One of my aunts sent me a Chinese New Year’s email in…….Chinese. I was able to read most of the words without a dictionary: I studied Mandarin when I was in college and Cantonese (which is the only language that my grandmother, Ngin-Ngin, speaks) for just a few months when I was 7 years old. (My sister and I did not want to go, and my parents acceded to us.)
“It would be great if Charlie could study Chinese,” I thought more than a few times when Charlie was a baby. I looked at the Chinese books on my shelves and looked forward to one day resuming my own study of Mandarin, together with Charlie.
Then came the past few years and speech therapy, verbal behavior, verbal imitation programs, oral-motor exercises with whistles and straws, sign langauge, PECS, the Language Master: Anything, everything, to teach Charlie to talk.
(The Chinese books have stayed on the shelf, and gotten rather dusty.)
Charlie was eating lunch while I printed out my aunt’s email and started to read it out loud.
“Xin de yi nian……” I read.
“Xin,” said Charlie.
“Woo de,” I read.
“Woo de,” said Charlie.
Charlie’s pronunciation perfectly echoed mine: When he says a new English word, he usually has to practice saying it for some time. Chinese is a tonal language in which you modulate the rising or falling of your voice and this, along with the particular sounds of vowels of consonants, determines the meaning of a word. Charlie instantly picked up on the “level” tone I used for “xin” (“new”) and the dip in my voice when I said “woo” (“I”).
“New year……my friend,” I translated. And started to count up to ten in Mandarin; each time, Charlie repeated each number with ease.
And so on up to 10 (shi).
I know that Charlie has first to work on his communication skills, on his English pronunciation and yet—-I was simply very struck at the ease with which he can say words in Chinese. Might a few lessons in a foreign language help his speech in general? Might I simply be confusing him? I have often figured out what Charlie is saying not so much from the vowels and consonants, as from the melody with which he pronounces a certain word, and he seems alike attuned to the tone and pitch of Jim’s and my voices.
Almost too fittingly, it is Chinese New Year today, February 18th, the Year of the Pig: Gong Hay Fat Choy (“Best wishes and Congratulations. Have a prosperous and good year.”)
Gong Hay Fat Choy, woode peng you!: Charlie said those words, just like that, too.
Thanks to SaltSpring.com for the calligraphy.