Auntie on the case
Domestic helpers who cook and clean for expatriate families are among Beijing's most effective Putonghua coaches to young children. In fact many ayi (aunties) are proud of this role, gently coaxing their charges to speak the language. Tessa Faulkner, who has just turned one, for instance, is on course to become a bilingual toddler, just as her sister, Laura, six, and brother, William, four, have. The two older Faulkner children, who were born in Australia, have picked up Putonghua in their three years in Beijing and attend a bilingual school. Their fluency is due largely to their ayi, says their teacher mother, Michelle Faulkner. 'As a parent who only speaks pidgin Chinese, having an ayi who only speaks Chinese to our children is essential if our children are to become bilingual. 'From birth, our full-time ayi has spoken to [Tessa] in Chinese. Now that our older children have started kindergarten, she reads to them their Chinese library books and helps with their homework. 'She is proud of her role in teaching the children Chinese. Only yesterday, she excitedly reported that Tessa had learned how to say xiexie [thank you],' she says.
'When they are at home they will often sing Chinese songs; they pick up the tones and pronunciation naturally,' says their father, Michael Faulkner, manager of the second EAST Beijing Hotel, which is due to open this summer. 'They will even correct the tones of my wife, who is at an intermediate level. If it happens in a restaurant, it is quite humbling. At school, my daughter Laura has now become a translator for new expatriate kids to help them settle.' The Faulkner children attend 3e International School, one of a handful of Beijing schools that are bilingual, where the day is divided evenly between lessons taught in English and those in Chinese. This double-language system means a more onerous programme of study, but young children who spend time in the company of an ayi undoubtedly have a head start, naturally mastering the tones and linguistic idiosyncrasies that adults find so tough. It is not uncommon in Beijing to come across groups of youngsters from Africa, Europe, and Australasia chatting in their common language - Putonghua.