Category Archives: parenting

Nuns, tu and vous and other cultural oopsies!

I am currently reading “Growing up with Three Languages (birth to eleven)” by Xiao-lei Wang, and enjoying it a lot.three languages book

The writer is a linguist and studied her children (two boys) as they developed trilingually: she is a native mandarin speaker, her husband is a native French speaker, and they live in the US (english). These happen to be the three languages that I am working with at home with my son, so I am loving the examples of language learning, interactions, teaching etc. As a parent who is actually a native speaker of the majority language of North America, I am not living a situation of raising my child in a minority language at home, teaching a heritage language I am fluent in. And as a single parent, I certainly am not doing the one parent one language thing. Especially since the language I am LEAST versed in is the heritage language of my child (Chinese) and so need outside input.

But there is a lot which is very pertinent: how do you get your child enough exposure in each language? What challenges do you have teaching a language that isn’t learnt in an immersion environment, where the parent and home are almost the sole inputs? How do you deal with the attitudes and prejudices of others? What will your child’s attitude to the different languages be? What sort of development is expected in the languages? How about language mixing? What tactics can one integrate into daily life to increase language learning and skills? Indeed I love this book, even though I am only in Chapter Three.

One thing I found fascinating is the part about “Language Use in Context” (p80)… part of language learning is not just vocabulary and sentence structure, but using the language in context. In our first language, we learn language in context. Most of language learning is peripheral, ie when we see others interacting, not just speaking directly to us or with us. Thus we understand that we talk in a certain way to strangers or acquaintances, we speak differently to the priest at Church than to our grandfather than to our friends. Speech can be more or less casual, more or less personal, depending on the context. We usually don’t realise that we have this huge repertoire of roles we use in different context, with intonations, vocabulary, attitude etc part and parcel of different interactions throughout the day.

Until we learn a new language, NOT in context! I remember when I worked in an art supply store as a young adult and I very politely (I thought) served a French Canadian nun. She was very nice and left the store with her purchase… and I turned to see all the other employees gossiping with amused looks of disbelief! I had “tutoyé-d” a nun! In French you use the formal “vous” with a boss, nun etc… and in my interaction I had used the informal “tu” (I tend to forget the formal “vous”, and use “vous” mostly for plural). Not only was French my (newly acquired) second language, but also I had grown up in a pretty secular family, and gone to a protestant Church in early childhood: we didn’t have nuns or priests, and in fact our minister’s wife was my piano teacher… very casual and very different from the experience of most of my French Canadian peers who had gone to Catholic School, run by strict nuns! Fortunately for me, my nun paintbrush customer was very sweet and didn’t take offence at my lack of formality in my accented French.

Another example of knowing words but being dissociated from meaning is the ease with which one can swear in another language: the foreign swear words just don’t have the taboo emotional weight that they do in one’s first language.

I am sure that my son will be better versed in French culture than I am, as he is living here in Quebec as a child, and picking up his French not only from me, but from daily interactions on the street, with friends and neighbors, and from immersion at his French language daycare (and this fall, preschool)… he should pick up the cultural mores and roles as naturally as I did English ones. He may have more difficulty with appropriate roles in English, since we speak it at home, but not in interactions with staff in stores, restaurants, schools, churches etc.

But in Chinese, he is going to be lost culturally! Right now we are doing very basic Chinese. The little natural chinese he hears spoken is usually directly to him, or between mothers and children (ie a Chinese mother we know with two kids his age). He really has no call to see people, esp adults, speak to each other in different roles and social contexts. Of course this could change in the future if he ever ends up traveling to China, hanging with more Chinese friends or community etc, but at this point I don’t foresee that. I guess he’ll end up having a few funny tales about his own faux pas in the future!

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Support bilingualism: sign this petition

It turns out that people elsewhere are capable of surprising me, here in Quebec with our French language laws, and mandated French schooling, with their rabidity against other languages.

It turns out that a secretary (who was hired for her bilingualism) has been ordered by the principal of a school NOT to translate into Spanish for the parents of a 7 yr old student who was allegedly sexually molested by someone at school. The secretary persisted in translating anyways for the Hispanic parents, and was terminated for violating the principal’s English-Only policy.

I guess purity of the English language in the states is much more important than sexual abuse of primary school students, so much so that people lose their jobs over it. (or perhaps the principal was hoping that with no one to understand the parent’s accusation of sexual harrassment, nothing would come to light???)

Anyways, the secretary is Ana Ligia Mateo, and it is the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district. Change.org currently has started a petition targeting Dr. Peter C. Gorman (Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District Superintendent) and LaTarzja Henry (District Executive Director of Communications), asking them to remove the English-Only rule. I sincerely hope that they will also reinstate the secretary, AND get to the bottom of the sexual abuse issue asap.

Please go sign the petition. I did.

Thanks to Multilingualmania.com for pointing this out.

Committing to a Preschool

Well, I did it.

I bit the bullet and signed Big Boy up for a preschool. Big Boy will be 5 in November, but wasn’t eligible to start “prematernelle 4 ans” until this coming September. I am glad for the extra time with him at home, since he only arrived here in Canada from China at 22 mos old, and also to give him some time to catch up in his languages. After going to French-language daycare for two years (he started Nov 2008) two days a week, I think he’ll ready for more of a challenge this fall.

But I had had no idea that signing him up for one particular school over another would be so stressful. I had always assumed that he would go to the small neighborhood school that is only two blocks away, facing the park where we walk Xiao Chien. I assumed this since 1995 when I moved into this neighborhood. There were moves to close it down about ten years ago, as the population aged, but I cheered when community pressure complete with “Save Our School!” banners hanging off balconies succeeded in keeping it open.

It is a French language school, for 4 yr old pre-K through grade 3. It has an annex at the end of our street (even closer for Big Boy to walk to) for grades 4-6. Highschool starts at grade 7 in Quebec.

Well, enter Big Boy’s language difficulties.

And yes, thankyou to everyone who pointed out that he is a boy, is cleft affected, has changed countries, has changed languages, is learning multiple languages etc etc. Unfortunately none of these things can now account for, two years later, the lag in his expressive language. His vocab is great when you ask him what things are, and increases exponentially every 6 months when he has another speech evaluation. But his sentences have not kept up, and have scarcely evolved in the past six months. He is at LEAST a year or more behind. And yes, in Quebec, the speech therapists are used to dealing with adopted children, with children who speak a minority language at home, with bi and trilingualism, and we were at the Cleft Clinic, so they are used to the effects of that as well. Indeed while we were in the waiting room, the other family there was a father with two young boys, who spoke Mandarin, the daughter was in therapy in English, and she went to French school. My son is NOT the exception to the norm here.

The therapist said that none of those things could continue to excuse the lag at this point. And as the Cleft Clinic deals more in actual speech (can he pronounce correctly) we didn’t get a block of therapy, but instead were referred to a Centre where they specialize in hearing and speech disorders. We’ve been on the waiting list since October and they warned us it would be at least a year (which is why I am looking into community resources as per my last post).

Now over Christmas I found out that this Centre also has a school, which is part of the English Language School Board here. They actually have 4 yr old Pre-K through grade 3 (and beyond if needed). The mother of another boy adopted from China says her son has improved fantastically while in school there and recommended it. There are speech therapists within the school, so no running around to appointments all over town and missing school. They even have door to door bus service for the kids.

Now, it makes more sense to give a solidly anglophone-identified child speech therapy in English. Indeed it would be hard to evaluate his sentence structure in French, as he seldom utters a complete French sentence at this point. He has understood almost everything you say to him in French for almost two years now, and now will answer “oui!” when asked a French question, has lots of vocab, and for the past couple of weeks has even started accosting strangers on the street to ask “Quoi appelle?” to find out the name of their dog. But the lack of sentence structure in French is really normal as it is his third language since birth, and it is not the dominant language in his life.

In Quebec, things are quite complicated (both in daily life, getting services and in schooling). There is an English Language School Board and a French Language School Board. And because of language laws, only certain people are eligible for a certificate to go to English school. My son happens to be one of those people, since I did the majority of my primary school in English within Canada. I have to apply for a letter attesting to such from my home province (which I have done).

But, do I want him to go to school in English? I am working so hard on getting him bilingual in English and French and he is making huge progress in daycare. He told me just yesterday “Taotao talk French in garderie, mommy. And in dancing class too talk French. And play with le Petit Chevalier (his little friend) too talk French. Taotao knowing French mommy!”

And if he went to preschool, kindergarten and grade one in English, how hard would it be for him to then merge into a French classroom? I personally can help him with his English phonics (see ReadingEggs post), and feel very comfortable with English grammar. But I learned French slowly and painfully as a teen and young adult, and would have a hard time teaching a new reader how to sound out “parfait” “souliers” “Mireille” “bateau”… I know they have completely different methods of teaching all those vowel combinations. And my vocab is probably not the best compared to what they expect in a francophone school. Touring two schools during open houses the past couple of weeks made that very clear.

So, I do have a preference to send him to French school despite his language delays. Well, turns out that one of the neighborhood schools, perhaps 10-15 minutes walk away, through a commercial district, has speech therapists on staff. It is a much larger school, pre-K through grade 6. It seems to have better, newer and spiffier equipment. The rooms are larger, the yard is larger. And there was even a family there, newly immigrated from China, who spoke Mandarin with their 4 yr old daughter who is currently in English daycare here. That is a big draw. Slogging all those extra blocks through the snow all winter is not.

But I let emotion rule the day. The closest school is tiny and so close. It is friendly and homey. All the teachers and kids know each other’s names. They are very artsy fartsy and do lessons based on Matisse and Riopelle. The pre-K teacher talked convincingly about learning to name and express emotions in an acceptable and controlled manner through play and allegory. They offered milk and gingerbread men with red sugar sprinkles at the open house. And they have great lunchtime and afternoon care: we see their students traipsing through the park to the playground daily when we walk Xiao Chien. And Big Boy’s best buddy, le Petit Chevalier, will be starting there this fall too.

And I already have to deal with the fact that out of 210+ students, 200 are in the lunchtime and afterschool program, and unlike my maternal fantasies for the past 45 years, my son will likely NOT come home for lunch every day. That is already so hard to swallow!

So, will I regret it? Will I wish I had sent him to the specialized language school in English? Will I wish I had sent him to the larger French school with a speech therapist on staff? I don’t know. I figure, this is just Pre-K for four year olds. If he falls behind, I can move him for Kindergarten or Grade One. That is what I tell myself.

But for now, I want him close to home, close to friends, in a small friendly homey environment that feels right.

One Person One Language and other theories that bug me

I may not have mentioned before, but Big Boy is behind in his expressive language skills: he has good vocabulary for his age, but has difficulty accessing it while speaking, and has trouble using proper verb tenses, sentence structure etc. So we are on a year long waiting list for speech therapy, and looking for other avenues for help.

Monday night I went to a parents’ information meeting at our local CLSC in orthophonie (speech therapy in French), and it was totally great. They are offering a set of three parental training sessions, a speech evaluation for the child, and a possible block of 5 multi-child therapy sessions to get him up to par. Way more than what I expected from local free interventions.

Everything looked totally great, except they had a two page insert on bilingualism. Now it was written in large block letters: “One Language, One Context”, which is an outshoot of the idea “One parent, one language”. I personally have always wondered however that can work: I mean at family dinner, how do the parents speak to eachother? Do they each need to know the other’s language? Does Parent A speak Language A both to Child and to Parent B? and then does Parent B respond in Language B (so the conversation is half in one language and half in the other)? In that case, how can the child ever see modelled a proper question and response set up in either language? And is the Child supposed to have Parent B responding to ParentA/LanguageA in Language B, but supposed to resond to ParentA/LanguageA in LanguageA? It all seems rather artificial and wonky. And what if both parents speak English for instance, but only one parent speaks fluent Chinese? Does the monolingual parent just sit and nod and smile while the other parent and child have a conversation at the meal, grocery store or amusement park?

Personally, I don’t have this issue, since I am a single parent. According to this “One parent One language” doctrine, I would have to raise a child in only one language, even if I am bilingual or more myself.

Welcome to the “One language, one context” expansion of the theory. We do this somewhat, in that I tend to speak English at home, and speak French with neighbors and out shopping etc… it is just more acceptable to speak French in public in Quebec.

But does that mean I never read French books inside the house? Never put on French music or introduce French words at home? And what if I want to get my son’s attention outside the home, and know he knows the English words but not the French for a given situation? “Watch OUT! A TRUCK is COMING!” he might understand at the start, but not “ATTENTION! Un camion s’en vient!”… and the risk of him not understanding or not obeying in French is great.

It also means that language is restricted to that occasion. For instance if cooking is always done at home in English, and sports always done at daycare in French… how will he have the vocabulary to speak about either in the other part of his day? Will he be forbidden to say “j’ai joué au ballon !” at home? And if he is, how will I give him the english words for that? How will he tell the daycare what he cooked at home, and that he beat the eggs and creamed the butter if he doesn’t get French vocab for me about those things at home, so he can go to daycare and say them? He will only know in English, and if they don’t speak English, he is just stuck explaining.

And then let’s add Mandarin on top of that. We have only an hour or two a week that we are with a native speaker. And that time is NOT 100% immersion. I need to ask questions, explain things etc and get translations. Do YOU know what hawthorne is in Mandarin? I only did after looking up in a bilingual dictionary. Anyways, the rest of the time, I am learning Mandarin along with my son. So we put it into our activities. Naming body parts while tickling or bathing. Naming food while eating, cooking or shopping. Using what little language we know while playing hide and seek in the park or at bedtime.

I personally don’t have the vocabulary or sentence structure to do “a context” with him in Mandarin. We would be stuck with a few basic phrases, and a lot of gesticulating. I can say “Wo zhao ni! Zhao bu dao! Wo kan bu jian ni! Ahh ahh! Wo kan jian ni! Wo zhao dao ni! Wo zhua ni! ahah!!!” (I am looking for you. I look but don’t find! I look but can’t see you! aaaahh, I see you! I found you! I catch you! ahah!) But I can’t say, “We can play for ten more minutes before we have to leave for home. We need to have lunch so we can get to the doctor’s afterwards”.

So does that mean we can’t do the “context” only in Mandarin so we should leave it? Or is context so restricted we can call “hide and seek” a context?

Frankly, I think that any adding to his or my vocabulary or sentence structure in any language is a plus. Speaking what one can speak in that particular language without making too many mistakes, and correcting oneself. Using whatever is needed to be understood, including gestures and multiple languages. If they can put Chinese words in Ni Hao Kailan, and Spanish words into English Dora episodes and it is a good thing, then adding French words into English or Mandarin words into English in all contexts can not be totally wrong.

No, he may not grow up to be a native mandarin or french speaker. But he might be a passable speaker. I consider myself bilingual in English and French, and certainly didn’t get enough French to even have a conversation until I was about 20 years old. Certainly being immersed in a French only environment helped a lot, ONCE I had enough basis so that it didn’t just sound like gobbledy gook that went over my head. The rest of the time I learned in a bilingual environment, whether in the French classroom or the anglophone university cafeteria where most students were francophone.

I say, increase the amount of language and foreign language exposure as much as possible, in as many media and contexts as possible. Language needs to be wellrounded and multifaceted to be useful. Blechhh on restrictive prescriptions. The important thing is to have fun and learn learn learn.

ps, no, the language delay doesn’t come from multilingualism: if a child has a learning disability in one language they will have it in one, two or ten languages…

The Bilingual Edge

I have been searching around in wordpress and on the blogosphere for other parents who are raising their kids in more than one language.

Today I discovered Hobo Mama, and her blog hobomama.com. She has a toddler son, and is raising him in English and German despite being a self-proclaimed anglophone living in Seattle, with an anglophone Dad as well. She knows some German, and so is somewhat in a similar position to me in Chinese, though her German is probably better than Chinese. I first came to her blog through this post on Can a monolingual parent raise a bilingual baby?. There are tons of interesting links there, including in the comments.
The Bilingual Edge book

I didn’t get to all of them yet, but I did take in her book review on The Bilingual Edge, which is the one bilingual parenting book I read when I was just starting out with Big Boy a couple years ago. I won’t redo her review here, you can read it yourself. But I wanted to agree with this statement of hers:

“This point is not about this book in particular, but I’ve found that reading books like this, and websites of other bilingual fans, and meeting the parents at my son’s school, helps me see myself as part of a larger population, instead of a lone linguistic freak.”

Well, yes, that is a large part of my reason for starting this blog: to not feel like a lone linguistic freak! And to talk to others who might be interested, about the experiences, products and discoveries I make, instead of boring my rather disinterested friends and neighbors.

Anyways, I do recommend this book, whether you are raising a child to be bilingual (or trilingual… not sure how one parent one language works for that unless you are into polyamory!) or whether you are just curious about “just what are those people doing anyways? Whatever are they thinking?”

You can find it under “Adults: language, adoption, parenting” in our astore to the right menu there.

New “astore”

Well, we are in bed with the devil! I have made an “astore” of books, dvds and cds that we like and use, which is over there in the right hand menu under “All Our Fave Books”. Of course it is not ALL our fave books, but rather the ones available at Amazon.com. But I had to find some way for the “link category” to start with something alphabetical proceeding “Blogroll”, as this wordpress.com thingie doesn’t allow for manual ordering of “categories” over there.

And I DID try to imbed the astore into a page, like the “About” page, up there on the top menu, but for whatever unknown reason, anytime I pasted the iframe html into the “html” new page editing window, and saved it, WordPress just “disappeared” it all, and said “0 words”. So incredibly frustrating.

Anyways, do go and check out what we recommend in the way of adult and children’s chinese learning materials. It will be like coming home with us and browsing through our bookshelves!

I’ll try to get around to updating it soon.

And if you dislike Amazon, you can check out Childbook.com. They are good people, and my fave chinese learning materials store.

Welcome to Big Boy and Xiao Chien!

Hello! I have FINALLY gotten around to starting a blog about raising my son French and Mandarin Chinese as well as English. And throwing in product reviews, doggy thoughts, musings and rants as well.

I am a 40something single mom living in Quebec, Canada. I am self-employed in the arts, work from home, and have always wanted to be a mother. I adopted my son, who is now four years old, two years ago just before his second birthday. He was adopted through the SN (Special Needs) program in China, whereby children with minor correctible medical needs are given forever homes.

I am anglophone, and living in a francophone community, but I wish to maintain my son’s Chinese heritage, and part of that is giving him access to the language. I began learning mandarin during the long pre-adoption wait, and my interest only increased when I met him and learned he could indeed understand and respond to my very bad and limited chinese.

At this point, he speaks English as his first language, goes to daycare (garderie) 2-3 days a week in French as well as it being the dominant language in our neighborhood, and we try to do some Chinese learning daily. It is an uphill battle, now that he has been home from China for so long, and says “No Chinese, mommy! No talk French! Talk English!” but it is a battle I am willing to wage in all sorts of wiley ways.

This blog will be a place to address the issues of bilingualism or trilingualism, language learning, as well as just regular parenting and kid stuff. Throw in our Saint Bernard, and hopefully we’ll have more than enough to talk about.

Please feel free to subscribe, and especially to leave comments and suggestions. We’d love to hear from you.

And yes, Big Boy is my son, who is adamant that is what he is now.

And Xiao Chien is our Saint… a tongue in cheek mix of mandarin (xiao=small) and french (chien=dog)… in mandarin they often say “xiao gou” (shee-ow go) for dog… which is a big ironic considering our dog is about 115 lbs! (so : shee-ow shee-en)

Welcome to Big Boy and Xiao Chien!

Zai jian! Au revoir! See you again soon!