Friday, January 25, 2013


One of the things we were most worried about when we moved back to Singapore was Sophie's (in)ability to pick up Chinese. Jude and I speak the language well enough I suppose but it doesn't come naturally to us, which means between just talking to Sophie in English and having to first translate whatever we want to say in Chinese in our heads before then saying it to her, we've always taken the easy way out. Also, people say your mother tongue is the language in which you dream and my dreams have never been in any other language but English (can you subtitle a dream? Freud? Christopher Nolan?).

But thankfully, Sophie's preschool has an excellent Chinese language programme (into which they're constantly researching and re-evaluating, which makes the education geek in me so happy). She also has great Chinese teachers who have been the paragon of patience when it comes to exposing Sophie to the language. They understand that she had almost zero exposure to the language before her third birthday and are taking things slow with her; but they also practice the principle that the only way to learn a language *is* to be saturated in it and so they speak to her almost exclusively in Chinese, necessitating that she learns to understand what they're saying to her.

Sophie's been a quick learner of the sounds of the language-- she can repeat phrases and even complete songs almost pitch perfectly. But for a long time, she had no idea what they mean. A month ago though, she started asking me what certain words in Chinese mean, words she hears often in school or that appear in stories that are read to her- 蝴蝶 (butterfly), 一起 (together), 朋友 (friend), for example and I was more than happy to translate them for her and then ask her again the next day to see if she remembers. Sometimes she does, often she doesn't, but the fact is that she's interested and that's more than we can ask for.

Then last week, her Chinese teacher tells me that they're starting to teach the kids how to recognize Chinese characters and sent home a little game for us to play with Sophie (her first homework assignment!!). She didn't yet have to be able to identify each word but the objective was just to familiarize her with them. Basically, we were supposed to place four Chinese characters on a grid and systematically take one away in turn, and see if Sophie can identify the one that's missing. The four words were:
口 (mouth)
人 (people)
小 (small)
大 (big)

Since Chinese characters are fundamentally pictograms, I told Sophie to look at the words and pretend that they're pictures-- the character for "mouth" looks like a mouth open wide, "people" is a person walking, "small" is like a small, skinny person standing straight, and "big" is a bigger person standing with his/her arms and legs stretched open. And it went BRILLIANTLY. I almost couldn't believe it. In 10 minutes, our child who until 6 months ago heard no word of Chinese (except on Ni-Hao Kai Lan on Nick Jr.) could not only pick out the right word when prompted, she could also produce the sound when I asked. I thought my heart would burst from sheer pride.

Jude and I take hope from this NYT article which we talk about all the time to our friends in similar situations, with children learning what is essentially for Sophie, a foreign language. It talks about how a foreign correspondent for the NYT basically transplanted his entire family from Brooklyn, NY to Moscow and enrolled his children in a Russian-only elementary school. The kids had to learn everything in Russian, a language they had never heard before. It was pure torture. But after five years in Moscow, the children not only spoke fluent, flawless Russian, but also developed a deep love and appreciation for the Russian life and culture. We can only hope the same for Sophie...

No comments: