I'm not bilingual, but that isn't a parental fail

Despite being rejected twice by Chinese enrichment schools, my four-year-old daughter is confidently learning the language

A few months ago, my daughter attended her first Chinese enrichment class. Afterwards, she asked: "Can I come again next week?"

Like many four-year-olds, Leah tends to be scant on detail when pressed for answers. But I deduced that there were songs and games, such as queueing to make like a train.

It was a trial lesson, where satisfied customers could continue with the rest of the months-long lesson package. For Leah, it probably felt like a playdate, albeit one where her friends speak a foreign language.

Bless her glass-half-full soul, but her inaugural lesson at this Chinese enrichment chain, contrary to the good vibes, did not go well, according to the teacher in charge, who politely dropped a bombshell.

She advised me that Leah shouldn't take the Kindergarten Year 1 enrichment class after all, because my daughter simply did not know what was going on.

"That's why I wanted her to start learning Chinese," I protested, while marvelling at the novel sensation of having a retailer turning down wads of package-deal cash.

While some have chided me for being irresponsible in not starting my children in Chinese enrichment earlier, I say: To each, her own.

The teacher let me have a look at the day's worksheets, which had short sentences and vocabulary that were unsurprisingly beyond my daughter. I knew that Leah would face a steep learning curve since Mandarin is not spoken in our family.

Then I noticed an astounding detail. Part of the enrichment centre's programme involved learning Chinese idioms. The phrase was "jing jing you tiao", an idiom denoting orderliness that I learnt only when I was in upper primary school.

Of course, one has to move with the times and their corresponding curricula. Still, most pre-schoolers would probably have no clue how to apply "jing jing you tiao" or how to write short sentences, I argued.

The teacher replied it was about exposing children to the language. Leah, she said, could not understand even her basic instructions in Mandarin, unlike her classmates, many of whom had started Chinese enrichment in the first year of nursery, when they turned three.

In these days of intense, often judgmental parenting, we are sometimes slow to understand that our kids are not avatars of our collective parenting decisions. Still, Leah's rejection felt like my own.

Should I have got her into Chinese enrichment two years earlier, in nursery school? Even though other kids I know started at two, surely, starting in the first year of kindergarten is enough of a head start to prepare for Primary 1?

I tried again, enrolling Leah in a trial class at another Chinese enrichment chain.

It was like Groundhog Day.

Another earnest teacher suggested that perhaps Leah would not be able to cope, amid my objections that she needed time to catch up. She said Leah did not understand Chinese (which was rather my point), nor could she identify the fruit on the worksheets, such as "cao mei" (strawberry).

I have long made peace with being a "banana", that mocking phrase describing a Westernised Chinese person: white inside and yellow on the outside.

In my English-speaking family, my parents, like many in their generation now in their 70s, are polyglots fluent in Malay, dialects, but not Mandarin. I spoke no Mandarin when I entered Primary 1, failing even to recognise my Chinese name when the teacher called me.

I picked up the language with the help of a tuition teacher. But like many a "banana", I seldom use Chinese as an adult, especially since my husband speaks only English. I thought it was sufficient for Leah's elder brother, Micah, to start learning mother tongue in earnest in primary school, since he had Chinese lessons throughout pre-school.

But Micah, now eight, struggled. I engaged a tutor for him in Primary 1 and resolved to let Leah start earlier.

Her rejection twice for Chinese enrichment class felt like yet another parental fail at the time.

Teetering on, and sometimes toppling over, the verge of apparent failure is familiar parenting terrain, whether one is carrying a wailing infant at 3am or whether one's teen slams a door within earshot.

Looking back, maybe I was a tad histrionic. Four-year-olds have every chance of picking up a language from scratch, despite the arms-race parenting culture here.

While some have chided me for being irresponsible in not starting my children in Chinese enrichment earlier, I say: To each, her own.

I support pals who mainly speak Mandarin to their sprogs, while their spouses speak English, as well as one mummy friend whose child learnt Tang poems at age three.

I know it helps to be a bilingual parent, but the truth is, I often forget to borrow Chinese library books for Micah and Leah or to speak to them in Mandarin.

I am who I am: someone who works with words, adores the English language and saw university as a chance to curl up with books by taking English literature.

Chinese is conversational, functional, though I sometimes wish I were better at it. I sense a heady whiff of possibilities when watching a glorious Chinese movie or seeing a magnificent Ming vase at a museum. Their mother tongue may become more of a thing of beauty for my children. The choice is theirs.

Leah is now contentedly singing Mandarin songs and practising brush strokes with Micah's tuition teacher, a more expensive but less aggravating investment than the group tuition scenarios we had attempted.

Her confidence is undented by our rocky adventures in Chinese.

She sometimes tells acquaintances that she knows three languages: English, Chinese and Spanish, the last by way of watching Dora The Explorer.

Leah says she has forgotten how to count to 10 in Spanish, but she has taught me "circulo" (circle). It's a start.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 02, 2017, with the headline 'I'm not bilingual, but that isn't a parental fail'. Print Edition | Subscribe