Tag Archives: trilingual parenting

‘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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A Pair of Fogged Goggles

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goggles 8:30am. I was in the swimming pool, just starting my first lap. Then the goggles started to fog up. At the end of the first lap, I couldn’t see much. I cleared the goggles, went on with my second lap. At the end of the second lap, I couldn’t see much again. At this point it’s becoming clear that it’s a pair of goggles that would fog up easily. I was annoyed. I bought this pair not long ago – after the previous pair serving me for more than 10 years and finally came to the end of its life with broken straps.

I had two options, with the fogged pair of goggles and only 2 laps into my 20-lap goal.

Option one, stop swimming, leave the pool, go out to buy another pair when I get some time and come back to swim another day. Option two, keep swimming, endure the fogged goggles, and see what happens.

I weighed my two options during the third lap. And decided on the option two.

It turned out to be the best decision.

It got me to focus on what really mattered. Not what I thought that mattered.

You see, at that point of time, I was 3 months into swimming regularly again. After three years of neglecting regular and meaningful physical exercise, I was very pleased with the progress I was making. The distance went further – I could swim 1 kilometres in one go instead of 250 metres with lots of (long) breaks in between. Time became shorter – I could finish 1 km around 30 minutes whereas 250 metres used to take me forever. And I become better with freestyle – I now swim 1 km of freestyle with relative ease, whereas every 25 metres of free style used to result in gasping.

So every time I swam I really paid attention to how fast I was going, and how much improvement I made that day in terms of time and distance. I would routinely check the clock on the wall to see how much time I used to finish each lap, and conducted a mental calculation on the improvement, or non-improvement, comparing to the performance the day before. Sometimes I did better, sometimes I did worse. Most of time, I was too busy calculating the time that I couldn’t even figure out if I did better or worse before the next lap started. I was quite happy with my progress, and was becoming a bit obsessed with checking my performance.

Until my goggles started to fog up easily.

I could no longer see clearly the clock on the wall after each lap with fogged goggles. So I just kept going. Instead of calculating the time and improvement/non-improvement, I suddenly had all these time and mental capacity to take notice of the movements of my arms, the force with which my arms hit the water, the trajectory of my arms and legs under water, the breathing in and the breathing out, and the sensation of water flowing against my body when I moved forward. It suddenly became clear to me that I felt something very different.

For the first time in 3 months, I felt I was truly living the moment of swimming, instead of thinking of the swimming.

Not being able to ‘see’ clearly visually, I felt I could ‘see’ much more clearly inside me. 

It was an unexpected and delightful realization. I was in the flow. I felt free.

At the end of the 20 laps, I finally emerged from the water. I cleared my goggles. I glanced over to the direction of the clock on the wall. I almost cried. I hit the best ever personal record! It took me just 27 minutes to finish my laps of 1 kilometres. It may still be a laughable result for some, but it was something truly unimaginable for me only three months ago.

Not being able to see with a pair of fogged goggles turned out to be a blessing. It unexpectedly forced me to focus on what REALLY mattered. It’s not about calculating how much time I spent in each lap. It’s about the breathing, the gesture, the force, the coordination of the arms and legs, and the flow. Once I focused on these that mattered, the improvement of the performance was almost inevitable. The result just followed.

Isn’t it also true in trying to raise a trilingual child? How many times we have focused so much on the number of vocabularies, the amount of books we read in which language, the linguistic game we engaged, the calculation of amount of hours we spent in each language, among other things, that we lost sight of what really mattered – the joy of reading the book, the meaning that our child is trying to convey, the laughter we share, the memories of the silly hide and seek game in the backyard. If we truly live in the moment, focusing on what really matters, enjoying the relationship with our child using the language that we want to cultivate in our child, then the result will just follow – in our case, a trilingual family.

I have decided to keep the pair of fogged goggles, because I only need to see what really matters.

Well, ok, I will get myself a new pair of goggles that do not fog up easily. But I will keep in mind that I only need to see what really matters, with or without goggles.

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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