Wednesday, August 04, 2010

profile: Susan's multilingual family

Meet language afficionado Susan Herrick Siu and her multilingual family! Thank you very much, Susan, for answering my questions.

Who are the members of your family?

I am a publisher/linguist/writer, a dual Canadian/US citizen, born and raised in Newfoundland, Canada. My husband, Steve Siu , is a doctor of chiropractic. He is a US citizen but was born in Fujian province, China, and raised in Hong Kong and Philadelphia.

Sebastian, four years old: likes riding his bicycle, cooking, traveling, reading (in any language!), building things, analyzing situations (his preschool teachers call him the “Great Problem Solver),” swimming, and gymnastics.

Serena, two years old: loves to swim, draw, go for walks, play in the dirt, sleep, cuddle with mom and dad, give things to people, and meet new friends.

Kai, six months old: likes to play in water, go for walks, stand up, listen to music, grab things, and laugh at his older siblings.

Where do you currently live?

Lewiston, Maine, USA, for the last two and a half years

Where else have you lived?

I grew up in Canada and have lived in Turkey (for close to a year in high school) and South Korea (for close to a year in college), as well as six U.S. states. Steve has lived in China and in Hong Kong (when it wasn’t part of China), as well as five U.S. states.

What languages are spoken by the adults in your household and at what level of proficiency?

I speak fluent (but somewhat rusty) French; intermediate-level Chinese, Korean, Spanish, Italian, and German; and bits and pieces of other languages. I have a background in linguistics and hope to earn my PhD in linguistics when the kids are a little older. I went through the French Immersion program in Canada as a child.

Steve speaks Fujian Chinese (natively), Cantonese (fluently), Mandarin (at an advanced level), Spanish (what he remembers from high school and college courses), and French (a little that he’s picked up from me and the kids so far).

What languages are you exposing your children to, and how?

Mainly French and Mandarin Chinese. I speak French with the children as much as possible, sing to them in French, read lots of French books to them, and play French music and videos for them

The children attend a Mandarin Chinese Saturday school, listen to Chinese music, and watch Chinese DVDs. Steve and I both reinforce Mandarin vocabulary and simple phrases with them and read simple Chinese books to them. When their paternal grandmother comes to visit, she speaks to them mostly in Chinese, although the situation is somewhat complicated by the fact that Mandarin is not her native dialect.

The children have also had some exposure to Spanish through books and videos and to several other languages, including American Sign Language at Sebastian’s preschool.

Why do you want your children to know more than one language?

First of all, languages are part of our family’s heritage. Steve’s family speaks several Chinese dialects (mostly Fujian at home), and his parents speak very little English, so the children need to speak some Chinese in order to communicate with them. My paternal grandmother was a New Orleans French speaker, and I also have some Spanish ancestors.

As well as maintaining those family connections, we want our children to have real access to other cultures, to classics of world literature, and to friends and business associates who are not English speakers. We want our children to be able to be active participants in the world community and to have the capacity to see things from a variety of viewpoints.

We also want them to be able to choose any career that interests them, and many, perhaps most, jobs and careers—science, librarianship, health care, government, sports, journalism, business, education, and other areas—will require knowledge of languages other than English in the future if they don’t already.

How well do your children understand, speak, read, and write the different languages? How do they feel about them? Do they have a preference for what they speak in which contexts? How has their language use evolved as they grow?

Our children are still very young, so they aren’t completely fluent speakers in any language yet. Our oldest, Sebastian, four, is forming quite complex sentences in English now, and I wish I had concentrated more on speaking French with him between the ages of two and three, when he was first starting to use grammar in English. Still, he is using more French every day. He uses many of the words and phrases that I’ve used with him or that we’ve encountered in books, and he understands a lot more than he speaks. He is very enthusiastic about using his French. I wish that I could send him to a French preschool, though, so that he could speak the language regularly with people other than his own family members. He is very shy about speaking it (or English, for that matter) with people that he doesn’t know well, so extra-curricular classes don’t work well for him.

In Chinese, he is limited mostly to single words so far, but he has quite a large vocabulary. He loves to read long and complicated books in French, but prefers simple word books in Chinese. He is very proud when he learns something new in French or Chinese, he doesn’t prefer to have his bedtime stories in English, and he is very aware that the three languages are three separate systems and keeps them separate. Now that he is attending preschool, he has a lot of exposure to English outside the home, so we’re trying to get closer to speaking exclusively in French and Chinese at home. He is doing well in his Chinese Saturday classes now that he is getting used to the people there; he does much better when I don’t go with him, though.

Serena, two, seems to be picking up nearly as many Chinese words as English words. She only says a few French words so far, but I’m hoping that she’ll start using more soon since I speak to her in French much more often than I did with Sebastian at the same age. I think the tones in Chinese make it easier for her to pronounce Chinese words recognizably; she can always get the tones even when she can’t pronounce the rest of the word at all.

How have you been able to expose your children to the cultures where the different languages are spoken?

Sebastian loves to go to Chinatown in Boston (or occasionally New York), and will take a Chinese restaurant as second best if we can’t take a longer trip! He also helps to make Chinese dumplings at home. The kids are also exposed to Chinese culture through Steve’s mother’s visits and through books and DVDs. Our dream is to take them to China someday—preferably for a whole year or more—and to make summer visits to our French-speaking neighbor to the North: Quebec! We are friends with a French-Canadian woman and her bilingual children here in Maine, and a friend of mine who is married to a French Canadian and lives in Montreal often writes letters in French to Sebastian.

What resources and activities have been most useful to you? What, on the other hand, has not been useful?

Please see my other answers, as well as my blog, LinguistKids.

What challenges have you faced as you raise your children with more than one language?

The biggest challenges are my own level of proficiency in the languages that I’m trying to teach them and the lack of community support/resources. I am a big reader, and recently I’ve been trying to do most of my own reading in French and study Chinese characters more intensively in order to be able to read in Chinese in order to improve my own proficiency in those languages. In the car, when the kids are not with me, I listen to French and Chinese courses and books on CD.

I am planning to start an international school here in Maine and to begin advocating for better foreign-language instruction in the public schools, since our local offerings are really quite pathetic. I would like to network with like-minded parents to share ideas and strength in numbers in improving access to language education and resources in the United States (and internationally).

Do you have any advice for us?

Don’t be shy, and don’t be too attached to any one teaching method. Take every opportunity that comes your way to give your children practice in the language(s) that they are learning. I used to feel silly speaking French with the children in front of my husband because he didn’t understand me, which meant that my children didn’t get to hear any French when he was around. Eventually I got over my embarrassment, and not only did the kids get to hear French more often, but my husband started picking up lots of French phrases, too!

When I got my minivan, I swore that I would never use the TV in the back, but I soon learned that it was a helpful language-teaching tool. We travel a lot, and my children have picked up a lot of French and Chinese from it on long, boring trips on the Interstates. (I still don’t use it on short trips or on scenic routes where they should really be looking out the windows, and even on long trips I try to exhaust my repertoire of songs and games before resorting to the TV.)

What do you think parents, caretakers, teachers, and/or researchers need to know about teaching a second language to children? What do you wish you had known when you started? What, if anything, would you do differently now?

Parents can teach languages to their children at home, with help from tutors, books, videos, and so on, but another important part of the parents’ job as second-, third-, and fourth-language educators is activism—getting other parents, schools, communities, and the nation at large involved. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

• Contact your local and state legislators to tell them that you want more extensive second-language offerings in your local public schools. I was recently talking to one of my state senators, and she claimed that she really does listen when she receives a letter or a phone call from a constituent. If two or three people call her to make the same point or request, she’ll tell her colleagues that the phones are ringing off the hook. So one voice really can make a difference!

• Talk to librarians at your local public library to suggest that they expand their foreign-language collections or purchase specific items that would be helpful to you and other parents in your community.

• Get involved with and support existing language-heritage organizations in your community.

• Build networks of like-minded parents nationally and internationally over the Internet (and through other channels).

• Start a club or language-tutoring exchange or find a teacher to offer lessons or conversation practice to a small group of children. If you homeschool your children, you may be able to form a cooperative lesson-exchange group.

• Even better: start an immersion charter school, private school, or cooperative preschool in your town and then teach others how to do the same. The school doesn’t have to be big or impressive—especially not at the beginning. You could start with one teacher teaching four or five children three days a week (perhaps in someone’s house) at the preschool level, for example.

Answer your own question now--what did I not ask about that you would like to comment on?

My publishing company, World’s Edge Books & Publishing, is currently producing a series of books (with accompanying audio CDs) to help parents who are trying to learn languages along with their children. Our first book in this series, Georgian Language for Parents and Children, Book I, was released in June 2010. We will have French, Russian, Korean, and Brazilian Portuguese editions coming out later in 2010, and we plan to include other languages within the next few years as well. Please visit us on the Web at LinguistKids and World's Edge Books and Publishing.

I am also in the initial stages of planning an international K-12 school here in Maine. If you would like to get involved, to share your own stories, to make a donation, or to receive more information, visit our new school website, International School of Maine or email me at


  1. Susan's promotion of advocacy is so timely. As best I can remember, we have not addressed foreign language advocacy and activism on this blog before. (And yet I served on the board of directors for our state language teachers' organization for two years! For shame, Sarah.) Thanks for your concrete suggestions, Susan.

    And good luck on your journey of opening the multilingual school! Do you have other parents and educators helping you?

  2. I enjoyed the entire article. And, teh section on activism was also very helpful. I would like to see my local area have more second laguage opportunities for students in the local school system, but starting a school seems like a daunting task. I enjoyed the tips on starting small with a few students.

  3. "Starting a school seems like a daunting task"--I so agree. I can't even seem to manage starting a playgroup!

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