Raising a bilingual pre-schooler

Culture Vulture

After proudly declaring three years ago in a column that I was bringing up a bilingual baby who was absorbing ditties, flashcards and adult chatter in two languages, I was soon forced to eat my words.

What happened next was that my daughter Erica morphed into a monolingual toddler who would reply nonchalantly in English whenever my husband and I spoke to her in Mandarin.

It happened shortly after she started her pre-nursery class at 18 months old.

Despite daily lessons in both languages, hearing English used everywhere, including by newfound friends and in popular culture, tilted the balance.

After all, it is not Chinese-language cartoon characters such as Xi Yang Yang (Pleasant Goat) or the old-school Xiao Ding Dang (Doraemon) which have won the battle for little hearts and minds, but Frozen's Elsa, Peppa Pig and Dora The Explorer, their empires spanning everything from cable TV to illustrated picture books to much-sought-after merchandise such as figurines, schoolbags and water bottles.

The result was that the list of English words she picked up grew longer and longer until they drowned out her Chinese vocabulary.

Add the fact that her main after-school caregivers are my Filipina domestic helper and English-speaking parents, and the stage was set for a mutiny.

At age three, Erica informed me, sounding suspiciously like a teenager, that she did not like speaking Mandarin.

When she said that, I felt my past had come back to haunt me.

Weaned on Enid Blyton and the English pop of Radio 1 (now Gold 90.5FM), I had felt Chinese lessons to be a chore as a child in the 1980s.

It was only as an adult that I changed my mind.

One year in London doing my master's showed me that, however at home I felt with the English language, I did not really own it in the eyes of the world.

Then three years spent living and working in Beijing brought my own Chinese-language proficiency up to speed and showed me the pleasures of being able to move between two languages, with the respective worlds and cultural treasures they unlocked.

How would I explain all that to a three-year-old?

So I decided to enlist the help of a new friend, the Taiwanese children's channel, Momo Kids, which I discovered one day while channel-surfing in front of the TV set.

When it comes to small-screen entertainment in Asia, the Taiwanese are, perhaps, second only to the South Koreans in their creativity, elan and sense of fun.

Just to give you an idea of how South Korean soft power has touched Singaporean pre-schoolers, when Erica first discovered YouTube via the iPad as a two-year-old, one of her favourite videos was the catchy theme song for the Korean cartoon Tayo The Little Bus, never mind that no one she knows speaks Korean.

And once, when one of my little nieces was greeted by a stranger in Mandarin, she was so shell-shocked that she replied, "Annyeong haseyo" ("Hello" in Korean), thanks to the K-dramas she and her grandparents watch on some evenings.

Anyway Momo Kids, with its puffy pink caterpillar mascot Momo, has a range of programmes for all age groups.

What I found most accessible to preschoolers were the breezy Chinese song-and-dance routines executed by little kids, life-size animal mascots and kawaii-styled adult performers, bouncing up and down in that personification of Japanese cutesiness on a rainbow-coloured stage set.

When I first got Erica to watch Momo Kids, she protested and would squawk for the TV to be tuned back to Disney Junior, home of her favourite cartoons such as Sofia The First.

But she was soon able to watch Momo Kids in longer bursts and not just the songs but also the variety shows in which teams of pre-schoolers competed against one another.

For a good measure, I even picked up a few of the Chinese children's songs - as a former karaoke queen, I love singing to and with my kids - and one or two of the ditties became among the most requested by Erica and her younger brother Myles.

Ultimately, though, I can claim no credit for the one factor that decisively transformed Erica's attitude towards Chinese.

When she started kindergarten this year at age four, we transferred her to a school much nearer to our house. There, she has an energetic Taiwanese teacher who is very popular with all the students.

Erica talks a lot about her and has started speaking Mandarin at home. Initially, it was one or two Chinese words in a running patter of English - her father and I would help her out by saying everything back to her in Mandarin and she would repeat after us.

Soon she was able to string sentences in Mandarin, even if her tones are not always accurate.

Now we have entire conversations in Mandarin about what she did in school and what she thinks about the people and events around her.

She finds ways to express herself even if her choice of words is not the most apt, and once even corrected me when I used the wrong Chinese word for "flask" (I had said "shui ping" - "bottle" - instead of "shui hu").

This enthusiasm extends to reading.

As I have found from our bedtime reading sessions, she currently recognises more Chinese characters than she does English words, perhaps because at age 41/2, she has not yet got a grip on the link between letters and phonetics and how to use this knowledge in her reading.

I am all too aware, though, that because Chinese is her second language, it is easy for her interest to wane should there be a shift in environmental factors, such as a change of teachers.

Already, she finds writing Chinese ideograms, with all the combinations of strokes, more laborious than writing in English.

For now, I take pride in her joy at discovering a new language.

She has classmates of various nationalities, including several from Japan, and recently told me about a new kid in school who comes from China.

She revealed that they communicate pretty much exclusively in Mandarin.

"Isn't that great, that you can speak two languages," I said.

"Yes, I can speak to everybody," she exclaimed. Then she thought for a while. "If I can speak three languages, I can talk to even more people."

And with that, I cannot think of a simpler or more eloquent case for working hard at being bilingual or trilingual.


This article was first published on May 12, 2015.
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