Bilingualism Needs Nurturing For It to Thrive

When my grandson was sixteen months old, his parents set me an unenviable task of teaching him Mandarin. As a firm believer in the value of knowing Chinese, I accepted the assignment, albeit with diffidence, not knowing if I would succeed. After eight months of persistent efforts, alternating between feelings of joy and frustration, my perseverance began to pay dividends. We were able to converse in simple Mandarin, and he seemed to enjoy doing it. I would now share with you his subsequent interest and progress in Chinese, both spoken and written, and the lessons to be drawn from my experience.

Looking back, I was quite satisfied with his learning ability and motivation from the ages of two to three-plus. During this productive period he managed to acquire a reasonable grounding and his interest held, despite being placed in an overwhelming English-speaking environment. With the couple of hours I spent with him on week days, I succeeded in conversing with him only in Mandarin. Initially, he would make repeated attempts to steer me back to speaking English, of which he was already quite fluent, but, undeterred, I would veer him firmly on the Mandarin track again.

To help my grandson along, I took him to supermarkets where he would learn to identify common household items in Chinese. At the parks I also taught him the Chinese names of certain well-known trees and flowers. As the zoo and bird park fascinated his inquisitive mind, he quickly picked up and and would excitedly call out the animals’ names in Mandarin correctly, much to the surprise and admiration of the crowd there.

Another useful way to stimulate his interest was to teach him the Chinese names of motor vehicles on the road. Soon, he was able to recognise their makes just by looking at their disparate logos! Letting him watch educational Chinese programmes on television and DVDs, augmented by my bringing him to see children’s Mandarin plays , were my other effective tools and fun way to boost his education in Chinese and Chinese culture.

He was all attention when I regaled him with famed Chinese fables and nursery rhymes. But he was a less responsive pupil whenever I persuaded him to write simple Chinese characters. To overcome his reluctance, I had to bribe him with biscuits or chocolates as inducements. In retrospect, at that age, he was not quite ready for it.

Despite my enthusiastic efforts in tutoring him Chinese, my grandson’s partiality towards English and his comfort level with it , was already too evident. This is not surprising because, except for his brief time with me, the rest of the time he would hear and speak only English at home and also with his maternal grandparents who looked after him during the day. Be that as it may, my proudest moment came rather unexpectedly, during his third birthday party celebrations. He spontaneously showed off his Mandarin dexterity by initiating such a dialogue with me. He truly impressed his playmates, relatives and adults present. It was the best reward for my hard work.

All too soon, My grandson’s “honeymoon” period with Chinese began to wane due to external factors. His parents sent him to a multiracial kindergarten when he was three and a half years old. The medium of instruction was mainly English, with twenty minutes allocated for Chinese every day. After school he would return to his maternal grandparents’ residence until after dinner when his parents would fetch him home. My opportunities to interact with him became less frequent. To compound the problem my wife and I began to travel overseas at regular intervals, sometimes for as long as six weeks when we visited our other sons and their family in United States. While I continued to engage my grandson in Mandarin whenever we spent time together, his earlier enthusiasm was noticeably lacking. On the other hand , English had entrenched itself as his first language and he had acquired a good command of it. In marked contrast and to my dismay, his Chinese vocabulary had retrogressed to the extent that he was gradually losing his previous grip on it, resulting in his inability to articulate himself confidently and concisely due to lack of practice.

Despite this setback, one consolation was that his kindergarten report card continued to rate his progress in Chinese as excellent. This, I surmised, was probably because most of his classmates did not have the same foundation that I had given him. According to his Chinese teacher, my grandson has a competitive streak in him and that whenever there was rivalry in class to be the first to give a correct answer, he would invariably be the first to rise to the occasion. He needed such stimulation to motivate him to excel. I also began to sense that he would prefer not spending too much time with me in order to avoid having to keep up with the Mandarin dialogue with me. He would, time and again, try to engage me in English and whenever I reciprocated in that language to gauge his reactions he would smile at me lovingly and we would immediately become more intimate again.

I discussed this problem with my son and daughter-in-law and they wisely decided to revive their son’s waning interest in Chinese by enrolling him in a weekly Chinese session run by a language centre renowned for its innovative way of teaching this language. This has done him much good. I am glad that his parents will be sending him to the Nanyang Primary School next year. My three sons are its old boys. It has established a good reputation for bilingual education. I hope my grandson too would benefit from studying there. Additionally, both his parents, despite their very hectic work schedules, are now making greater efforts to help him enhance his Chinese and also engaging him in Mandarin whenever they have the opportunity to do so.

How do I now get on with my grandson with his Chinese ? We have regular outings to his favourite places , including the Science Centre, Zoological Gardens and Bird Park. We would, of course, converse mainly in Mandarin. I would also , occasionally, help him in his Chinese homework in a fun way. He seems to enjoy our times together and his Chinese is gradually returning to even keel again. He is now five years old and is quite precocious for his age. He is doing well at the kindergarten. It is my fervent hope that he would embrace bilingualism voluntarily and, ultimately, becoming a man of two cultures. This would better prepare him to meet the challenges in his adult life.

Suggestions for engaging a child’s interest in learning Chinese:

  • This is , primarily, a parental responsibility, and grandparents can play a supporting role.
  • A child’s interest and motivation in language learning is largely influenced by its school, home and social environment. Hence, a conducive environment is needed to develop its sustained interest in Chinese and its rich culture.
  • Start your child young, and, from my personal experience, sixteen months old is the ideal age to begin.
  • Be patient and persevere but don’t expect rapid results, unless your child has an innate ability for language learning. Interest in Chinese can be nurtured over time if the learning process is conducted in a creative and enjoyable way.
  • Never put fear into the young mind as this will be counterproductive and is a sure way to kill its interest in Chinese.
  • Cramming the child with tuition and more tuition without personal parental assessment and involvement is a common mistake to be avoided. Do monitor its progress closely, take timely and appropriate remedial steps if needed. Also, do choose a kindergarten wisely. An expensive kindergarten may not necessarily be best suited for your child’s linguistic development.
  • Letting young children of the same age group learn Chinese together in a congenial and conducive atmosphere will help deepen their liking for it.
  • Finally, being proficient in English alone may not give your child the extra edge in its adult life. Being bilingual and at home with two rich and influential cultures, English and Chinese, will certainly give him or her a head start in life.

Lam Pin Foo

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