I have a quiet son. Ever since he turned 1.5 years, I have been concerned with him reaching his language “milestones” and speaking in general. It seemed that up till a few weeks ago all he could do was make animal-like sounds to protest, gain attention, and point out things. He could sound out more “words” when he was a year old than he could now (at 22 months), and I wondered if he had forgotten the words, if they just didn’t register as “words” to him, or if he’s just extremely confused with all the languages we have at home and that he’s been exposed to with his grandparents.
To explain, my husband and I decided that we would share the language teaching responsibility with me focusing on English (since it’s my native language), and him focusing on Mandarin (since it’s his native language). We speak both languages at home, and my Mandarin isn’t too shabby, but I do have an accent and my vocabulary is rather limited. A good example is how a friend had bought our son a cricket last night after dinner, and I put the little straw cage in my son’s hand and said “cricket”. Then, my husband asked me to teach him the Chinese equivalent, and all I could think of was the Disney version of Mulan and how I’m pretty sure there is a word for Cricket, but what was it again? Didn’t it have a pinyin-like name? If you wondered, it turns out they’re called guo guo (which he proceeded to confuse us with by teaching a dialect version, qu qu). This is exactly why Trish Hull from Beijing LIH Olivia’s Place Pediatric Clinic does not recommend teaching your child a language that is not your native tongue. You’re just not that good at it.
At the MOPS talk, Hull also dispelled the myth that bilingual or multi-lingual children acquire language at a slower pace than mono-lingual children–a belief I’ve always been dubious about given how how I had acquired three languages by age three. The dispelling of this myth did mean that I no longer had a valid excuse for my son’s grunts and yelps. Luckily, the talk did end with ways parents and caretakers can assist children in better developing language.
Takeaways on bilingualism or multilingualism:
- Multi-lingual children do not normally experience language development delays. You’re supposed to add up the words from each language to total the number of words a monolingual child can say.So, in my son’s case, by age 2 he should be able to say 50 words, but he might only be able to say 10 words in English and 40 words in Mandarin (let’s face it, Mandarin words are shorter and thus easier to learn).
- Children don’t just “pick up” a second or third language through immersion, but they have to be taught with interactive in-person methods, e.g. a play teacher rather than a television show.
- Mixing languages in one sentence or phrase is completely normal for bilingual and multi-lingual children.
I can attest that it’s probably not something you “grow out of”.
- Bilingualism does not automatically mean “native proficiency” in both languages.
I have been called trilingual since I was a child, but since I only “studied” two languages in school, the third language (Mandarin) remains at a pretty low level. Of course with practice, my accent has been reduced, I’ve learned more idioms, and I’ve improved my vocabulary, but it’s still not at the same proficiency level as my English and Finnish.
- The one parent, one language method (which is basically what we are trying to do) is not the only, or necessarily the best, method to teach your child many languages. In the end, it’s more important that parents talk to children in a natural way and feel comfortable conversing with their kids.
- Families who live in a third culture should not worry about speaking the “majority language” at home to train their children.In California, for example, I have many American born Chinese (ABC) friends with parents from Taiwan who try very hard to keep the “home language” English, even though English is a second, or even third language for them. In the end, studies show that your child benefits more from your native language, and will learn the majority language at school regardless. I, for example, took up Finnish almost completely at school (well, I had my grandparents) since my dad spoke English to me.
Once we had established that bilingualism and multi-lingualism does not cause language delays, we learned about simple tips and tricks for parents and caretakers (including your ayi) can help your child’s language development:
- Talk to your kid–a lot! Interact with him and explain what you’re doing while you’re doing it!
- Sing nursery rhymes and simple songs as the repeating words and rhythm and rhyme help with language learning.
- Follow your child’s lead and mimick his language rather than trying to enforce your own.
- Read books aloud, even if he only lets you read two pages!
- Teach new words by pointing things out, reading signs aloud, etc.
- Aim language at your child’s level (don’t forget to increase the level as he grows!)
- Speak naturally.
- Have daily routines in place and teach the words for them.
- Be an “in tune parent” (more on this later).
- Learn your child’s communication style (and your own) to better understand how to communicate with him (more on this later).
If you have concerns that your child is not meeting his or her language milestones, trust your gut feeling and seek out a speech therapist. Olivia’s Place (previously called Elliot’s Corner) provide pediatric therapeutic services and educational outreach. They often host workshops and presentations for parents raising children with developmental challenges.
For me, our son returned from his grandparents with an arsenal of sign language commands that took me days to decipher. Luckily, he’s been picking up the spoken equivalent, especially in Chinese, now that he’s not confused by the various dialects he was exposed to from my husband’s family (Chengdu/Sichua/Chongqing dialect…). He can now say at least 20 Mandarin words, and he understands when I confirm what he wants in English (he can now say “yea” and “no”). It’s been such a relief for us since good communication means he’s a lot less frustrated, we are a lot less confused by what he wants, and it’s a lot easier to teach him new words and concepts when he’s able to communicate that he doesn’t know or understand what we’re saying (he asks “A-ah?!”)
MOPS is a faith-based community group for moms of preschool aged children, hosting international (English language) meetings twice a month, a bilingual English-Chinese group meeting once a month, and Chinese group meetings once a month. The meetings often have speakers give talks/presentations or host workshops, followed by a discussion session in small groups, and often end with arts and crafts. MOPS events have childcare available with RSVP and a small fee (RMB 20).
Photos: courtesy of Olivia’s Place