Memory and Language Development

This series on Linguistic was inspired by one of our Chinese blog posts. You can find the original here.

The original blog post focused on the innate ability of young children to pick up languages and touches upon many ways us parents can help unlock and encourage their potential. Because the article was so densely packed with complex ideas, we felt that each point deserved its own post.

This week, we will discuss the topic of memory, and how increasing the breadth and depth of our children’s vocabulary enables them to write and express their ideas with ease and fluidity.

1. Why a Diverse Vocabulary?

Learning a language is similar to becoming an accomplished chef. If you watch competitive cooking shows on TV, you may be familiar with the format where the participants have a limited amount of time to create something incredible using mystery ingredients or compete with other chefs to see who can best cook a particular dish. Watch enough of these programs and you’ll find that the majority of the winners win because they have a large cooking vocabulary.

The champions know how to use and incorporate a wide variety of ingredients and spices into their recipes, are usually familiar with diverse cuisines, cooking methods, and can quickly recall and apply all this information in time-sensitive or high-pressure environments. The wide body of knowledge these chefs have about cooking methods and foods is so ingrained into their muscle memories that they do not have to worry about the basics, and are free to create new and innovative dishes.

What does this have to do with learning a language (Chinese or otherwise)?

Life is impromptu and challenging; the art of conversation does not follow a set script. It is imperative to expose your child to as many different types of vocabulary as possible, and to teach them how, why, and when to use them. For the purpose of this article, vocabulary refers to (but is not limited to): words, phrases, common sayings, proverbs, idioms, subject terms (eg: business, medical, science), or slang.

This vocabulary should be so deeply set in your children’s memory that they do not have to spend all their time trying to retrieve basic words and phrases. Not only will your children have better comprehension, they will also be able to freely express the full range of their thoughts and emotions with greater facility.

2. The Divide Between Different Types of Vocabulary is a False Construction

Because teaching children Chinese in an anglophone society can be challenging, many parents choose to mainly focus on basic vocabulary. They understandably want to first make sure that their children can communicate daily activities and desires, rather than expend the effort on more complex subjects such as science, business, or medicine.

What many of us fail to realize is that there is no real divide between “basic” and “complex/nonfiction” subject matter. It is all perception.

   

When we do not equip our children with these more advanced subjects, we hobble our children. We unnecessarily constrict their options and confine them to what we consider to be a child’s vocabulary. While narrowing the scope of our children’s vocabulary certainly makes life for us as teachers less overwhelming, it ultimately leaves huge gaps in our children’s ability to communicate.

These holes are never immediately apparent, they show up instead only at incredibly inconvenient times and frustrate our children (and ourselves). This makes it even more difficult to convince our children to use a language with which they are increasingly unable to express the fullness of their thoughts. Unless our children are extremely diligent and self-motivated, these gaps in their knowledge will rarely be filled and end up reinforcing the fallacy that Chinese is too hard for them to speak and use in a practical way.

Unconvinced?

Just think of how often in daily conversation we refer to something that requires more complex vocabulary. Children are endlessly curious and a seemingly “simple” conversation with “basic” terms will quickly escalate into one that requires highly specialized vocabulary. Perhaps we are talking about dinosaurs and your children ask why the dinosaurs are no longer around. Do you know the terms for meteor, asteroid, crater, atmosphere, mass extinction, fossils, dust clouds, or Cretaceous Era? These are the terms you need to talk about the mass dying of dinosaurs with any sort of intelligence.

    

Or perhaps your child wants to know how lights turn on or what happens when we die or where poop comes from. These are all subjects my children have asked me - sometimes all within the course of one day. Just think of how easily you can explain these matters in your most dominant language and whether you distinguish between basic and non-fiction terms in your daily life.

This is not to say your children need to know how to discuss the paradox of time travel as well as the perils of moving backwards in both space and time in relation to the position of the Earth.  But perhaps they could learn what physics, time travel, space, and paradox are called in Chinese.

3. The Importance of Chinese Proverbs, Tang Poems and Idioms

Just like with the need for more complex vocabulary, many parents also choose not to teach Chinese proverbs, Tang Poems, or idioms. Again, this is because the prospect of teaching thousands of obscure proverbs and idioms can be incredibly daunting. However, since most children of native speakers would learn these through the course of daily conversation, literature, and pop culture - in addition to formally learning them in school - it is crucial for our children to know at least the more popular sayings if they are to have any hope of having deeper Chinese comprehension.

While it is possible to understand or express yourself in Chinese without being fully cognizant of all the famous Chinese proverbs, poems, and idioms, a robust comprehension and usage of Chinese requires familiarity with at least some of them.

      

Chinese is such a dense language that proverbs and idioms are commonly used to condense complex and rich ideas. Without a working knowledge of these sayings that almost every Chinese person knows and uses commonly, your children will be relegated to staring blankly or blinking nervously as they try to decipher the meaning (which is usually indeterminate from the actual words).

4. All Vocabulary is Useful Vocabulary

As adults and primary gatekeeper of Chinese for our children, it’s tempting to create different categories for words and terms our children will be exposed to. Often, we shunt things into “educational” and “junk” categories, preferring to focus only on the educational portion.

However, just like with the the previous two points, the “junk” categories are often the stuff of small talk, filler conversation, and friendships. Without pop-culture references, it’s hard to get jokes, make connections, or have fun conversations.

How to Increase Your Child’s Vocabulary

With all this talk of expanding your child’s vocabulary, here are some quick tips on how to do so.

Speak to Your Child in Chinese

This is definitely easier to do if you’re fluent in Chinese and less so if you are not. If you are not fluent, provide access to native speakers via family, teachers, nannies, au pairs, audiobooks, videos, and shows. This requires conscious effort mostly because it’s so much easier to default to your stronger language or the language your children would prefer to speak.

Read Wide and Deep

Expanding upon points 1-4, read plenty of books, magazines, short stories in as many different genres as possible. Fiction seems to naturally be the easiest because children love to learn about different stories, but remember, there are so many other types of writing to read. For example: current events, recipes, science, religious, poems, song lyrics, plays, instructions, history, comics, pop-culture, and even tabloids.

Just as there are different foods for different purposes, there are different types of materials we can use to increase our kids’ vocabulary. The purpose of some foods – such as junk food – is simply to be fun. It isn’t nutritious but your body still uses it and extracts what it needs while excreting what it does not. The thing is, learning Chinese and reading it should be fun. So short of completely inappropriate materials, provide your child with as many varieties of writing as possible. All of it will be incorporated within your children’s memory to provide a robust and agile linguistic foundation.

Listen to as much Chinese as possible

Just like with the reading materials, listen or watch as many Chinese stories and videos as possible. Don’t stick to just stories or fiction. Watch children’s newscasts, explanatory videos, educational videos, game shows, and other types of entertainment so your children can be exposed to all sorts of words and terms.

Follow your children’s interests

Harness your child’s natural interests and dive as deeply and widely as your time and resources (and patience) can provide. Your child will inherently want to learn more about subjects they love so use that to your best advantage.


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