‘Mummy, There’

05At the check-out of the local supermarket yesterday, Nina saw a toddler wondering off from his mum who was busy paying. Nina went up to the toddler, looked at him, while pointing at his mum, and said ‘mummy, there’.

That single sentence, an incomplete sentence, gave me immense joy and satisfaction. Why?

1) Nina really gets that different people speak different language, and learnt that English is the language of the society she lives in now. So she didn’t speak Mandarin nor French to that kid, but consciously chose English, which is for the moment her weakest language.

2) she’s now comfortable enough in her English to INITIATE a conversation. Such a huge difference from when she hide herself and refused to talk to ANYONE beside her parents. It’s almost like she’s becoming a different child. That sentence (‘mummy, there’) was not complete and far from being perfect, but it conveyed the message perfectly. That’s what it counts in language – to communicate and deliver a message! The refinement of the language can, and will, come later.

3) Nina has a good heart that she wanted to make sure the toddler stay close to his mummy. Kindness and willingness to help is a quality that I value enormously and wish to instil in Nina.

I had a big smile on my face at that supermarket checkout. I was very proud of my daughter who is, at 3 years 2 months old, able to sort out three languages, learning every single one of them (including English which we don’t speak at home at all, but she is picking up mainly from her pre-school since less than 2 months ago), and comfortable enough to communicate via them.

I have to add that I was proud of myself too – it’s at that moment that I realized all our efforts of raising a trilingual child IS paying off. It gave me confidence and courage to keep going. Like what I have always believed, and as part of my lessons from our round-the-world trip: Things always work out in the end, with due efforts.

Accent Mystery

200910-10Nina (3yr 1mth) now really separates Mandarin and French when speaking to me and to her dad, all the time. It has only started after our trip to China in January (prior to the trip she used dominantly French even she understood Mandarin perfectly). Her vocabulary and the ability to put sentences together (albeit not always correctly) in both have increased tremendously too since the new year. Sometimes when I introduce a new word or concept in Mandarin, she would ask me ‘爸爸怎么说?’  (how would papa say it?). So she’s really getting the idea that Papa and Mama have different ways of saying the same thing. All seem to fit nicely with the major linguistic milestones for multilingual kids.

Except when it comes to the Mandarin accent! I have no idea why, but when she speaks Mandarin she has this funny accent that normally only adult-Mandarin-learner would have! Some say it’s French accent. The tonality is almost terrible. For example when she asks a question, instead of just adding a ‘吗‘ at the end of the sentence to form a question, she would change the tone of the last one or two words – exactly how you would form a question in French!

I am quite puzzled. After all, she gets her Mandarin dose mainly from me, a native speaker, from day 1 … No multilingualism literacy I have read so far has mentioned anything like this. Kids are supposed to have native-like pronunciation when they grow up with the language, aren’t they?

With these questions in mind, I asked my fellow facebook group members about their experience and advices. I got some really interesting responses, roughly within the following three categories:

  1. It’s normal (!). As someone puts it ‘This is the case with almost all bilingual children I know. If they speak the mother tongue without accent although they are growing up in a foreign environment, it’s an exception rather than the rule. There are several parents of multilingual children report the similar experience with their children’s accent, to a varied degree. Although I do know bi/multi-lingual children (or grown-up now) speaking their multiple mother tongues with absolutely native-like accent, I am quite relieved that Nina is not the only one with accent.
  2. It’ll get better when they grow older.  ‘Some kids accents become less pronounced as they are growing older’. ‘The more exposed a child is to the language of the environment, the greater the chance they will speak the mother tongue with that accent.’ I am willing to believe that as kids’ language are still developing till a certain age (6, 7 as some claim, although some newer research now tends to claim even close to 10, or ), their pronunciation would continue to develop in a more native fashion, given they continue to receive enough native input.
  3. ‘Oh I have never heard about this’. Well, I haven’t either, before I observed it from Nina!

All these are quite surprisingly positive and reassuring at least. We are not alone! It seems that it’s just a phase, and perhaps a likelihood that Nina will eventually speak Mandarin with a slight accent. I am learning to accept that there are many possible outcomes, although I should still aim and work towards the best one.

The whole thing does get me think and develop another hypothesis: is there such a thing as ‘Intrinsic dominance’ for certain languages (in a language pair), so one is ‘naturally’ more dominant than the other in terms of tone/pronunciation, hence the other language is more likely to be influenced by it? In the case of Nina, would French would be more intrinsically dominant in terms of its pronunciation/tone/pitch/modulation than Mandarin?

See, a multilingual household is never short of questions.

窗花/ Window Flower

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What is culture? Today at my home, culture is the traditional paper cutting for the upcoming Chinese New Year that’s being put onto the window. In Chinese it’s called 窗花, which can be translated literally into ‘window flower’.

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Like almost all Chinese charms, it’s red. This 窗花 follows the traditional patterns: a Chinese charater 福 (fortune/happiness/luck) in the middle, surrounded by two fish ( 鱼/fish in Chinese shares the same pronounciation as 余 (abundance) hence a lucky symbol that’s popular in festivity) and some decorative patterns. Traditionally it’s made by cutting patterns on a piece of red paper. Nowaday the commercial ones are routinely just machine made (like the ones I bought during our recent China trip), although traditional hand-cut 窗花 is still possible to find if you look for it.

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Nina and I put it together on Sunday afternoon and she had some fun. It felt for me a bit like putting up Christmas tree for many I suppose – it announced the beginning of a festive season, and from this moment on we were all reminded that it’s almost time to celebrate with family. We are in Sydney so it’s far from a total Chinese New Year experience, but at least we have something authentically Chinse!

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Why I Love Travelling, And Why Kids Should Travel Too.

WP_20140626_039 (2)There are many reasons why I love travelling. One of the most important ones is that travelling allows me to feel connected with the world, in a very personal way.

I realized this last night after I became instantly intrigued by a video post on National Geographic called ‘The Human Cost Of Sugar Harvesting’ that I probably would have just ignored a year ago. Why? Because the report is about what happens in Nicaragua, and I was there for a few weeks last year! I vividly remember the sugar cane farms – among banana farms, papaya trees, mango trees, pineapple farms – in that beautiful country, amid one volcanic mountain after another volcanic mountain.

WP_20140620_101 (2)WP_20140626_044Without having been actually in Nicaragua, I would have never been able to appreciate this video/topic in a way that now feels so familiar. Of course I will never be able to know keenly the day-to-day reality, a very sad and seemingly unescapable one, that surrounds these people. But at least I know where it’s happening. Where on earth Nicaragua is. To what kind of people it’s happening. What kind of social, geographic, political environment that these people live in. The language they speak. The dress they put on. The food they eat. The weather in which they carry out their daily lives. How much they pay for their daily grocery. Whether or not there is a cinema or a supermarket nearby. All these trivial knowledge were gained through travelling, seeing, living in the country.

Thanks to the travelling, I could feel so connected to a part of the world that’s so far away from me. I feel engaged. I become more eager to learn more about the place. I appreciate what they are going through. I feel for them. And I think it is an important issue as well as intimate, because it’s impacting the people that I feel I know a bit of.

I can learn as much as I want from a map or a geography lesson, but I will never really learn until I travel. I’m lucky I have a husband who understands and supports. I wish we would pass this contagious passion to my daughter too, so she becomes a real world citizen who feels connected thus cares.

From Home to Home

WP_20150111_012 1 Nina and I spent the last evening of 2014 and the first 16 days of 2015 in China. It’s the first girls-only trip (as the dad had to stay behind to work. Merc !). I was very pleased with it, although I traded the sunny summer of Sydney into the bitter winter of Shanghai/Ningbo.

WP_20150110_011As it was a last-minute decision (literally I booked the tickets two days before the departure) and my main goal was for Nina and my family/extended family to spend some time together, I didn’t plan much. It turned out to be the best plan.

Nina’s Mandarin really took off during the trip. Prior to our trip, her Mandarin was not as strong as her French – she understood all that I said but would reply in French most of time. Why? Because she heard much more French than Mandarin (double at least) at that time. (side note: so quantity does matter.)During the first week in China, I noticed her Mandarin vocabulary started to increase. By Week two, she was speaking Mandarin 99% of time, although still with some interesting accent (like the accent of an adult foreigner speaking Mandarin 🙂 Could she have picked up from her dad?). Immersion is very powerful!


I was really relieved when Nina spent some time with her grandmother and grand-auntie and great grandmother, without drama. After her dramatic (or traumatic) experience with daycare after our RTW, she became so clingy to us, ALL THE TIME, and the whole family became so exhausted. It became so worrying for us that she would never be able to adapt to a new environment without us. I knew that we had to first make a new environment / new person feel safe to Nina before she would even attempt to interact with the rest of the world. But we couldn’t really try in Sydney as we don’t have any extended family around and we don’t want to traumatize our friends. So in Ningbo, after a few days living with my mum/sister’s family, I knew that she was becoming comfortable. Then one day I told Nina that I had to go out to buy something and she would stay with Waipo (grandmother), and I will return shortly. She nodded her head. I expected some change of mind when I reached out to the front door … She went to the door too … But just to open the door for me! I left. And went back after an hour or so, hearing that she was happy all the time.

WP_20150110_012We then went even further. I decided it was a great opportunity for me, and for Nina, to spend a night apart. I went to spend some much-needed ‘me’ time with a dear friend in a heavenly city of Hangzhou (1.5hours train away), and Nina stayed behind with my mum and auntie’s family. It turned out to be just uneventful, for Nina – the best I could ask! Although I attribute some of the credit to the mental preparation I did with Nina (I described to her multiple times exactly what would happen during that day and the night), I know in my heart that Nina is also learning how to respond to a world without her parents. It’s so reassuring.


Throughout the trip, I was also a bit surprised by some of the differences in adults’ approach to children (It never became so obvious to me). In Sydney, whenever an adult wants to offer some food (fruits, candy, etc), he/she will ask the parents first if it’s ok to do so. In China, however, people just offer it. They mean well of course – they are trying to be nice to kids. Sometimes I would say no (for various reason, for example I don’t want Nina to eat candy all day long), that person would actually insist and even try harder for Nina to accept. Most of time I just couldn’t bring myself to say no. To say no is really hard – it could be interpreted as disrespect, causing the other to lose face, or simply being rude. To say no all day is exhausting. Juice? Chocolate? Fruits? Candy? Biscuit? Nuts? Cake? Coconut juice? Popcorn? Beef jerky? So after a few days, I just decided to give up on Nina’s normal meal & tea time routine, and leave her appetite to be guided by her desire, for as long as we were there! She ate an incredible amount of things … fortunately she still loved her meal.

Nina was a constant source of interest for passers-by when we were out and about. There was no single day passing without me having to answer the question ‘oh is she a mix? where is her father from?’.

Despite the cold weather in general, we were lucky to have a few rather warm days and even blue sky (!), and we made the most of it: visited a few beautiful wood-structured old mansions, a 5-century-old private library (one of the oldest surviving libraries of this kind in the world), climbing a mountain, seeing one of the biggest (and perhaps most chaotic) fishing port in action. And of course, we had MANY banquets, and banquets, and banquets.

Most important of all, Nina and I got to spend a lot of time with my family including my grandmother of 92. It’s really a blessing.