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Aiming for Pentalingual

I read a fascinating article titled Science Question from a Toddler: Life Before Birth last week. I highly recommend the full article for any new/expectant mothers; heck, it’s a good read in general even if you’re not into this stuff!

The reason I bring up this article is due to a particular passage:

Newborns prefer their mother’s voice over anyone else’s (even dad’s). They prefer hearing phrases from books they were read while in the womb, compared to new stories. They’re even already favoring one language over another.

“Babies prefer the sound of their mother’s native language to others,” Moon said. “Interestingly, they can distinguish between languages in the same rhythmic class, like Spanish versus English. But they can’t tell the difference between similar sounding languages, like English and Dutch.”

I already know that my little one can hear me from inside the womb, but I never knew how much of an impact outside noises are already having on my baby! And the part about being able to distinguish between languages? Incredible!

I immediately forwarded the article to J, who emailed back, “Dammit, I’m going to start talking to your tummy in Chinese now!”

…and I must confess that ever since reading this piece, I have been finding myself talking more often in Korean.

While I am not 100% fluent in Korean, I am still able to talk, read, and write (and type!) comfortably. So in this sense, I consider myself bilingual.

J, meanwhile, is quadlingual — English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Japanese. (I know some may consider Cantonese and Mandarin to be one language as they are different dialects of the Chinese language, but trust me when I say they’re as different as night and day!)

Many people have asked us over the years what language(s) we will be teaching our children. And our response to them? All of them! Well, at least the ones that we know.

That means that our children will be pentalingual.

I can already picture them resenting us.

We know our baby will be no Einstein, but we can certainly try.

I once read that the Chinese language requires the use of both hemispheres of the brain, while most other languages require only the left. The reason for this is the Chinese use of tones (for example, the Chinese word ma can mean either “mother” or “horse” depending on the tone).

As a result, people whose native language is Chinese — or any other language that requires the use of tones — have less difficulty learning other languages. On the other hand, someone whose native language is not tonal-based will have great difficulty learning languages such as Chinese because they are quite literally forcing their brains to re-wire their language processing centers.

Or, in cases like me, some people just have difficulty learning new languages PERIOD. (I took two semesters of Mandarin in college and I only remember a handful of words.)

After reading this study some years ago, I knew that if I married J I would like to teach my kids Chinese first so that they would have less difficulty learning other languages.

However, J is at work all day while I will be a SAHM (stay at home mom).

Maybe I can (attempt to) learn Chinese alongside my kids? Or is that an impossible task?

Should I just start them on Korean instead?