parenting?

I think I’ve said ‘nuff! J


Here’s a little #fbf! JK & me, sophomore year in college on a trip to Guatemala.

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