September 10, 2001
Mandarin goes a long way
During a trip to China this summer with her family, Kris West of the
general counsels office learned the value of a multilingual education.
Neither West nor her husband speak Chinese, but that didnt worry
them as they ventured East. They had brought along their own, personal
translatorhe sat beside them on the plane and spent the 20-hour
journey to Shanghai occupied with coloring books and a favorite blue doll
The translator was Wests 5-year old son, Grant, who is fluent in
Chinese and an example of how multilingualism can open the doors of the
world, even for a child.
Grant was only 6 months old when West asked Li, a Chinese woman who spoke
very little English, to be his nanny. I figured we had a choice
at that point, West said. Li was either going to teach him
very bad English or very good Chinese.
They decided on the bilingual route and, soon after, Grant began to speak
his first words. Some emerged in EnglishMommy, Daddyand
some decidedly not.
He kept asking for something called a wav-wav,
West said. When I finally asked Li what he meant, she told me it
was the Chinese word for doll.
West explained that because of his young age, it was not an effort for
Grant to absorb the Mandarin language. When people ask how he learned
Chinese, West said, he tells them he doesnt know. Its
that natural to him.
During the Wests trip to China this summer, Grant helped order
food in restaurants and bargained for artwork at local markets. And he
was able to interact with the local population in ways most American tourists
Its not true that everyone in the world speaks English,
West said. In fact, outside Beijing, we could hardly find anyone
who could speak to us. But Grant could speak to them.
Even though Li is no longer Grants nanny, West intends to help
him retain and develop what he learned from her. Grant attends Chinese
school on the weekends at the Chinese Cultural Center in Chamblee, and
he maintains his friendship with Lis family and plans to travel
to China every other year with them.
With his head start on proficiency with a language spoken by nearly a
fifth of the worlds population, one can imagine the potential applications
of Grants language skills in his adult life. But even at the tender
age of 5, his linguistic dexterity already serves him well.
It was like traveling with a miniature rock star, West said
of being with her son in China. We just kept drawing crowds of people
who wanted to have their picture taken with the American boy who speaks
Chinese. He was a celebrity and got all sorts of special treatment.
And shes got the photographs to prove it. In one, Grant waves from
the wheelhouse of a boat on the Huangpu River. In another, Grant is carried
around Daguan Yuan Park in a royal red sedan chair. There are photos of
Grant wearing the hats of charmed policemen, enjoying free ice cream and
riding a local mans donkey at the Great Wall.
The only problem was that Grants older sisterwho does not
speak Chinesecomplained and wanted to know why he was getting to
do all the cool stuff.
But Grant had a ready answer, this time in English: Because I know how to ask.