My three kids have very different experience in learning Chinese and their language proficiency is very different as a result. Same parents, different kids, different experience, different results. I think they make interesting case study on the effects of various factors affecting bilingualism and the learning of Chinese in Singapore.
I tried to speak Mandarin to him since he was a baby and among the 3, I think I spoke the most to him but sadly, still not enough. I would say at best 80% of the time, it was English and 20% of the time, Mandarin. At that time, I had not come across all the good Chinese children books yet so book reading was almost nil. When he was about 1 year old, he was taken care of by my parents when I went back to work. My parents are Chinese educated and we speak Mandarin all the time. Not just your regular ‘market Mandarin’. It is quite common for our speech to be peppered with metaphor, idioms (成语 )and proverbs( 谚语 ) and Chinese history and culture is also not unfamiliar to us. So #1 spent close to a year in a Mandarin-speaking environment. At that time, he was not speaking yet. After I quit work to take care of him full time again, he continued to spend time with my parents through regular stay-overs.
Then he grew up and went to preschool. He had Chinese lessons in school and his Chinese teachers spoke Mandarin to him. His preschool was not particularly Chinese-oriented. I would say his preschool experience is quite typical of a Singaporean preschool experience. I did not do much about his learning and his Chinese. He wasn’t sent to an enrichment class to boost his Chinese standard, like so many preschool kids are today. When he went to Primary School, he had no problem coping with Chinese in school. He had already learned Hanyu Pinyin in preschool, so he did not have problems learning Hanyu Pinyin in Primary School. While he was in preschool, he already learned how to write Chinese characters. With some reinforcement at home, he could recognise and write enough characters to get by Primary 1 and 2 uneventfully.
However, by the time he was in Primary 3, and the expectation was much higher, he started having more problems with Chinese. He could, for example, read all the characters in a passage but had no idea what he was reading about. He could not string proper sentences together, much less express himself effectively. All these pose a problem for composition and comprehension. While having all these issues at school, he has no problem talking to you in Mandarin, albeit in a rather ‘broken’ form of it. He is not completely tongue-tied when it comes to Mandarin.
Recently, I have resorted to forcing him to read Chinese books, copy Chinese phrases and basically doing most of the things kids are made to do these days just to deal with the exams. He still does not attend any enrichment classes. I am a little doubtful about the effectiveness of enrichment classes at this level. Besides, it is not as if I do not have the ability to teach him. The issue is more of whether he is willing to co-operate with me!
This boy is probably the ‘worst’ of the lot. While I spent about 20% of the time speaking Mandarin to #1, I spent 0% for him. He wasn’t the most easy baby to care for and with an older boy to take care of, I just didn’t have that energy or time to do deliberate things like that. By the time he was 3 years old, he had ZERO Chinese ability. As he was a very clingy child, he did not spend time at my parents’ place until he was about 4 or 5 year old. This boy was also a very quiet child, refusing to open his mouth to speak unless he really wanted to. Once, he stayed with my parents for a period of two weeks, and I wondered whether he spoke at all during that time. It was comforting to hear from my parents that he did and he also spoke some Mandarin to them.
He went to preschool school when he was 4 years old. His preschool experience was not quite the same as #1 even though they went to the same school. First of all, as I mentioned earlier, he was a very quiet child. He would sit quietly in class and listen and would not participate nor open his mouth to talk, especially in a language he was not good at. His teachers, typical of a lot of teachers, would conveniently leave him alone to handle other kids who were more rowdy in class. He also had the misfortune of getting a Chinese teacher who was not very experienced. Nevertheless, he did have more opportunity to speak Mandarin in school than at home. With zero exposure at home, school was already a major improvement.
When he was in the last one and a half year in preschool, I started coaching him actively in Chinese character recognition using his brother’s Primary 1 字宝宝 word cards. Fortunately, this boy seems to have greater aptitude in learning languages than his brother even though he may not seem to be as intelligent*. So he actually picked things up pretty quickly. I was getting very hopeful!
* I know I should not make judgement like that but as a mother, I should know the abilities of all my children. A more accurate and general assessment is this : These two boys are as different as chalk and cheese. #1 is your typical ‘man’ kind of boy, quick at picking up mathematics and could not be bothered with words. At Primary 1, for picture composition, asking him to write 1 sentence per picture was like trying to squeeze blood out of stone. Writing a story was like getting from Point A to Point B and he saw little point in meandering around details. #2, on the other hand, is rather more ‘arty’. He is not very good at mathematics but he is better at languages. At kindergarten level, notwithstanding grammar and spelling errors, he could write story at least 7-8 sentences long. If I asked him to write about a field trip that we went on, he would have no problem writing and illustrating. While his brother would not touch a book when he was at lower primary level, this boy is reading books that his brother was reading last year, even this year! The only problem is that he is also a rather dreamy sort of person, so he can be very “blur” and takes a longer time to learn something. So there you see the difference in inclination and ability.
This boy also refuses to speak in Mandarin no matter how much I tried to get him to do so. If I threatened to ignore him unless he spoke to me in Mandarin, he simple shut up and leave. He would rather not say anything! I think it is largely due to his lack of vocabulary and his fear of failure. When he was in K2, I found great Chinese children literature and started buying a lot of books for the boys. He was interested in the books. But with a toddler in tow, I hardly have time to read to them.
When he entered Primary school. He did not seem to have much problem with Chinese, judging by his results. He also does not go for any enrichment class. He is really a paradox. While it seems like there are a lot of things he does not know, yet he seems to be doing pretty fine in school. Of course, it is still early days and we can only really tell whether he is really going to be ok or not when he reaches Primary 3. I am hoping that with a little coaching, his innate aptitude for language will eventually carry him through.
I have already shared about how I ended up teaching the youngest boy myself instead of sending him to preschool. I have also shared about how I am teaching him Chinese. In summary, I decided I had to do something about his Chinese. I had to avoid making all the mistakes I made with the two older boys. So one baby step at a time. I started with reading lots and lots of Chinese story books to him. I also taught him to recognise many Chinese characters. In terms of getting him to speak Mandarin, I am still at point zero. With two older brothers and a father who speak English with him at home, I am fighting a losing battle. Again, this boy only speaks when he wants to, which is almost never. However, when he does, he speaks accurately, not like a westerner trying to speak Mandarin. I attribute it to the exposure he gets through all the reading. In terms of spoken language, he is still at Point Zero. He needs to practise and open his mouth.
The great part is that he is not averse to Chinese due to the stories and the fact that he could recognise and read many characters. So fear is not a factor. He is even quite happy to practise tracing characters. At this point, I do not know how well this boy will turn out. He is my ‘experiment’ and I feel like what I am doing now is preparing the ground and sowing the seeds. We can only know how good the ground is, and how great the harvest will be, in a few years time.