“I don’t remember how to speak Chinese,” my 4-year-old daughter whispered to me while video chatting with her Nainai before we boarded the plane. I heard myself translating. I encouraged my daughter to try, but she stumbled and got frustrated. My mother-in-law laughed awkwardly but shrugged it off. “You’ll remember as soon as you come back,” she told my daughter, who understood with a nod.
I always spend summers back in Canada, but when I finally landed in Toronto, returning to a mainly English-speaking environment feels strange at first. Speaking to the taxi driver in English even though he’s clearly not a first-language English speaker, I feel complicit in English’s status as the “bully language.” English has coerced so many language groups into submission. That is, except Mandarin.
I admire this about Chinese. A language made strong by sheer numbers thus retains power over the bully. English is studied in China, of course, but still only a small percentage can speak it well enough past simple pleasantries like “hello” and “thank you.” If you visit China, you’ll need some Chinese.
In the first three weeks of our vacation this summer, I happily noted that the kids spoke to each other exclusively in Mandarin. And while Mandarin was their play language, they spoke to the Canadian family members exclusively in English without a second thought.
But, I was alarmed when in less than a month, they were using English to communicate. Then two months later, my daughter claimed to have forgotten her Chinese. Is that all it takes? Just two months away where the second language is not supported within my side of the family (except through me), and English gained dominance. Even Mandarin — the resilient linguistic opponent that may become the world’s ascendant language in the future — was no match for an English-speaking external environment.
When we officially move back to Canada, will my kids lose their Chinese? Will I be forced to put them into Chinese schools, compelled to engage weekly in Chinese community events or actively have to reach out and make Chinese friends with kids who also speak Mandarin who, for now, may be easily convinced to use Chinese as a play language… perhaps, at least, for a reward?
This strikes me as grasping at straws rather than winning a battle. And, I don’t know the answer. Keeping them in China maintains their both languages because I am always with them and introducing them to other English speakers. Moving them back to Canada may prove a linguistic mistake. Yet, in light of free schooling, free health care, and a perfect air environment, is there really any other option?
I can only hope that my kids will come to value their bilingualism if for nothing else than the ability it offers them to speak with all members of their extended family, whether in person or by video chat across the world.
About the Writer
Ember Swift is a Canadian musician and writer who has been living in Beijing since late 2008. She and her husband Guo Jian (国囝), who is also a musician, have a daughter called Echo (国如一) and a son called
Topaz or “Paz” (国世龙).
This article originally appeared on page 41 of the October 2016 Issue of beijingkids magazine. Click here for your free online copy. To find out how you can obtain a hard copy, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.