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  • Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.

ABC's and PhD's: Language bonds
October 19, 2011 - 4:29am

Last August, while selling cookies and lemonade at a stand she set up with a friend, my 12-year-old daughter met a visiting Chinese scholar who overlapped with us at the marine biology station we call our summer home. The scholar was a little bit lonely. She had received a grant to do research in the US for five months, and had left her husband and teenage son in China while she traveled. Starved for conversation, she was also eager to learn English better. For several days, I heard stories from my daughter about a lady who frequented my daughter’s lemonade stand, talking a lot but never actually buying any lemonade or cookies!

Their relationship grew as my daughter agreed to tutor this scholar, Lin Wah, in English. I had never thought about this before, but this is a perfect pairing for learning language – an older learner paired with a young (non-judgmental) native speaker with no preconceived expectations. My daughter was absolutely thrilled that she could provide such a service to an adult. When she first asked for my permission, dollar signs flashed before my daughter’s eyes at the thought of a potential fortune she could rake in, but as it turned out, they settled on something better – a language exchange.

For about three weeks they met every day, for an hour or more. My daughter took her part seriously; she stayed on top of the schedule they set up, emailed when she needed to change the time, wrote out useful English words ahead of time and perused the library for good picture books to stimulate conversations. She often focused on animals and biology, an interest she knew they share (I enjoyed my daughter’s frequently expressed intrigue, for e.g.: Mom! did you know that in Chinese octopus don’t have arms, they have claws?) In return, Lin Wah taught my daughter some Chinese cooking, they practiced with chopsticks, and my daughter filled a little notebook with Chinese characters. Then summer ended. Just before we parted ways, Lin Wah treated our whole family to a six-course, home made Chinese feast. This was a treat in more ways than one – watching my daughter interact easily and casually with someone who was essentially a stranger to me demonstrated the bond they made, learning together and motivating each other in just this short time. I hope they stay email-pals; Lin Wah has enriched our lives.

Although she had never before showed an interest in learning a language, my daughter asked to continue Chinese once we got back home. We found a Confucius center at the University and signed up – my daughter’s new Sunday school. One difference: now there is rigid homework, about 15 minutes each day. The first few days I despaired. This looked like it would be a slog, another task for me to nag about. One evening, to make it more fun, I offered to sit alongside and watch. I was soon drawn into writing characters in little boxes, too – and thus began a quality, happy, daily together time. I delight that my daughter, now an expert, becomes alive in tutoring me – she is far better than I at remembering the words, the pronunciations, the order in which to write the complex characters. Patiently she laughs as she prompts me how to say the number 6 for the 600th time. Our new joke is that every morning I whisper, “How do you say good morning again?” and once she reminds me, I shout it (zao shang hao!) out loud, as if I remembered it myself. It’s great for both of us.

This language venture has given me new perspective. Thinking back, I remember that as a teenager, I registered to take a sign language class at the local community college and my dad, for some reason (he was never big on language learning), asked if he could join me. Coincidentally, among the mostly college students, there was another father-daughter couple in the class(!) We befriended them, and even went out for dinner as a foursome several times (although sadly I’ve lost track of them since). Now that the shoe is on the other foot and I find myself reduced to my dad’s level in the language-learning food chain, it strikes me that I can recall the two dads happily commiserating about this very same difficulty of learning a new language in one’s 40’s, as they marveled at how relatively effortlessly their daughters picked it up. I remember my pride in helping my dad review the signs we learned as we drove to class together.

It will take me weeks of chanting before I remember the numbers 1-10 in Chinese, and I will never make the sounds correctly. That’s ok. My dad and I still fingerspell “hello” to each other (especially over skype!) and I deeply appreciate that even after all these years, he still occasionally asks me how to sign something and allows me to bend his awkward fingering into a more correct form. This bond we will forever share, as, I hope, I will share a Chinese bond with my daughter.


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