23 October 2012, by Darren Lim

Mother Tongue

I just came back from leading a trip to Harbin, China and the first thing that struck me: it isn’t so much the beautiful scenery but the perfect Mandarin that was spoken there. Not that there was nothing to talk about with regard to the picturesque landscape and beautiful autumn setting, but for those of you who have spoken with friends or colleagues from China, you would know that some of them speak with heavily dialect-flavoured accent; but not these Northerners I met on this trip and it strengthened my resolve to immerse my children in a Mandarin speaking community- preferably, now, at Harbin!

So why did I write something so distant from parenting on this blog? Well, it’s not exactly on parenting per se but getting your child to speak Mandarin in Singapore is definitely something that every parent will struggle with! I heard it’s not so much a challenge for our Malay and Indian counterparts (how envious!). For the record, all three of our kids speak and understand Mandarin since all of them where brought up solely on that language alone (we figured they would still be able to pick up English later easily and boy, were we right…) but they somehow don’t speak as much as we would like them to. Our eldest for example spoke Mandarin exclusively and perfectly well for the first two and a half years of her life but after she went to play school, she came back on the second day and started speaking in the most atrocious grammatically incorrect English that makes no sense whatsoever and kept at it until today (of course it has improved along the years but its improvement was unfortunately to the detriment of her first spoken language – Mandarin)!

Our two other children, of course, had even lesser exposure to Mandarin with our daughter being their “English teacher” and so whenever people hear them speak, they will give Evelyn and I the most incredulous look on their faces that sometimes say,” To think that the two of you are bilingual! What happened?!!!” We tried, trust me we really tried! We’ve gone from speaking with them exclusively in just Mandarin since birth, to insisting on reading Mandarin books every day (which we are still doing), to allocating “after-lunch time” to speak only Mandarin, then changed it to at least one hour a day of spoken Mandarin, to now speaking Mandarin on weekends and even sending them for Mandarin enrichment classes but still we see little results from our efforts!

So what exactly have we done wrong? Or not done enough? (Maybe some parents who’ve had better results can share YOUR tips with us!) Throughout all these years, what we did observe was that whenever Kristen communicates with my mother, it’s always in Mandarin (because granny’s Chinese-educated and would only speak Mandarin). But when it’s us speaking to them in Mandarin, somehow she will naturally flow in to ‘Ch 5′ again , influencing us along the way…

Yes, it’s us not being conscious enough to keep resisting that flow into English but when communication with your loved ones becomes so arduous, it’s really quite a pain, isn’t it? So just what should well-meaning parents do? Urgh!!!

Remember those immersion programs in China that were once the craze? Well, I really believe that having the environment conducive for learning the language is so important; it’s exactly because the children know Granny can’t speak anything else other than Mandarin that forces them to think and speak in Mandarin; in the same way, only when placed in an environment that offers no other alternative will children stop taking the easy way out by reverting to English!

So am I glad that come end October, we’d be flying to China for my brother’s wedding and thereafter we’d be doing some visiting in Shanghai. In that 2 to 3 weeks we’re there, the children will at least be exposed to spoken Mandarin 24/7 for the whole time we are there (provided we the parents ‘resist’ the temptation to speak English well enough!)

It’s something we are looking forward to as a family, not just for the Mandarin lesson but the bonding that can take place as well! Will be back with pictures to share! Till then, 再见了 (“Goodbye” in Mandarin)!

Posted on : October 23, 2012

Filed under : Uncategorized

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