March 24, 2010

[chinese eyes]

It's something G picked up from school (i know it's pretty insulting in other parts of the world, but i think in an 'almost' fully chinese ethnicity school, it's sting kinda loses it's effect.. lol). Anyways, we've been confronted by her (and consequently our) lack of 'chinese-ness'. It is difficult articulating the current ambivalent attitude a 2nd / 3rd generation has towards our mother tongue. Having just got off the phone with G's teacher from her weekly chinese class (who was concerned at G's lack of concentration and poor learning attitude at her class), I am once again faced with the guilt of not imparting to her a rudimentary grasp of the language. It has been a matter of concern to us since she was much younger. Lots of online help are available and one of the most common system that has been tried and proven is the "exclusive immersion" method. That means talking to your child in specifically one language on different days (ie, mon - chinese, tues - english etc). Or another method will be for each parent to adopt a primary language of communication with the child. But in a household of english speakers, who gets the short straw?
It is a constant problem and source of guilt for us parents. Both of us are more akin to the english language, finding great difficulty in imparting a language that neither of us have much affinity for. Sure, I'm much better than V in articulating in Mandarin. I can adopt a pretty convincing Taiwanese / Chinese accent and manner of speech if push comes to shove. I have made presentations in Mandarin, done SMSes and MSNs in Chinese, and am the defacto point of contact for all my chinese contractors. Plus I graduated from one of the country's premier Chinese high schools. That said, I don't like the language... I don't have the love for it that I have for English. It might be bizarre but there is no Chinese equivalent of Enid Blyton, no mystery stories that conjure amazing places like those in Harry Potter, no animation that is as cool as the classic Disney movies. Deep down, I never think in Chinese, never voluntarily speak or read chinese. It is perhaps due to our generation's cultural exposure. Chinese has always been the lagging subject, something that was a chore to study and master. It did not (and actually still does not) open up any doors that English did. There is no pre-requisite for the mastering of our mother tongue for conducting business, for experiencing certain emotions, for appreciating other forms of art / music (we do not have to master latin to appreciate opera?). But we ARE chinese. So does being Chinese mean speaking Chinese?

In confronting the whole Chinese speaking debacle, I'm always torn between 2 sides of the coin. On the one hand, I would like to persist that so long as G is conversant in the language, we shouldn't be forcing her to actually LIKE speaking in Chinese. It is enough to just understand the language, and not to be always speaking it and conversing in it. On the other hand, it is much more than just mastering the language. It is also about boosting her confidence in speaking in both languages. She is already having some pressure from her Chinese class to perform, and that is translated into a lot of tantrums and resistance to attending the class. She finds it embaressing not to be able to speak properly in class, and is consequently always deliberately not paying attention in class. I'm worried that this form of pressure will be doubly pronounced if she doesn't at least have a rudimentary understanding of the language before primary school level. I guess it's the age-old 'competitive' parent syndrome rearing it's ugly head.

Coincidentally, I just read a very succinct post on the same topic HERE. I guess quite a lot of our generation parents are facing and questioning the whole relevance of imparting Chinese to our children. Is it just a language thing or does it come with it all sorts of emotional and psychological baggage?

If anybody has any views of this, do please discuss... it would be nice to hear what other parents feel!


BabyBokChoy said...

What a topic, loved reading it, thanks so much for sharing! I have no words of wisdom to offer re: G's situation as I do not know what Singapore educational system requires of students. What I find extremely enlightening is your own view of Chinese and all its lackings compared to English. I imagine my children will feel that way about Chinese in a matter of couple of years. It boils down to: Chinese isn't cool. It's a race against time, before they completely decides that it isn't cool and they have no interest for it, they must have learned enough to be proficient in it. At a minimum, they should speak/read/write it as if they took Chinese as their Major in college. I've run into plenty Italian, French majors who can't hold a 2-minute conversation, so my standards are still quite low, lol.
Personally, I compare learning a language to learning to play a musical instrument. It has intrinsic intellectual value. It probably can't save your life if it depended on it. By and in of itself, you aren't going to make a living with it, but it enriches your life.

daphne said...

You're right. I never used to think much about getting them to learn Chinese but with other kids fluently bilingual, it totally stresses me out!

The worst thing is that once they feel lousy about it, it will just be a vicious cycle and they'll probably hate Chinese forever. And I thought feeding them milk was tough enough.

Lina said...

I'm suffering the consequences of a monolingual household here! I don't know what advice to give - except use more Mandarin at home. Easier said than done, i tell myself to start early with the small one, but when she can barely understand English well, should I introduce another language? It will get tougher for the kids in pri school (esp after the first six months)...I'm still trying to figure out the best way for my kids too!

Mel said...

yes, i think exposure is the key, but i am totally with you on the lack of interesting material in Chinese for the kids. who can blame them for preferring english books/movies/games etc?

i question the relevance of requiring kids to do *well* academically in chinese. Can we not just have a syllabus which teaches them to speak and write practical mandarin, without requiring them to write like mainland chinese? Why must the standards be so high? In the big picture, isn't it more impt that don't develop a dislike for the langauge than to force them to go through a system which inculcates a distaste for it?

V said...

Not easy to be a parent......sometimes:)

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Honeymoon registry said...

Her eyes are so cute. I know she can do it.

Chee Wan said...

Hi Jacq

I’ve recently posted three blog pieces to talk about the impact of the home environment on a child’s learning of languages:

“Children from English-speaking and Chinese-speaking homes do not begin at the same starting line in learning languages. Do you agree?

Part 1 of 3: My niece as a case study
Part 2 of 3: My student, Sharon Tan, as another case study
Part 3 of 3: A second chance at learning Chinese”

I chanced across your blog and thought you might be interested to read about this topic.

Feel free to visit:

That’s still not the end of the story. In future blog entries, I hope to write more about what parents from English-speaking homes can do to help their children master Chinese and share some stories on what some parents have done to help their kids.

So let’s keep our fingers crossed!

Chee Wan