Table of Contents

No. Title Author Update

 About bilingualism

bs HVHien Jul 10 2001

1  About bilingualism.

If you are reading this column, you probably have questions about bilingualism, which is in our case the use of English along with Vietnamese or Chinese, between you and your children, or among your children. Chances are that you have also received unsolicited or solicited advice from some "authorities" discouraging the use of Vietnamese or Chinese with your children, lest their accent would be less than perfect or they would get confused with using more than one language.

In the Vietnamese section of this website, you can find two articles recommending parents to preserve bilingualism among their children. The main reasons to keep them bilingual are:

1) Most of us first generation immigrants do not have enough of a command of English to establish a significant level of communication with our children in the English language alone, to educate them and to transmit to them the traditional values that are dear to us and that are indispensable in building character, laying ethical and moral foundations in a child.

2) Parents and grand-parents are people too and need to be able to communicate with their younger family members at a level much higher than broken, short sentences of basic English, in particular English used without any references to traditional Vietnamese (or Chinese, or any other non-western culture) cultural and religious customs and values.

3) As refugees who have earned our freedom at the dearest price, we are the only ones from Vietnam who are really enjoying all the cultural opportunities that life in a free, modern society can bring. It would be a great loss to our Vietnamese heritage if our progeny were to become estranged from what has given meaning and purpose to our past and present sacrifice and struggle. 

The following quote is from The Bilingual Family, A Handbook for Parents by Edith Harding and Philip Riley, Cambridge University Press; about the different "authorities" who might discourage you from practicing bilingualism in your family. Please note the criteria set for a person to be qualified to give advice. 

??Some of our best friends are doctors, so we?d better be careful what we say. Or rather how we say it, since the basic facts are irrefutable: these are that bilingualism does not appear on the training syllabus of doctors, health visitors, nurses, social workers, or even psychologists and speech therapists. It makes as much sense to ask your doctor for advice about bilingualism as it would to ask him about your car.

 Of course some doctors do happen to know about bilingualism, just as some know about cars, but this only underlines the point that membership of a particular professional category does not guarantee this knowledge. In short, if you want to know about bilingualism and bilingual families, ask bilinguals: and do not be afraid to ask for a second opinion. 

Apart from the minority of doctors (etc.) who are actually prejudiced against bilingualism (and who are not often above justifying their prejudices with airy references to experts and publications which do not exist, put yourself in the situation of a doctor faced with questions on a topic for which he has had no specialist training. What is he to do?. 

What then are the qualifications necessary if one is to give advice about bringing up a family bilingually? We would suggest the following as a minimum:

i) Common sense

ii) Personal experience

iii) Knowledge of bilingual families in general

iv) Knowledge of this family in particular."


Hien V. Ho, MD  

May 10.2001