How Many Languages Can a Child Handle?

One? Two? Three? Four?

Let me get one thing out straight away, ‘handle’ for the purpose of this particular blog means being able to use a language at a native speaker – or near native speaker – level. This is what I have in mind for our trilingual girl anyway.

The truth is, nobody seems to be sure, yet.

The general consensus is that childen have a born capability to pick up languages. Yet it seems that science still has a long way to go to figure out how exactly a language is learnt by children, and by adults for that matter.

There are (at least) two things that are happening in brain that have significant implication on language development.

1) synaptic connection.

Science tells us that the understanding of the world doesn’t really depend on the amount of brain cells, but on the amount of connections that are buit between the brain cells. These connections are called synaptic connections.  At birth babies are born with virtually all the nurons/brain cells they will ever have. However the building of synaptic connection is trigged only by new experience: every touch, smell, seeing a new color, hearing a new sound, feeling a new feeling, experiencing a new reaction all help the synaptic connection.

By the age of six, 90% of the brain growth is completed, meaning that by then a child would have formed a solid foundation of how his/her brain works. Now be careful, it doesn’t mean that brain stops growing afterwards, it just means that till then, the developing brain is highly sensitive to its surroundings, and grows and adapts in response to its environment.

In other words, the younger the child is, the more adaptable and sensitive the brain is to build connections to learn the languages, if given chance.

2) neural pruning.

Science also tells us that if a synaptic connection is not used often enough, it will be weakened and eventually disappears. This process is called neural prunning. After the magic age of six, it seems that the speed of prunning starts overtake that of connection.  By the age of 14, around adolescence, major prunning has occurred.

It seems like every type of learning,repetition is the key. With languages, it explains why simply playing songs in certain language is not sufficient for the child to learn or keep up with the language.

(this image shows the brain cell density at a few key ages during brain development as discussed above.)

A research shows that a child needs to be exposed to one language for at least 30% of his/her waking time to learn it effectively. By simple mathmatics, it seems that, if handled well, a child shall be able to handle about three languages. He/She can even decide which language to play with more during the 10% of the spare time! 🙂

My reading in the past few months suggests that there are certainly many other elements coming into play in terms of how many languages a child can handle. I will discuss more in the future blogs. By now, I’m quite content with the fact that it seems to be scientifically possible to help our girl to learn three languages from the very beginning.

坐月子 ‘Sit Through the First Month’, eh?

Since I cannot get my mind off this HUGE Chinese tradition around what to do during the first post-natal month, and its big ripple effect in my little family, I thought I’ll just post a blog. I believe this could easily be one of the biggest cultural differences/shocks in play in any sino-foreign family.

This tradition is called 坐月子in Chinese, which if literally translated means ‘sit through the first month’ – a weird name though because according to the ‘real’ tradition, it should have been called ‘SLEEP through the first month’.

The tradition basically governs what a Chinese woman SHOULD do and SHOULD NOT do during the first month after delivery, in all possible aspects that you would think of, and beyond. Some are real eye-openers (to put it mildly) to Nicolas, my French husband who is not new to Chinese culture. A few of the rules that stand out are:

– she should not take shower nor wash hair for a month (‘ca pue !!’  (‘it stinks!!) Nicolas’ reaction)

– she should not brush the teeth

– she should lie on bed all the time except strict necessities (such as going to toilet). Breastfeeding is done on her bed. Holding baby while standing is not recommended.

– she and the baby should not go outside

– she should not touch cold water nor drink cold water

– she should avoid fruits and vegetables, but eat/drink lots of fluid-based food such as congee, brown sugar water, chicken soup, fish soup etc. Food is an important part, and the list of dos and don’ts can go on and on.

– She should not cry

– she should not start breast-feeding until 24 hours after birth

– … much more …

Chinese believe that these measures help the women to fully recover from labour and otherwise will have disastrous result even into their elder years. Many of these rules came from a time when hygiene could be a real concern and nutrition & food variety were not readily available. However in the modern society most of us fortunately live in, a lot of them are no longer relevant to say the least, if not against the best interest of the young mother’s recovery and young baby’s development. As more and more people in China including doctors start to argue the scientific (or rather non-scientific) value of these traditions, some young mothers would no longer follow strictly what the tradition says. However, many still do. In fact, from what I gathered on internet, an amazing vast majority still do, even to an extent more than I would have imagined.

Another interesting fact is that although many people (esp. young parents) have very vague idea about what 坐月子precisely means – indeed you can choose to follow from 100% to just 1% of the strict tradition – everyone subscribes to the prevailing idea – 坐月子 IS VITAL. Listen to your mom.

As a result, the young mother basically becomes ‘immobile’ – synonym of ‘useless’  – during that month. So traditionally the young-mother’s mother or mother-in-law will live with the family during the first month to take care of everything (the young mother, the new-born, and household chores). Some may stay much longer – that’s another story altogether.The modern interpretation is to hire a specialised helper (called 月嫂 or ‘first-month-auntie’) or to stay in a specialized resort/care center (月子中心 or ‘first-month-centre’) during the month.

That who is around during 坐月子becomes such an integral part of the tradition itself that nobody seems to ask the question ‘Do I really need some extra help apart from just me and my husband?’. It’s commonly neglected as a question worth asking. And this is something that Nicolas has to come to terms with. Me too.

With no exception, during the conversation with my Chinese friends, one inevitable comment comes up: ‘your mom is coming, isn’t she?!

My mom lives in China, 12-hour flight away. Her entire family except me lives in China. She knows nobody else but me in Sydney. She speaks no English. She eats no non-Chinese food. She has never taken a long-haul flight on her own. She would be comfortable that I do not take shower for a month. She may have very different idea about bringing up a baby.

But none of the above matters. It’s decided that she’s coming. No discussion is solicited. Suitcase is being packed.

And that got me to think. Is that what I want? Is that what Nicolas wants? Is that what our young growing family wants? And equally importantly, is it what my mom wants?

Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE the idea of being taken care of and doing as little house chore as possible, esp after a possibly stressful labour. And I LOVE the fact that my mom gets to spend time with her grand-daughter. But to what extent am I willing to trade/comprise/battle through potentially vast different opinion among my mom, Nicolas and myself? And how would it impact the dynamics of the family that’s already going through dramatic change with a new-born baby? And how much influence my mom will have on my following or not following some of the traditions?

I’m still looking for answer. I’m trying to find out each other’s expectation. I’m trying to understand where each of us stands for. I’m trying to figure out what each of us is willing to comprise, and what not. I’m trying to start a conversation that no one expects.

坐月子 is indeed a blur yet extremely powerful concept! It keeps me awake at night. I have four more months of such nights to reflect upon the subject before my 坐月子 period starts for real.

A Chinese-german artist illustrates the cultural differene betweens Chinese and the Westerners by graphics. Here are two about ‘child’ and ‘senior person’s life’.

            

Which Language to Speak In a Bilingual Couple

In a bilingual couple, you tend to stick to the language you used when you first met.

At least, this is the theory I have to explain why between Nicolas and I French continues to be our daily language, although I think English would have been a more fair ground, and probably makes more sense now that we live in Aussieland, an English speaking country.

We met in France, at a time when I had lived in the country for about two years and my spoken French really picked up after working for a local French company for almost 6 months. Our first interaction was in a French-speaking party, and we naturally went on conversation in French afterwards as well –  although he did impress me with his Chinese particularly during a karaoke soiree in one of our first hang-outs.

As I said, my spoken French picked up, but at the time it was far from fluent. One of my first and best French friends I met outside of school and work, Thierry, still recalls that during our phone conversation at the beginning he really struggled to understand me and make me understood. The feeling was mutual, monsieur ! But I sort of hanged on to it, thanks to my friends as well as a few of my VERY patient colleagues at the time, who at times had to slow down, repeat, and explain what I didn’t understand and tried to find the correct words/expression for what they guessed what I wanted to say. Thank goodness, we never switched to English as a result of frustration.

Neither did Nicolas and I switch to English. During the first two years when our relationship blossomed, my French did too. Not only was I working in a French speaking environment, but also I was woven into this vast and day-to-day French social environment. I had to meet Nicolas’ friends, his parents and family, get introduced to social events, and understand French way of being in a relationship. I had no choice (I chose to have no choice …) and sometimes struggled to grasp the subtlety and the ‘non-dit’s, but fortunately I enjoyed most of time.

So French became part of our relationship, even when we moved to Shanghai. Nicolas’ Chinese improved by taking more lessons and living there simply. We had talks about using more Chinese between us for the sake of his Chinese practice, however we somehow never managed to do so. We would start a conversation in Chinese, then slowly French or English words would creep in, until almost always French took over. It’s a bit like any routine – once you establish one, it becomes really difficult to change it.

The pattern continues after we moved to Sydney. Both of us speak fluent English and that’s the language we use for work and most of the social activities. However in our private world, French rules. Of course we throw in words/expressions from other languages that we both associate to in regularly basis. In a French sentence, we would use some English or Chinese vocabulary, and for the sake of fun pronounce them with deliberately strong French accent, or vise versa. We enjoy the game. Our daily language is quite a mix-and-match indeed.

Now that we’re going to raise a trilingual child, we probably need to be more conscious about the mix-and-match of our language so that it doesn’t unnecessarily confuse the child (or would it?). We both want her to be a REAL Chinese, French, and English speaker, and from what I read so far (I will be sharing my learning in this blog), it takes more than a laissez-faire approach, so the linguistic dynamics in the family is going to change I sense.

That will be a whole new discussion. For now and in the forseeable future, between Nicolas and I, francais will continue to rule.

Trilingual Family in the Making

We are a Chinese mother-to-be, a French father-to-be, and an Australian baby-to-be.

So here we are, a trilingual family in the making!

   

Nicolas and I met in Grenoble/France. Two years after we met we moved to Shanghai/China, and got married there (we had to have three weddings to cater for the needs of the families oceans apart). Another three years later we decicded to cross another ocean to Sydney/Australia. That was in a beautiful early-spring day in late August 2008 (hey this is down under). Yet again three years later, we’re expecting our first baby, due in January 2012.

I am a native Chinese, speaking Mandarin Chinese, English (fluently), and French (pretty fluently), and 2 Chinese dialects (Ningbo and Shanghai dialects), and I’m learning Spanish (struggling). Nicolas is a native French, speaking French, English (fluently), and Mandarin Chinese (I consider his Mandarin quite ok knowing that he can get by with his mother-in-law in the language :)).

Hopefully the paragraphs above satisfied a few curious souls!

While we (especially I) go through the initial anxiety of becoming the first-time parents, before everything else (that is the first name, first pram, hospital, etc etc), we have quickly agreed on the future language rule in the family. I will be speaking 中文 to her (so yes it’s a girl!), Nicolas francais, and between Nicolas and I we’ll continue with francais. Outside of the family, she will have to get on with English.

We haven’t figured out yet exactly what that means and how that will work. But one thing is quite certain: a trilingual-family-in-the-making is going to be an interesting exprience, probaly even quite fascinating, albeit complicated. I started to read about the subject and am discovering a lot of things about brain development, bilingual/trilingual education, parenting, cultures, early linguistic developmentlanguages in general, and more. I have always been interested in these subjects somehow (admittedlyexcept parenting up to this point) and now I have one concrete reason to find out more. As I like to learn and experience new things, it is helping me immensely to cope with the anxiety. I’m quite content with my new-found coping strategy, so I’m going to continue the thoughts along this line.

And why not keep a record? So voila !