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Five Little Words

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-law 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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