I’ve written twice before about the experience of parenting children who are studying Mandarin while not being able to speak, read (in either characters or pinyin) or write (in either characters or pinyin) the language.
I haven’t found parenting in either of these situations easy, but when Elanor began K2 this month, I discovered an entirely new level of anxiety. She has a weekly Mandarin spelling test. I’m told this will continue in primary, so I’m looking at something that will be a fixture in my life for the foreseeable future.
Spelling (Every Monday)-3/4 words and hanu pinyin each week. Kindly revise the words with your child–English translation provided after I had to ask for it (a week later, and after friends had translated the Mandarin the handout was given in originally).
I looked at the page of words and tried to figure out how on earth I would help Elanor study. In English-and even in pinyin, I can help her study anywhere. I can ask her to spell a word “cat” and she responds “c-a-t”. With hanu pinyin, I can ask her to spell and when there’s a tone indication above a letter, she can tell me which of the four tones it is.
But characters? How to do I help her practice spelling in Mandarin with characters?
I was stressed. I was so stressed and upset that I was being asked to do even more than the year before, and to do something so far beyond my capabilities that I immediately spiraled. That I was setting Elanor up to fail. That I’m a teacher and damn it, I SHOULD be able to help her more (even if it wasn’t in this language or this grade level). That I was being left twisting in the wind without them doing any support in school. That E would fail Mandarin in P1. Would she be held back or lose standing in her class because I couldn’t help her with Mandarin? Oh god why did we do this? Spiral Spiral Spiral.
I called our tutor in tears. We upped Elanor’s tutoring to twice a week and Lao Shi promised she would give me the tools to help Ellie study.
The first thing Lao Shi did was teach me how to pronounce the words. Then she teaches me what the words mean. This way at least I can quiz Ellie on definitions/translation of the characters.
The next thing that Lao Shi did is create study sheets for Elanor for daily practice. The word page has the stroke order, but this allows Elanor to practice writing her characters. Each day Ellie writes each word several times. On Mondays Lao Shi introduces the new words. On Wednesday she reviews with E. On Tuesday, Thursday, Fri, Sat and Sun I have her practice.
However, we run into another problem here. This is one where becoming fluent in Mandarin wouldn’t help me. I don’t know what the normal deviation from perfect characters is for a five year old. I can judge her English handwriting (and I’ll be able to judge her hanu pinyin) as appropriate for a five year old or sloppy for a five year old. Because I am a poor judge of what is appropriate, I am probably too tough on her, shooting for perfect reproductions.
The reason I say that studying Mandarin now isn’t helpful in terms of assessing the quality and appropriateness of her writing is that in learning it as an adult, I have far better dexterity. So my early attempts at writing characters are going to be neater than hers. I was never a five year old writing characters, so I have no experience to compare it to.
I was comforted (to an extent) by something Lao Shi said to me, which is that the level of anxiety I feel about Mandarin spelling tests is similar to what she felt when her son brought home English spelling tests.
Upon further discussion with Singaporean parents and friends, it seems that there is a typical pattern. Students do very well in the language spoken at home and struggle with the language not spoken at home, even if the parents also do speak that language (but do not do so frequently with the children). As adults, the general consensus was that people didn’t feel proficient/comfortable in their second language, often to the extent where they wouldn’t speak it with their kids until they “had” to.
A life lesson–parental anxiety is universal. Our children, on the other hand, are far less disturbed and stressed. Elanor isn’t stressed at all. And for that, I envy her.
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