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My Real Trilingual Kid Speaks… Ahem… One Language

Mark on Parliament Hill, Ottawa, October 2017

“Comment tu t’appelles?”


“Mais non! Mark! Tu t’appelles Mark. Quel âge as-tu?”


“… Cinq ans. Tu as cinq ans.”

“Cinq? Oh, I can do French. Wait. Un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq…”

“D’accord, d’accord.”

“What? What is ‘d’accord’?”


“Huh? S’il te plaît? Bonjour! »

Alright. Maybe Mark doesn’t speak French.

And yes, maybe it’s my fault. I can’t blame my in-laws for that one, can I? Teaching Mark my mother tongue was my responsibility. I failed. But when? How?

When Mark was a baby, perfect strangers often stressed how “lucky” he was to grow up in a multilingual, multicultural family. I would nod along as if I had intentionally chosen a Chinese-Canadian spouse for this very purpose. Of course, Mark would speak fluent English, Mandarin and French by the time most kids are discovering that the square shape fits in the square hole! I could already feel he wasn’t just saying “mama” like a boring, regular baby, but “maman,” “mommy” and “māmā.” When he expanded his vocabulary to “dada,” I almost drafted his first resume for a United Nations Security Council position.

I just hadn’t realized yet that learning to talk is a hell of a long process—let alone expressing yourself in three different languages.

“But kids learn easily!” you may think. I agree. However, as rational adults, we tend to forget or underestimate how many essential concepts we need to explain and teach along the way.

And this is partially why French grammar ended up at the bottom of my to-do list.

You may have heard of the “one parent, one language” approach. In theory, Feng could have used Mandarin with Mark, I would have spoken exclusively in French and Mark would have picked up English at school. I liked the idea too, before several years of long days, short nights and new responsibilities turned Feng and I into zombies. Raising a child is hard work, even more so when parents come from two different cultural backgrounds and live in a country they didn’t grow up in. Decisions had to be made, chores had to be done, rules had to be established, preferably in that one language we both master—English.

Still, we spent the past four summers in France and Mark started French immersion at school last year. Morning classes with an English teacher, afternoon classes with a French teacher—with a bit of help, we were going to nail that bilingualism thing.

Except that at the end of his junior kindergarten year, I realized Mark’s only achievement was counting in French. He learned more in six weeks in France than over the entire school year.

“Yep, that’s immersion,” a friend of mine with the same issue and a child two years older than Mark explained. “They don’t teach French, they just teach kids in French.”

“And then what? Kids should magically figure it out on their own?”

She rolled her eyes and shrugged.

I sighed.

As multilingual people, we both know that learning a language takes a conscious effort. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t just “pick it up”—at least not until after the fundamentals are mastered.

Yes, Mark needs a lot of practice. “Then just speak to him in French!” you’re probably thinking, slightly exasperated by my apparent inability to use my mother tongue. Just let me remind you that five-year-old kids are stubborn, easily distracted and require a healthy dose of nagging to get things done. I can’t just say, “dinnertime!”, I have to repeat it’s time to eat at least five times and threaten to get rid of the TV. Giving Mark instructions in a language he doesn’t understand takes twice more energy and it’s hard to be consistent because it’s just faster and easier to speak English.

Go ahead, throw me a printed copy of the Official Languages Act. I failed. I’m too lazy to enforce French at home. But hey, that’s okay because snowflake can speak Mandarin. Or… can he?

“Don’t you think he sounds like a Westerner speaking Mandarin?” Feng asked me the other day.

“I… don’t know. I don’t speak to him in Chinese much. Mark, nǐ jīntiān chīle ma?”

“Wǒ méi chī.”

“Oh gosh, he sounds like a white American speaking Chinese! And he’s lying too because he did eat today.”

“I know!” “

‘I hope it’s not my fault!’

‘No, you have a bit of an accent but you really don’t sound like this.’

‘And I can’t blame your parents either for that one. Where the hell did he pick this up?’

And then, just when I thought that I was the worst possible parent in the world—because after all, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the default feeling is guilt—I realized that Mark did know some French.

I’m not the only one who doesn’t feel like speaking French because it’s just easier to communicate in English like everybody else around.

Now I suspect Mark doesn’t want to speak French, which is a whole different issue.

One more item to add to my list.

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French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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