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September 10, 2001

A little Mandarin goes a long way

Lailee Mendelson is communications coordinator for the Office of International Affairs.


During a trip to China this summer with her family, Kris West of the general counsel’s office learned the value of a multilingual education.

Neither West nor her husband speak Chinese, but that didn’t worry them as they ventured East. They had brought along their own, personal translator—he sat beside them on the plane and spent the 20-hour journey to Shanghai occupied with coloring books and a favorite blue doll named Wav-wav.

The translator was West’s 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 English—“Mommy, Daddy”—and 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 doesn’t know. It’s 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 cannot.

“It’s 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 Grant’s 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 Li’s 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 world’s population, one can imagine the potential applications of Grant’s 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 she’s 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 man’s donkey at the Great Wall.

The only problem was that Grant’s older sister—who does not speak Chinese—complained 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.”


Back to Emory Report September 10, 2001