Mark Dancing, Ottawa, March 2013
Mark Dancing, Ottawa, March 2013

Before running away to Costa Rica, I had to complete yet another parental duty: Mark’s 15-month immunization visit.

I dragged my feet and a cranky Mark to the appointment.

I follow the immunization schedule (the anti-vaccination movement sounds like a bunch a nutcases to me) but going to the doctor is always a chore. It’s hard to find parking, for a start. Mark doesn’t like getting dressed and undressed and he fusses a lot. Plus, I hate being in a room full of sick people.

Above all, I’m not a huge fan of my doctor. She tends to be very patronizing.

We sat down and she went through the usual questions: can he walk (yes); do we make sure that the house is safe (I make sure MY stuff is safe!); are we entirely devoted to our wonderful little human being (of course, minus the fact I am about to run away in Central America); do we feed him regularly (we tried to starve him just for fun but he was crying too loud), etc.

We were actually scoring pretty high on the “reliable and responsible parenting scale” until her last question.

“Can he say five words?”

I paused and looked at Feng.

“Well, he talks to himself a lot. We just don’t have the decoder.”

“What do you mean?”

“He says ‘mama’ and ‘dada’, for instance. But he also says ‘ah da’ and I’m not sure what that means.”

“So how many words do you recognize?”

“Like… words that mean something?”

The doctor rolled her eyes.

“Dog. Can he say ‘dog’?”

I turned to Mark. “Mark, can you say ‘dog’?”

“Ah da.”

“He didn’t say ‘dog’,” the doctor pointed out.

No shit.

“Then I guess he can’t say ‘dog’,” I shrugged. “But again, why would he say ‘dog’? We don’t have pets and he rarely sees dogs.”

“So he can’t say five words.”

“I think he is a bit lost in translation,” I explained. “Feng and I speak English at home. I also talk to him in French. Feng’s parents only speak Chinese, and we are just coming back from Mexico where, well, I spoke Spanish and he played with Mexican kids.”

“Bilingual children can start talking a bit later,” she acknowledged. “Yet you may want to look into a community speech and language development program.”

“And Mexico?” she added, suddenly slightly alarmed. “You took him to Mexico? Why?”

I pretended I didn’t hear her.

Like hell I am going to take Mark to a language development program! Don’t get me wrong, I have glad such programs exist and I will definitely consider it in a few months if Mark doesn’t speak more by then. But I am annoyed by the way people here always try to “fix” things that don’t need to be fixed. For example, the very same doctor wanted me to attend breastfeeding classes when Mark was a newborn because he wasn’t gaining weight fast enough. Do you know what I needed at the time? Help and some sleep! Right now, I need a daycare and some help keeping Mark busy and entertained, I need a place where he can meet other kids. He is bored at home with us. He needs to interact with other people and play.

I am the first one to admit that I have no clue how to raise a multilingual child. I do have a few books on the topic on my Kindle but I have never gotten around to reading them because 1) thrillers and mystery novels are more entertaining 2) I figured it will work itself out.

I did hear that consistency was important and that the “one parent, one language” rule was recommended. Unfortunately, I am terrible at that. I switch between languages, French, English and Mandarin. Feng occasionally uses basic French with Mark and we both speak Mandarin as well.

Seriously, you should come and see us at home—it feels like a United Nations meeting sometime.

Mark does understand English and French very well. If we tell him to do something in either language, he does it (or not, depending on his mood—but trust me, he gets it). He understands his grandparents but not necessarily when other people speak Chinese. I think my in-laws use “baby speech” a lot and they both have regional accents in Chinese, so he is used to their Chinese, not proper Mandarin. On a side note, if I speak Chinese to Mark, he laughs at me. And after a couple of weeks in Mexico, he started to understand some Spanish too, simple commands like “viene aquí”, “qué quieres?”, “mire”, etc.

This is why I am not too worried about Mark’s language skills. He makes himself understood in many creative ways and as long as we can communicate, it’s good enough for me.

You know what? I really don’t need something else to stress about. Mark will speak whenever he feels like it.


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  1. Isa March 5, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Just let him be! He’ll speak when he wants. And he’ll speak 5 languages if he wants to. 🙂 I hate that kind of doctors. They never see me at a second apointment!

    1. Zhu March 5, 2014 at 7:13 pm

      My philosophy as well 😉

  2. Klaus March 5, 2014 at 9:38 am

    That’s what happens when misinterpreted scientific publications replace common sense. Of course it’ll take him longer to start talking in either language, but he’ll learn and soon he’ll be a walking dictionary.
    Your doctor better be happy that you are so nice, I would’ve had just two words for her.

    1. Zhu March 5, 2014 at 7:13 pm

      Problem is, it’s hard to find a doctor in Canada… we have her, we keep her 🙁

  3. Caro March 5, 2014 at 10:03 pm

    Had the same discussion with our pedi last week.
    5 words? Paul says ch…. For dog cat and anything walking. That’s it. Pedi said not to worried. Daycare providers said not to worry. All kids will go to college walking talking and potty trained 🙂

    1. Zhu March 6, 2014 at 11:22 pm

      That’s the spirit! I mean, they will all reach milestones sooner or later. 🙂

  4. Silvia March 6, 2014 at 3:31 am

    My monolingual daughter spoke with a meaning well after 2 years old, when her brother at same age already could have a conversation like a grown up child. And we did not bother at all. She is perfectly fine now, she reads slowly but with intonation, but we are not replicated clones, are we?

    Mark is very lucky you are confident with multilingualism, he’s inheriting a little treasure 🙂
    Teach him some words of Italian, while you’re at it 😉

    1. Zhu March 6, 2014 at 11:25 pm

      It’s amazing how different kids are, aren’t they! Even siblings.

      I wish I could speak Italian… but instead, I speak Spalian, a nice mix of “Grazie”/”Gracias” 😆 Funny, I traveled with a former US Marine in Nicaragua for a few days. He was stationed in Italy in the 1980s (he actually got shot by the Brigate Rosse!) and married an Italian. In Nicaragua, he was convinced he was speaking Spanish… nope, buddy, Italian it was!

  5. I Say Oui March 6, 2014 at 4:04 am

    That’s so cool that Mark already understands several languages. Eventually he’ll be ahead of the game. Lucky duck.

    1. Zhu March 6, 2014 at 11:26 pm

      I bet he won’t feel so lucky when he will have to learn French conjugations and Chinese characters! 😆

  6. Cerise March 7, 2014 at 9:17 am

    I grew up in a bilingual home and it took me a while to get the speaking thing. A surprising number of people told my mom I would be permanently messed up and never do well in school.
    Suffice it to say, that never happened, and I’m so glad my parents raised me bilingual and dragged me along on their various travels. Mark will thank you in the long run! I hate it when doctors are like that…

    1. Zhu March 7, 2014 at 9:30 pm

      Do you remember when you realized you were speaking two different languages? I’d be curious to hear about your experience as a bilingual kid!

      1. noemagosa April 8, 2014 at 5:20 pm

        I was speaking French, Spanish and English as a kid (around 5 years old, when we were living in HK) and never realized it until many years later when people thought that was cool… 😀

        1. Zhu April 8, 2014 at 11:00 pm

          😆 I hear you! For me, speaking several languages on a daily basis is normal. But I find scientific work fascinating!

  7. Holly Nelson March 8, 2014 at 11:10 am

    Please don’t worry!!! Gah – I hater his whole thing about children having to do something by a certain age crap! I, for example, couldn’t read til I was 8, couldn’t ride a bike til I was 12, couldn’t swim til I was 12. I am perfectly fine at all three things now! It infuriates me, targets and such like. Mark is just fine!! It is a cognitive thing and he will be far better for the multilingual approach you have taken. Trust me, I am a teacher!

    1. Zhu March 8, 2014 at 1:43 pm

      Indeed, you turned out just fine 😆 Milestones are a bit overrated, parenting shouldn’t be a competition, right?

  8. Christiane March 9, 2014 at 2:26 pm

    Ugh i hate patronizing doctors ! I think sometimes they need to get sensitivity training to deal with patients better. My half sister raised my nephews and nieces in a bilingual home, speaking French and English at the same time, and the kids were able to understand French but they could only respond in English. I think it is because their school only spoke in English. My nieces and nephews turn out just fine 🙂

    1. Zhu March 9, 2014 at 3:53 pm

      Thank you for the bilingual kids feedback 🙂

  9. Dennation March 10, 2014 at 9:25 pm

    I’ve been waiting impatiently for the language posts to start. I’m really looking forward to reading posts about Mark’s language progression.

    Um, Mark is not even a year and half old. I don’t know what that doctor is talking about. Of course he doesn’t talk yet! Like you know, I’m not a parent, but I think most kids just ‘babble’ up until the two year mark when they start to put together short, simple sentences. I wouldn’t worry about Mark’s language skills.

    I know it’s not reliable to compare children, but last week I was in Germany and spent quite a bit of time with a German child who is one and a half months older than Mark. This child spent most of last year living in the United States and went to daycare in English. Now she spends the day at an English-speaking daycare in Germany. All she could say was Mom and Dad (in German), the English word shoes and a couple of ‘babble’ words that only meant something to her. And I didn’t think she was behind at all. I actually thought she was right on track, experimenting with sounds just like Mark is doing when he says da.

    This is what I think (of course I’m not telling you what to do, I’m just saying this because I’m someone who didn’t want to speak my parents’ language when I was little and then had to struggle to learn it later). I think that Mark’s first language is going to be English since Feng doesn’t speak French. Since both of you work at home and it seems that you share childcare duties, Mark will hear a lot of English (as opposed to the stay-at-home native French speaking mom with the native English speaking dad working all day). I’m not saying that you won’t be able to teach Mark your language, I’m saying that because he’s exposed to English more than French (or he will be) that he may be embarrassed to speak French with you. Well, that’s the way it was with me. I would understand when they spoke Italian (my grandparents spoke Italian around me as well), but I would never want to respond in Italian. The thing is, children want to sound like the other children around them. Unless there is a large group of kids who also speak the parents’ language at school, they will naturally prefer the language that is spoken by the majority. Kids don’t want to stick out and be made fun of for not speaking the local language properly. So what am I saying? Nothing, I’m not going to suggest anything because it’s up to you – this is just food for thought for you.

    1. Zhu March 11, 2014 at 10:39 pm

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts! I enjoy your input as a linguist and as a Canadian who grew up in gold old kind-of-bilingual Ottawa 😉

      I do think Mark’s first language will be English and I ave zero issue with that. We live in Ontario an yes, he will be growing up in an English-speaking environment. He seems to understands French just fine (I can tell he understands, at least he understands me) and hopefully he will be able to speak French well too, although I can see many fights about learning “les conjugaisons” down the road 😉 As for Mandarin, well, that’s a hole different story. Writing and reading it will take formal classes. Even Feng can’t read and write well anymore.

      The bottom line is, I hope he will be able to learn languages easily but no pressure–one language at the time!

  10. Cynthia March 11, 2014 at 10:13 am

    Most childs from multillingual homes I have known, started speaking later than other kids but it’s usually the same thing for the first kid.

    He’ll probably start speaking English when he starts daycare anyways. Maybe if there’s a problem then you can do something but for now I agree with you, just let him be!

    1. Zhu March 11, 2014 at 10:41 pm

      My philosophy as well… let it be!

  11. noemagosa April 8, 2014 at 5:15 pm

    You might remember that I was in the same boat with the twins when we were still in Canada. They were a bit over 18 months and I had a newborn in my arm and the doctor wanted me to go to “speech therapy” with them. WTF. How was I supposed to fit that into my schedule ? We hear a lot about how mom should have time for herself and not overwork herself, yet she is also to be superwoman and fit all kinds of stupid classes like baby yoga and speech therapy and baby music and who-knows-what-else. I greatly disliked that pediatrician and her “how many words ?” question. Don’t worry about it, your Mark will probably do a lot of progress once he starts interacting with other children his age.

    1. Zhu April 8, 2014 at 10:59 pm

      Yes, I remember and I actually read this article again last month! I was glad you talked about it (no pun intended), it made me feel better 🙂

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