While traveling through China, there were multiple opportunities for the kids to put their language skills to use. It was fascinating to me that their individual personalities really came through - Meili is more reserved and cautious. She is also quite shy, particularly when meeting new people. Jiejie, on the other hand, is very animated and out-going. It was thereby no surprise when I realized these differences played a major role in their conversation skills.
Though Meili has been learning Mandarin for longer and thereby has more vocabulary and is more skilled at communicating in her second language, she spoke less frequently. When she did speak, she was quiet and so soft spoken that the person she was speaking to didn't always realize she was addressing them. She was very cautious before she spoke - wanting to speak without error.
Jiejie was eager to speak in an effort to prove to us how much he knew. He particularly enjoyed purchasing tickets for the subway or admission to the many tourist destinations. This required only the simple phrase, " 四票（Sì piào | four tickets)."
Perhaps because boys are more revered - Jiejie got a lot of attention. Strangers would touch him in the subway, rubbing his head or gently squeezing his arm like an adoring uncle. It wasn't long before this constant attention began to annoy him and he would brush their hands away with a stern, "不要（Bú yào)! " They were consistently surprised that he spoke Mandarin.
On several occasions he had great fun negotiating the price of something he was interested in buying - a sword or a terra-cotta warrior for his dad. The clerks loved him - particularly the young ladies. They giggled and complimented him, "你好帅 (Nǐ hǎo shuài)!" As a result, he proved to be the best negotiator.
Upon our return home, we reviewed the few conversations were able to capture on video with our tutor. We came to realize that often, the kids were asked in Mandarin, "What else do you know?" This inquiry isn't very conducive to conversation and thereby left the kids a little dumbfounded. Even in English, if asked to elaborate on what else you know, it is difficult to pull out random topics.
I've come to learn that no matter how much you study, unless you start to use the language with others on a regular basis, it will have no real context in your mind and it’s very hard to make any real progress. Those with much less classroom experience or vocabulary behind them, but more experience actually speaking, will outdo the academics every time. This has nothing to do with natural talent, it’s about simply opening your mouth and really using the language.I discovered this myself when I was working abroad while attending the university. I was reminded of this when traveling in China and watching my son engage in many conversations while my daughter stood by demurely. This experience really helped to cement in our minds the importance of not just building vocabulary, memorizing characters, and learning rules of grammar, but to regularly practice using vocabulary in conversation.
As they are at different levels - it is not easy to engage one another in dialogue but in time this will change. Until then, Shawn and I are working together to provide a richer learning environment. How do you spur on conversation with your kids?