PFL: Parenting in a Foreign Language

When I was a young man, wondering what it would be like to be a parent, I never ever thought I’d look my child in the eye and say, “快点吃!”

Of course, until a few years ago, I would not have even recognized what language that is. Now I find myself saying “Eat faster!” in Chinese almost every day, along with many other phrases I’ve learned along the way.

Once you’ve learned how to say, “你问了吗?” (“Did you ask?”) and said it around, say, 327 times, it’s definitely not hard. But there are some difficulties that just don’t go away. So here are my top 10 challenges of parenting in a foreign language.

  • Stuttering. Trying to speak in a foreign language can be tough, especially when simultaneously struggling with a strong-willed toddler, and urgent correction is required. I often have to start speaking before I’ve even figured out what words and sentence structure I need. Result? Stuttering. “Ezra, 你你你不要碰!” (“Ezra, you you you don’t touch!”)
  • Listening. Toddlers mumble. Toddlers cobble together incoherent sentences. Toddlers suddenly change topics with no warning, or even the slightest tip on what the new topic is. This all makes listening difficult. But when the toddler also has the option of changing languages several times in one sentence, it multiplies all those challenges. Which is part of the next challenge.
  • Language-Switching. “我们可以去playground玩, 然后有picnic吗?” Sentences like this are quite common in our house. Which isn’t a problem as long as everyone can follow what’s happening. But when the toddler switches languages with people who only know one of the languages, it can produce some comprehension problems. Fortunately, Ezra seems quite good at remembering who knows which language, and tailoring his speech accordingly.
  • Translating for Visitors. We have people over often, and depending on what languages they’re fluent in, they may or may not understand our interactions with the kids. There are often awkard moments after we’ve spoken to the kids about something, and we have to decide if it’s worth translating for the grandparents.
  • Secret Language Fail. Having bilingual kids is great: It means you have your own secret family code. But a great big “oops” is that our “secret code” is, by far, the most commonly spoken language on planet earth. When I’m not careful, our code may not be so secret after all. This is even more true when talking to their mom. At least once I’ve been on a date with that cute girl and said something a bit risqué in our secret code, then realized, “Oh wait… We’re in a Chinese restaurant.”
  • Daddy Can’t Read the Story. Nothing says, “I’m stupid” to your kids more than stumbling through a fairy tale because you don’t recognize half the words. If kids books are supposed to be simple, why pack them with non-phonetically written onomatopoeia? Seriously, what student of Chinese spends hours memorizing words like “齁”? Why would I integrate “嘶” into my complex graduated-interval recall Chinese character study system? Besides, who cares what sounds Chinese animals make, when I often can barely follow the sounds Chinese people make? Anyway, moving along…
  • Memorization Troubles. As Ezra grows, he’s learning verses in two langauges. He can of course run circles around his poor dad in both languages, but Chinese is particularly troublesome. While both parents seem to be equipped to help him review English, Chinese is pretty strictly Mom’s domain.
  • Which Bible to Read. As it becomes time to read the Bible aloud, there’s a bit of tension in my soul over whether to read English or Chinese. The problem, of course, is that the Chinese Bible has zero phonetic information. You either know the character, or you don’t. That means public reading requires pre-reading prep time with a dictionary and flashcards. And yes, I know there are Pinyin Bibles out there. No, I won’t use them. I may be able to read them out loud, but, oddly enough, I find them even harder to understand than the characters. So I read out loud from the English, and Angel reads out loud from the Chinese.
  • Parenting Materials. Since we’re doing most of our learning on parenting in America, this is a bigger problem for Mom than for Dad. I can breeze through a copy of Don’t Make Me Count to Three, but it’s a much bigger challenge for her. Staying on “the same page” philosophically just becomes that much more diffiuclt. But, I’d suspect we’re in much better shape than most couples. Being philosophically disorganized is far better than being philosophically opposed.
  • Corrupting Influence. When Ezra is around Cantonese speakers, his Cantonese accent is flawless. When he’s around English speakers, his English accent is flawless. When he’s around Mandarin speakers, he’s got some problems. I remember one day overhearing a Chinese friend say to Angel, “Why does Ezra’s third tone sometimes sound like second tone?” Oops. My teachers in school said my third tones sometimes sound like second tones. Culprit found.

Featured Image: Elijah Wilcott, 2016

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