As even casual readers of this blog know, Jean and I have been trying to bring Sasha up speaking both English and Chinese. The kid, now 2 and a half, has been going to a bilingual preschool, watching Dora and Spongebob in Chinese, and listening to children’s songs in Chinese.
For a long time, it didn’t seem to be working all that well—or at least, that’s what Jean would tell me. Sasha was speaking English 90 percent of the time, and occasionally even refusing to speak Chinese. When she did say something in Mandarin, it was rarely an original sentence, just a word or phrase she’d heard once and was repeating. Sure, she understood quite a lot of Chinese, but hearing and speaking are very different skills.
The plus side of this was that my Chinese skills were better than hers, and I did often speak to her in Chinese, to tell her to sit down, or take a bite of food, or ask simple questions like, “Who farted?” (“Sasha farted,” she’d coyly answer.) At her school, the teachers and administrators found my Chinese ability amusing—even though I’m terrible at it, I’m probably better than most of the other non-Chinese dads there.
But last Friday, while we were on vacation, Sasha started telling me a story—one of those long, complicated, nonsensical tales that only other toddlers can follow—and she did it in Chinese. I soon realized that it wasn’t just her shaky narration that was the problem, it was the language. She was saying words I simply didn’t recognize, and won’t be able to unless I improve my own language abilities. Which might happen as Sasha grows up and learns more. Or it might not. But at least now I know where I stand, language-wise: I speak Chinese as well as a 2-and-a-half-year-old.