Speaking a language like a native isn’t solely to do with whether you get the right tone, the right grammar, the right sentence structure and so on. I have discovered that the older my child gets, the more he changes not only his speech, but also his personality, depending on which language he is speaking.
Not long after we moved to this apartment, we had a small children’s gathering in my courtyard, a public one which is great because there are dozens of steep, uneven stairways, broken bikes and other hidden dangers to play around to one’s heart’s content.
Most of the children who came were my son’s Chinese classmates. They were all playing quite nicely and we mothers were enjoying a couple of Yanjings and some hairy beans with half an eye on which child was throwing stones at which bikes, when suddenly I heard this whining banshee that screamed in pitch until I’m sure a few windows started cracking.
The voice was demanding something from another child, and the Beijing hua issuing forth was relentless, painful, excruciating. Swinging around to try and stem this eardrum blasting, I realised with horror that the voice belonged to none other than my very own child.
In English, I demanded an explanation for this tirade. He immediately switched to sweet, pure English and explained in a very soft tone that one of his friends had thrown his Ben 10 doll down one of the stairwells and into a pile of rotting cat food.
Chinese playground hollering transformed into English parent-child communication: a case of adapting to circumstances.
Me, on the other hand, no matter what situation I find myself in, I just stick with the English phrasing, the English politeness, the English reserve and the English inability to be understood. I will never be able to switch character according to language, no matter how much it would help everyone else’s comprehension.
For the rest of the afternoon I listened and realized he has a completely different personality in Chinese. By the way, it’s not a pretty one either.
Petulant, ordering, overreacting to everything, getting moody. Astonishing. He does not behave like that with his Western playmates – and if he did, I’m sure he would have none left.
But it’s not just him – it seems to be the way Chinese children have to play – perhaps because there are so many of them in the class, at the park, in the playground, on the bus, in the toy shop – they simply have to whine to get what they want.
And at the end of it all, when it’s time to go home and everyone has moaned and shrieked and squabbled for three hours, everyone agrees they had a wonderful time. All that had gone before was clearly just normal behaviour.
It’s all fascinating to observe, and will continue to be so until we leave in August. I just hope when we do, we take the right personality with us.
Photo by mdanys via Flickr