Speaking about Language

Before our arrival in China, I gave very little thought to the complexities of raising children in a place where I could not speak the language. Further, though the opportunity for my children to acquire a second language was a motivating factor in spending the year in China, I did not think about (or research, which is more my style) the process of language acquisition at the young ages of 2 and 4.

Thus, this aspect of life here being uncharted territory, I am learning as I go along, frequently from my own mistakes since I don’t have the experiences of others to learn from. Let me share some recent observations and experiences.

Jie-jie comprehends a great deal of Chinese, speaks it in her sleep, uses it as her play language with her sister (who speaks it too – although she has fewer words and does a lot more imitating the tones), and, according to her teacher, uses it a fair bit at school and with her friends.

Early on we were so excited about her language learning that we made some mistakes. For example, sometimes we would ask her how what things were called in Chinese, to speak some Chinese on command (for, example, to guests), or, when she was recounting what she and her friends were talking about at school, what language the exchange was in. I soon learned that these were not the right questions for at least 2 reasons.

1. Her understanding of the language is much more organic that ours so when we ask her to translate, that poses a problem. She isn’t translating. She is choosing the words that make sense without dividing them into separate languages. Maybe the ability to separate and connect the languages comes later. I don’t know.

2. Asking her to perform Chinese is humiliating and turns a very real aspect of her life into a parlor trick.

Navigating cultural, familial, and individal  differences in parenting style is further complicated by linguistic barriers. Yesterday we took the kids to a puppet show with one of Jie-jie’s classmates and her mother. They speak less English than we speak Chinese. All the same, the day seemed to be going pretty well. We made small talk, took in the show, and decided to stop for lunch on the way home. After some uncertainties (largley due to our desire to select an appropriate restaurant), we ended up at an OK lunch spot in the mall/metro station. The 3 kids were sitting on a sofa with tables in front of them. They were doing some bouncing on the sofa. While we were ordering, Jie-Jie and her friend, Hai, moved to a neighboring table. Then, the next thing we knew, the 2 big kids were nowhere to be seen. Jason sprung out of his seat and ran down the stairs, to the restaurant exit. Meanwhile, Hai’s mother explained that the 2 girls had gone to the bathroom (with her permission), and apologized. Jason, who had collared the children downstairs and was giving Jie-jie a dressing down, but he didn’t know that she hadn’t merely taken off. So, even bracketing the issue of what age people are willing to have their children take themselves to the public restroom, there is the complexity of Hai’s m0ther communicating with the children completely outside of the comprehension of Jason and myself while Jie-jie felt she had been given permission to use the bathroom and did not note that her parents were not a party to the discussion.

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