I wrote an essay for InCulture Parent about our efforts to keep our children’s Chinese identity alive when their father cannot travel home. Please read it here. And for those who haven’t read it before, InCulture Parent is a fabulous resource for anyone raising a multicultural family (or anyone interested in the world outside the U.S.).
Archive for the ‘At Home’ Category
When our son was born five years ago, my husband and I decided to use the One Parent One Language method to teach him Mandarin. This made sense for us since we have different native tongues yet we both understand both languages. So far, for both our kids, it has worked beautifully. When L began to talk (not until the age of two), he first said more words in English but clearly understood Chinese. By the time he was two and a half or three, he was carrying on conversations with us at the dinner table, turning to Baba to say something in Chinese and then turning to me to finish the sentence in English. He got furious when I crossed the lines of our system and spoke Chinese to him, and refused to acknowledge that I did understand when he talked to his dad. So he would often interrupt conversations in Chinese to turn to me and translate. Interestingly, he has never minded the rare moments when my husband speaks English to him and I can only guess it’s because, living in an English environment, he hears his father use it more regularly in daily life. He now acknowledges that we all speak both languages but is very proud of the fact that he speaks both better than either of us.
Now that he is fully bilingual, it’s been interesting to see how and with whom he chooses to speak Chinese. At his immersion school, he speaks Mandarin with his teachers, though not often with his classmates, who are mostly native English speakers. Even he and his very best friend — who is also fluent in Chinese, and with whom he has been in a Chinese-speaking childcare environment since they were one year old — always speak English together when playing in or out of school. At his old daycare, the main teacher spoke about 80% Chinese with the kids, but L knew that she understood English, and so for the first year he refused to speak Mandarin to her. Yet with her assistant, who did not speak any English, he spoke only Chinese. For the most part, he has divided his world up into people with whom he speaks Mandarin, and those with whom he speaks English, and very rarely do those boundaries blur.
So too, with our little one, who is now almost two. She is much more verbal than her brother and has been speaking since before she turned one. At eighteen months, she began to designate one language each for me and my husband and now only speaks to us in our own native tongue. She also translates for me when she talks to her dad. Since she started talking so much earlier than L, it’s been fascinating to see the language development so clearly at that age. Sometimes we are floored by her understanding of both languages and her ability to move from one to the other. The other day, for example, she walked into the kitchen and asked her father what he was doing. He responded, “我做一点点工作。” She then immediately came back to me and said, “Baba’s working a little bit.” How did she even know that “一点点” would translate into “a little bit,” much less be able to turn it around into a grammatically correct sentence right away? And the first time she used what is now her favorite expression, 一模一样 (“exactly the same”), she was simply repeating after her brother. At the time, I thought, how cute that she’s trying to say such a complex phrase that she doesn’t even understand, until she turned to me, pointed to the picture L was looking at, and said, “Mama, the same!” Watching the skill with which these little people can absorb and manipulate two very complex and very different languages is truly a wonder.
And now that they both are speaking (non-stop, I might add), it is beautiful to see them communicate between themselves. Together, they switch between English and Chinese, starting a conversation in English, ending it in Chinese, moving back and forth midway. Even when they are fighting. With his sister is the only time I have seen L do this; she is the one person that he has not regimented into one language or another. He knows that in our family, they are the only ones who share the ability to use both languages equally well, and that bonds them. And she learns from him, following his lead as he moves between the two languages, and the two worlds being created in their minds.
As I’ve mentioned before, the legend of the Monkey King is a favorite in our house. Before a recent long flight, I searched iTunes (which, if you search hard enough, has quite a bit of material in Chinese for kids) for something to keep L entertained, and found a recording of the complete Monkey King (Journey to the West or 西游记) by famed storyteller Sun Jingxiu (孙敬修). Generations of Chinese children have listened to “Grandpa Sun” tell the story of Sun Wukong in his heavy Beijing accent without any special effects, cutesy voices, or annoying music; his recording keeps my five-year-old enthralled for hours at a time and often makes him laugh out loud. Highly recommended for quiet rest times, long car trips, or rainy indoor days.
To find it, search the iTunes store for “Sun Jingxiu.” Currently they only have Volumes 1 & 3, but the whole set can also be purchased on Amazon. Segments of the story can also be heard for free via Chinese video-sharing site Tudou. The first section is here.
As a follow-up to the post about the iPhone app for teaching characters to children, I have a quick story. As L was practicing writing his Chinese numbers for his Mandarin immersion summer camp homework, he proudly showed me that he knows the correct stroke order for each of them. I asked if his teacher had taught him that, and he said, “No, I learned it from your phone.” So the app works (and he loves it). They just need to add more characters; there are only a handful and they are a bit randomly selected (tang 汤, soup, is a useful vocab word but is a complicated character that maybe doesn’t need to be in the first dozen learned).
On a marginally related note, I read a great op-ed in the New York Times yesterday, by child development expert Alison Gopnik, about how children learn and the importance of play. We sent L to a two-week session of Mandarin immersion camp at his school, which overall was a big success. But as great as it is to have a child who is so excited about learning characters and Chinese in general, I felt a little uncomfortable sending him to a camp that was so academically intensive. He learned a lot and had fun, but my idea of summer is play, play, play, ice cream, more play. The point of the Times article, which I found refreshing and true, is that young children learn best through free-form play because they naturally challenge themselves to seek out new experiences and knowledge, without needing fancy toys and DVDs to do it for them. The last paragraph of the article says it all:
But what children observe most closely, explore most obsessively and imagine most vividly are the people around them. There are no perfect toys; there is no magic formula. Parents and other caregivers teach young children by paying attention and interacting with them naturally and, most of all, by just allowing them to play.
While the summer camps and all the many Chinese teaching props out there are crucial and valuable, our kids have always learned the most Chinese through conversations with their father, games they play at school, songs they enjoy listening to, teachers or caretakers they feel close to, and books they love reading over and over. Flashcards can only go so far. Kids need to play.
I haven’t tried this yet but just heard about it from a friend. But for those of you who have iPhones, this looks like a nicely designed app to teach Chinese characters to kids.
T is now ten months old and entering that amazing stage when she is beginning to understand words and trying to communicate. It’s also the stage I remember well with L when they piece together what they know in a mish-mash of language, gesture, and random sounds. When L was one, before he really talked, he had a Cantonese-speaking babysitter, from whom he learned that shoes were “hai-hai.” Being obsessed with anything with wheels, he also called the color green “go” and red “stop,” though he pronounced it “bop.” So for a long while in our home his favorite red shoes were called his “bop hai-hai.” We knew exactly what he was talking about, even if no-one else did. Eventually he began to sort out the words and languages into different channels. For now, T responds in whatever way comes easiest for her: When Baba says “再见” she waves and says “Bye-bye!” And when he says, “拍拍手” she enthusiastically claps her hands, just as she does when I say the same in English, or when she hears recorded applause on a CD. It will all come together in time.
A friend just sent this link, which has a few popular Chinese children’s songs available to download, with pinyin and English translation. Here is the link for Two Tigers 两只老虎 – the most popular song, with the strangest lyrics (and a familiar tune).
My now four-year-old son (“L”) was a late talker, but an early singer. When he was two, he would enthusiastically sing through his repertoire of dozens of Chinese songs, over and over, day after day. It’s how he would get himself to sleep at night and how he would wake up in the morning. My favorite was always, “Wo De Hao Mama 我的好妈妈,” (“My good Mama”) about a child comforting an exhausted mother after a hard day’s work.
At first, it was through singing that our son learned to speak Chinese. Before either of our two children were born, my husband (a native Mandarin speaker) and I (a rusty Mandarin speaker) made a firm commitment to raise our children bilingually. But we didn’t yet realize how much work and effort true bilingualism entails. And we certainly didn’t predict what a key role the CDs of Chinese children singing high-pitched, syrupy songs, sent over by grandparents in China, would play in the process.
From the beginning, my husband has spoken exclusively Chinese to both children and I have spoken English. This method has worked well for us, but, living in an English environment, their Chinese has always needed to be supplemented and reinforced. So I have spent an inordinate amount of time over the past four years searching out the best books, websites, videos, music, and activities to help our son not just learn but enjoy Chinese. At the beginning, we tried to have as much Chinese exposure at home as possible, but before L could talk we never knew what or how much was sinking in. It became clear one day when, after listening repeatedly for weeks to a CD of children reading Tang Dynasty poems, L turned to us one day, out of the blue, and recited a poem about geese from beginning to end. We now watch in wonder as he effortlessly switches back and forth between the two languages without a thought. We struck gold when a wonderful Chinese immersion school opened last September within walking distance from our house, where he is now flourishing.
Now we are starting the process over again with his nine-month-old little sister (“T”), and if it’s like anything else about the process of parenting two children, she is certain to choose her own, unique way to learn the language that is very different from her big brother.
This website is a place for me to compile the information I have gathered, and am gathering, in the process of creating a Chinese environment for my children. I have discovered that there are a lot of valuable resources out there, they are just hard to find. The links I post will not be comprehensive but will connect to information or resources that I have personally found useful. I also hope to learn about new resources or different ways of creating bilingual environments from people who happen upon this site and find it helpful. Ideally, I would love to create a community of parents who are seeking creative ways to teach their children Chinese. So please feel free to send me any anecdotes, links, or recommendations of resources that you value; post comments; or send me suggestions or feedback on the site. You can subscribe to receive email updates through the form on the sidebar.
Thanks for reading.