Tag Archives: trilingual education

‘Stop Saying thank-you All the Time. You are Becoming a Real Foreigner’

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WP_20150524_036Last time when I visited family in China, a few days into the trip, my sister told me ‘Stop saying thank-you to me all the time. You are becoming a real foreigner!’.

I initially was quite taken back by the comment, but then when I reflected on it, I realized that 11 years of living in France/Australia is definitely leaving a mark on me – in terms of what ‘being polite’ means.

According to an article ‘What ‘Thank You’ Sounds to Chinese Ears’: the Chinese way of being polite to each other with words is to shorten the social distance between you. And saying please serves to insert a kind of buffer or space that says, in effect, that we need some formality between us here.

It’s so true. From the beginning, I struggle to come up with a proper sentence to teach Nina the equivalent of ‘can I have some water please’ in Mandarin, simply because we do not use ‘can I … please’ in China under such context. The literal translation (‘请问我可以要些水吗’) just sounds not quite right, especially addressing the family memebers.  ‘I want some water. Thank you’ (我想要些水。谢谢)would be the most polite and popular way of saying it – even then, more often than not people will omit ‘thank you’ too, esp within family and close friends. There just aren’t many ‘thank you’ and ‘please’ floating around the Chinese household. And it’s ok. In fact it’s more than ok – it’s expected, and the opposite of it (adding ‘thank you’ ‘please’ everywhere) is considered a bit out of place.

For my husband and in many Western cultures, teaching manners to children such as saying ‘thank you’ ‘please’ “could I’ ‘may I’ is extremely important – in fact is considered as basic education. For these cultures, Chinese can come across quite blunt and rude without using these expressions often, if at all. Even I, a native Chinese, become really aware and sometimes uncomfortable when these practices clash. Many Chinese friends I make outside of China do not often say these words, and many times I have to remind myself that they are not being impolite at all, but just an act of showing them considering me as their friends. Among friends, such formality is not required. They show their friendship and politeness by offering me help and advices in ways that most friends from Western cultures will not. And that’s fine too.

It’s not an issue of value. Being grateful and graceful are equally important values in both Chinese and Western cultures. But the practice of it is very different in respective culture. People show their respect and gracefulness in very different, sometimes even seemingly conflicting, ways.

Being a parent who’s trying to pass on not only the language but also the culture to my child, it’s an act of practice and awareness (sometimes soul-searching and not necessarily obvious one) that’s required to be respectful of all cultures involved. Hopefully nobody becomes a foreigner in our own land.

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Six Things to Get Toddlers’ Multiple Languages Going

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WP_20150323_001As I’m often asked what we are doing day in and day out to keep 2 ‘minority’ languages going with Nina, I thought to write a post to summarize the 6 things that we are doing – and that seem to be working – to share.

  1. 1. stick to one parent one language (OPOL), at ALL times. Not pretending that I do not speak other languages, I make it clear that I speak only ‘my’ language with her (if I need to translate when there are other people around, I will). Parents are the best teacher as we are ALWAYS there and we know our children the best! We need to be consistent with the boundary (like all other things) with our children when it comes to languages too.
  2. 2. lots of interactions and playdates with other children of similar age from same language/heritage backgrounds. Nina’s best friend at school happens to be speaking Mandarin too (and her Mandarin is quite solid as she just moved from China to Sydney), the best ‘coincidence’ I could ever wish for. Nowadays we start a ‘weekend child swap’ with another family who speak the same heritage language as mine – a great experience for their language as well as for parents’ sanity (we take turn to have a couple-only Sunday. loving it.

3. stories, videos, games, songs, all sorts of materials in ‘our’ languages – the more the merrier. Weekly Skype session with grandma is perfect for more practice/positive reinforcement too.

4. role modelling – always show-case with pride that it’s a natural thing to speak ‘another’ language. I never switch to English in public when only addressing to Nina. I know many parents do for the fear of not being respectful of others around, but in my experience, I have never once had anyone telling me off. Instead, I very often get compliments from others (shopkeepers, grandma in the playground, bus driver, to name a few) that it’s great for me to keep speaking my language and foster the habit in Nina in replying in my language.

5. immersion – a trip back native country has worked wonder.

6. have faith in her that it will work and that she will get there! I often hear parents saying ‘well I’m not sure. it’s too much. Let’s just get the majority language right, and then we’ll take care of the others’. I say no! no! no! Unless there is a valid concern for speech delay (assessed by professionals who are familiar with multilingual upbringing) it’s totally normal if children are taking time to get their heads around multiple languages.

Nina’s English is picking up – although still very rudimentary with accents and her songs are never in tune. Her Mandarin and French are equally advancing. While there is definitely still long way to go, I’m comfortable in knowing that what we are doing is working in one way or another.

‘Mummy, There’

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05At the check-out of the local supermarket yesterday, Nina saw a toddler wondering off from his mum who was busy paying. Nina went up to the toddler, looked at him, while pointing at his mum, and said ‘mummy, there’.

That single sentence, an incomplete sentence, gave me immense joy and satisfaction. Why?

1) Nina really gets that different people speak different language, and learnt that English is the language of the society she lives in now. So she didn’t speak Mandarin nor French to that kid, but consciously chose English, which is for the moment her weakest language.

2) she’s now comfortable enough in her English to INITIATE a conversation. Such a huge difference from when she hide herself and refused to talk to ANYONE beside her parents. It’s almost like she’s becoming a different child. That sentence (‘mummy, there’) was not complete and far from being perfect, but it conveyed the message perfectly. That’s what it counts in language – to communicate and deliver a message! The refinement of the language can, and will, come later.

3) Nina has a good heart that she wanted to make sure the toddler stay close to his mummy. Kindness and willingness to help is a quality that I value enormously and wish to instil in Nina.

I had a big smile on my face at that supermarket checkout. I was very proud of my daughter who is, at 3 years 2 months old, able to sort out three languages, learning every single one of them (including English which we don’t speak at home at all, but she is picking up mainly from her pre-school since less than 2 months ago), and comfortable enough to communicate via them.

I have to add that I was proud of myself too – it’s at that moment that I realized all our efforts of raising a trilingual child IS paying off. It gave me confidence and courage to keep going. Like what I have always believed, and as part of my lessons from our round-the-world trip: Things always work out in the end, with due efforts.

窗花/ Window Flower

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What is culture? Today at my home, culture is the traditional paper cutting for the upcoming Chinese New Year that’s being put onto the window. In Chinese it’s called 窗花, which can be translated literally into ‘window flower’.

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Like almost all Chinese charms, it’s red. This 窗花 follows the traditional patterns: a Chinese charater 福 (fortune/happiness/luck) in the middle, surrounded by two fish ( 鱼/fish in Chinese shares the same pronounciation as 余 (abundance) hence a lucky symbol that’s popular in festivity) and some decorative patterns. Traditionally it’s made by cutting patterns on a piece of red paper. Nowaday the commercial ones are routinely just machine made (like the ones I bought during our recent China trip), although traditional hand-cut 窗花 is still possible to find if you look for it.

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Nina and I put it together on Sunday afternoon and she had some fun. It felt for me a bit like putting up Christmas tree for many I suppose – it announced the beginning of a festive season, and from this moment on we were all reminded that it’s almost time to celebrate with family. We are in Sydney so it’s far from a total Chinese New Year experience, but at least we have something authentically Chinse!

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Is My Own Trilingualism Becoming An Obstacle To Nina’s?

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200910-04I speak all three languages (Mandarin, English, French) in which we are raising Nina, although we adopt OPOL (one parent one language) method at home – I speak Mandarin with Nina, and Nicolas speaks French with her. Being a native speaker of Mandarin I am certainly the biggest source of regular Mandarin input for Nina. And I am proud of that.

However recently I have been thinking if my own capability of speaking three languages actually has, ironically, become an obstacle in Nina’s capability of learning them, especially Mandarin.

At about 2 months shy from turning three, she understands Mandarin perfectly, but she doesn’t speak as many Mandarin as French (French currently is her strongest language especially when it comes to verbal production). If she spends long enough hours in a day just with me, or if I prompt her to speak in Mandarin for certain things, she would produce more Mandarin. Lately I have also learnt some techniques in having her speak more Mandarin (or in any language really). However left alone, she seems to use French sentence structure as her base of constructing verbal language generally.

That got me thinking: what if I didn’t speak/understand French at all or just at very basic level?

Would then she learn, over time, that ‘mm mama doesn’t understand me, so I have to find a way to let her know that I want to eat that ice-cream’, so that would leave her no choice but to communicate with me only in Mandarin?

Would I then stick to reading just Mandarin books, as I am not capable of reading books in the other two languages? Currently I would pretty much read whichever book that she asks me to or that comes in handy. And I have dilemma on which language to read the books in, which is an ongoing dilemma.

Would it then also change the language dynamics in the whole family, esp that Nicolas and I would speak more Mandarin than anything else, so Nina would get a lot more Mandarin input overall at home? Currently we speak French between two of us.

These are of course just theoretical questions that I will have no way to find out the answer – and I am not even attempted to try by pretending that I don’t speak the other two languages well enough. I enjoy many advantages of being trilingual – including seeing the confused faces of strangers trying to figure out my accent 🙂 But perhaps like almost everything in life, it also comes with a price.