My name is Tetsu Yung, and I am the side product of a romantic meeting in Hong Kong between an aspiring actor from Taiwan and a tourist girl from Japan. Nah… it wasn’t at a celebrity pool party or anything like that. The reality was that the actor, my father, never made it to the big screens and had to work as a tour guide on the side. And yes, my mother, an unsuspecting customer, fell right into the love itinerary that my father had set up for her, with wedding bells ringing shortly thereafter. And then…
However, the start of the young couple’s married life was not easy in Hong Kong, and before my first birthday, the whole family moved back to Taiwan, where my father found a “real job” in the textile industry, while my mother began a new career teaching Japanese to Taiwanese students at a university.
Hence, ironically, although I was born in Hong Kong, my language journey did not begin with Cantonese, the language spoken in Hong Kong. Instead, my earliest linguistic exposure was to no less than four languages simultaneously, consisting of Mandarin (official language of Taiwan), Japanese (spoken with my mother), Taiwanese (major language spoken in Taiwan by approximately 70-75% of the population) and Hakka (regional language spoken by relatives on my father’s side). Later I was put into an American elementary school, where my fifth language, English, was added when I was 6 years old. This addition of English was part of my parents’ grand scheme for my exit from Taiwan one day, which they had meticulously planned out ever since we returned to Taiwan, partly due to the poor economic prospects at the time, and partly due to the fact that all boys had to serve in the military in Taiwan.
Over the next few years, everything went according to plan, as my English overtook all the other languages and became my strongest one. However, as fate would have it, after graduating from my elementary school, my parents decided to send me to the French-speaking province of Quebec, Canada, to live with an aunt I had never met before and to attend high school there. So French, more specifically, Québécois, became my sixth language, the last of which I learned naturally through my living context. Later, I would learn Spanish, German, Italian and Portuguese, but all of these were learned either through formal courses or through traveling.
Reflecting back on my language journey, I can definitely say that the positives largely outweigh the negatives when it comes to having been raised multilingual and multicultural.
During my long university years, I used my five main languages as a part-time interpreter or tutor, either to earn a few bucks to make ends meet, or as a volunteer at gatherings ranging from international business conferences to world karate tournaments. One assignment even had me in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, working as a 4-way interpreter, simultaneously juggling Spanish, Japanese, French, and English!
From a career standpoint, I have used these languages, along with a doctorate degree and post-doctoral training in cellular and molecular biology, and an MBA in finance, to establish a career in the global pharmaceutical and clinical development industry.
However, the language-related benefits and accomplishments described above pale in comparison to what I really get from using these languages at the personal level. I feel that the biggest value extracted from my languages is the ability to connect deeply with my family and friends from around the world.
I communicate with everyone around me in their language. Not only is this a critical ingredient in the extremely tight bond that I share with all my family members, but it is also the secret to how I succeed in building strong and trusting relationships very rapidly and very widely. Prime example: I found my life partner and mother of my beautiful children using my Japanese, which is my third language in terms of fluency.
Of course, multilingualism and multiculturalism doesn’t come without a few minor bumps along the way. Yes, there were times in my life, when I got tired of people treating me like a circus show, asking me to say certain things in different languages. Yes, I have had to face some racism when I moved to Canada. And yes, I had more than once questioned the very purpose of going to Canada at 13 years of age, leaving behind my parents, my extended family and friends and everything I was attached to, including my pets. (Yes, it was a big deal for me to leave my five beloved dogs, none of which I ever saw again!)But in retrospect, with 20/20 hindsight, I would not change a thing. Today, I love it when I get a chance to show off my languages. Ask me to say anything in the languages I know and I will do it with pleasure. As for racism, I now believe that having had native level English when I arrived in Quebec probably allowed me to get away with only the strict minimum level of racism, which was solely due to my different physical appearance as an Asian boy in a 99% Caucasian environment. And with regard to my parents’ decision to send me off to a foreign land at such a young age? Well I don’t think I could thank them enough for this life-changing event, which had set me on the path to global citizenship. And as a parent today, I cannot imagine how difficult of a decision it must have been for them, too! Would you let your only child go to a foreign country alone at age 13?
My parents had an incredible ability to plan for the long term. My linguistic success was not created through a short intensive boot camp or just moving to another country. It was meticulous planning and rigorous execution from the day I was born. Actually, even before I was born, as my parents told me, they waited until after my birth to go back to Taiwan so that I could obtain the British-Hong Kong passport. This was very useful when the time came to put me into the American school, which in those days, required a foreign passport. Anyway, they started so early that by the time I was conscious of my own life, I was already multilingual. This simply blows my mind. I mean, how lucky can you get!?
One of the best things about growing up with many languages already in my head is… yes, you guessed it, not having to learn them later! In all seriousness, in business jargon, it can be said that I have been spared the so-called “opportunity cost” of learning a language. Basically this means that as an adult, while my peers and many other people were sacrificing precious time trying to learn just one more language to improve their career prospects, I already had the luxury of dedicating the same time and efforts to other endeavors to advance my own career (e.g., earning a PhD and MBA) or to enjoy hobbies (playing music, practicing sports, etc.). In this sense, languages can represent a huge head start for anybody who wishes to have a successful global career, an advantage that my parents had already given me when I was a child.
It truly is most amazing that, as a child, I never had to actively make efforts to learn languages. My parents created environments for me to use many languages on a continuous basis, and I grew up thinking that this was the norm. I never once questioned it, and just thought it was part of “my daily life”. On the other hand, my peers and countless others that I know must go through the extraprocess of learning languages as an adult, which we all know is not a simple feat.
So in closing, I would just like to emphasize that I cannot thank my parents enough for the gift of languages that they had given me. And since it is impossible for me to pay it back to them, I will simply pay it forward by raising my own children in the same way that my parents did, adding my own colors along the way and taking advantage of much improved technologies of today.
Ever since the birth of my first child, I have been documenting my new journey as a parent raising multilingual children and am sharing it with my followers on social media and presenting my methods and findings at international language conferences. It is my personal mission to change the unilingual frame of mind forever.
But that’s really a topic for another article…
Tetsu Yung is fluent in English, French, Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish, and dabbles in 5 other languages. He learned most of these languages during his childhood, growing up in Taiwan, Japan and Canada, and is now raising his own 3 children (ages 5, 4 and 1) to speak these 5 languages fluently as well. As an expert on raising multilingual children, he has given talks at various international conferences, including the prestigious Polyglot Conference, LangFest Montreal, LinguaHackers and others. He is one of the co-organizers of LangFest Montreal.