If you ask me about the craziest things I have done in my life, this might be top of my list. I am Polish living in an English-speaking country, the United Kingdom, and I’m teaching my 6-year-old son Chinese. Life can bring surprises, I’m not going to argue about that.
Teaching my son one of the most difficult languages in the world has never been my plan or goal. When Ka was born, as a priority I wanted to introduce him to two languages at the same time, Polish and English. Both his dad and I are Polish and we were concerned that our son would lag academically behind his English-speaking monolingual peers if he didn’t comprehend the community language right from the start. I didn’t want to follow the conventional wisdom, where parents should wait until their child learns English from the community because I knew he wouldn’t be exposed to this language enough to comprehend it from the start at the same level as his British friends.
Many research studies prove that to achieve academic proficiency equal to monolingual kids, a child needs to be exposed to a language for a certain amount of his or her awake time. This is why, I did research, made my own conclusions, set up the rules and off we went! To make our son bilingual from birth, for the next three years, I spoke to him exclusively either in Polish or in English, depending on what day and time it was.
Rules Are There to be Broken
After giving it a second thought maybe my rules weren’t so “exclusive” after all. From the start, I was very serious about Ka’s two languages. My principle was to speak with him only in one language at a time. This is why, I would never start a sentence in Polish and finish in English or the other way around. I didn’t want my boy to get confused and learn bad habits. When you speak to someone who is monolingual, normally you wouldn’t be throwing in words in any other language and this is what I wanted my little son to learn. If you speak to your grandma in Polish, speak in Polish only, if you’re speaking with your neighbour, speak to him in English, because otherwise they wouldn’t understand you! Of course, the so-called code-switching or code-mixing are a natural part of bilingual language development, nevertheless I felt it important to ensure that Ka knew what our language goals were.
At the same time, though, I liked playing with languages. Alternatively, you could call it me being silly, that’s all right. I wanted my child to enjoy speaking his languages. I wanted him to understand and appreciate the fact that there are different languages and different cultures in the world. I have always loved the idea of being open to the world and I was hoping that somehow, I could pass this fascination onto my little son.
This is why I started talking to him in different languages. Or, because I’m not such an incredible polyglot, even more often I would just pretend I was talking in a foreign language.
During meals that had something to do with Italy (spaghetti Bolognese or any other pasta dish, tiramisu, or ice cream), I would pretend I spoke in Italian. I would comment on the food or the weather, or anything else, and I would tell my son all the words I knew in Italian. It was chaotic and hilarious but obviously, I was pretending it made sense! If I didn’t know what to say, I just recited the names of famous Italian actors or directors, just to keep my son entertained. To be clear, I don’t speak Italian. Like all of us, I know a few random words like “good morning”, “hi”, “beautiful” and so on. Who could stop me though from exploiting my vocabulary to my little son’s joy? Even my trying to imitate the beautiful Italian accent was fun. Not great when it comes to speaking perfect Italian but still fun. I did the same with Spanish, Czech, and French (I can speak none of these languages but hey ho, that didn’t bother me). Luckily for Ka, I had more mercy for him when I spoke in Russian or German because from the lessons I had at school at least I could still remember how to speak these languages. I sang my son Christmas songs in German, patriotic songs in Russian, English nursery rhymes and Polish lullabies. During the long walks in our rural area or when I felt particularly creative, I would also recite in Latin all the noble sentences I learnt at uni. Ka didn’t mind any of my ideas. He had fun. I had fun. Nothing else mattered.
Surround your Child with Foreign Sounds
A few years later, casting my mind back to this silly time, I cannot resist the sensation that all this crazy singing, reciting, and chatting with various accents and strange-sounding words was the reason why my son fell in love with languages. This, plus me telling him all the time how proud I was of him speaking his two languages, Polish and English. In families with a minority language there often comes the time when a child starts to be ashamed of speaking a language that is different to the language of their peers, and they do not want to be viewed as different. They want to be like everybody else.
Nevertheless, my son couldn’t be like “everybody else”. We live in a rural area in England and at school he is the only child who speaks two languages. I had to make sure that one day, he wouldn’t come back home and refuse to speak to me in Polish (actually, he tried this once, but that’s a different story). So, to make sure that he was not only “fine” with his Polish but really proud of being bilingual, I would talk to him all the time about how great it is to speak more languages, how amazing to understand even more people in the world, and how wonderful to get to know other cultures.
Then, one day about half a year ago, with all the firmness of a six-year-old, my son declared that he wanted to learn Japanese. Not only that, he wanted to learn Chinese, too! He and his dad already watched fragments of Japanese films, listened to Taiko drummers and recreated fights of Japanese warriors, so it shouldn’t have been a great surprise.
First, he made me laugh. Japanese, Chinese… What else do you want, little man? And then, I thought… Why not? It’s not such a bad idea… Actually, it’s a great idea but how on earth could we do this? We live in a small village in Dorset, away from the international communities of big towns and cities, so how could we find anyone who would teach our son? Doesn’t everybody in the UK learn French? Or Spanish at most perhaps, if you really insist on having an option? Chinese and Japanese sounded like a whim!
Research Says It All
I had no idea where to start and what to do but I could feel that the seed had been planted. Today’s studies show that Mandarin Chinese may be the language of the future. These are just a few of the reasons why to learn Chinese:
- Better job opportunities. In the Western business world, there are still not enough people who can speak Chinese and English, so there is and will be demand for these language skills.
- Business. China is becoming a world economic power and people who can speak Mandarin Chinese can more easily develop business relationships in the Chinese market.
- Travel. China is an amazing country with fascinating culture and heritage. There are 56 ethnic groups in China and over 200 dialects but the majority of the population speak Mandarin (Cantonese is the second option).
- Making new friends. Over 1 billion people (about one fifth of the global population) speak Mandarin Chinese.
Who Dares, Wins
At least we could try, I thought half a year ago. My experience is still fresh and every day I am learning something new. It’s definitely not easy to teach a language when you are learning together with your student, but here is what I have learnt so far as a non-native speaker who teaches her son Chinese:
- Be daring. It can be quite overwhelming to introduce a new language and it might be even more overwhelming when you are teaching a language from a completely unfamiliar language family. As time passes you will get used to it. A little bit.
- Break down any barriers in your mind and try this new thing: for your child but also for yourself.
- Learn together. My six-year-old is a self-motivated student of Chinese but he still needs me next to him when he’s doing his Chinese. He can feel that his mum is interested in his activities and he is happy to share what he’s learning.
- Learn together literally! It’s not only about sitting next to one another, it’s actually about trying to learn this new language, no matter how difficult it is for you to make a difference when pronouncing all those different tones. I bet your child will pick them us much sooner than you and will be keen to correct you, whenever they have a chance.
- You don’t need to be perfect. Your child most probably will be learning the language much faster than you and soon your knowledge and fluency won’t be enough to support the continuous development of the language. It’s okay! You just need to start thinking right from the start about how to find additional resources for your child to keep the language alive.
- Be proud of your child! Not only are they learning a new language, it also happens to be one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn. Show them that you appreciate their efforts.
Recently, Ka and I went to a village event, where I was introduced to a lady who has been learning Mandarin Chinese for three years. We had been chatting for a while when my son ran over to me to make sure I was still there. What a stunned face he had when, all of a sudden, the lady started talking to him in Chinese! I froze in expectation. I didn’t want to push my child into talking Chinese if he didn’t feel like talking and I wasn’t able to whisper any answers to him, because I simply didn’t know what to say! Then, my little son just began to reply. My heart rose… If you haven’t started teaching your child Chinese, I would most definitely recommend it to you. It’s lovely when your heart rises.