Assimilation-The parent who doesn’t speak the language

As a teacher in urban Boston, I was not a stranger to parents who did not speak English.  Our school had a few people who could translate for parent/teacher conferences and I think some of the notices went out in English and Spanish (the dominant second language in all three schools I was associated with).

I thought “it must be really frustrating to have to rely on your child to translate for you, or that it must be really hard to not be able to help your child with their homework.”  I don’t know that I ever thought much about what it really must be like to be that parent.  The truth is that even if I did think about it, I couldn’t “get” it.  I don’t think it’s possible to truly be in that parent’s shoes until you actually are standing in them.

IMG_7818Ellie at a shop in Chinatown during CNY season 2013

Singapore is a unique country.  We have four official languages.  In order of useage-English, Mandarin, Maylay and Tamil.  English is the dominant language of Singapore-this is partially due to a few hundred years of British rule.  Singapore was founded in 1819 by the Brits and they controlled it until post WW2 (although the Japanese occupied SG during WW2.  When Singapore became a country, Maylay was named as the “national language” although the Constitution, all political business, all court proceedings, and education are conducted in English.

English is the language of education–Mandarin/Maylay/Tamil are taught as second languages from Primary onward.  This is called mother tongue–you’re expected to take the language of your ethnicity.  However, some schools don’t teach all 3 secondary languages.  Further, as a parent, you can appeal for your child to take a language different from what “should” be the mother tongue class.

IMG_7819Chinatown (CNY 2013)

According to Wikipedia (this data is from the 2011 census)-context for non-SG friends

However, English is the native tongue for only one-third of all Singaporeans, with roughly a third of all Singaporean Chinese, a quarter of all Singaporean Malays and half of all Singaporean Indians speaking it as their native tongue. Twenty percent of Singaporeans, or one out of every five, cannot read or write in English.[156][146]

Many, but not all, Singaporeans are bilingual in English and another official language, with vastly varying degrees of fluency. The official languages ranked in terms of literacy amongst Singaporeans are English (80% literacy), Mandarin Chinese (65% literacy), Malay (17% literacy) and Tamil (4% literacy).[146][157]Singaporean English is based on British English,[158] and forms of English spoken range from Standard English to a pidgin known as “Singlish“. Singlish is heavily discouraged by the government.[159]

One of the key points of Assimilation is whether you learn the local language or not.  Only speaking English does still meet that requirement (more or less).  This is why Singapore is often referred to as “Asia light” or “Asia for beginners” amongst Expats.

As school is conducted in English, I felt comfortable sending Ellie to a local school (and will send Rhi when she’s old enough).  I was excited that she would learn Mandarin–all my studies when I was a dual French and Education major taught me that immersion with a native speaker at a young age was one of the few ways a person had a reasonable chance at achieving fluency.

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 11.44.50 AMElanor in N2 (2012)

What I didn’t think about was what it would feel like when Ellie struggled or needed help in Mandarin.  It wasn’t an issue in Nursery 1 or 2.  Sure, I couldn’t read the description of what was happening in Mandarin, but it didn’t bother me.  I was just excited that Ellie was learning any, and that any learning in Mandarin was good enough.

However, with Ellie entering K1 and our decision to pursue local education after Kindergarten, Mandarin took on more significance.  Additionally this year GUG made a few changes that meant the majority of the writing practice and some of the reading practice was to be done at home.  The rationale is actually very sound–in daily class they’re doing music, speech and drama, and projects in Mandarin.  This is far more interesting than the necessary (if rote) learning that is involved in reading and writing (especially writing, which is not only strokes, but the order of the strokes to correctly write a character).

As an educator, I do approve of this approach.

As a parent who doesn’t speak Mandarin, I felt like the ground had opened up under me.

mandarinE’s current Mandarin reader and workbook (2013)–what I’m supposed to be overseeing.

Before you say “you should learn Mandarin” please know that’s a post of its own and it’s coming.

I am very lucky.  I have a number of Mandarin speakers as Twitter friends and they translated the notes sent home in Mandarin and instructions on homework for me a number of times.  (They also told me that Teacher is spelled Lao Shi instead of Lao Shu, which means rat–and saved me from embarrassing myself on the teacher thank you note last December).

However, what this meant is that when I was “helping” (I use that term as loosely as possible) Ellie practice her writing in Mandarin, I had to resort to things like “now do the shape like a boomerang” and “now do the strokes so it looks kind of like a K.”  This was not helpful.

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 11.43.44 AMEllie in K1 (2013)

The feeling of utter helplessness, especially when you could easily help in any other subject, is frustrating.  Watching your child flounder and knowing that you can’t help her is heartbreaking. As an experienced teacher, I am not used to feeling helpless when it comes to curriculum.

This year Ellie has had some behavior issues in Mandarin class-some of which is that she’s testing a new (to her) teacher, some of it is that she is highly distractable, and some of which is likely driven by not understanding something and then tuning out altogether.  I will admit that the whole Mandarin thing has brought me to tears on more than one occasion.  I’ve ever wondered if we made mistake in having her learn (not for real, but in the moment of helplessness).

We’ve engaged a tutor for Ellie who can help her and who can talk to me about what her progress is like and so forth.  In an ideal world I would sit down with her and learn along with her (or at least enough to do some drilling) but we’ll get to that in the “Why don’t you learn Mandarin” post.

Screen Shot 2013-03-05 at 11.43.30 AMLion Dance at one of Ellie’s Gymnastic’s Schools (CNY 2013)

The thing is that our ability to get this sort of help for her is only due to our economic stability.  Most of my parents in the US were not financially well off enough that a tutor was an option for their children (or themselves).  I feel very lucky that we do have this ability to pay, and that when we eventually go back to the US, we can afford for Ellie to continue her Mandarin education as an extracurricular.

Last week we were at a local playground a mom came up to me expressing shock that Ellie spoke Mandarin.  They were visiting from China, and had stopped for her son to play.  He’d approached E and asked her if she wanted to play with him-in Mandarin.  She replied in Mandarin and they went and played.  Let’s be clear-E is NOT fluent.  Not by a long long long shot.  But that she has any ability to have a discussion with a kid roughly her age is amazing to me.

The reality, though, is that Mandarin isn’t high stakes for Elanor the way it is for a child in the US learning English.  You can get along just fine in Singapore speaking only English.  If she studies Mandarin her whole academic career and only ever gets C’s, it will still be seen as impressive.  It’s a bonus that she learns Mandarin, not a necessity.  Which is a mark of American privelege- I don’t know if my Chinese American friend’s kids would be given that sort of a break (at least locally).

IMG_7822One of the Snake lanterns in Chinatown to commemorate 2013

The experiences you have as an expat do change the way you look at the world and examine your own history-profoundly so.

Having stood (even if only a little) has recast those parents in my eyes.  I didn’t give them as much thought as I should have.  I didn’t really think about the daily homework that went home, and how it must have felt to not even be able to tell their child what the instructions on the homework said, much less an inability to help them with it.  I’m sure that there were even occasions where I was callous enough to be frustrated that I had to find a translator to do a call home or to send a note home (not in a malicious “why don’t they just learn English” way, but more of a thoughtless “it’s so frustrating I have to do this extra thing just to touch base with a parent” way).

I now have a lot more empathy for them.  I think that they deserve so much more support than we give them.  I don’t have solutions, but I do have awareness.  Were I ever to teach again I hope that I remember, vividly, how it feels to be the parent who can’t speak the language.  If I ever am on the other side of the desk again, I hope I do more to help them and reach out to them.

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14 Responses to Assimilation-The parent who doesn’t speak the language

  1. Kelli says:

    Thank you for this post – I will recall it often when I’m working with parents in my own classroom! xoxo from Seattle!

  2. Mummy Ed says:

    I’m local Singaporean, and my spoken Chinese is way better than written/reading. So after a while of always getting my husband to translate what the Chinese teacher was writing about the week’s activities (which differs from that of the English teacher’s), I suggested that they translate the memos for the benefit of the other parents (possibly almost half the class are non-Chinese!), and now the entire kindy follows that practise. I’m amazed at how long it took them to get there!! At a recent “Intro to Kindergarten curriculum” again they had the Chinese teacher speak and only a while into it they realized they might need to translate it. Aiyo! I told them I wasn’t too impressed by that lack of foresight 😉 Perhaps as they say, common sense isn’t all that common, eh?

    • I’ve actually asked E’s school to do that too, but haven’t heard back from them yet. Good for you for asking, and for helping the other parents.

      When I was a teacher, my philosophy that I shared was that if you’re brave enough to ask a questions/for something…there are probably other kids in the room wondering the same thing. Same applies here–we’re not the only parents going “it sucks that I can’t read that, maybe they can do a translation?”–we just have to ask for it (and hope the school is willing to do so).

  3. Juliet says:

    I’m lucky to work in a school that has bilingual office staff & a parent liasion. Notices home (mostly) go out in both English & Spanish. But you make an excellent point that we teachers don’t think about the experience of parents who don’t speak English. Even beyond the nuisance of finding a translator, sending home newsletters, notes about behavior, and just daily assignments without translation would certainly be distancing for those parents.

    • As teachers, we have so much on our plates that it’s hard to remember something like that or to put ourselves into such unfamiliar shoes. Hugs to you and the family!

  4. Kate says:

    Isn’t it amazing the perspective living abroad can give us on these things? I spent last week in my company’s Shanghai office amongst my HK and Chinese colleagues who are all bi-lingual (and many speak multiple dialects). Most of them have studied English since childhood or middle school; what I wouldn’t give to be able to speak with them in another language (I took Latin in high school, whoops!). I had every educational advantage growing up, but really wish I’d had a better appreciation for globalism and the importance of speaking a second language. Bottom line: what a great opportunity for Ellie and props to you for doing everything you can to foster it. And I totally understand how hard (/borderline pointless) it is try to learn Mandarin as an adult!

    • I’ve been saying for years that waiting until HS to do a 2nd language is such a big mistake. Some districts are doing bilingual from k-5, but from what I hear from my friends in those districts there’s no support/classes again until 9th grade, which is absurd!

      I love that here the bilingual ed starts very young (even 15 minutes in the mom/baby classes I can take Rhi to) through high school without a break.

  5. Theodora says:

    There’s an absolute tonne of technical vocabulary around writing Mandarin, the names of the strokes, the names of the different parts of compound characters, and so on. I’m rapidly coming to realise, with, as you know, my son in Chinese school, that the only way I’m going to be any help is to learn along with him.

    My spoken Chinese is, well, basic but functional. I’d been hoping to get away with just spoken Chinese, and not do the characters, but it’s rapidly become clear that if Zac’s going to swim rather than sink in school he needs not just a Chinese teacher on Skype but a parent who can help. And tell the difference between 钱 and 我 and 找, to give one easy example.

    I have a list of the characters primary school students learn in China, if you’d like to see it. It’s over 2k characters.

  6. One quick thing – it’s Malay, not Maylay.

    As someone who lived in China for 8 years but never learnt Chinese properly (the international school I was at had a shit curriculum), I really have to give major props to you for having your kid study the language at such a young age in the local schools.

    Also, as a “Singaporean” adult TCK currently in America for college, I’m finding your posts about assimilation a very interesting read (especially now that it’s finals and all, haha…). Please keep them coming!

    • Thank you for educating me. I’ll try to go back and edit appropriately and use the correct term in the future!

      Best of luck with finals 🙂 Do you come home over the summer or do you stay abroad? What has been the hardest for you when it came to assimilating to the US? How old were you when you went to China and was it a different experience assimilating there versus the US now? Do you have culture shock in Singapore? I’d love to hear more!

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