The Importance Of Connection And Communication

THE LAM FAMILY

 

Albert and Florence moved to Singapore from France in 2010 and have now settled down with their 2 children, son (10) and daughter (8). Florence is a stay at home parent and Albert works in the Technology sector. Although Albert and Florence are Chinese, they both have been educated in the French National Curriculum – Albert attended French International School in Hong Kong and Florence was born and bred in France.

Florence, please can you give us an insight on how you acquired multiple languages from a young age and what exposure you received for each language?

 

 

I speak Chiu Chow with my father and Cantonese with my mother, however they speak Mandarin to each other. When I was younger, I had an ear for Mandarin, but preferred to use separate languages to converse with each parent. And being born in France, I can speak French and learnt English as a second language (but to be fair, it was my fourth language) Even though being brought up in a non Cantonese speaking country, my fluency rivals that of a native Hong Konger. As with many Chinese abroad, I would watch Cantonese TV programmes which was my main exposure. Coupled with holidaying in Hong Kong annually during Lunar New Year and the school Summer holidays, therefore I called Hong Kong my second home. 

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Can you explain how you achieved such a strong Hong Kong Cantonese identity, despite never living in Hong Kong?

 

 

I was living Hong Kong through TVB programmes and gossip magazines which was my way of connecting with the culture abroad and so whenever I went to Hong Kong, I slotted in immediately. I was up to date with the pop culture and was immersed through listening to music. I relished my unique identity and my parents grounded me with Chinese traditions and values which I think is very important.To this day when I meet new Cantonese speaking friends, they are surprised by my fluency.

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Are there any more tips you can share for learning languages?

From my own experience, practice is vital. Not only training the mouth to communicate, but training the ears is a key factor too. Through consistency and intense exposure, even over a short period of time, you will be surprised how much the brain absorbs and can master the language in no time. The brain needs to be trained and stretched to really maximise the efforts.

 

This is particularly true for when I went to study Mandarin in Shanghai for 6 months as a mature student. I was fully immersed in the local culture and I had to fend for myself using a foreign language. Besides attending the language course, I also hired a tutor twice a week to expedite my conversation skills. I was conscientious with learning how to write and would set myself a target to learn new vocabulary. A characteristic of a good language learner is not to be shy and not afraid of making mistakes. If I can’t think of the word, I try to describe it. If I don’t understand someone, I will ask them to speak more slowly. These are all techniques that help me keep the conversation going.

 

I would also use rhymes and word associations that help me to store new vocabulary and assimilate new rules. When I come across a new word, I will try to connect it to something familiar that I know and remember. These are all skills that can be learnt and it’s all about how you adapt the new language into your lifestyle. 

Do you have any wisdom to share on raising multilingual children?

 

 

 

Even though my children were born in Singapore, I am essentially raising third culture children. I had a positive experience learning multiple languages from young and this is what I want for them too. I want them to feel the excitement that I had when we would holiday in Hong Kong and really connect with that part of their heritage. 

 

 

We have a bond where we watch Cantonese speaking programmes together, in the form of talent shows, game shows and television series. Learning this way gives us more varied topics to talk about as a family and I can see what new vocabulary they are learning too. 

 

 

 

The children attend International French School, where they speak French and English. At home, I will only speak with them in Cantonese. Initially it was full Cantonese immersion at home. We were doing really well but went kind of down hill after we hired a domestic helper.  Our household is now a mix of Cantonese, English and French. My language priority for the children will always be Cantonese because they have the least exposure to it and I want them to be proud that it is their mother tongue.

 

 

They have been learning Mandarin since they were toddlers and I have outsourced Mandarin to an online tutor for my son and my daughter goes to an enrichment centre.

Each child’s language capability is very different and so I have had to adapt it. I was relaxed with my son learning Mandarin, and in turn he wasn’t able to move forward at the enrichment centre because his language comprehension wasn’t strong enough. His Mandarin teacher advised that he would struggle as the class would get harder. 

 

 

 

 

Learning from this experience, I knew that I had to manage it differently for my daughter. She has been thriving at the enrichment centre and her level is on par with the students who attend local stream school. This is the only exposure she has, which is 1hr 45mins per week and she will spend 15 minutes daily on homework/ revision. Her character plays a major role in her learning the language as she is diligent and disciplined with her homework and she loves a good challenge! I think because I have been consistent and not missing out on classes has contributed to this. I would try to plan holiday time around her class, but if she were to miss it then she would have to be more dedicated to the homework in order not to slow down her pace.

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Your unique identity of East meets West, has this had an impact on how you are raising the children?

 

Living in France, I was raised in a Chinese home environment, where we would observe all the traditional festivities and have frequent family gatherings. Having a solid belief system and cultural heritage has really shaped the person that I am today. I acknowledge that there will be a mindset clash as Westerners think differently to Asians. For example, in Europe young adults are expected to move out of the family home, whereas Chinese parents see it as a norm for their adult children still living under the same roof. My French friends thought it was strange that I continued living with my parents after university.

My children have a wonderful mix of thinking the Chinese way or the French way. Seeing things in different perspectives, makes them analyse and reason their decisions much better depending on which way they are thinking to tackle obstacles. Language learning is important but it goes hand in hand with knowing the culture too. 

I have learnt first hand how knowing the culture can be an advantage at work. After attending the 6 month language course, I was appointed a Product Manager and would regularly liaise with suppliers in China. From my short stint in Shanghai, I knew their culture, their style of work and the correct words and phrases to use to convey better rapport and get things done efficiently. 

I want the children to be open minded and to have a sense of adventure when it comes to language learning. At the end of the day, it can’t be forced. Going to classes doesn’t necessarily mean my child will be competent as it has to do with mindset and how I am supporting them.

The children are at a good age where traveling is now more meaningful. We went to Kunming and Lijian in China at the start of 2024. They were able to practice their Mandarin and they were literally enveloped in the language and gained a deeper understanding of people from different cultural backgrounds. We would like to visit more of China as it is a vast country and each province is steeped in rich history and each with its own special qualities and cultural identity.

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Writer's Notes

 

Talking with Florence, I can really sense the passion she has for the multiple languages she speaks. I love her three dimensional immersion into the languages, where it’s not just about books, but she will holiday in specific countries to practice the children’s listening and speaking skills. This way the children can really see the purpose of learning the language and appreciate the culture. My favourite lazy parenting hack is watching TV with my children too. By choosing an entertaining programme together, it can stem into lots of discussion afterwards. For children to be able to pick up a language successfully, the parent’s involvement is essential as we practice with them, offer encouragement and most of all make it fun. 

March 2024