Flying Solo

This summer we sent our son to Germany. He flew there as an unaccompanied minor two weeks before the rest of us join him.

We usually visit the German or Taiwanese grand parents once a year and we can only afford to stay 2 weeks because of our work.  I notice that by the end of the second week, there seems to be some mechanism in the brain that get turned on and they would start understand a lot more and respond in the native language.

This is true in both Germany and Taiwan.  But in Germany, it gets a bit trickier.    First, most German speak English and they want to practice with us.  Second, I don’t speak German and my kids don’t want me to be left out of the conversation.

This year, we decided to try something new.  We sent our son two weeks early.  Like all moms, I was a little nervous.   We got him a direct flight with Lufthansa.  Our Oma was equally nervous but excited at the same time.  (She got to have the grand son for 2 weeks before we all showed up!)

I have to say this whole unaccompanied minor thing is very well organized.  My son was never left out of sight of the crew, and needlessly to say, he got there safely.

This whole experiment turned out to be a wonderful experience for everyone.  My son formed a special bond with the grand parents.   It helps that he has friends from previous visit.  And his “best friend in Germany” is the son of my husband’s best childhood friend who still lives in the same neighborhood.  He had frequent “sleep over” and spend a lot of time with the friend.   He made new friends with local German boys.  He was in a full immersion environment.

This was an especially great experience for my son.  He told him he definitely wants to do it again next summer.   And this time, my daughter wanted to be sent there early too!

We are going to Taiwan!

After  MM complaining Chinese is useless,  I also noticed another change — it has become harder for them to form complete sentences.  Their  listening comprehension is still good.  I continue to speak mandarin to them.  However, they have stopped wanting to speak on the phone with grand parents.    I think we are long overdue for a visit to Taiwan and see the grand parents.

I just bought the tickets and announce our pending travel plans to the children.  They are so excited!  I reminded them that we are going to speak Mandarin to Yeh Yeh (grand pa) and Nai Nai (grand ma) the whole time, and we’d better start practicing.   They all agreed.  MM even asked if they gets to go to schools in Taiwan.  mmm, that is not a bad idea. Unfortunately, we are only staying for two weeks.  Maybe next time we will stay longer and send them to summer camp.

I hope with the immersion environment, it will renew my children’s interest with Chinese.  I plan to take MM and AA to train stations and visit night markets.    This way, hopefully, MM will see how useful Chinese characters are.

I purchased the tickets and announced our travel plan to the children.

Chinese is useless!?

My kids both go to a afterschool care that offers one hour of chinese class.  Recently, MM is resisting going.  The main reason – Chinese class.  We made the decision to send them to public elementry school, and thus rely on the after school to provide some chinese language education. 

I asked MM why doesn’t he like his Chinese class.  He told me that what they learned in the class was useless.  “All the character I have to memorize are  useless,” MM said.    I have some issues with the material used in  the class.  The text book was essentially a list of chinese characters that they are cramming into the kids head.  These are the basic characters, and theoratically, if they recognize all the characters, they will be able to read.   But that is a big IF.

Ever since MM started second grad, his english reading has improved to a point to read on his own and for his enjoyment.   He can read books like Harry Potter.  However, since Chinese is not a phonatic language like English. the reading comprehanson comes much slower.  I remember as kids, we wasn’t able to read Chinese books that are equivent of Harry potter until we are much older, probably 5th grade, when we have build up more vocabulary. 

Right now, I might just resor to speak Mandarin with MM and not force him to learn to read and write.  As for AA, she is younger and shows more interest.  I might try other tactic.  Will report that in my next blog.

Harry and Hali

This summer when we visited Germany, AA lost her stuffed whale on the way there.  To cheer her up, Oma gave her a stuffed dog (or wolf, we are still debating, but AA decided he is a dog , so dog it is)  AA was very happy that she got a new friend and prompted named him.

I asked her in Mandarin what his name, she responded in Mandarin “他的名字叫哈利 (His name is Hali)”.  I told her that I was pleasantly surprised that she gave the dog a Chinese name.   She corrected me, “He has two names, one in English, Harry, and one in Mandarin like everybody else.”

It is true that in our family we all have two names, Chinese and Angelo (we choose the names the work in both German and English).   It is interesting to me that she applies that subtle knowledge to her toys.   It is also very practical. This way, we don’t have to switch to English pronunciation mid way through our Mandarin sentences and vise versa.

I was born to speaking English and Chinese

Last time my mother (our kids call her Nai Nai) came and visited us, she decided that she wanted to learn English.  We enrolled her into one of those adult ESL programs.  One day Nai-Nai was practicing English with MM, and Nai-Nai asked him to say a few words that she had trouble  pronouncing.  After several tries, Nai-Nai, obviously frustrated,  complained how hard it is to learn a new language.  MM and AA was puzzled and asked, ” “Why do you have to learn it?”  Nai Nia told them that she want to be able to communicate with their father.

As the conversation went on, I realized that the children weren’t questioning her motivation but they just didn’t understand why Nai Nai didn’t speak English already and had to learn it, “Why do you have to learn it? Aren’t you born to speak both? We are born to speaking English,Chinese and German and we didn’t have to learn them!”

Another interesting development we observed while Nai Nai was here was that my children started to talk amoung themselves more in Mandarin.  AA’s bilingual preschool teacher also told me that she noticed that AA started to talk to herslef in Mandarin when playing alone.  This got me very excited.  Since we live in an English-dominated evnironment, the kids alwasy prefer to speak English than other languages, simply because they hear it so much.  However, by having another adult in the house to speak Mandarin with was enough to tip the scale in favor of Mandarin.

Can you say hoo-Di-eh (butterfly in Chinese)

My children, like many other multilingual children, don’t do party tricks, However, they do find it amusing to teach us the language that we don’t speak.  My husband, a native German speaker, can barely speak ten words in Chinese.  One day, our daughter AA thought of a fun game to play with papa. She started with her favorite animal (well, insect to be precise but she was four so we will let that one slide), ” Can you say butterfly in Deutsch?” “I can, schmetterling.” “can you say butterfly in Mandarin?” “no? it’s ok, I will teach you.” “ok? ready? say Hoo-Di-eh”

Papa was a good sport and repeated it, “hoo deh.”  His pronunciation was a bit off.  And then a funny phenomena happened.   AA obviously had forgotten who has the authority in Mandarin-speaking and probably thought Papa was correcting her, so she copied his sound and say “hoo deh.” I watched this in silence and it went on for about ten times.  Each time papa followed her thinking she is correcting him, and he got it a little bit off, and then AA copied papa thinking he is correcting her. Toward the end the two of them produced some sounds that didn’t resemble anything in any language.

Time for intervention, I stepped in and corrected them both.  We were I forgot I was teaching papa!”

It is funny but also reminded me that what authoritative figures we parents are to our children.  Children automaticaly looked up to us parents thinking we must know all the answers to the world of questions.  From early on, my children understood that their parents have limitations, such as papa doesn’t know anything about Mandarin, and Mama can’t say much German. This makes it so much easier for us to have an honest discussion with our children and tell them that although we have more experience but we don’t kow everything much and we are still learning.

Children are the best translators

There is no better way to help reinforce the second (or third) languages than having monolingual relatives that don’t speak English visiting.   My mom, our kids call her “Nine-Nine” visits us once a year, and her english is very limited.  So when she is around, our kids are more inclined to speak Mandarin.  However, my German and English-speaking husband can’t really say much to my mom.   Things get interesting when I am out-of-town.  My husband came up with the idea that he can get the kids to translate for him.

One Saturday afternoon, he wanted to take the kids to the park so he asked MM to translate, “please tell Nine-Nine that we are going to the park.  Ask her if she’d like to go with us.  We will be home in an hour.”  MM then looked at Nine Nine and said in Mandarin ” we are going to the park, bye!”

I think that is the best.  Bilingual kids don’t translate word-by-word.  They comprehend, and paraphrase in the most efficient way possible.  Do your kids practice “economy of words “?

Cool! The other team can’t understand us

Our kids play at a local youth soccer league.  In our team, there are ten kids.  Interestingly, all of them are bilingual.  Most of them, including the coaches, speak Hebrew; two kids speaking Mandarin, and one kid speaks Greek. When we first joined the practice, my son MM noticed that they spoke a different language, and was listening intently.  And later asked my husband,” Are they speaking German?  but how come I don’t understand them?”  It was very interesting that he can compare the sounds of different language and determine if they have similar sounds.  He was right, Hebrew does sound more similar to German than to English.

The coach is clearly bilingual, he comfortably switches back and forth between Hebrew and English when he was giving instructions during the games and practice sessions.  One day after a good game, MM commented, “it was cool that the coach was shouting instructions in Hebrew and English, that way our opponents couldn’t understand what we are going to do next.  It is our teams secret language!”

I only speak Chinese at this house

To talk about DD, we have to first talk about how we first met his family.  When we had our children, we had decided that we will try our best to raise them to be trilingual for not other reasons than wanting them to be able to talk to their grand parents.  When my kids were little, we found a wonderful family day care ran by a Chinese couple.  My kids called them Gung Gung and Ah-po (chinese for grandpa and grandma).  Gung Gung and Ah-po spoke Mandarin to my children, thought them to recognize Chinese characters and made wonderful Chinese food for them.

We met DD at Gung-Gung & Ah-po’s place.  His parents don’t speak any Chinese.  It wasn’t their plan to raise DD as bilingual.  They just happened to like the daycare and viewed their son growing up in a Manderin-immersion environment as a wonderful bonus.

DD and MM are 3 months apart and they were babies when they met.  Now they are 7 and still are best friends.   I remember I always talked to DD at Gung-Gung’s  in Chinese whenever I saw him there. He spoke Mandarin as fluent as MM.  One day, we were at DD’s house for DD’s birthday party.  I  started speaking Chinese to DD.  He looked at me and told me “No, no, you speak English here.  This is an English house. ”  He later explained  “We only speak Chinese in Gung Gung’s”

I later did some research and found that bi-lingual children, especially littler ones, need to somehow compartmentalized their lives so they don’t get confused.  They “trained” themselves to speak to certain adults in one language automatically.  My kids see me and would automatically switch to Mandarin.  (well, before they went to school anyway).  In DD’s case, he decided that languages are also location-based.   Now DD is 8 years old and he can easily switch between Chinese and English and is very comfortable speaking to me in Chinese regardless of the location.

Many smart people don’t speak English

One day MM came home and reported that he has two “reading buddies.”  MM’s elementary school has this wonderful system where the 3rd graders read to the kindergarteners, the 4th graders read to the first graders and so on.  According to MM, his original reading buddy doesn’t speak English very well, so he has another 4th grad kid accompany him and they both read to MM.  I asked MM, “If this kid is not good at English, he must be good at other languages. What language is he good at?”  MM went “He is very smart in Spanish and he tought me some words.” MM later said, “Nai Nai (MM’s Taiwanese grandmother) is very smart in Chinese, even she can not speak English. Opa and Oma don’t speak English very well but they are very smart in Deutsche.”  MM continued to list more people he knows.   When he said that, I was very touched.  I am  not sure if this is a direct result of us raising him to be trilingual or the diverse community we live in.  I’d like to believe that when children speak more than one languages, it will help them see the world from different perspectives. Maybe it will also help them to be more tolerant and open-minded.