Brushing up on Chinese for my son's sake

It's true that having a child changes your life in ways you never thought possible.

In the past few months, I have made a switch in my daily routine - to listen to the nattering of Chinese radio deejays instead of the usual English stations during the daily commute on the road when I take my son to school and pick him up.

The act itself did not take any more effort than a twist of a knob, but it was significant enough for my family members and friends to be surprised and ask why.

The truth is, the stories I was writing on bilingualism and languages were getting to me.

As an education reporter, I have sat in interviews and press conferences listening to academics expound the benefits of being fluent in two languages from an early age, from having better memory and multitasking skills to being able to pick up nuances in different languages.

Scientific research shows that from as young as a few months old, babies are absorbing information like languages and sounds. And the earlier they pick these up, the faster they learn and the better they turn out to be in the language.

As someone who has not paid attention to Chinese for years, these studies made me sit up and listen. But nothing really changed until my son came along. Turning three next month, he can hold a conversation with adults and tell never-ending stories - but only in English.

 
 
 
 

We bought CDs with Chinese songs to play at home and in the car, but overall it has been difficult to expose him more to Chinese, which is considered his mother tongue in school as his parents are ethnically Chinese.

My husband and I speak English all the time, and both our families are also English-speaking.

I'm not alone in grappling with this mother tongue issue - Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed out last month that 71 per cent of Chinese households with Primary 1 children speak mostly English at home today, up from 42 per cent two decades ago.

I've lost count of the number of times I've said "my Chinese is really bad" to friends and colleagues, in an attempt to explain my inability to translate articles or even use the language in casual conversation.

On the rare occasion that I have to use Chinese, I either struggle to find the words or people tell me it makes them feel awkward.

I did attend a Special Assistance Plan school for 10 years but I have unfortunately left nearly all comprehension of Chinese behind, along with the trusty Chinese-English shou ce (handbook), and have never looked back since.

Until now.

During a chat with an academic from the National Institute of Education (NIE) two months ago, I learnt that it is not so much the language proficiency of the parents alone that affects a child's learning, but their attitudes towards the language that play a significant role.

This means, in other words, how we talk about a language, whether we are quick to downplay its importance and say it's all right to be weak in it, or whether we harp on its value and importance.

That was heartening to hear, because I had often thought that it was better to speak no Mandarin than to let my son hear my broken Mandarin.

I was also embarrassed by how atrocious my Mandarin sounded that I avoided speaking it.

 

But that piece of advice from the NIE lecturer gave me a push to make an effort, reassuring me that it is better to try than not to at all, if I wanted to help my son have an interest in the language.

Today I bear the consequences of not taking Chinese seriously in my school years, and I wish for my son to have a different story from mine.

Singaporean parents are being encouraged to help their children learn Chinese or their mother tongue better to tap the economic opportunities of fast-growing Asia, even as other countries catch up in learning multiple languages.

I highly doubt my son will be a Chinese-language expert one day - at this rate - but I hope to show him that Chinese can be easily accessible as a second language, if only we are open to it.

I want him to learn that Chinese is also part of our identity and culture, even if it feels like we are trying to reclaim a "lost heritage" that is hard to understand.

I cannot yet converse fluently in Mandarin - I'm not sure if I will ever - but I'm taking small steps in my attempts to connect with a language I abandoned more than 10 years ago, and in the process hopefully introduce it to my son in ways that are enjoyable.

While driving, I listen quite intently to the chattering of the radio deejays and try to identify and recall words that I have long forgotten.

When my son likes some of the Mandopop songs, he asks me for their titles, and I use Shazam, a song recognition app, to try and find an answer.

 
 
 

We found Chinese cartoons for my son to watch, and at bedtime, my husband and I take turns to read short Chinese stories to my son every night.

When there is no hanyu pinyin (the romanisation system for Mandarin sounds) to save me, it gets painful and my son stares at me, looking slightly puzzled.

Sometimes he loses interest and gets frustrated when I don't answer his questions in English, but I plod on, determined to finish reading and not give up.

I took him once for a trial Chinese immersion class at a private centre, but I came away slightly overwhelmed by the amount of Chinese I heard in those two hours and the fees it would incur (some $2,000 to $4,000 a year).

Experts say it is the home environment that plays the biggest role in children's language development. But as a fellow parent of young children recently told me, parents are most inconsistent because we keep going back to English as our default.

That is true - and I have no great success to show for my humble efforts. My son is barely three but has already displayed a preference for English - asking me sometimes to switch a Chinese radio channel I have on to an English one. This can be discouraging, but I suspect it stems more from lack of familiarity with Chinese than any dislike of it.

We are at the beginning of a long road ahead, and I know it will be a difficult undertaking to get better at a language that I have long neglected, in order to help my son build a better foundation in it.

But I am now a parent, and my son has made me do things I never imagined possible. Picking up Chinese again is one of those.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2019, with the headline 'Brushing up on Chinese for my son's sake'. Print Edition | Subscribe