Tag Archives: chinese

Affective Filter and Language Learning

There is a really interesting new post up at Multilingual Mania about the Affective Filter. The blogger writes about how just one small instance of another student in her Spanish class giggling at her totally devastated her confidence in speaking Spanish. For years this emotional block kept her from expressing herself in spoken Spanish though her written Spanish was excellent.

Indeed, how you feel emotionally about speaking a second or third language makes all the difference in your fluency. I hate making mistakes out loud. Indeed it is one thing that blocks my musical learning: one can silently work on Chinese grammar, but it is impossible to learn piano or guitar without everyone within hearing distance listening to your progress or lack of it.

When I was learning French, I took classes in which we had to write a lot, and I read a lot. But especially when I moved here to Quebec, I kept my mouth shut. I had all these grammar rules in my head. Vocab, masculine/feminine, verb tenses. It was all just too much to get right before the conversation topic changed. People saw me carrying around La Peste and couldn’t believe someone who could hardly put two words together could ever be reading and understanding such meaty literature. But no. It wasn’t my comprehension that was lacking: it was the emotional daring-do to throw myself into the verbal fray.

Fortunately by working at Burger King with francophones who had often not even finished highschool, and being taught to swear like a sailor (or a hot fry-oil burnt B.K. employee!) in Quebec joual, I got over my fear of making errors in French. Heck, native francophones butcher the language so much, I couldn’t do much worse I finally realized. Of course they butcher it in native-speaker ways and I butchered it in newbie 2nd language-learner ways, but still. It got me over that affective filter.

I wonder how much of my son’s refusal to speak Chinese is affective filter. Indeed he understood French very well for at least two years before speaking it voluntarily. He’d reply in English the correct answers to questions in French. Only when he was surrounded by unilingual francophone children in preschool daily did he overcome his reluctance and start to come out with impromptu French.

I am hoping the Saturday afternoon Chinese classes will help with his emotions re Chinese. He will voluntarily throw himself into hearty renditions of Liang Zhi Lao Hu (Two Tigers) song, but hardly utter a word when asked how old he is for instance… and I think it is because of his confidence in the words and phrasing of the song. Perhaps the Chinese class will help. Or perhaps it will hinder, taking just one giggling student to devastate him for years. (lots of native Chinese-speaking at home children in his class) But it is worth a shot.

Myself? For some reason I seem to have gotten over most of my stage fright re speaking foreign languages out loud. The French is used daily, so now it is more when I need to write well that I feel this affective filter in French. In Chinese, perhaps it is because I am learning it at home, and most people are amazed I know any Chinese at all. Native speakers are often incredibly nice towards me no matter how bad my attempt at their language. Perhaps it will come still: when I speak well enough to realize just how BAD my chinese is! We’ll see.

Do you have stories of losing confidence, or gaining it, in a second or third language?

Learn Latin, not Mandarin??

Here is an article in the Spectator, from the UK entitled: “Forget Mandarin. Latin is the key to success.”. Hmmm. The key to success.

Now I have never thought Mandarin was the key to success either, and frankly we are doing it for issues of keeping Big Boy’s cultural heritage and ability to interact with other Chinese people as he grows up, not so he can rise to the top of the class.

But I understand that many are jumping on the Mandarin bandwagon in hopes of upping their child’s chances in the business world (at least they might be able to be foremen if China invades and takes over the US and Canada!) I think that is silly, since most Chinese learn better English than our children will ever learn Mandarin. But I do think that Mandarin, or more correctly Chinese (since the writing system of characters is not Mandarin, but rather common to all the Chinese languages from Taiwan to Beijing to Jiaozuo and has hardly changed except for “simplification” in thousands of years), does help develop thinking abilities. And especially the written language: which is highly visual and very different from our own romanized languages.

I also think that it is probably true that Latin, with its conjugasions and verb forms (sorry, I don’t know enough about latin to properly praise it) would help with paying attention to language, understanding grammar, verb tenses etc. I am sure that its rigours would help the mind in the same way that math or music help the mind, by giving instruction in something with discipline and structure. Much the same way I expect (and see results of) my son’s karate class to influence his physical and mental self-control. Also we cannot forget that many words in most European languages stem from latin, as well as more technical scientific terms in all these languages.

I do wonder why the writer needs to take a jab at Chinese (which is also great) and Esperanto (which can be very practical and fun)… why “forget” one language or discipline for another? Do we need to say “forget the flute, learn piano”? or “forget biology, learn physics”? I am sure that the more languages you study, the more your mind is going to be exercised, the more people you can communicate with, the better your language skills will become.

So, here’s for latin AND chinese, and farsi and arabic and swedish and yiddish, and engish and finnish, and on and on… Study what GRABS and IMPASSIONS you!

BTW, the comments on that article are as good or better than the article itself! Dig in!

Multilingual Language Evaluation Issues

Well, this multilingual thing is really not helpful when it comes to evaluating Big Boy’s language abilities.

I was so looking forward to another professional evaluation of Big Boy’s progress in the expressive language department. It seemed to me that he has made great leaps forward in forming sentences in the past month or so, and I was very eager to have a speech therapist declare “he is CURED! He is CAUGHT UP! We DISMISS him from needing further intervention!”

Ahhh, the dreams of mamas. All to naught. First, I was a bit surprised by the set up of the evaluation… she had just set out all sorts of toys (mostly a Little People house with garage, and all the fixings: people, animals, cars, furniture etc) and just seemed content for the first twenty minutes to let him play with it. Of course, Mr. Big Boy who normally does NOT SHUT UP, and who chatters on and on and on, “mommy, I want to show you something, look at this, mommy be a chevalier, mommy let’s fly on the backs of dragons, mommy why don’t you be a wingwalker at the air show? mommy look what I can do! mommy mommy mommy!” hardly said a sentence. Mostly he took the cars and bus and did a lot of spectacular crashes and flying around in the air with sound effects, and looked at all the items one by one uttering such brilliang things as “mmmm! ooh! wow. hmmmm. ahhh” Sigh. I wanted to pull my hair out. MAKE HIM TALK!!! HE CAN TALK NOW!!! The other speech therapist seemed to be much more engaged in activities that would require talking on his part.

When I remarked up on it later, she explained she wanted to see what his spontaneous speaking was like. Hmmm. His spontaneous speaking in the park if you give him a stick and he has to make believe is WAY more revealing than setting a whole toy shop in front of him so he can just pick things up and look at them and go “oooh! wow! ahhh!” Sigh. Even having left the toys on the shelf so he had to ask for them would have gotten him to talk. Oh well.

She did do some more structured testing, where he was supposed to give an appropriate response. I can see that this sort of thing is really hard. “Here is a boy… he has a dog. And here is a girl…. ” “Look! A cat! The girl has a cat!” Hmmm, yes I see you are trying to get him to say “SHE has a cat”. oh well. But we could see he is not totally clear on he vs she, on adding S to make a possessive, and on pronouncing N well instead of substituting M.

The end result? He is making longer sentences but still missing a lot of the filler words, missing a lot of grammar, missing a lot of sounds or rather substituting sounds… sounds that we don’t have in the English language, so really hard to write HOW he pronounces them. I cannot even pronounce how he says “Hair” “Smell” “Spoon”. He also has issues with blended consonants like SP, SM etc. So he is still on the waiting list for the MacKay Center (specialty language center, whether it is hard of hearing, deaf, speech therapy etc). Since Oct past now… and we may not get in til Nov this year. It is all frustrating.

But the multilingualism? Where does it cause issues in evaluation? The speech therapist wanted to know if other people understand him besides me. Hmmm. Now that is so very hard to evaluate. His little friends are mostly French, and his French is way behind his English (expressive), and so they tend to talk a lot and he repeats words. Friend: “Je serais le chevalier et tu dois être la princesse qui est emportée par le dragon”. Big Boy: “Moi, chevalier!” Well, of course his friend understood him. But what does that say about his language abilities, and esp about his English abilities?

The daycare isn’t much more help. Again, they are mostly unilingual francophones who know a wee bit of English… if they don’t understand him it could be 1) they wouldn’t understand even if it were said clearly in English 2) they don’t know that his English is not as good as it should be as it is much better than theirs 3) if he misses words in French, well it says nothign about his primary language abilities, it is just seen as an anglophone who is struggling with a second language… 4) it is hard for someone who is speaking a second language with a child to understand kids’ mispronunciations. I have a HORRID time trying to understand little french kids even if I can carry on a great conversation with their parents all in French. So, do they understand him? I don’t know. Yes and no.

And how about other people around Big Boy. I must have sounded pitiful in that I don’t have another parent, another regular caretaker, friends that come in regularly or anything. The french friend of his we see the most often: the kids play together in the park or livingroom and I chat with the mom. Sometimes he talks to the mom: “Marie-Anne, I would like more cheese please”. Well, yes, she understands that. But does he have more sustained conversations with her? not often. We have a babysitter about once a month, but most of the time he is asleep. We have a chinese tutor once a week, but we are trying to speak chinese. Neighbors and service personnel in the neighborhood are the same situation as the daycare: they are francophone, so they might not understand a word if he speaks English, or if they do understand, they are using single words like he is, or he is speaking short French phrases. The Chinese dépanneur owner (corner store) does understand when he comes in and says “Ni Hao! Zai Jian!” or sings “Liang zhi lao hu” in Chinese. Sigh!

I really felt null not being able to answer the question “Do other people understand him”. What sort of parent doesn’t know this? Well, one who is a single mom who works at home, no extended family around, teaching three languages, in a multilingual environment.

I just have to remember I am proud that he functions in such an environment very well, with great gusto and social extroversion.

Mom videographer failed again…

Once again I failed to capture Big Boy with my video camera… so often at night I am in my studio just across the hall from his bedroom, and I can hear him singing some song I’ve never heard him sing before, or counting in French or whatnot that I’d love to record.

Tonight was no exception. I heard him saying “Bonjour. Hello. Ni Hao.” Saying something about talking Chinese, and something about talking French, with his teddies. I crept out of my studio, got my camera, and yes, it makes that lovely little chime sound when it turns on. I crept next to his bedroom door anyways and clicked “record” on the video function. Of course it beeped yet again. How does one turn off these sound alerts?

Well, small boys are like wild animals. They can hear the most tiny sounds, and all I got was silence, and then the sound of the wooden chair at the foot end of the bed, near the door where I was crouched in the hallway crashing about. He must have heard me and leaned over the bed onto the chair to get a look into the hall. Foiled.

So once again, no great video footage of him and his developing trilingualism. But I heard it. Yes I did!

One Book One Language?

I read a very interesting post over at Babelkid.blogspot about “reading” books in languages other than they are written in. You can also read my rather lengthy comment after the post.

Ourson Juliette book

L'ourson qui voulait une Juliette

I had read on another multilingual parenting site, that one way to get around a dearth of foreign (or heritage) language reading material is to translate easy to find books (mostly English) on the fly into the language you wish to be exposing your child too. Now my Chinese, which is the language we have the hardest time finding affordable books in, is not exactly fluent, so most English books would be beyond me. But I do sometimes try to turn very simple English books (ie board books with a couple words or a sentence per page) into Chinese books just to squeeze in more exposure. French books we have no problem with, since living in Quebec, French is the majority language. In bookstores they are still costly since they print in such smaller quantities than English books, but in the library they are definitely in the majority, and it is English books that are lacking in choice.

Seven Chinese Sisters book

The Seven Chinese Sisters

Anyways, I considered this idea and thought it brilliant as a way to get around the problem of being inundated with English books when you are fully fluent in another language.

I never once thought about the issue of language recognition, ie the child needing to learn that there is a correspondence between the spoken word and the printed word. Babelkid realized though, that her daughter didn’t recognize simple oft-repeated words in print in English… because she always “read” the books in French, thus there was no correspondence at all between the written and spoken text!

The Pet Dragon book

The Pet Dragon

I find this fascinating, and thinking about it, I see that it has helped Big Boy’s literacy that I am NOT fluent enough to do this quick trick! For a year now (he is four) he has been able to point to Chinese text and English text and name the correct language. He is able to point to words starting with the “T” sound like his name or “L” sound like mine. And through books like The Pet Dragon, as well as flashcards and games like Kingka, he can read quite a few Chinese characters like “xiao” “shan” “hua” “da” “ren” “kou” “chi”. Thank god that I didn’t read “petit” “montagne” “parler” “grand” “personne” “bouche” and “manger” when I pointed to those as I read along in a book! He’d think they were French characters!

Kingka game

Kingka game

I am sure that Babelkid’s daughter will sort things out, especially now that they have become conscious of the spoken/print disconnect. And I do certainly “explain” plots, words, concepts in one language that he doesn’t understand when I read it written on the page, in another language. But now I am certain to point to the printed word as I read exactly what is written there, and not point to the text when I am explaining in another language.

Amazing how one doesn’t consider these things when one is unilingual, or when one has learned other languages as a literate adult, not as a preliterate child one hopes to teach to read!

Xiao Gou Zai Nar book

Xiao gou zai nar?

What is a word in Chinese?

Hmmm, somehow I never thought about it… do all languages have “words”? What is a word in Chinese, where all characters are evenly spaced, and sometimes a character stands alone to mean something, and sometimes means something together with the next character or characters.

I sometimes come up against this with flash cards or books that teach characters… like “er” 耳 for “ear”… we no one says “er” for ear, but rather “er duo” which is two characters 耳朵. Often when you look up two characters that are found together, they together mean something, and each of them separately means that same thing. So do you need one character to make a meaningful word or two? Take mei li 美丽… well “mei” 美 means beautiful, and “li” 丽 means beautiful, and “mei li” 美丽 means beautiful. Which is a word and which not?

Then there are characters like “de” (actually there are two I am thinking of)… one gives a connotation of “the way something is done”. Pao de kuai 跑得快 means run fast/quickly. Pao de man 跑得慢 means run slowly. Pao 跑 means run. Kuai 快 means fast or quickly. Man 慢 means slow or slowly. So, what is “de” 得 ? a word? a part of a word? A character that has meaning but isn’t a word? Same with the “de” 的 that gives a connotation of belonging. Wo de gou 我的狗= My dog. Ta de gou 他的狗= his dog. Mama ge wo de gou 妈妈给我的狗= the dog that mom gave me. Wo 我 means me. Ta 他 means he or him. Gou 狗 means dog. Ge 给 means give. Is de 的 a word?

Chinese characters are each a syllable. They have spacing between them that is equal. So it is a bit like: The hel i cop ter lift ed off the land ing pad and in to the hea vens. But then again not, since each character has meaning, unlike the individual syllables in that sentence.

When one reads chinese one must decide which characters are standalone and which must be read together to form a word. Sometimes in pinyin “words” are made more definite by gluing together syllables that would not be glued together in characters: Women shi Jianadaren 我们 是 加拿大人. We are Canadians. But that is really not how Chinese is written. It is Wo men shi jia na da ren 我们是加拿大人. It is a foreign construct to group them as if they were English words.

Apparently Chinese readers have no problem understanding when they read, but have great difficulty knowing what a “word” is… and when asked to underline or circle “words” in Chinese text, look to the one who has requested that for further instruction, as it is an unclear task to them.

I had never thought about this before, as “word” seemed obvious to me as an English/French/German/Swedish speaker and student.

It just goes to show how languages are different and how we take for granted what we grow up with. Fascinating.

Read more here if you dare!: Word Identification and Eye Movements in Reading Chinese: A Modeling Approach, Doctoral dissertation © Copyright by Chih-Hao Tsai, 2001. Very very interesting, if you are interested by that sort of thing!

But frankly, it makes me feel relieved that I am often wondering, is “er” a word? is “duo” a word? Is “erduo” a single word or a compound word like mailman? …. I am in good company. Even linguists don’t know.