Monday, October 06, 2008

Language notes

I am not exactly sure who reads this blog (beyond the friends and family who are compelled to read) but I suspect that a few stick around because they’re curious or interested in our little language experiments. What follows are my notes from the first two months of living here... not as organized as I would like, but I want to write as much as I can down.

As most readers know, my kids are 8 and 4 and bilingual (Korean and English). They both attended bilingual preschool/kindergarten and Aiden attended Korean elementary school for 1.5 years. The language they favor shifts over time; we’ve intentionally traveled a lot, spending at least a month or two in the U.S. each year. After one of those trips they will always speak a greater percentage of English to each other and in the house. As time goes on they’ll speak less, but it never disappears. We also mix languages a lot at home but so far neither of them have had trouble with language differentiation. They speak Korean to Korean speakers and English to English speakers. (Once one of them -- I think it was Aiden -- informed my in-laws that they were not allowed to travel to the U.S. because they didn’t speak English.) I have noticed that whenever we travel their languages get better, and always both languages at the same time, which is really extraordinary. Since been here Max’s Korean has skyrocketed; he is using expressions that I don’t know and up until recently has been speaking Korean almost exclusively at home.

I know that children listen a lot before they start speaking a new language (thanks to my friend Elaine who has schooled me with her extensive knowledge on language acquisition in children). Aiden took about a year of Chinese in Seoul, but not intensively. Only once or twice a week, and some Rosetta Stone at home (the frequency varied depending on how much other stuff he had going on.) He couldn’t speak much but I think he got the basics of pronunciation, pinyin, and his ability to listen was primed by these lessons. When we arrived here he still had a month before school started so I enrolled him in a 3-week Chinese class (two hours a day) at a local (Korean) hakwon. I put him in the beginner level so it was pretty easy for him. I didn’t push him much to speak, especially because I know he’s shy and I think he has to do things at his own pace. When you’re learning a language in a different country you have to force yourself to practice speaking, but when you live in the place where you need the language all the time, the sense of urgency comes with the air you breathe and the food you eat. Aiden’s been on the receiving end of my opinions about the importance of languages and he’s had experience translating for English-speakers in Korea, so he knows very well how important language study is. But this is the first time he’s in a place where he has to do the learning.

After a few weeks, I noticed that every now and then he’d pop out with a full sentence. One morning when he was having trouble waking me up he said, “我饿了。“ [I’m hungry.”] Then, when KC’s teacher came over one day, he said, “爸爸是学生。” [“Daddy is a student.”] When his friend Martin came to visit from Korea we took the kids to Yu Yuan, and afterwards they had fun looking at all the different vendors. When Martin couldn’t understand what they were saying he would call Aiden, who apparently could understand what the venders were saying.

Once Aiden started school the sense of urgency became more pronounced. Aiden is going to a Chinese bilingual private school with an international section; in practice that means that the kids in his class are from Taiwan or Hong Kong, or born in the U.S. to Chinese parents. The week before school started I took him to the campus for his health check and then again for orientation. Even though the school has an international section it is not really geared towards international people who don’t speak Chinese; there were no instructions in English and I felt relieved to be able to navigate using observation, common sense, my elementary Chinese skills, my Korean, and my charm. (OK, maybe not the last one. Though it does come in handy.) There were problems getting him on the bus roster, and problems getting the correct size uniform for him. During the first week of school, KC wanted to take him to meet the bus in the morning (KC had always been the one to take Aiden to school in the morning and relishes that time together) but Aiden said, “I think Mommy should take me, just in case there are problems with the bus Mommy can use her Chinese to fix them.” Watching me deal with all the problems was, in retrospect, really good for him because he could see how important the language skills were and he could see that even though I wasn’t fluent I could still figure out how to get things done. (I almost lost my cool during the bus debacle but luckily when some Korean moms stepped in to help I was able to calm myself down. Good thing. The kids are incredibly observant; I was able to provide a much better example by remaining calm). Aiden often praised my Chinese to others, which made me feel pretty proud.

I should also mention that Aiden is a big fan of the 마법천자문series (he’s read and re-read all 16 books that have come out) and because of that he’s able to recognize a good number of Chinese characters. He’s also a very visual learner.

In Aiden’s school some subjects (in his grade, Math) are taught in Chinese and others (social studies, science) are taught in English. In addition they have both Chinese and English (grammar, reading, etc.) and P.E./swimming/art/music are (I think) taught in both languages. They have quite a lot of Chinese, and most kids in the class can speak fluently. He is in second grade, but because his Chinese isn’t good he and two others go down to first grade for Chinese. There are some other kids in the class who go down to first grade for English.

The Chinese is intense. I had heard that in China first graders start with pinyin and not characters but the book Aiden’s school uses begins with characters and knowledge of pinyin is assumed (good thing he already learned it). They learn at a furious pace; I’d say about 6 characters a day (recognition, not writing). They have computer software they use to learn to recognize characters and learn to type the pinyin. The text is difficult -- I have trouble following it. That’s because it organizes the characters by pronunciation and not frequency of use or simplicity. Thus the vocabulary he is learning is quite difficult and not all that useful for every day conversation.

Every week the school sends home a progress report. After the second week the teachers reported that Aiden was having trouble concentrating in class and following the lessons in Chinese. KC’s tutor offered to teach him for 30-60 minutes every day, which we’ve done since then, and his progress has been dramatic. He can read an incredible number of characters and his comprehension has increased a great deal. Because the text is aimed at native speakers he is not progressing the way he would if he were in a class geared towards CSL (Chinese for Speakers of another Language) students but he’s keeping up now and I hope that his comprehension and speaking will follow. He also takes an extra CSL class once a week. (The school provides CSL and ESL classes for the many children who are in similar situations.) It’s only been two months, so we’ll see. The other day we were in a taxi together and he started to read the text on the back of the driver’s seat (explaining the cab company’s responsibilities, etc.); he also reads the ads in the elevator.

On the school bus, the teacher tells me that Aiden understands her. In our first month here, before Aiden started school, we also sent him to 3 weeks of Chinese classes at a local hakwon, 2 hours a day.

In retrospect the order and the timing seems right. Aiden’s time in the Korean school system, with its attention to etiquette/protocol and its more stricter structure of education, has primed him to be more comfortable in a Chinese school where they have a patriotic salute to the flag on the field every Monday morning and the class leader (반장) orders the class to greet the teacher and also does minor disciplining. I’m meeting a lot of Korean parents here whose kids started elementary school in Shanghai, attending American international schools. They worry that when the kids return to Korea they will be unable to adjust to Korean schools. I, on the other hand, have no doubt that after dealing with these kinds of schools, Aiden will do just fine in American school. (If he knew how much fun the American schools were he would refuse to go to his school.) He had enough exposure to Chinese and to Chinese characters before we came so he’s able to pick up the language quickly now. And because he’s such a strong visual learner with reading habits in two other languages already established it isn’t so confusing. He used to exclusively read Korean books for pleasure, but because he’s getting more English at school he now goes back and forth between Korean and English books. A lot of the same Korean moms are concerned that although their kids speak Korean at home they lack basic reading and writing skills. Those kids attend Korean school here on Saturdays. We thought about sending Aiden too, but it seemed too much. Since he got a good beginning with Korean while we were in Korea I think that as long as he keeps reading and speaking he’ll be fine.

A couple weeks ago he told me that my worry was right. “What worry?” I asked. “I think if I stay here for a long time I might forget Korean,” he said. Its easy to forget how much he hears and remembers the things I say. I told him that we would no longer do English and Chinese homework at home beyond what he was given from school (since I used to assign him additional homework) since he was studying those subjects at school. I told him that instead I wanted him to just keep on reading as many Korean books as possible and send email to his grandfather and friends in Korea.

Another note: we had the choice of moving him up to 3rd grade (he’s the right age for 3rd grade) but since he had only completed half of 2nd grade in Korea we decided to hold him back and have him start 2nd grade over again. I’m glad we did that. It makes things easier for him linguistically and skill-wise. I knew math would be taught in Chinese but felt pretty confident of Aiden’s ability to perform well since he was good at math and solving problems above grade level in Korea. They were just starting division in the 2nd semester of 2nd grade in Korea. But here they did division on the first day of 2nd grade, no review or anything. I’m not sure what they do for 3rd grade math. I wonder how this compares to the U.S.; it seems awfully fast to me.

Aiden’s school day is very long now; he comes home at 4:45 (compared to 12:40 in Korea). As soon as he comes home he does about an hour of Chinese with his tutor, then has dinner, then does about an hour of other homework. If there’s time he plays with Max and I let them watch Korean cartoons on skylife (another method of keeping up the Korean -- we usually don’t let them watch TV). It’s a long day, and when he’s really tired at night he talks about how hard it is and how little time he has to play. But in general he’s happy to go to school and he’s happy when he comes back. The school gives them a lot of breaks during the day, including 90 min or so for lunch, which means they have a lot of time to socialize. It’s a large school, and it is also a boarding school, so he comes home full of adventures exploring all the different parts of the school, trying to sneak (unsuccessfully) into the girls’ dorm, etc. And they also (much like Harry Potter) have teams that run across the grades to build interaction between older and younger kids. Aiden’s on the tiger team, and they compete periodically in academic and sports contests against the other teams. Social interaction is important to me for a lot of reasons, including: he’s a social kid and needs it, kids develop a lot of language skills socially, and I hope his social relationships will extend his relationship to Shanghai beyond our stay here.

Now for Max. Max started preschool in mid-August. His school is also bilingual; they spend half the day speaking Chinese and half the day speaking English, with both an English and Chinese teacher on hand all the time. The kids come from different backgrounds, some speak Chinese well but not English, some speak English well but not Chinese, and a few speak a third language at home (like Japanese). I haven’t expected him to be talking much yet, just listening, but he loves to sing and has been singing the “wo he ni” Olympic song from the first or second day of school -- not correctly, but he gets closer and closer all the time. And he also will suddenly come out with a sentence or phrase. We were eating dimsum with some friends and he suddenly said, “Kuai dian, kuai dian! That means ‘eat faster,’ mommy!” (He is a very slow eater, he probably hears that phrase a lot at mealtime.) He is also able to repeat, verbatim, sentences from Aiden’s Chinese textbook, because he hangs around and plays while Aiden studies with his tutor.

Unlike Aiden Max is an extremely auditory learner. He’s able to repeat what he hears very quickly and easily. (His teacher told me that from the first day he was telling the other students how he had lived in Korea for 5 years before moving to Shanghai. She said, “But you’re only 4 years old, how does that work?” He’s heard me explain to people that we lived in Seoul for 5 years before moving to Shanghai and is repeating what I said.) He loves to talk and sing and play with language. He likes to instruct me by making up Chinese words and making me repeat them and commanding me to memorize them by tomorrow. As I mentioned before, his Korean his become incredibly good in the last two months. I think everything he heard over the last 4 years is starting to trickle out of his mouth as he is finally able to put it into a coherent linguistic picture. He hasn’t started to speak much Chinese, at least not in front of me, but his burst of Korean is a sign that all the languages are improving, I think. He takes a nap at school and his teacher reports that when he wakes up he has long conversations with the little boy who sleeps next to him, Matthew. Matthew doesn’t speak English and Max doesn’t really speak Chinese, so they talk and gesture to each other and figure something out. At lunch time a non-English-speaking ayi helps feed them and clean them up; Max is a notoriously slow and picky eater and his teacher tells me that he has learned how to engage in negotiations with the ayi using “zui hou” (the last, as in “the last bite.”). Max is very conscious of who speaks Chinese and who speaks English; he’s able to categorize the kids in his class for me, and seems more skittish about interacting with the ones who only speak Chinese. He’s had less exposure to the language but he’s such a good verbal mimic that I think once his brain has absorbed enough of the language he’ll start to speak it freely. Will have to wait and see.

The danger with Max is with Korean. Unlike Aiden he can’t read; I’ve started to teach him hangeul at home but because he is not as visual it is slow going. He has just recently become more interested in learning letters, such a contrast from Aiden, who knew the alphabet at 18 months. Different kids, different learning styles. I am trying to make teaching Max hangeul a priority for our home work, because I want to make sure his Korean will survive. He spends hours examining the same books as his brother, wanting to imitate him in every way, and I should take advantage of that. Plus he notices that Aiden gets a lot of attention when he’s doing homework and even though Max is content to play by himself while I’m helping Aiden, he also (I found out recently) will apply himself to doing hangeul worksheets. We all sit at the table together, Aiden doing his homework, me helping him or studying Chinese, and Max tracing 가거고구그기, his face serious and focused. It helps that he (unlike Aiden) loves to draw and derives a great deal of pleasure from choosing a pencil or crayon to pen his masterpiece.

As for me, what can I say? I’ve taken a few weeks of classes now and they have helped a lot. Not because I’m a good student, but because listening to a language for 3 hours is very very good for developing that language. I don’t pay much attention to grammar and I’m lazy about reviewing, and I think that the reason is that to some extent I now trust my unconscious mind to work on my behalf even when I’m not telling it to. With Korean I noticed that at some point I began using patterns that I never fully understood in class or that I had never learned at all. At some point I developed an intuitive feel for where certain words belonged. Some people in my class are very insistent on getting an exact translation for each word, but I don’t try to translate that much, I prefer to listen to the teacher explain a word in Chinese and use it in a few example sentences. I get a better sense of how the word is used that way; sometimes translating imposes false categories or connotations on a word. And when there’s uncertainty it doesn’t bother me. I can’t remember if it used to bother me or not, but now if I don’t fully understand I just put it aside and move on. I trust that I will learn it from context eventually.

I spent the first (many) years learning Korean from books and in the classroom so going out into the field provoked a lot of anxiety -- I stressed about saying things wrong, about not understanding, about making stupid mistakes, about my brain freezing. But after Max was born I didn’t studying Korean from books or dictionaries, I just picked it up as I lived and listened, and I learned to work around words that I didn’t know. I think that’s the main reason I feel more comfortable being lazy this time around. I’ve lived here for two months and been able to get a lot of stuff done with what I knew and a good deal of help from people I was able to lean on. I try to speak as much Chinese as I can and don’t worry much about making mistakes. People understand anyway. When I don’t understand I can generally make a good guess from context. In two months (not really a long time!) my listening ability has improved a great deal. I took my mother-in-law for a foot massage last week and a TV program was playing; I was able to understand a great deal of the program (a sort of reality show about trying to reform a delinquent young man who was living off his mom).

I’ve noticed a shift in expressions; my teachers in Seoul were mostly from the North, and the Shanghai southerns speak a little differently even when they talk in Putonghua. They don’t use append er much; they say “yi dian” instead of “yi dianr” and “you bian” instead of “you bianr,” which has required some shift in my pronunciation habits. (I said “yi dianr” to Max and he said, “No, Mommy! It’s ‘yi dian’!”) People here don’t use “xing bu xing,” they say “ke yi ma?” Shanghai people also tend to pronounce “sh” as “s” and “zh” as “z,” so “Ni shou shenme?” is pronounced “Ni suo senme?” “sishi” is “sisi” and “wo zhidao” is “wozidao.” I’m appalled that I now hear this in my head even though for the most part I pronounce the sh and zh. If I can ever get to the point where I speak putonghua with some level of fluency it would be useful to learn Shanghai-hua, but right now it is completely incomprehensible.

KC’s also improved a lot, though he says, “When you’re starting from zero any improvement looks good.” His pronunciation has gotten a lot better and so has his listening comprehension. He studies a lot, especially on weekends, and it gives Aiden a great deal of pleasure to tell his dad how easy KC’s textbook is. Aiden really enjoys showing KC his own textbook and asking him to read it, which KC cannot (he can read it in Korean though). I think it’s good for the kids to see how seriously we both take learning the language and how much effort we both put into it. But it’s also good for Aiden to see how much harder it is for us because we’re older. Study languages when you’re young, folks!
A non-language note... Aiden gets more and more interesting to talk to the older he gets. Shortly after we moved I was talking about how even though moving is really different, I’m really glad to be able to experience different places and people and things, and how I didn’t want to live a boring life. He said, “I don’t want to live a boring life either, Mommy.” Perhaps that was peer pressure, but I think he meant it.

I haven’t been blogging much lately because I’m tired in the evenings (all that conscious and subconscious language processing takes energy), but so far things have gone really well and I intend to keep observing and recording as much of the process of learning as I can. But sorry for the long pauses between posts... I was going to write more about how the kids have dealt with moving, but I think this post is long enough! For another time, perhaps.

Over at printculture, I put up a “Keeping up with the Kims.”