To be effectively bilingual

Yesterday, we had a little Christmas party for the little ones (which I will write more about when the photos come in). During one of the free play, I saw little man beckoning the older boy J to play with him. “哥哥,玩球!” J did not respond as he was busy playing with the other younger ones. Then little man turned to N who was closest to him and said, “N,我们玩球!” N, whose home language is English, looked puzzled and turned away to play with E. In the end, little man played his balloon by himself.

This scene kept running through my mind. Most of these children speak (and are often spoken to in) English at home. Being only two years old, most of them are strong only in a single language. Hence, many of them did not respond to little man when he asked them to play in Mandarin. I do not know if this is something I should be worried about. Will little man be outcasted if most of his future classmates only speak English? Will he be able to communicate and play with them? Will it affect his emotional well-being? There are so many questions in my mind.

It was a deliberate decision to speak to little man in Mandarin from young. Both Hubby and I are strong in the language, we wanted him to have a strong foundation in Chinese as well. As a Chinese language teacher, I saw how influential the English-speaking environment can be. Many second-generation Chinese from China are not able to do well in the language because of such influences. A parent from China once lamented how their children only speak English to their siblings and peers. I certainly do not want that to happen to little man. Yes, we are Singaporean Chinese, not China Chinese, but the fact is we are Chinese no matter where we claim to be from. Chinese is a beautiful language. It will be such pity if my own children cannot express themselves well in the language.

English is definitely a very important language, hence we started building up little man’s English vocabulary from young as well. At one point, he became very good in naming things in English, but terrible in understanding English instructions; became very good in conversing in Mandarin, but terrible in Chinese vocabulary. It was such an irony, I decided then to start teaching him vocabulary in both languages concurrently. For example, if we saw a penguin, I will tell him that it is a penguin, 企鹅. It worked pretty well to my surprise, and little man can now name most of the things in both Mandarin and English. However, his preferred language is still Mandarin.

Now, I am making an attempt to speak more to him in English, and have him reply me back in English. Due to his limited ability to express himself in English, I will often have to repeat what he wanted to say in English, and have him repeat after me. It is not an easy process, even for me. But it is something we will have to go through together.

I was born to a Chinese-speaking family. My parents rarely speak English. My father told me that when I first attended school, I was daydreaming most of the time because I do not understand the teacher. English was a terribly foreign language to me. Believe it or not, I learnt English by memorizing the dictionary in my younger years. It doesn’t help that both my primary and early secondary schools are Chinese schools. It was only when I got into SNGS, the English language then started to slowly internalize for me. I personally hope that my children will have an easier time internalizing the language, because English is indeed important.

But Chinese, Chinese is the language that makes a difference. Everybody speaks good English, it is nothing special. But when you are strong in Chinese as well, you will be surprise the kind of journey this strength can take you. I did not know about it, until I join the workforce in Public Relations. Being effectively bilingual make you unique and highly sought after. Imagine when there is a press conference that suddenly requires a English-Chinese translator because the artists are from Taiwan and the reporters only understand English. You are chosen to do this important job although you are just a newbie, because you are effectively bilingual. And this is just one of the many scenarios from my first PR job that showed me how important the Chinese language is.

I will try to do a good job in slowly getting little man to be effectively bilingual. It is not easy, especially when you are talking about language and boys. But I know we will get there, eventually.

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