Why Non-Speaker/Speaker Chinese Playdates Are Probably Not Going to Work

**You can find an updated version of this piece, along with exclusive new chapters, in the ebook, (affiliate link) So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese.

I read a lot of articles on language and helping kids become bilingual. And over and over again, I see the same advice telling non-Chinese speaking parents to set up playdates with Chinese speaking parents and their kids.

I get why.

It seems to make sense. Want your kids exposed to Chinese? Let’s play with kids who speak Chinese! Win!

Except, no. Not really.

Here are six reasons why as nice as it sounds on paper, non-speaker/speaker Chinese playdates probably are NOT going to happen. (Oh, and it perhaps helps if you pretend I’m not an angry ranting person on the interwebs and more so like a constantly grumpy older sister giving advice.)

1) No Chinese speaking parent who wants their kids to speak Chinese fluently is going to want their kids to play with your non-speaking Chinese kids. At least, not for the purpose of a Chinese playdate.

What’s the point, really? Your kids won’t speak Chinese – not through lack of desire, perhaps, but definitely due to lack of ability and range.

So then, if my kids are just going to speak English to your kids, and I want to maximize my kids’ playdates with people who actually speak Chinese, let’s be real. I am not going to accept a playdate with you.

Truthfully, this has also likely happened to me from recent immigrants or fellow Chinese emphasis parents who don’t want their kids to play with my kids because my kids’ Chinese aren’t good enough for their standards. I don’t know. But I’m sure it has happened.

Is that mean? Maybe. But you know what? This brings me to the next reason.

2) If the only reason you want a playdate with my kids is so your kids can practice their Chinese at the expense of mine, you’re rude. And quite possibly racist.

Using people for their language and what they can do for you is awful. And assumes the fact that your mere presence is doing me a favor or is good enough recompense for my kids teaching your kids Chinese.

I mean, it might. But probably not.

3) As I mentioned before, the kids will most likely play in English anyway. Why? Because your kids can’t speak Chinese. Oh. And because even when Chinese speaking kids play together, they usually speak English.

Now, that’s not always the case, but often, when Chinese speaking kids play together in Chinese, it is only because every kid’s Chinese is at a similar level. This will not be the case if even one Chinese speaking child feels as if their Chinese isn’t up to snuff and doesn’t want to use it. As soon as a kid starts speaking English, they’ll all switch (either out of ease of communication or politeness).

Getting Chinese speaking kids to play together in Chinese often takes constant nagging and reminding from either a really obedient kid or annoyed parents.

4) If I, as an ABC/T who actually speaks and understands Chinese, already have a hard enough time getting recent immigrants to relate to me and my children and invite us over to become good friends and playmates, good luck with you on your endeavor. (Or it says a lot about me, which is totally possible. But that doesn’t mean they will also like you.) At least, for the purposes of a Chinese playdate, anyway.

5) Most recent immigrants want their kids to maximize their English. In general, I have found that though they want their kids to speak Chinese, they are really afraid their kids’ English will behind due to them not speaking English at native level. And because of how America treats people who don’t speak native-level English (or at least, non-European accented English), it is a totally legitimate concern.

So, on the chance that recent immigrants would like to have a playdate with you, it’s more than likely because they want to use your children for their English abilities. And if they do happen to want their kids’ Chinese to improve, they certainly would not want a Chinese playdate with your children (confer Reason 1).

6) And finally, just because people look Chinese, doesn’t mean they speak Chinese.

To assume so is racist and rude and all sorts of things.

Why do I include this?

Because if you’re a non-speaker, likely most Chinese speaking people will not reveal themselves to you. There is still a stigma in the US for speaking any language other than English. (I mean, FFS, people are killed for not speaking in English here. I cannot tell you how often recently I feel somewhat worried when I speak to my children in Chinese in public. That makes me incredibly angry.)

Thus, I’m not sure how you would go about finding families with children who speak Chinese to have playdates with your children unless you go about purposely finding people to do so.

And often, people go about this in an incredibly bumbling, horrible, and unintentionally (but still incredibly) racist way by assuming people who look Chinese speak Chinese and then asking a whole slew of likely friendly intending (but really, again, horribly racist) questions and thereby ruining these innocent people’s day and perhaps inspiring rants on blogs and twitter.

Look. I know I talk about race a lot. But quite frankly, race matters. And it matters in learning Chinese because the Chinese language does not exist in a vacuum. It is connected to a people, many of whom speak it and live in the US and are US citizens.

Anyhow, as a bonus, I will also give you GuavaRama’s excellent take on the situation. Perhaps her reasoning will be more appealing.

It’s been my experience that from a language perspective it works as follows:

1) When you can’t speak [Chinese] you need a native speaker who can only speak the language and will not switch. Usually this means adult.

2) When you can understand but can’t speak it due to rustiness you need a native speaker who will not switch. That also usually means an adult unless you have a well trained child.

3) When you have bilingual kids, then you have to find kids who are at same level of speaking and who are trained not to switch.

All of this means finding a Chinese speaking child who will only speak Chinese to your low Chinese level speaking child. That requires their Chinese to be so strong. But then why would someone play with someone else who can’t speak the language?

Alright. I’m amazed I wrote anything and we can thank the internets for annoying me so much that I had to write something. YAY! Have a great day.

8 thoughts on “Why Non-Speaker/Speaker Chinese Playdates Are Probably Not Going to Work

  1. Totally agreed with everything you said but I have my own rant on racism and learning Chinese.

    We took my kids and au pair to a public event and loads of families speaking Chinese were also there (it wasn’t connected to Chinese culture – just an artsy thing). My 3yo was in the AP’s arms, conversing with her in Mandarin while we waited in a 20-minute line. The middle-aged group of adults from China behind us noticed my kid speaking Mandarin and started speculating about whether she was the AP’s daughter, how she looked too white to belong to the AP, etc. My daughter was visibly upset but they kept discussing her and looking at her like she wasn’t a person, just a blond freak who speaks Chinese. Luckily the AP stepped in and shut them up before I confronted them. (The AP told me later what they said, but it was clear they were discussing my daughter and upsetting her.)

    I’m mad that this group of adults didn’t care about hurting my daughter’s feelings or making her uncomfortable, but I’m probably more upset that this is likely to happen again. You’ve discussed the lower standards for white people speaking Chinese – this is a manifestation of that issue. I need a quickie response to head this off next time because swearing at strangers is not really the example I want to set for my kids….

    • I’m so sorry. That is awful. I am the last person to give “calm” advice, but maybe something short and to the point. “Please stop talking about my daughter in Chinese. She can understand and you are upsetting her. Thank you.”

      • We’ve met countless Chinese-speaking families who have a supportive reaction – a friendly smile of recognition, polite questions about my kid’s language, etc.

        But this one instance made me really angry because they knew she could understand them! We hope to travel to China and Taiwan in a few years for the kids to learn more about the culture and put their language skills to use, but now I’m worried about people treating them badly. Maybe it’s just the defensive mom in me overreacting. Again, most people have been friendly and supportive.

          • Taiwan would be an amazing place to experience but our beloved former au pair lives in Shenzhen (with a baby on the way!) so there’s a strong pull to China as well. Maybe I should just count my blessings that my daughter has embraced Mandarin and that we have someone special in China to visit. 🙂

  2. I think I randomly found the only pair of Mandarin speaking people to have a play date with me (non speaking) and my daughter (3 year old who speaks in Mandarin exclusively with her father)…A Taiwanese grandpa and his granddaughter! Lol. He speaks no English and the granddaughter speaks little English because she’s in his care all day. The girls play very happily and my daughter is forced to speak Mandarin. The grandpa could care less what we speak, he’s just happy to have a break and sit on the bench in the park. Lol. We just smile a lot.

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