Jaymee translated “Froggy Kick” (breast stroke) into 青蛙踢。While I found it cute, I couldn’t help wondering if this “literal translation” is a good or bad thing as her language develops. I was also curious why she did that, so I decided to find out.
Here’s the first thing I learnt after speaking to two pre-school Chinese language experts:
Language, to children, is not something abstract or academic. Children use language to express their wants and needs.
In other words, very young children use language to a very practical end.
This, for me, has two implications:
- I should not over emphasize on making sure she gets the exact term (in this swimming example, that would be breast stroke or 蛙式).More about this later.
- Weaving in Mandarin into my child’s day-to-day routines such as eating, sleeping, playing – is critical. Only when she uses the language to fulfill her needs then will she find motivation to use it at all.
Let me elaborate on the first point. One expert (who has asked to remain anonymous) says that Jaymee’s attempt in translating “froggy kick” into “青蛙踢” shows creativity. Essentially, she made up the term according to her understanding of (a) the English words and (b) her actual experience of moving like a frog through water.
“At this preschool stage, the meaning of language is larger than the format,” she adds.
In fact, a landmark study on bilingualism in 1972 (Ianco Worrall) showed that bilingual children had higher “semantic awareness”. That is, they were more aware of the actual meanings of words, rather than their sounds, compared to monolingual children in the study. This is considered more advanced developmentally.
Yay or nay?
In my video, I praised Jaymee for attempting to translate Froggy Kick. One expert’s opinion is that I did the right thing (phew).
“You can also extend the learning by reading a book about breast stroke, for example,” she says.
Miss Joyce Lim, Director at Bibinogs, specialist bilingual and Chinese language preschool, suggests that parents can also gently offer the correct term or word without putting down the child.
“For example, in this case, you can say, oh, you mean 蛙式，don’t you?” says Miss Lim. “But don’t fuss too much over it.”
The other expert also warns against overacting.
“You may cause anxiety related to the language, and the child may be put off learning,” she says.
A Question of Exposure
Miss Lim of Bibinogs says it is possible Jaymee’s swim coach uses the term “froggy kick”.
“So she translates that literally because her exposure to that method of swimming is exactly that. However, if she has a Chinese speaking swim coach, for example, then her exposure may well be 蛙式，” says Miss Lim.
So what your child is listening to does matter to some extent. But if you think your Chinese is not up to par, don’t stress over it. Yours is not the only brand of Chinese that he is exposed to. In school, in the media or in playgroups, he will be exposed to other accents, for example.
Secondly, there is always room for improvement on our part. I am constantly checking and verifying that I am using the right words with my kids. And these days, with so many apps available on mobile phones, there is really no excuse not to check!
It is a bit more work, no doubt, but well worth the effort.
I also believe that when my kids see me checking and learning, they will follow suit. 爸爸妈妈一起加油！