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Children & Language Acquisition: What We’ve Learned So Far

I’d like to share the journey we took to get Schäfer’s Chinese flowing, but I’m hesitant because I don’t like children being compared to each other. Every child is different. Every situation is different.

That said, I’ve received a few e-mails asking what worked for us.  I’m writing this post to share what we’ve tried so far.

The Language Goal
We realized that just because we live here doesn’t mean that Schäfer will automatically speak Chinese. And it certainly doesn’t mean that he will be fluent. Fluent by our definition includes speaking, reading, writing and an ability to comfortably navigate within this culture.

For him to achieve true fluency will require a huge effort on our part. We must consciously make decisions based on how well Schäfer is doing emotionally, mentally and physically. We can challenge him to reach his full potential.

Fluency is the ultimate language goal. We’re taking very small steps to get there.

Where We Began
From the time Schäfer was 6 – 18 months old, he spent at least 1.5 hours outside in the morning and afternoon. Nobody knew us. We didn’t know any other babies. We just faithfully went outside each day and started talking (in Chinese) to other Mom’s.

You know the normal: How old is your baby? How’s breastfeeding going? Does your baby sleep through the night? Are you sleep sharing? Have you started solids?

If I met a Mom whose baby was close to Schäfer’s age, I would try to get her to write down her name for me & her baby’s name and her phone number. I’d pass my number along too “just in case you need anything.” I found that most Mom’s were just like me – sleepy, tired of the excess pregnancy weight and completely in love with their baby. Well, that’s three things we have in common!

Going outside everyday (weather permitting) is what allowed me to create a circle of friends. It wasn’t easy. It took a while to be accepted, but after one Mom let me “in”, I was good to go.

In the beginning, I was the one in search of friends. As time went on, those friendships naturally gave Schäfer playmates. We also learned where people lived so if nobody was outside, then we could go knock on their doors to find a playmate.

We often invited people to our house to play – especially during the summer heat and the winter freeze. I’d often say, “Come to our house to play! There’s nobody there!” Normally, in their home, Grandma would be busy cleaning or cooking. Two little crawlers would definitely get in the way.

Hubs Endorsement
Hubs deserves a huge shout out because he was a real encouragement for me. The house would be dirty, the laundry would be piling up and who knows what we’d eat for supper, but Hubs would say, “You should go out and talk with your friends.” He saw my friendships as a priority and was more than happy to grab some takeout for supper.  He understood this season of my life as a new mom with a young baby.

What the Experts Say
The “experts” say that the second language should be learned in a “pure environment”  where one person speaks to the child in that language. (Such as a daycare center with native Spanish speakers).

Immersion is the way to go, but for us this is impossible. Any time our phone rings, we speak Chinese. Any time we go outside, we speak Chinese. Schäfer heard us speaking English and Chinese and had no problems soaking in both or differentiating the two. We normally spoke to Schäfer in English, but we did speak some Chinese to him.

By the time Schäfer was 19.5 months old, he could say quite a bit of Chinese in addition to his English. I recorded a list here. Kids can pick up language very quickly.

Losing Language
At the same time, just as quickly as they can pick language up – they can also drop it. When we were in the states for 4.5 months, Schäfer lost all of his Chinese.  I’m not kidding. We’d say little things to him in Chinese, but he didn’t know the meaning and he certainly stopped speaking Chinese on his own initiative. This was during age 20 – 25 months.

Starting Over Again
When we returned to China, Schäfer was 2.2 years old and he was overwhelmed. Our little boy who use to stick his head out the bus window and say hi to all the Aunties standing at the bus stop was burying his face into my shirt and refusing to speak to anyone. Talk about culture shock!

I knew we had a big problem after we had been home for a couple of weeks. Schäfer dropped a toy on the playground and a Nai Nai bent down to pick it up and wipe it off while saying in Chinese, “Ah! Your toy is dirty. I’ll clean it. I’ll clean it.”

Schäfer had no clue what she was saying so he started yelling, “No! No! No!” and he grabbed the toy from her hand and ran away. It was completely rude, but he was coping as best he could. Later on, he told me he thought the Nai Nai was trying to take his toy away.

Finding a Solution
I started to look for a way to get Schäfer in a Chinese language environment – one where he couldn’t ask me to translate. Oh yes, while we were outside Schäfer (at 27 months) would ask, “Mommy, what did Auntie say?” He knew that I understood.

After looking into the local kindergarten’s 2-year-old class and flipping though my phone in hopes of finding a private tutor, it hit me like a tone of bricks to ask our helper, Ayi, to spend some time with Schäfer. Yes, this took away from her other responsibilities which put some things back on my plate, but Schäfer’s ability to speak Chinese was more of a priority than who did the laundry.

I also liked him learning Chinese in our home environment where he was most comfortable.

When Schäfer and Ayi first started playing, he didn’t want to be with her for more than 15 minutes. Trust me, it was hard to encourage him to play with Ayi when all he wanted was to sit with me and read books. What Mommy doesn’t love to snuggle?

But in the long run, I knew that I had to encourage him (read: let go of not spending every moment with him). In the morning at breakfast, we would sit around the breakfast table talking about what he wanted to do with Ayi.  I would say over and over again “Ayi is coming to play with you! Do you want to play ball? Do you want to read books?”

When we started Schäfer’s play time with Ayi, he needed some monitoring. Our helper would say things to him and he’d yell “NO!” just because he didn’t understand. He’s always loved her, but he would definitely get frustrated with himself.  (After a solid month, the yelling had pretty much ended.)

When Ayi arrived, I quickly went to the bedroom or the office and shut the door so that I was out of sight. I noticed that if I was in the kitchen then my presence was too distracting and Schäfer wouldn’t play very long. Being in the home also allowed me to hear how the playtime was going. If he started yelling, I could settle him so that they could keep playing.

Note: Ayi had already been coming to our home to assist with household cleaning for about 2 weeks at this point so she wasn’t totally unfamiliar to Schäfer. Before she started playing with him, he was already very warm towards her. He would hug and kiss her upon arrival and just before she left each day. She gives off such a good, peaceful vibe.

If someone new is coming to the home to teach, I would definitely play alongside them for the first 2-3 days (at the very least) to evaluate if the child is warming to the teacher.

Eventually, that 15 minutes stretched to 30 which became 45 which became 1.5 hours.  During this time, I stayed somewhere in the house until I knew that Ayi was comfortable and that Schäfer could communicate what he needed (water, dirty diaper, snack, etc.). After 3 months everyone was good, so I would go outside and exercise for a glorious hour!

Schäfer began to anticipate Ayi coming. During breakfast, he’d say, “Ayi is coming to play with me!” And they would read books, play ball, get out the train set… basically play however he wanted from 8:00 – 9:30am, but language learning didn’t end there.

Even though he had playtime with Ayi, we still made an effort to be outside in the neighborhood (playing at the playground, walking around looking for rocks, searching for leaves, sitting by the Lotus Pond etc.) twice a day.

His day would basically be:
8 – 9:30 play with Ayi
9:30 -11:30 outside
12 lunch
12:30 – 2:30 nap
2:30 snack and read books
4:30 or 5 go back outside until supper

Providing a Tool Box
I gathered all our bi-lingual books and flashcards and put them in a box in Schäfer’s room for Ayi’s use only.  If Schäfer asked me to flip transportation cards or read his Mr. Wani book, then I would say, “When Ayi comes she’ll do that with you. How about we…” I tried to keep the bi-lingual box special.

At the time, Schäfer loved the Spot books by Eric Hill. (We bought a bunch of the bi-lingual editions from our local bookstore.) Since I knew that Schäfer understood all the English words in them, I stopped reading them to him.

If he asked for a Spot book I’d say, “Ayi can read that to you tomorrow.” and suggest another book. This worked for him. Spot’s words were simple. The pictures were big. He learned a lot of Chinese from those books.

In fact, I remember it feeling a little strange that Schäfer could say the word “bone” in Chinese, but not other (perhaps more useful) words. Well, that’s because Spot got a new bone for Christmas.

Hearing Progress
On April 29, 2009, I realized we were making progress. While on our way to Jump Zone, the bus stopped to pick up more passengers so Schäfer stuck his head out the window and said hello to all the Aunties’s at the bus stop waiting on another bus.

That was the marker. He was back to his old self. After 3 months of playtime with Ayi and playing with kids in our neighborhood, Schäfer’s Chinese was growing. He finally had enough vocabulary to be himself.

Starting Preschool
Schäfer started attending a local preschool at 32 months. He is doing well in this transition to preschool is because of his time with Ayi. In fact, the separation has been tough on both of them. I’m intentional to make sure they still get playtime each day. They play 15 minutes before school. I bring Schäfer straight home at 10:45 and they get another solid 30 minutes in. Sure, 45 minutes is not the same as 1.5 hours, but even Ayi wants him to go so that he can interact with his friends.

This photo was taken the day before Schäfer started preschool.

Keep Attainable Goals
We want Schäfer to understand what people are saying to him.
We want him to speak politely to others.
We want him to have friends that he can play with.

We’ll worry about the full-scholarship to Harvard later.

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