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.
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.
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Tagged bilingual, bilingual children, bilingual education, bilingualism, Chinese american, language development, language education, learning chinese, Raising bilingual children, trilingual