Using Mandarin with a Deaf Child. Help.
September 23, 2018 11:12 AM   Subscribe

My daughter (11) and I are going to be spending time each day with a boy who has just been adopted from China. He's 13 and he arrived three weeks ago (!) He is deaf. He does not know sign language, ASL or otherwise. He reads/writes Mandarin at a third-grade level. What is my best path to learning some Mandarin so I can communicate with him?

I am a college teacher and my daughter is doing 5th grade online so we have a flexible schedule and have offered to cover the gap between him getting home on the bus and one of his parents getting home. It's 1 1/2 hours a day, M-F.

The father speaks ASL (but is not deaf). There's no expectation that I'll do anything other than keep him safe, but I would like to be able to communicate with him some. My daughter is adopted (through foster care) and I feel for him. It would be nice to be able to ask him if he's hungry or wants to go for a walk.

I would like to figure out the best way to do that. I looked at some books today at Barnes and Noble and got overwhelmed. I'm wondering if there's someone on the green who actually has experience with written Mandarin that could guide me as to what would be my best first step to some basic Mandarin, keeping in mind that I need to keep it to a 3rd grade level and I can't say anything.
posted by orsonet to Human Relations (19 answers total)
What about simple flash cards, maybe with pictures, like these?
posted by carmicha at 11:19 AM on September 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

I don't believe that teaching yourself Mandarin is the most urgent of your needs at this point, and honestly, it's not only way too complicated to learn but also likely to become redundant very quickly as the kid picks up ASL.

What you require urgently is A way of communicating with him. Off the top of my head,

- get the dad to write out basic communicative flashcards in Mandarin for you with English translations on the back of it. You can use these to pick up and show the kid, and he can answer using the cards as well. "Hungry", "Tired", "Fizzy Drink", "Get Dressed", "Thanks", "Sorry", "Well done", "TV", "Go to Library", "Walk the Dog", "Play a Computer Game" -- these are some ideas for flashcards.

- maybe watch some TV shows with mandarin subtitles turned on?

- eventually, after you have built a good relationship with this kid, maybe you all can try learning ASL together.
posted by MiraK at 11:23 AM on September 23, 2018 [13 favorites]

I recommend Google Translate-download the app. You can quickly translate words. Phrases will be a bit trickier due to a lack of context. But I am a Mandarin-English interpreter/translator and I often use google translate to help. (Use simplified Chinese-English; Mandarin is actually what the spoken, not written, language is called - if he is from Mainland China he will read Simplified Chinese.
posted by bearette at 11:33 AM on September 23, 2018 [4 favorites]

MiraK - this is just one of many strategies I'm using. I know some ASL and will be using that as well and he's being taught ASL at school. However, as an adoptive parent and a human being, I'd like to be able to do some small amount of communication with him in his own language and I don't know anything at all about Mandarin. This is not about instrumental need, I'm sure I can communicate what I need to without it, it's about wanting to make the effort to move towards his language.
posted by orsonet at 11:35 AM on September 23, 2018

Thank you bearette! Duh. I don't know why it didn't occur to me to use Google Translate.
posted by orsonet at 11:36 AM on September 23, 2018

Writing mandarin is tough. But, entry on a phone isn't so bad. The romanization of Chinese characters, which also describes the way it is spoken, is called "pinyin". This extra step easily doubles the amount of time it takes to learn new words compared to other languages...

The gold standard for learning Chinese vocabulary is Pleco. The basic flashcard functionality costs $10, I think, and is tightly integrated with a dictionary, so that you can easily identify words you need to know and add them to your cards. It comes with a premade deck of cards, from the HSK1-6 series; you could start with this, or make your own more urgent list.

Alternatively, Quizlet has HSK lists for free, or if you have an android phone / tablet, Anki is free ($25 on iPhone) which will have premade decks that are easy to add to.

You'll need to learn both "directions": Character -> pinyin + meaning, English meaning -> pinyin + character, but once you do, you could perhaps much more easily communicate through a tablet or phone. You enter the pinyin for the words you know, then choose the characters you want that pop up (pinyin entry neglects the tones -- lucky you!)

I think that's a good start, from there it takes hours of effort -- approximately 1-2 hours of flashcards per 10 words, over the long term.
posted by gensubuser at 11:37 AM on September 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

Would he be able to enter Chinese text on a smartphone, either one of the keyboards or the draw-the-character-on-the-screen mode (you can try writing on paper and the camera mode too, but I'm not sure how well that will work with handwrtten characters)? If you used that with Google Translate, it would allow him to say things to you instead of you just asking yes/no questions.
posted by zachlipton at 11:40 AM on September 23, 2018

You should also add a Chinese keyboard to your phone's keyboard. While you're leaning, the pinyin will likely struck in your head faster than the character, but if you know the pinyin and can recognize the character in a lineup of just a few others, you can use a Chinese keyboard and type phrases for him.
posted by soren_lorensen at 12:28 PM on September 23, 2018

I think this is basically 'communication with someone with whom you have no common languages..."? i.e. gestures, hand signs (not of any particular sign language system)? I'm thinking back to how my (Chinese) grandmother tried to communicate with the neighborhood kids that followed me home. The fact that he's deaf is basically irrelevant.

Like, if he's an urban wealthy Chinese adoptee, maybe all you have to do is give him a tablet and he'll take it from there and he'll silently grumble about the slow internet speeds and lack of digital payment options.

If he's a rural adoptee, who knows if he has learned any pinyin at all, or if it's useful for typing. "Writing at a third grade level" either means full literacy (because, at least c. 1995, all character learning was done in the first and second grade), or the American meaning, "anything".

Pinyin is based on standard Beijing pronunciation, and if the kid has any regionalisms that makes his attempt at standard Mandarin 'wrong', e.g. not differentiating between n/l, n/ng, hu/w, well, I have yet to see a keyboard that compensates for this.
posted by batter_my_heart at 1:23 PM on September 23, 2018 [1 favorite]

A pal of mine is an elementary school teacher at a school for deaf children. She works primarily with students like this boy... I don't know if the proper term is English Language Learner but you get what I mean.
I'm happy to ask her for some ideas if you want.
posted by k8t at 1:45 PM on September 23, 2018

I agree that I'm sure learning mandarin is the best approach if your goal is communication.

I think your best bets are:
1) Get an AAC Board if he isn't already using one. Download some or go to an SLP and get some.

2) If he is actually learning ASL, that will likely be better, as it will support his ASL learning which will be critically necessary for him. It's also much easier to learn than mandarin.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:51 PM on September 23, 2018

Just to calibrate your expectations, the intro Chinese 1A course at Berkeley teaches ~400 characters in a semester. A 3rd-grade level in China corresponds to ~2000 characters. I appreciate your desire to communicate in his native language, but learning written Chinese is a slog even for native speakers; it's essentially taught by rote and drilled in.
posted by Standard Orange at 3:10 PM on September 23, 2018 [8 favorites]

It's lovely that you want to make the effort to reach out to this kid in his own language, but you are at such a disadvantage with written Chinese. You can still make it easier for him to communicate with you in his language without actually having to learn it yourself, it will be a far more effective use of your energy and your effort and intent will still be very much appreciated.

Install a Chinese keyboard on your phone, but if he isn't familiar with Pinyin, the Google Translate app can detect words/characters from images. Get some whiteboards and keep pen and paper around, he can write on whatever's handy and you can just open up the app and snap a photo to translate.

Third-grade reading level seems beyond those AAC boards Lutoslawski mentioned but a visual Chinese-English dictionary might be a more appropriate level, and fun for everyone to page through.

Also this is hopefully obvious but you didn't mention it so: Ask him how he prefers to communicate. Assuming there aren't other factors involved (I'm thinking like developmental issues, abuse/trauma, etc), a thirteen year old is capable of expressing his own preferences. Maybe he's actually super excited about coming to the US and just wants to practice his English/ASL with you, who knows?
posted by yeahlikethat at 3:46 PM on September 23, 2018 [3 favorites]

Pleco can read characters and provide rough translation using the pbone camera (if the kid's handwriting is neat enough to scan). Google Translate for going from English to Mandarin.
posted by kokaku at 6:06 PM on September 23, 2018

I highly recommend Duolingo as a way to learn Mandarin. I've been using it for about a year and have been impressed.
posted by watermelon at 6:45 PM on September 23, 2018

I was about that age when I was transplanted into American culture. What I remember is just being a kid who wanted very much to fit in. Maybe other kids enjoy being cultural standard-bearer and ambassador, but that was not really me. I was the type to observe and adapt, and I was most comfortable not to have attention drawn to my otherness, positive or otherwise. So many people were very welcoming and generous, and I remember their kindness to this day.

You can meet the kid and see what his personality is. I would focus your efforts on helping him learn about American customs in a gentle and accepting way. If you want to do background reading, perhaps look at articles or books about differences in etiquette. It would be really nice for him to learn to avoid gaffes and inadvertent social offenses from you, a caring and generous person, than from trial and error. You are a lovely person to be there for this child.
posted by dum spiro spero at 7:02 PM on September 23, 2018 [2 favorites]

Thanks, everyone. My primary communication with him will be gestures and me bringing back my ASL skills as he learns them through immersion at school, I just want some way for both of us to communicate things as we both learn and as a gesture of kindness. Thanks dum spiro spero for the infomation about otherness and norms. I'm a sociologist and I have a tween, so that part is up my alley. My daughter's been clear about the kid skills you need to know part: she started with legos, which he loved, next she wants to teach him Minecraft.

I think Google translate and the keyboard will be a big help.
posted by orsonet at 9:41 AM on September 24, 2018

When you take out the hearing and speaking, Chinese is relatively simple and the same gestural memory that is used for writing/reading hanzi is the same gestural memory that is used by ASL (I think...). What follows is heretical because most people tend to learning to speak/hear Chinese. This does not apply in your case. The goal is to look at something and understand and draw some things and be understood.

To use the gestural memory, you must learn to write: Chinese calligraphy...

Get a Brush Pen. It can be just a cheap felt-tip marker type of thing. The important part is that characters have evolved to be written with a brush and the strokes and flow and gesture of writing is dictated by using a brush to write.

Learn Types of Strokes in Chinese Characters - Learn Chinese Everyday - 天天学中文

Learn: Stroke order

Learn to draw the characters correctly. This is just gestural memory.

Perfect chance for him to draw stuff and laugh at your miserable attempts.

Try: Remembering Simplified Hanzi Meaning Characters. This is not a bad way to go. It's controversial, especially among people who are trying to learn to read/write/hear/speak. The major problem here is that Heisig tends to teach in random order based on what the character looks like vs actual usage/grade-level. But the concept is the same, learn to write/recognize a character well enough (just like if you were learning Russian you would learn the Cyrillic alphabet before you actually learned 'words'). People who study Chinese to read/write/hear/speak Chinese (or Japanese for that matter) have a problem with the idea of learning to recognize/write hanzi (and know the general gist of the meaning) without learning how to hear/speak.

In your case... that's a moot point. Your're the poster child for just learning to recognize/write in a haphazard way just to understand and write just enough to get your point across.

Draw/paing/etc. the characters large. Tie that set of gestural motions to the ASL equvalent.

Bonus: If you learn to write with a brush, you'll be able to read random hen-scratch handwriting and artsty calligraphy... just because the character in your mind is a gesture. Your mind will automatically look at that and draw it out in imaginary space and you'll know what that character is... just because you learned to write it with a brush.

That's just personal experience of me 'learning' Japanese and focusing in on the Chinese characters (hanzi/kanji) which are pretty much the same but different. AFAIAC, what I know if Chinese from perfectly cromulent English speaking native Chinese speakers learning Japanese... I'm not too terribly far off the mark.

Here's the thing... If you learn Calligraphy at a gross(large) enough scale, the 'character means something' and 'character is a set of movements through space'... adding an ASL gesture is easy.

My ASL is only remembering 'boy' and 'girl', but drawing the character for boy in the air and following it up with the ASL for 'boy' is just like a few extra strokes (it's all a gesture), it's just that actually reading/writing is confined to using a pen/pencil on ruled paper instead of the large movements one would make painting the character large. (shoulder and elbow, not wrist and fingers).
posted by zengargoyle at 7:09 PM on September 24, 2018

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