Learning the Language with Small Children Underfoot
My husband and I arrived in China in the summer of 1996. We had no children. We both arranged language tutors through the university and began studying. I knew it was a difficult task, but I had energy and felt motivated. I was going to learn this language! I met with my tutor two hours a day and spent the rest of the day in preparation and review. A few months later, we found out I was expecting a baby. We left the country for our group conference, and our son was born. My husband returned to China to begin language classes, and I arrived a week later carrying a five-week-old baby. Now I had to figure out a whole new way of life, both for the daily routine of our household with a newborn, and for the task of language learning.
We now have three young children. The oldest (seven) is learning to read in English and Mandarin. My five-year-old daughter is a dancer. Our youngest son (three) still sits on my lap. They need me to meet all their basic needs, as well as listen to them, read to them, and build castles on the floor with Legos.
We live in a place where people speak Mandarin. Unless I learn to comprehend what is being said, I am isolated from those around me. The better my language becomes, the deeper my relationships can be. As my understanding of the language has grown, I have had the chance to enjoy some wonderful ladies I would not have known otherwise. I also need language to understand the culture and deal effectively with it.
Very small children need a lot of help. When my kids were four, two, and less than one, I had to dress four people (myself and three kids). In the winter I was putting on 24 top layers, 24 bottom layers, and about 24 pairs of socks! There were times I felt I was making no progress in anything—all my days were taken with dressing and undressing, feeding and cleaning up.
I knew my job then was to care for my children, but I also knew that it was my job to learn the language. How could I do both?
Making it happen
I found that there are ways I can weave language learning into my days without giving up the responsibilities and joys of motherhood. One is to learn with the kids. The other is to learn while I do the housework.
Learning WITH my children
Children gave me a welcome entrance into the community. When I walked out the door carrying my tiny baby, people would naturally speak to me. I was able to practice listening.
When I had toddlers, we used their toys as props. One day we built the Garden of Eden out of play dough. In the process I learned words for different plants and animals. I have borrowed their Legos and toys to use in a language session with a tutor. We have had fun times of painting. I practice writing the words for sunset, or daddy, next to the pictures we make.
We have prayed that God would give our children Chinese friends. Our whole family gets to enjoy the family of our children’s friend.
Now that my kids are a little older, I often take them to the open common area where children congregate after school. I have learned some games local kids play, like ‘Lotus Blossom,’ and I have taught them games I know. All the children (mine included) love it when I join in.
We have talked to our children about why we are learning the language. It is a joint task the family is doing, something uniquely ours. I can remember the first time my daughter corrected my pronunciation, delighting in knowing something I did not. We make it a game to share new words we have learned.
Our children know more than one world, which is a great blessing. We find ways to link the two. My daughter, in a kindergarten class on furlough, took great pride in writing out the numbers in Chinese. She took those papers to school, and her teacher showed them to her class when they studied Arabic numbers.
Learning WHILE I do my housework
As soon as we had children, we hired a house helper, which is the local custom. When the baby was asleep or nursing, I would look up the words for an instruction I wanted to give, like “wash dishes.” In addition to the benefit of having a speaker right in my own home, the practical help with housework freed some space in my head for language learning.
I can listen to a tape while I wash dishes, pick up the house, or sweep. I keep short vocabulary lists on the wall at key spots, like over the kitchen sink.
It was not too difficult to put myself in a position to hear and see the language. I had to do more, though, or it would not stick. I found I had to jot things down. When I can, I write down new words I hear, or a reminder to look up something I want to say. My system is not neat, nor is it organized. However, the very act of writing something down helps me to remember it. For a long time, I kept a notebook in our dish cabinet. At lunch I would set it on the table next to my plate so that I could write down a new phrase.
I had exposure to the language, but I did not have time to organize my little jots. Language learning takes both exposure and analysis, so I got help in order to set aside a little time specifically for language study. While the two older kids were in preschool, we decided I should leave my little one with our house helper—it felt doable to set apart just one hour a week. One of the most helpful things I have done with concentrated time alone is recopying scribbles into a semi-organized notebook. This copying clarified and reinforced the words, and I could also use that notebook for reference.
Sometimes I have used my study time with a tutor. I made more progress when there was a place for me to go outside the home where I was removed from the calls of kids and house. I have had all kinds of tutors. One young lady was stumped by any language question I had, but she could read well, so I had her dictate to me while I practiced writing.
Language learning is never ending. Sometimes I have not wanted to expend the effort, to learn one word which I will forget by tomorrow. However, I know that this is not fruitless. In His pleasure, God has taken my frail efforts, my few faltering words, and multiplied them like Jesus did the loaves and fishes.
God does not require of me something that I cannot do in His strength. So I wake in the morning rejoicing. I take pleasure in my children and in the mystery of the languages around me. At the end of the day, I thank God and rest, rejoicing in the sleep He gives.