Have I failed as a father?

Since Mrs. T is originally from Denmark and I am originally from Taiwan, we both know the benefits of being able to speak more than one language. Naturally, we wanted our kids to be able to speak three different languages. It is our dream that they can be trilingual. We knew this was possible and it would simply take some hard work on our part. 

We know that raising kids who are fluent in multiple languages is possible since we’ve seen it in our own family. For example, Mrs. T’s cousins, with a Danish dad, an English mom, and having moved all over Europe while growing up, are fluent in Danish, English, Swedish, French, and Spanish. A few years ago, they also started learning Italian. 

The different language fluency levels

Now…Mrs. T and I have different fluency levels with our mother tongues. 

Mrs. T came to Canada while she was finishing her master’s degree. She has had a full Danish education and is fluent in Danish.

I, on the other hand, immigrated to Canada when I was a young teenager. I only completed six years of formal education (elementary school) in Taiwan. Since moving to Canada, I haven’t taken any further Mandarin education and mostly only spoke Mandarin with my parents and my brother. So, although I am a native Mandarin speaker, I am probably not all that fluent. 

Over time, my Mandarin fluency has slowly decreased because I only speak English with my friends. When Mrs. T and I are with my family, we communicate mostly in English so Mrs. T can comprehend what we talk about.

For a while, I didn’t speak Mandarin regularly at all. About five years ago, I began to use Mandarin more. Because of work, I was communicating with my co-workers in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Since their English isn’t super great, it was easier to communicate in Mandarin. This gave me more opportunities to speak Mandarin regularly. 

When I first started talking to my Asian co-workers, they’d told me that my Mandarin was super rusty. I had to “think” a little bit whenever I had to switch back and forth between English and Mandarin. 

Over time, as I spoke Mandarin more and more with my co-workers, I felt more comfortable speaking Mandarin again. I could switch back and forth between English and Mandarin effortlessly. 

Teaching kids different languages

With the trilingual idea in mind, when the kids were born, we started talking to them in three different languages. Mrs. T would speak Danish, I would speak Mandarin, and when Mrs. T and I are talking, we’d speak English. We figured the kids could learn all three languages in this environment. 

learning language

At seven years old and four years old, both kids are fluent in Danish and English. However, they aren’t all that fluent in Mandarin.

While I try to speak Mandarin with both kids as much as possible, I haven’t been as consistent as Mrs. T. She has been speaking Danish only with the kids and when the kids answer her in English, she’d ask them to reply in Danish.

I have been speaking English to the kids, mostly. I have only been speaking Mandarin occasionally. Lately, because the kids can’t really comprehend Mandarin, I’ve spoken more and more English with them. 

Similarly, my parents were speaking Mandarin to the kids when they were younger but have been speaking English to them more and more.  

The other day, my parents talked to both kids on the phone. Afterwards, they told me that both kids couldn’t understand Mandarin as much as they used to. They were concerned.

Mrs. T and I were just as concerned as my parents after hearing this. We really wanted both kids to be fluent in all three languages. 

Given how many Mandarin speakers are in the world, being fluent in Mandarin would provide the kids with a lot of opportunities. I certainly am glad that I know Mandarin. It has helped me tremendously with work, also travelling in Asia.

Have I failed as a father? 

So, did I fail as a father because my kids aren’t fluent in Mandarin yet? 

I suppose it’s a bit of a failure in some sense. However, if I make some changes now, maybe I can be successful in the near future. 

While I haven’t spoken Mandarin to the kids as consistently as Mrs. T has been with Danish, I realized I need to shape up. The kids aren’t getting younger, and it can get harder to learn a language as one gets older. We wanted language learning to be fun and to not have to send them to language schools later on.

After realizing that I needed to shape up, I decided to speak Mandarin with the kids consistently. Sure, they might not understand everything I say, but I can repeat the sentences a few times, then speak to them in English, then speak to them in Mandarin again. Hopefully, over time, they can pick up more and more Mandarin. 

Another strategy that I’m deploying is to have the kids answer my questions in Mandarin. If they don’t know how to answer, I’d teach them the phrases in Mandarin. Again, hopefully over time, they can speak Mandarin more fluently.

I also plan to show both kids more kids’ videos in Mandarin on YouTube. Hopefully, by watching these videos, they can slowly pick up more Mandarin. 

Will I succeed in teaching my kids to be fluent in Mandarin? I hope so, but this will not be an overnight success. It certainly will take some time, if not years, to get both kids to be fluent. Luckily, both kids have shown interest in learning and speaking Mandarin, so maybe it will be a straightforward path forward.

Dear readers, if you have kids, have you tried teaching them another language? How do you do it? I’d love to hear your experience and strategies.

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31 thoughts on “Have I failed as a father?”

  1. Hi Bob,

    Not at all. You didn’t fail. I think it comes to your presence and responsibilities at home versus your wife’s. You will probably just need to take them to your homeland for couple Summer months and they will be all set. Kids are awesome in learning languages. And yes, forcing them to speak back in Mandarin will do the trick. It worked in our case. However, it gets funny when they mix multiple languages in 1 sentence.

    Do you have any relatives in Taiwan? It helps a lot when kids have to communicate with other kids in only 1 language. They will always switch to the easiest language as long as they know it can be understood. However, if they realize their relative (Cousin, etc) don’t know any English or Danish, they will force their brain to use Mandarin.

    We have similar experiences. We only speak Arabic at home. TV is a mix of English and French. School is French. So our 2 kids (6 and 9 years old) speak English, French, and Arabic fluently. My 9 years old also read and write basic Arabic. My wife teaches them Arabic during Winter and Summer breaks. It is tough to push them learning so much at the same time. They will get a bit confused.

    Once my little one learns reading and writing, we are aiming for them to learn Spanish fluently. We loved how our daughter helped us as a translator in rural France and as we plan to travel to Africa in the future, I am sure their French will come handy. Same for Spanish all over Latin America.

    Reply
    • Hi Mr. Dreamer,

      It’d make sense to take the kids back to Taiwan for an extended period of time rather than less than a week. That would definitely expose them to Mandarin and force them to use Mandarin more.

      We do have relatives in Taiwan that have kids in the similar age as our kids. So that’d help. Thanks for the idea of doing an extended stay in Taiwan. This is definitely something we want to do in the near future.

      Reply
  2. You definitely haven’t failed, sounds more like you’re on the long road to succeeding…

    I’m a native English speaker living in my wife’s Castilian-Spanish-speaking country. While we speak Spanish to each other, I decided shortly before our first child was born that I wanted our children to speak my ‘mother tongue’ fluently, primarily to ensure they would be able to connect with my family and culture (although there are currently obvious international advantages to speaking English too). After talking it over and doing a little reading, we decided that the One Person One Language (OPOL) approach might be the most effective, so that’s what I’ve been doing for a decade now.

    It has been a challenge at times; initially because I wasn’t used to speaking much English on a day-to-day basis, nor was I good at swapping from one to the other all the time, and later because in social situations it sometimes feels rude to speak to my children in English when there are others present (particularly their school friends) who can’t understand. Also, for the first five years, it felt like my lone English mutterings couldn’t possibly hold back the tide of Spanish influence in their lives.

    However, I stubbornly persisted, and it has totally paid off. I pushed through the awkwardness, read bedtime stories in English to both our children every night, and subjected them to English television and film (they had to learn the lyrics of the Frozen song in Castilian from their friends, because I insisted they see it in English). Although all the stimuli is cumulative, I think the watershed moment for me was when we traveled back to my home country for a couple of months, and I sent them kindergarten there, where they had not only English speaking teachers, but English speaking peers too.

    Since that trip, not only has their English been much more fluent, they now speak to *each other* in English, which is more than I’d ever hoped for. That was four years ago, when they were 3 and 6, so with your children at 4 and 7 years old, you’ve certainly still got time to strengthen their Mandarin.

    The other thing that noticeably changed they way they talk was a visit from one of their cousins from my side of the family. They adore her and hung on her every word, and although the visit was only a couple of weeks, their accent in English really shifted towards mine (well really, towards their cousin’s).

    It’s different for every child and every parent and every family situation, but I feel in our case that my unrelenting English-speaking to them has given them a strong personal referent for the language, and drip-fed their phonology and general comprehension. Linguists are clear that children can’t learn a language by only watching TV. While this is true, I feel it provides a real boost to vocabulary, and (depending on the content) can be a valuable source of cultural knowledge they would otherwise miss out on. I feel like I need to work explicitly with them on English spelling (which is much harder than in Spanish), and I imagine that mighr be even more of a challenge with Mandarin?

    I’d love to be able to add a third language while their still young. You’re in a better position to achieve that, as your family has three languages accessible. As you live in Canada, there’s no way they’ll fail to speak English, even if they never heard another English pass your lips. Although it might be a struggle at first, I’d recommend giving it a good go.

    Although it’s possible that your children find it annoying at first if you insist, it’s also possible that they’ll be disappointed later if you don’t; my wife’s father is Italian, but only ever spoke Spanish to his children (because reasons), she sometimes feels the loss of that part of her heritage keenly.

    So I would say keep going! And keep up the other stimuli; TV, books, whatever, and see if there’s a way to add some Mandarin-speaking peers into the mix somehow?

    There are literally no down-sides to trilingualism.

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing your story Robert. This is definitely encouraging and re-enforce my belief that I need to go past the awkwardness and speak more Mandarin with my kids.

      Mrs. T and I are not worried about kids speaking English at all. We always figured they’d pick it up naturally since we live in Canada. 🙂

      Lesson learned here is that I need to be more persistent. Thank you!

      Reply
  3. Hi Mr. T,
    Saying that you failed as a father, would be a bit harsh. I am sure you are a great father. You haven’t yet succeeded in teaching your kids Mandarin.

    Our kids are older and we too wanted them to learn Punjabi well, while living in Canada. The go to is obviously English. We did well till the kids hit school years. During the first 5 years of their life, we made a lot of effort to speak to them in Punjabi only. And that helped. But as they started school and shifted to English, we started responding in English. This ofcourse does not help! I wish we had made greater efforts and responded only in Punjabi. Now they are older and they do understand Punjabi, but are not very good at speaking it. The lesson I learnt is that you need consistent, hard effort to help teach the kids your language. Like you, they may have to speak Punjabi in their jobs and might improve it… but who knows.

    Best wishes with your efforts!

    Jyoti

    Reply
    • Hi Jyoti,

      Haha yea it’s a bit harsh for sure. I need to focus more on responding only in Mandarin so at least they can understand. Consistent and effort will help for sure. Thank you for the pointer.

      Reply
  4. Have you thought about doing mandarin school? Even if it’s once a week at least there’s a bit of exposure.

    Teaching a child a language is very difficult especially if it’s not the language used at home. My husband and I speak English to each other and it’s not going well teaching our kids language either haha 🙂 so don’t be hard on yourself.

    Reply
  5. I’m speaking from the child’s perspective. I don’t think you’ve failed at all. I am bilingual but to be honest, I don’t really use my other language that much. I use it when I talk to my parents but other than that, it hasn’t added a lot of value to my life.

    It’s one of those things where it’s a nice to have, not a need to have. Your kids would benefit from learning a different language but they’ll live life just fine!

    Reply
  6. Good luck! I came to the US when I was a young teen as well, about the same age as you did. My Thai is pretty rusty, but I can still communicate.
    We aren’t teaching our son Thai, though. It’s not very useful in the US. There are just a few Thais here. I will encourage him to learn mandarin when it’s available to him. It’ll be more difficult, but he’ll have to figure it out.
    We do have a public bilingual school with a Mandarin track, but it’s really difficult to get in. We put our name on the list and didn’t get in when he started kindergarten.

    Reply
    • Thanks Joe. With language if you don’t use it you eventually forget it. 🙂

      Mandarin is probably more useful than Thai as there are more Mandarin speaking people in the world.

      Reply
  7. Hi,

    I live in Canada and as your wife, I was borned and raised in spanish. Since we came to Canada and had kids we have been speaking spanish to them. Even, when they text me in English I replied to them in Spanish: Who is this? no speaking english. So, with some funny texts I made them reply to me in spanish.
    What I would suggest is to keep going with the Mandarin and try not to translate. They’ll pick up fast. They are still you. I am sure you are a good father. Don’t be so hard on you. Good luck

    Reply
    • See! Lost of english grammar mistakes! I don’t have a choice but to speak in Spanish to them. LOL. BTW I like you blog has been following you for quite some time

      Reply
  8. I don’t think you have failed, it’s not like they’re never going to learn Mandarin, you’ve taught them the basics so they have the ground knowledge to continue to pick up from there. However, as kids, they will naturally drift to the language they find easier.

    My niece is fluent in English (from both parents and school) and is considered a native Mandarin speaker now (from school/private tuition as neither parent speaks Mandarin). Her Cantonese is conversational level (from her parents) so she can communicate with her grandparents.

    Keep at it – they will be grateful for it when they are adults!

    Reply
    • Thanks Weenie. It’s funny because both kids now talk in a mix of Danish and English and switch back and forth. You’re right, they’ll naturally drift to the language they find easier. Will keep at it. 🙂

      Reply
      • “both kids now talk in a mix of Danish and English and switch back and forth”

        When me and my siblings do that with Chinese and English, we call it speaking ‘Chinglish’, so perhaps your kids are speaking ‘Danglish’? 🙂

        Reply
        • Haha probably. They also mix up terms from time to time like…

          “Can you itch me?” itch and scratch are the same word in Danish
          “Can you screw the volume up?” turn and screw are the same word in Danish apparently

          Reply
  9. Hi Bob—you have most certainly not failed your kids! I think it’s admirable that you and Mrs. T put so much effort into your children’s trilingualism. It’s a wonderful gift you’re giving to them, even if they never become fully fluent in all three languages.

    As a young child, I was fluent in Cantonese. But sadly, Vancouver in the 1980s was very different than the way it is now. My parents were told to stop speaking Cantonese with us at home, so that we could practice English more often.

    In doing so, English became our preferred language and we lost most of our ability to speak Cantonese. This has always saddened me. Your kids are very lucky to be growing up in a time when diversity and the ability to speak multiple languages is celebrated.

    They’re also fortunate to have two parents working hard to teach them their native tongues. Keep up what you’ve been doing. You and your wife are wonderful parents!

    Reply
  10. Hi Bob,
    From a child’s perspective: I used to be fluent as a young child in my parents mothertongue. Then I went to grade school, my parents got divorced and my brother and I only wanted to speak English. I hated when my mom would try and force me to speak her mother tongue and would only respond in English. I was pretty stubborn. Eventually I lost the ability to be fluent. I can get by nowadays in that language which is good enough for travel etc and the only time I would use it. Would it be nice if I was still fluent – sure, but has being a mainly only English speaker impacted my life drastically in a bad way – no.
    So I guess all I’m saying is you’ll have to be consistent and perhaps expect pushback as they get older. Best of luck.

    Reply
    • We’re getting a bit of pushback already haha. But when they hear other kids talking to their parents in a different language, the kids get intrigued and want to know how they can speak in a different language too so they can “keep a secret.”

      Reply
  11. You need to team up with Youtube/TV/Movies. So you are the English teacher, your wife is the Danish teacher and the TV or screens is the Mandarin teacher. My kids (2 girls, 10 and 8) are fluent in English, Spanish and French. While I mostly talk to them in French and my wife talk with them in Spanish, none of us ever talked with them in English but they are fluent and talk better English then both of us today. My strategy for English was to always have them watch TV and Youtube in English. I started as soon as they started watching TV very young. I told them they could watch TV if it was in English. I had the whole Disney collection in English (easier today with Disney+, etc.) and everything they watched on TV was like 80% of the time in English. You should try the same for Mandarin. It might be harder today because they might be used to some shows in English, but I’d try it whenever a movie or such is available in Mandarin you should all watch it in that language. It’s free 🙂

    Reply
    • Well, we don’t have a TV at home and we’re trying to limit their screen time. But yes, we both realized that TV/movies/Youtube will allow them to pick up the languages easier.

      Reply
  12. Fluency in another language is very tough. As you touched on in your own experience, if you don’t use it, you lose it. It’s hard to get it when you don’t use it, so it sounds like you are taking the first step.

    I wanted our kids to know Spanish very well. I had them doing flash cards at age 4. We did Duolingo together as well before bed. Their school teaches French though (less common in the US than up there in Canada). So we pivoted a bit. Fortunately, they are close enough that a lot is shared.

    When they got interested in Pokemon they wanted to learn Japanese, so we added that language to Duolingo. After a few months, one decided he wanted to learn Norweigan because he had a new school friend fresh from Norway. The other started learning Greek as my wife wants to go on a Greek cruise.

    There is no hope of fluency in any of these languages (at this point). They’d need real immersion for that. However, they can recognize parts of about 5 different languages and I think that’s going to be a valuable base to build on as they get older.

    Reply

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