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The Making of a Bi-lingual Child


It turns out that raising a bi-lingual child in America is not as easy as I used to think. It’s not enough to have one parent speaking something other than English. That parent must carefully speak only the second language to the child on a continual basis to counteract all the English he will hear in his daily life.

In our case, the second language is Mandarin, and it’s our daughter-in-law, Ziwei, who has taken on the task of making sure our little grandson will have the benefits of both languages. This is not easy when he is in our English-speaking care each morning and she works full-time as a pre-school teacher.

Although we had believed Nolan was smart from early on—he sat in my lap and turned the pages of Home for Bunny at the age of five months—he wasn’t breaking any records for earliest first words. We read this was sometimes the case when a child is programming two languages into his brain at the same time.

Recently his language development has been exponential, however, with continual new words and combinations. He likes the word “compromise” and reconfirms daily that “raccoons nocturnal.” But his dad reports that he may actually be speaking Mandarin more correctly than English because of the simplicity of the Chinese language, at least so far as the grammar goes. Ziwei was putting on his walrus socks when he said in Mandarin, “Haven’t wear walrus long time,” which she reports is perfectly correct.

A couple of days ago this cutie was standing at his usual spot at our house— on a stool by the kitchen sink where he likes to wash and eat whatever garden produce his Ye-ye (grampa) has brought in. My husband said to me, “Will you keep an eye on him for a minute?”

“Well, of course,” I said, with the exaggerated enthusiasm you give a 21-month-old, not that it was the least bit insincere. “There’s nothing in the world I’d rather do this minute than watch this little guy eat your strawberries!”

Nolan turned from the sink, gave me a shy little half smile with his berry-stained cheeks and said softly, “Wo ai ni.”

OMG and be still my heart. Because I only know two phrases in Chinese. One is wo bu ming bai—I don’t understand—and the other is wo ai ni.

I love you.

Thank you, Ziwei!

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