Language for Family Ties or Competitive Edge?

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When we decided to move to Singapore about 18 months ago, people’s reactions fell into roughly three categories:
1. People who knew pretty much nothing about Singapore:
“Are you insane?”
“What language do they speak over there?”
“Is it safe? Don’t they hang you for littering?”
2. Those who had been to Singapore or were planning on it:
“I am so jealous, you are going to eat so well.”
“Ahhh the hawkers—best food in the world.”
“Better not get caught chewing any gum!”
3. And those who need no introduction:
“Smart move, Asia is the only place with a growing economy at the moment.”
“This will be so good for your kids, they can learn Chinese and will have a total edge on their peers.”
So much for French as a lingua franca. It’s all about “Ni Hao Kai Lan” now. Bloomberg news recently confirmed what most of us had already figured out, that Mandarin is now the second most useful business language after English.
Singapore may have four official languages (English, Mandarin, Tamil and Malay), but with a population well over 70% ethnically Chinese, albeit from different heritages and hence different dialects, the reality is that we are exposed to a lot of Mandarin. (Well I am assuming it’s Mandarin!)
So here is the one minute string of thoughts that went through my mind when we made the decision to move:
Oh my god, we are actually going to be able to send her to a French Lycée (more affordable here) to help reinforce the French! Wait what about Spanish, how are we going to manage the Spanish? Chinese, she could learn Chinese, that would be super cool! Wait am I crazy? She can’t learn Chinese, we can’t even get her to speak French and/or Spanish! But it is a once in a lifetime opportunity! No but seriously four languages really is too much… But it is a once in a lifetime opportunity!! No I am not even going to send her to a local preschool, it will just confuse her. Ok well maybe a local preschool, because if she is exposed to it a bit, she just might be able to pick it up later without saying, “Wow you look just like your horse!” (The words for mother and horse are nearly identical in Mandarin. The tonal difference is extremely difficult to master for non-native speakers. Want proof? Here is a clip of the words for mother and horse. You might also tell them they look like hemp.)
When we lived in the U.S. and told people we are trying to bring up our children trilingual, many people were incredibly supportive. Some even admitted to envy but mostly people either candidly or covertly seemed somewhat concerned about my children’s linguistic well-being. The latter was really aggravated by the fact that my first daughter was a late speaker, which anecdotally I am finding is as common in multilingual families as monolingual ones, contrary to popular belief.
Here of course people don’t even flinch as it is a given that kids will be at least bilingual, which was in itself a huge attraction for me. (Insecurity burns eternal). As we continued to struggle to get all three languages spoken in our household, I decided to focus on our “family” languages. Our choice to raise our kids as multilinguals has nothing to do with brain development or the desire for them to conquer the corporate world. (And my debt no doubt confirms my poor planning both for myself and my children’s future.) We just want them to be able to communicate with their cousins and grandparents. We want them to be able to fully experience Mexico and France and understand their heritage as viscerally as possible.
In the end we chose the local preschool–mostly for location, cost and the fact she could start before she was potty trained. Half of their days are in Chinese. Up until a week ago, I’ve been largely able to ignore this fact for six months, that is until she said something utterly incomprehensible to me while pointing to a zebra puzzle piece. Repeat scenario with a few other objects. Finally she was singing what sounded almost like utter gibberish to my ears until I heard our helper singing along. She confirmed what I had begun to suspect, that ever since she started attending school three full days per week, the percentage of time she is exposed hit a tipping point and my kid is starting to speak Mandarin.
I guess I need to keep telling myself it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Too funny. If you guys stay there a long time, the girls can use Chinese as their “secret language.” Somehow I doubt that you or their father are in a position to pick it up at this point!

  2. Thanks Zoe. I hadn’t even thought about the girls being able to pull one over on us! Although I guess Mandarin totally beats Pig Latin hands down. Parenting for me is a continual exercise in learning to let go – I have a long way to go 😉

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