Recently I was in NYC for work, and as I was walking through the city it became clear English is not the only dominating language. You could hear Chinese and Brazilian Portuguese spoken at shops, and chattering among street vendors in Hindi and Arabic. This is definitely a phenomenon in the United States of America—a country of immigrants. In addition, when I look around, there are many kids nowadays from cross-racial families, like mine. Looking exotic is fun, and being able to comprehend and speak multiple languages is a bonus.
In the past generations of immigrants, people abandoned their native tongue or didn't encourage their kids to speak it because the common desire was to learn and to only speak English so they could immerse themselves into the new country quickly. That notion has changed completely in the modern parenting, especially for those whose families have diverse ethnic backgrounds. Linguistics and early childhood education shows a child can learn a seocnd language three times faster before age 7, and pretty much slows down (or becomes difficult) after age 14, compared to an adult.
Many of my friends lament that their kids can't speak their ethnic language. The moment their kids started elementary school, they refused to speak other language besides English, unless other immersion learning environments were provided. Otherwise, you are pretty much stuck with learning a language in school, which will never encourage fluency. Which is a pity.
Therefore, my takeaways are: 1) The golden learning window is small, better optimize than regret later; 2) Learning a second language stimulates the brain in a different way. (Even if simultaneous translation glasses become available for our kids' generation, the cultural aspect of learning a language will never be replaced by robots!)
The following is the language program I've developed for my almost 3-year-old and 8-month-old:
English: They will master on their own by living in an English-speaking country. At home, we only focus on reading books (yes, paper ones) every day for 20-40 minutes, by me, by Daddy, or any guests visiting when I have a chance to outsource the task.
Mandarin Chinese: We have some advantages on this front, and I am leveraging them as much as possible: a Chinese nanny (who speaks no English); a Taiwanese educational program "Ciao Hu" shipped by my parents from Taiwan every quarter with seasonal toys and a DVD; Mandarin language class every Saturday at Language Stars; one-month winter vacation in Taiwan with my parents once both kids are potty-trained (escaping unbearably cold Chicago is a bonus).
Romanian: We also have some advantages here (my husband is Romanian), but due to Daddy's work and travel schedule, we are still trying to improve the learning opportunity: part-time Romanian nanny (who speaks no English); Dino Lingo apps for games, books and video; spending the summer at their grandparents' Transylvania orchard country house, where they'll learn how to milk a cow and how to make Romanian crepes from scratch.
So, how do my kids do? My 8-month-old takes all in, no complaining. And my almost 3-year-old is totally confused between Spanish and Romanian when she is asked to count to 20 (a natural occurrence, according to linguists). However, she is able to translate for our Chinese nanny to place a food order at Navy Pier during their weekly Children's Museum excursion.
The fact is my own four-language journey (Mandarin, English, Japanese and French) started after 7, which is clearly too late, so I am not good at any of them. However, I'm starting to feel it could be mission possible for my kids. Stay tuned.