Daily Archives: 23 November 2009

One Child’s Language: at 36 months

Social notes: Rachel was very generous about taking toys to donate to her school before we left China. But she displayed almost no emotion on her last day of school, when her principal (and favorite auntie) was teary and her mama was too choked up to say anything. It was only after we got to Hong Kong and started talking about what her life in Honolulu would be like that Rachel protested, “But Rachel likes China.” She also liked travelling, because she had one or the other of us to herself all the time. Unlike us, she loves to spend time in waiting rooms and hotel lobbies.

Especially while travelling, we tend to praise her for being a “big girl.” But she is afraid to leave babyhood completely behind, so she often reminds us, “When Rachel sucks Rachel’s thumb Rachel is a little baby,” and then promptly demonstrates. She has also invented some baby talk expressions, like titidada. At other times, her conversational style is very adult, like when she says, “Mama, mama! Rachel has two questions. The first question is …. The second question is ….” She also likes to give long-winded explanations why she should or shouldn’t do something in a particular way, often word-for-word renditions of what one or the other of us has told her.

We had far better luck finding a preschool for Rachel in Honolulu than in China. Bamboo Shoots was one we just walked into one day. It was just about to convert to Montessori methods. We walked in during naptime, when the administrator was feeling relaxed and talkative, and had a good look around. We were later told that Rachel shows some of the same problems Chinese immigrant kids have when they enter American preschools: they require a lot of adult attention, and they have trouble going off and doing things on their own. She is adjusting well though. Having a year of Chinese school has helped. And she hasn’t had any trouble getting used to sandwiches for lunch, as some of the Asian immigrant kids have. Rachel seems to be only full haole (Caucasian) kid in the school (as in China).

Intellectual notes: Rachel is very, very fond of puzzles now. She is pretty quick to spot where each shape goes. After the first time or two, she has just about memorized how to put the simpler puzzles together. She is also a reading maniac. We usually make a trip to the State library’s children’s book section every week. She can spend hours listening to us read all the way through each week’s stack of books again and again. She is especially interested in transportation, which might have something to do with all the travelling we’ve done recently. She likes looking for contrasts between the “new kind of airplane” (jet) and the “old kind of airplane” (propeller craft), between city buses (with more than one door) and tour buses (with only one door), between fast ferry boats (hovercraft and hydrofoils) and slow ferry boats (like the Star Ferry in Hong Kong). In fact, she always tries to compare and contrast new things she learns about, to establish new categories or better define old ones. Her other most absorbing hobby right now is testing every water fountain she sees. She had an interest in water fountains before we went to China but had to do without them for a year. Her old fascination immediately revived as soon as we got into the Taipei airport.

Language notes: Her pronunciation keeps improving. Right now she’s working on getting her word-initial consonant clusters under control (/fr, sp, st, str, tr/ etc.) She hasn’t got /f/ separate from /s/ yet, so straight sounds like freight. She has just started to work on eliminating the /w/ she used to put on over and out, and the /n/ she used to put on the front of on and in. In other words, she has started to master the glottal stop (the abrupt onset before words starting with vowels in English; the sound in uh-uh ‘no’ that helps distinguish it from uh-huh ‘yes’). She also noticed a good while ago that Daddy pronounces why—her favorite word—with a /hw/ sound while Mama pronounces it with a plain /w/. She claims to use both pronunciations.

Rachel was just beginning to speak a good bit of Chinese by the time we left Zhongshan, but now she has just about quit speaking it. As soon as we hit Honolulu, she ceased hearing it around her so much and apparently decided there was no more use for it. In Hong Kong, we took her out to a nice playground near our hotel where she played with a couple of English-speaking kids her age. She wouldn’t say a word to them. Instead, she remarked to us, “They’re speaking English. Why?” At Bamboo Shoots, she has been slow to speak with the other kids, but it’s probably just her natural shyness. One of the teaching assistants there speaks Chinese but couldn’t extract Chinese responses from Rachel. When we would ask her if she spoke any Chinese at school, she would answer, “But it’s an English-speaking school!”

She hardly ever sings much at home now. She hasn’t learned the new school’s repertoire yet. But she is an avid and highly interactive story-telling audience. She nods as you go, asks for meanings of words she hasn’t learned yet, and asks so many questions sometimes that it’s hard to keep the story moving. She never drifts off during a story, but keeps asking for one more. She likes to participate by filling in salient words in the stories she has read many times. She also likes us to spell (“psell”) words, and always assigns us one to spell while brushing her teeth.

Her most remarkable achievement in our eyes is her discovery of what syllables are. On the way home from school one day in China, she asked why “e-le-phant” has three words but “bear” has only one. She was probably carrying over into English what her teachers had told her about Chinese characters, since each character is one syllable. We taught her the word syllable (which comes out Seminole when she says it) and now she can count off the syllables of any word you give her—fairly accurately too. Although she does tend to like to repeat the last syllable enough times to get through all the fingers on one hand.

UPDATE: This child is now a 24-year-old teacher in Boston’s Chinatown.

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One Child’s Language: at 32 months (and abroad)

Social notes: Rachel is experimenting with social graces now. She plays with using please and thank you sometimes, and is working up to saying xiexie (‘thank you’) and zaijian (‘goodbye’) aloud in Chinese. Her strategy seems to be to listen and repeat to herself for a long time while she is mastering something new, then finally perform out loud.

She often gets very upset if we let a guest into the house without her help, or see someone off before she gets to wave goodbye. One day, Daddy came home from school in the afternoon, let himself in, and went in to find Rachel and Mama in the kitchen. Rachel immediately cried that she wanted to meet Daddy at the door. So Daddy went back outside in the stairwell, Rachel sent him down to the landing, then she walked down the steps to greet him on the landing with “Hello, how are you?” She nodded her head in response to “Fine, thank you. And you?” and then turned around and said “Well, let’s go up.” She repeated this ritual about ten times before our downstairs neighbors, Uncle Xu and Auntie Ni, came out to invite Rachel to play with them.

For quite a long time now, she has not gotten tearful when we drop her off at school, and she has a “best friend” there now. When she hears classmates’ names she can point them out, but she won’t say their names out loud to us.

Intellectual notes: In Freudian jargon, she still shows a lot of typically “anal retentive” behavior. She is compulsive about arranging and matching things. If you slip out of your shoes, she is liable to run off with them to arrange them carefully among other shoes. When she gets dressed, she is always concerned that everything should match. After eating, she will often get down and rearrange the magnetic letters and numbers on the refrigerator door. She is more concerned about matching shapes than about sequential order, so she groups 694, 25, 17, 38, VY, KX, MN, IL, CG, FR, BD, OU, and so forth.

Language notes: Rachel is speaking more and more Chinese. Her teachers say she is becoming more verbal at school. She must be saying a lot more Chinese to herself than to anyone else. She is quite aware of the tones in Chinese and experiments with them sometimes. Everyone at school tries to get her to say simple greetings to them, but they are content for now if she simply shows she heard and understood them.

Her pronunciation keeps improving. She has /s/ and /z/, /ch/ and /j/ pretty much under control. When she demonstrated that she could produce a clear /s/ one day on the way home from school, Daddy praised her and asked her when she would be able to say /k/ as well. She said “Soon.”

She still sings school songs at home and also sings a lot of English songs. She sings This Old Man up through number five or six. (On one of our excursions she got to see a beehive up close, so she no longer needs prompting for “hive”.) Her going-to-sleep ritual every night includes the same series of songs: Sleep Baby Sleep, Teddy Bear (“Dayto” Bear), Mockingbird (Hush Little Baby), and then Angels Watching Over Me (“That Guy Is Watching Over Me”). She sings along on all of them and recently recorded them on tape, singing by herself.

She knows the lowercase as well as uppercase printed letters now. (After trying to think of easy terms other than “big/little” to distinguish the two styles, we just settled on “uppercase/lowercase”—and so has Rachel.) She often utterly loses her chain of thought when her eye catches any letter or Chinese character she can read. She reads off numbers on license plates or hotel-room doors as she walks by. Sometimes she spells words from right to left.

UPDATE: This child is now a 24-year-old teacher in Boston’s Chinatown.

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Filed under China, education, family, language, travel, U.S.