At just 3 1/2 years old, Saigon Sam has been an ongoing, linguistic experiment all his short life. His circumstances and situation continually raise a lot of interest among foreigners and Vietnamese alike here in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. So much so it is worth exploring and explaining his situation in more detail.
His parents are both bilinguals from essentially monolingual cultures and countries. Saigon Sam’s father is Australian and his mother is Vietnamese. While both of these countries have substantial communities and groups within their populations who speak different languages, the vast majority of their peoples are monolingual. Both Vietnam and Australia can be said to be overwhelmingly monolingual and mono-cultural countries. It is very, very difficult for anybody to survive and prosper in Vietnam for too long if they cannot speak Vietnamese. Ditto in Australia if you do not speak any English.
The road to learning the second language for Saigon Sam’s parents was very, very different. While his father learned Vietnamese in a strict, rigid and intensive 46-week course at a Military Language School, his Mother learned her English second language in the more common way – through the necessity to communicate in the English-language “setting” of the home. By agreement, Saigon Sam’s parents deliberately chose to make their home-life communication “an island of English in a surrounding sea of Vietnamese” in order for Saigon Sam, his Mom and later siblings to acquire English in a “normal” way.
Saigon Sam’s language acquisition is now at an interesting stage in its development. About 60% of his language is now Vietnamese OR English. He uses either language freely with both parents. When called upon, Saigon Sam switches effortlessly between the two languages without faltering or hesitating. Approximately 20% of his language is exclusively Vietnamese OR English. These are concepts or ideas he can only present in one language or the other, but not both. The remaining 20% continues to be an interlanguage that has been dubbed “Samlish”.
Here we need to understand the answer to the question what is an interlanguage? Wikipedia states that “… interlanguage may be thought of as a temporary tool in language or dialect acquisition.” Essentially, an interlanguage is a temporary language that the human brain ‘invents’ or ‘constructs’ while it is in the process of learning a language. Any language. Those who have raised young children through the initial language acquisition years will recognize and understand this phenomena which appears at about 18 months. The child begins to construct “phrases”, “sentences” or even “paragraphs” which obviously have some meaning to the child, but are incomprehensible to anybody else.
Saigon Sam’s parents see two main ways to raise a bilingual child: Separate Home Languages or Minority Home Language. Each has a couple of variations, but both are heavily dependent on the discipline, attitude and input of both parents, but especially the mother or primary care-giver.
Separate Home Languages (SHL): Is a method whereby the mother speaks one language to the child, and the father speaks the other. There are variations. The key role is played by the mother and which language she chooses to speak. The mother should always speak the minority language, that is, the language NOT used by the majority of the population. In Saigon Sam’s case, this language is English. This situation gives the child the greatest volume of meaningful communication in the most difficult of the two languages to learn.
The most crucial point to remember about this method is that each parent MUST NEVER address the child directly in the other language. The child must always associate one parent with one language.
Minority Home Language (MHL): Is a method whereby both parents speak the minority language in the home. Saigon Sam’s parents have chosen this method. Here in Vietnam, English is spoken as the major language of the household. Vietnamese is always a minority language at home but is the overwhelming majority language in the surrounding society. The only exceptions occur when monolingual Vietnamese family visit, and then it becomes about 50/50. In Australia, the exact opposite would be true: Vietnamese only at home.
The MHL method can easily be maintained and supplemented through minority language videos/DVDs and reading materials. Electronic readers such as the Leap Frog “Tag Reading System” are especially useful for toddlers.
So how is Saigon Sam’s progress? Very good it seems. At this early stage, a “B+” in Vietnamese acquisition and a “B-” in English. The sheer volume of exposure to Vietnamese outside the home, and especially from his monolingual Vietnamese Family, means Vietnamese has a slight edge over English right now.
Of particular interest to those who study language acquisition, Saigon Sam displays no signs of “code-switching”, nor any significant influence from one language on the accent, grammar or syntax of the other language – although it is certainly too early to make any final judgments on this yet.
For his parents, there is a definite sense of pride and achievement at watching one so young communicate naturally and effortlessly in either language. It makes the effort entirely worthwhile and is ample reward of its own.