Saturday, March 24, 2007

Bilinguality

At a playground in Adams-Morgan the other day, I overheard hipster parents comparing notes about which foreign language their little precious children were being immersed in. "She's in French school." "His nanny speaks English, but we only let her speak Spanish to him." "Their grandparents are Russian." So trendy, maybe kind of elitist and overprogramming, but possibly in keeping with the cosmopolitan nature of a world capital like DC.

But holy smokes! The woman who looks after Monkey two days a week while his parents are working -- OK, she's his nanny, although the word seems snobbily Victorian and weird to type -- is a pediatric nurse originally from China. She speaks Chinese, and not much English. When I get back from work, we manage to communicate about how the day went, how and when the Monkey ate and slept, and whether there was "poo-poo." She adores our little Monkey Man, and when he does something especially novel or cute, she gets excited and speaks in flurry of Chinese that I cannot understand.

This week she was excited to show me the words he knew how to say. He rattled off a dozen or so of them, in context, by naming indicated objects out the window or in pictures in books. When I tried to repeat some of them, I could already tell that he was grasping the tonal nature of Chinese pronunciation in a way that I was not. (My years of kung fu training are no help, maybe because I learned kung fu with Tennessee twang.)

I know that he understands many, many more Chinese words than he can say. I am amazed at how many that is. I ponder what it means to have a parallel language thought process available at such a young age. (Does he think they communicate in a secret nanny language? How much of his gibberish is really cogent Chinese?)

The Monkey Mama and I are considering enrolling him in a Chinese immersion program when he is old enough. It would be thing to do, after all.

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