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Una familia treslingüe: Español, Engles y 中文

February 27, 2013
The author's daughter as she prepares to march in the Starr King Elementary School Chinese New Year Parade contingent on Feb. 23, 3013.

The author’s daughter as she prepares to march in the Starr King Elementary School Chinese New Year Parade contingent on Feb. 23, 3013. Photo by Kristin Belshaw.

By Carmen Cordovez

SAN FRANCISCO — As my daughter and I wait for our school’s drum and dance troupe to begin marching at the Lunar New Year parade, I’m amazed I’m here at all. While growing up in Quito I would have never dreamed of marching in this parade. Today I am a native Spanish speaker from Ecuador, married to an American from New England, and we live in San Francisco with our two children, ages 10 and 6. Who go to a Mandarin immersion school.

It was important to me for my kids to speak Spanish and to be acquainted with my culture.  Therefore I only spoke Spanish with them beginning when they were babies. Each year I take them to Ecuador for two months in the summer. Their experience visiting and interacting with the Latin side of their family wouldn’t have been the same if they didn’t speak Spanish.

With so many Spanish immersion public schools in San Francisco, some of my friends wondered by we didn’t chose one of them. But because our children were already fluent in Spanish when it was time for them to start elementary school, and because my husband had studied Asian history and was interested in exposing them to a third language and culture, we decided to send them to a Mandarin immersion program instead.

Initially, I had reservations about sending my kids to a Chinese language program (either Mandarin or Cantonese). I was afraid I would not be able to help them with their homework or participate in school activities. I was also afraid that Asian instructors’ ways of teaching would be too strict and less creative.

Despite to my initial skepticism, I’ve been able to participate fully in my children’s school activities, in both English and Mandarin. I’ve gone on field trips to Chinatown, cooked Chinese noodles for festivals, helped organize the Lunar New Year Parade and more. In terms of Mandarin homework, though I have used a tutor at times I have discovered helping my children is more an issue of offering them the tools and space to work rather than instructing.  Assisting children in learning to write Chinese characters is more about patterns and stroke order (clearly conveyed in the homework) or using a dictionary, than in understanding the meaning of the words.

At least for the first five years, being in Mandarin immersion has been an experience that has expanded my son and daughter’s world and creativity. During the initial years when the Chinese was simpler and they only wrote single characters in school, they would write the word from a depiction of its meaning, much like drawing the object. My daughter loved learning to write the characters with brush and black ink in a blank piece of paper.

Later they learned different words to call each object. For them, everything in the world has three names, one in English, one in Spanish and now one in Chinese. They have expanded their understanding to the concept that things can be seen from different perspectives. Now my son and daughter love to find words in Chinese that come from the meaning of other words: For example, the see words they know in other contexts in their Chinese names—her meaning happy and big, his big and serene.

Since I have exposed them as much as possible to my Latin culture and my husband as much as possible to his American one, it has been amazing to have been able to expose them to a third culture.  Their babysitter (who is from Central America) had not been exposed so much to Chinese culture and it has been really interesting to observe how my daughter’s  been able to correct our sitter’s  prejudices which stem from that lack of exposure.

I do have to admit though that as my daughter gets older (she is in fourth grade now) the constant memorization of hundreds of written Chinese characters becomes tedious.  But something must be working well  because she continues to be as happy and creative today as she was in the play-based preschool she loved years ago.

I was also concerned I would not be able to connect personally with the Asian-American parents at our school as well as I thought I might have in a Spanish immersion school. I have to say I have been pleasantly surprised.  As a lot of the Asian American parents come from bicultural, and in many cases bilingual, families they are open to the idiosyncrasies that I bring as a foreigner and so have been open to who I am more than non-bicultural families might have been.

In regards to maintaining my own culture and language with the kids, I just have to make the extra effort to keep exposing them to it, speaking to them only in Spanish and travelling to Spanish-speaking countries as often as possible.

But for now, while we are in San Francisco, we shall enjoy our march in the Lunar New Year Parade.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. nippon98 permalink
    February 27, 2013 9:32 pm

    You are an inspirational parent!
    Thank you always for your insightful posts.

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  1. Ecuador part-time. Ecuador a medio tiempo. | Playing Hopscotch with Kids

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