Sunday, 23 September 2012

Raising an Almost Bilingual Child

Learning to speak cat.

My son's teacher kindly emailed me a soft copy of one of this week's homework tasks - a poem to be memorized. This is standard work for schoolchildren in Taiwan. It helps them to learn to read new characters, and to find out about their cultural heritage through poetry. The teacher was trying to help by giving me something I could put into Google Translate.

There was only one problem: the copy was in characters only. It had no accompanying bopomo (a phonetic Mandarin script). Without this, my son has no idea how to say any unfamiliar characters. And, lacking a parent at home who can read Chinese, no one to help him.


Raising your child to be bilingual is a worthwhile aspiration, I think. There are many studies that show the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, and let's not forget the advantages in the job market.

One of our main reasons for coming to live in Taiwan was so that our son could be fluent and literate in English and Mandarin, as well as experience living in another culture. And we've come a long way since I wrote this post back in August last year. At that time neither of us could say much more than hello and thank you in Chinese. But it's easier, I think, when one or both parents is fluent in the languages the child is learning.

As it is, we muddle along. My son can read bopomo, I can read pinyin (an alphabet-based script), and between us we know a range of characters. So each evening we sit down with that day's homework and figure it out together.

There's always a story of the week, through which new characters are introduced to the children. We have to translate the story into English first, of course. When my son encounters an unfamiliar character, he asks if I know it. If I don't, he reads the bopomo out, which I then turn into pinyin and put into my phone's dictionary. Then we scroll down the list of matching characters to find the one we want. Sometimes, this doesn't work, so we have to sketch the character into this programme: Our method isn't an exact science, as most words have two or more characters, and there are many stock phrases with more characters, but we do our best.

It's a laborious process. If I were a Taiwanese parent, I would be able to just read it and tell him. More pertinently, if he were a Taiwanese child, he'd probably recognise the word from its bopomo sound, and not have to ask.

This is something that possibly isn't obvious unless you've been through the process. When children go to school to learn to read and write, they are already fluent in the language and have an innate grasp of most of the grammar rules. Children learning an additional language at school have to learn to speak and understand, and read and write it at the same time.

Other points have become apparent to us as we go through this process:

 - being able to understand what something means doesn't necessarily mean you're going to know how to say it


 - being able to say something doesn't mean you understand what you're saying.

So, while my son might read something out flawlessly from its accompanying bopomo, he might not have the faintest clue what he just said.

All in all, though, he's making good progress, and I'm immensely proud of him and all the hard work he's put in.


One concern I hadn't really thought through until recently was how to maintain and hopefully continue to improve my son's English literacy while we're here.

This thread on Forumosa indicates that I'm not alone in considering this problem:

There are many good ideas in there. Last week my son attended the first session of the first ever Parent's Place course on writing English for bilingual elementary school students. It was great fun, and at the end, the teacher gave out cookies!

Another idea I had was for my son to write his own blog, which you'll see he's taken up with some enthusiasm:


My son's teacher told me the other day that the one time she spoke English to him, his face changed. He knows she can speak English, but that she's chosen not to use it with him, so it wasn't surprise he was registering. She couldn't explain more, but I think I know what she meant.

Language is the doorway and the mirror to culture. People think and act in subtly different ways according to the language they're using, influenced by the premises in which the language is grounded. As well as learning another language, I think my son is absorbing another set of values and ways of looking at the world.

I hope so. I think the knowledge that there are other, equally valid, ways of thinking about things will stand him in good stead throughout his life.

In the meantime, we just need to work on memorizing poems.




冰涼涼 、冷颼颼的

This is the translation according to Google Translate.

I'm pretty sure 'Trinidad' is wrong

Four Seasons hair

Summer hair like a Northwest rain
Vexation long, still singing
The sun is out, it is cut off

The autumn hair like flying kite
"Phew! Phew! Shoop!" Sprint in the sky
See who is a long long long!

Winter hair hilltop snow
Ice cool, chilly
Brushing your hair to help it favorite skis
Spring hair is just coming out of a small grass
They tiptoe, straighten the waist, a casual Trinidad
Exclaimed: "Yeah!, Or short hair is the best looking!"


just4u said...

Hello! Jenny:
Thanks for the great information you provid.

My husband and I are Taiwaneses. We had lived in Sydney, Australia for a few years and back to Taiwan. My 9 -year -old daughter is learning English and Spanish in Ping Tung(屏東) Taiwan. There is a tutor from Belize teaching her Spanish and I teach her English. We usually go to Taipei during summer or winter holiday. My parents' house is there.

The bilingual education you have given to your son is a great and hard job. We have been thinking going to another country to learn Spanish, too, but there are always some reasons we can not leave. Your courage and determination really inspire us.

Nice to know you! If your family gets time to drop by south of Taiwan, we will love to help and give some information you need! Christine

Jenny Green said...

Hi Christine

You're very kind. It's my son who deserves all the credit really, especially as he didn't ask to be brought here, yet he's working hard, and, most importantly, happy.

I'll definitely contact you when we next plan to visit southern Taiwan. If you're ever in Taipei you're welcome to drop by.

Best wishes


just4u said...

Hello! Jenny:

I didn't see the reply you wrote until you left the comment on my blog.

It's pitty we missed out this time, but next time you may put Kenting(墾丁) national park and Liuchiu(小琉球)on your travel list. They are beautiful and both near where we live.Plus, it's warm and sunny here! Tell us next time you come or give us a call. Do you know how to leave a one to one message here?

Have a great day!

Jenny Green said...

Hi Christine

Yes, we must definitely go to Kenting, and now I'll add Liuchiu to my travel list too.

I don't know how to communicate privately on here. I'm not sure there is a way. But if you go to Forumosa I'm registered as Petrichor on that site, and you can pm me.

I'm sure we'll meet one day!

Best wishes


Steve said...

There are a couple of ways of dealing with unfamiliar Chinese characters that might help you and your son. For character recognition on a computer (Mac or PC) you should use Firefox and install Perapera - it's a plugin that allows you to mouseover characters in the browser and an instant translation will pop up.

For character recognition on a phone, try Hanping Chinese dictionary. It's free and if you have a local smartphone you'll even be able to input characters by writing them on the screen. I believe the paid version has an optical character recognition tool too (take a pic of the character with your cellphone and it'll figure it out for you).

Jenny Green said...

Thanks Steve. I already have Firefox and I'll look into Perepera too, though at the moment it isn't urgent. We rarely have to read Chinese on the computer, and there's always Google translate, which handles chunks of text. As I'm sure you know, recognising individuals characters is only the first step in learning to read Chinese.

I already have Hanping Chinese dictionary on my phone, and it's great. It even recognises common proper nouns, such as Harry Potter, which comes in very handy for diary entries. Another free app I have is called Translate. It has terrible voice recognition, but it does recognise characters written on the screen and also photos of text. This app's been a godsend for understanding letters sent home from school.