This morning I was standing in the frozen-foods aisle of the Asia Market, puzzling over which brand of vegetable gyoza I bought last week because the packages all look the same to me and I can’t read Chinese, when the Monkey burst into song. I found this somewhat disconcerting, because she was singing in Chinese, and I don’t speak Chinese, and I had no idea what she was singing about.
For about a year now we have been encouraging the Monkey to learn Mandarin Chinese. Since she is not quite three years old I admit this only with some trepidation, lest her mother and I be branded as those people who prop their babies up to show them flash cards of the U.S. Presidents and drill them in phonics and play Mozart in the crib and enroll them in violin lessons when they can barely walk. In fact until recently all we have done is go out for Chinese food a lot and play a series of Chinese language “survival guide” podcasts in the car and talk about how interesting it is that other people have different words for stuff.
Because her parents think this is fun, the Monkey also thinks it is fun, and she frequently asks to “play the Chinese” when I would really rather listen to music. So recently we have stepped up our efforts a bit.
Last week we bought her a CD that teaches you Mandarin through conversation between an English guy and a Chinese woman set to slightly funky music. Language lessons like this are intended for travelers, of course, and so you learn a lot of stuff that would be tremendously useful if you were an adult traveling alone in China and somewhat less so if you are a not-quite-three-year-old. On Sunday morning I found the Monkey in her room, listening to this CD, dancing wildly to the music and repeating, in perfect tonal Mandarin, “Please bring me a beer.”
While I’m delighted that she’ll be ready to go clubbing in Beijing in 2024, her enthusiasm prompted us to buy some more age-appropriate forms of language instruction, including a pair of DVDs with a teacher and students and a dragon puppet who teach you Mandarin for basic things like colors and numbers and members of your family. They also sing songs that incorporate the new words and phrases, and it was one of these songs that the Monkey was singing in the Asia Market this morning.
The problem is, I can’t keep up. She’s two, and therefore absorbs language like a talking sponge. She grasps tonality and grammar without the sort of logical explanation I require, and she has no trouble remembering what various words mean, because she’s not trying to translate them back into English. I have absolutely no idea what the songs on this DVD are about, other than that one of them involves counting (I can remember some of the numbers) and that another is about clothes.
So I listened to her singing, proud yet casting furtive glances about the store to gauge the reaction of the other shoppers to this blue-eyed child singing in their language and faintly fearful that she might be mispronouncing the words to say, instead of “I like my new red dress,” something more like “I enjoy inserting vegetable gyoza in my butt,” which is something I would not entirely put it past her to sing in English. And I thought that if the manufacturers of frozen vegetable gyoza would just label their packaging in English, I could practice the sort of unthinking brand loyalty that ignorant Americans like myself have come to depend on.