*This piece was originally the first in a series of posts. You can find the updated version, along with exclusive new chapters, in the ebook, (affiliate link) So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese.
After spending the last five years obsessing over my kids’ Chinese acquisition and surrounding myself 95% of the time with fellow Mandarin mamas, I have observed several types of parents and approaches with varying levels of success. So, after having almost the exact same conversation with many different friends who are trying to teach their kids Chinese, I thought, perhaps I could write a post (or a series of posts) about the subject.
Keep in mind, of course, that I’m coming from my own experience and that your mileage may vary. (Also, my advice isn’t exclusive to Chinese acquisition and can apply to any type of language, but since my focus is Mandarin, that’s what I’ll use.)
Before I begin, you should know a little bit about our family situation (most of this is in my About Me section, but hey, I’m a giver). I am a second generation Taiwanese/Chinese American. Born and raised in California, my first language was Mandarin and I didn’t learn English until I started Kindergarten. My parents forced us to speak Chinese at home and though they could speak Taiwanese as well, never taught it to my brother and I (to my disappointment). I went to a Chinese church, twelve years of Chinese Saturday school, and retained enough to somehow half-assedlly pass out of a year’s worth of college Chinese at UCLA. I am unclear as to how much I can actually read (I am certainly much better when it comes to menus!), but I can’t read a newspaper but am improving. I can read anything if it has pinyin (which I only learned recently) or zhuyin (which I don’t remember not knowing). I consider myself fluent as long as the conversation isn’t overly technical (eg: business, medicine, technology, etc.).
Hapa Papa is half German and half Japanese American and only speaks English.
In our home, I speak Chinese to the kids 95% of the time, Hapa Papa speaks English (although he knows a few Chinese words which he does use), and he and I speak English to each other. My mother is also very involved in our lives and speaks Chinese 95% of the time to my children.
My older two children (5.5 and 3.5) go to two different Chinese preschools for half a day. Three times a week, they go to a play-based preschool where they learn Traditional characters and zhuyin. Twice a week, they go to a very strict, typical Chinese type preschool with homework, memorization, etc. and learn Simplified characters. Cookie Monster (5.5) can read about 250 characters and knows all his zhuyin but can’t “spell” them yet. Gamera (3.5) can read about 200 characters and knows zhuyin but can’t spell them either.
This fall, I am homeschooling Kindergarten Cookie Monster and plan to do the majority of that homeschooling in Mandarin.
Ok. That’s enough background for the moment. Today’s post is mostly informational and seeks to have you think about what you, as a parent, ultimately want in your child’s Chinese education. I am not going to discuss the pros/cons of pinyin vs. zhuyin, Traditional vs. Simplified, Mandarin vs. Cantonese/Taiwanese/Toisan/Fujian, etc.
Also, before I continue, let’s hammer down some terms that I will be using in these posts (these are just my personal identifiers – nothing official):
1) Heritage family/parent: Assumes Chinese/Taiwanese descent
2) Non-heritage family/parent: Anyone else (yes, even other Asians because crazy enough, other Asians perhaps have their own Asian languages! We are not the same!)
3) Native speaker: Someone who learned the language as a child (most likely because they grew up in a Chinese speaking country) and can speak/understand fluently; also includes folks who grew up in non-Chinese speaking countries but are fluent; most likely ethnically Chinese/Taiwanese, but not necessarily so.
4) Non-native speaker: Someone who learned the language either through classes, immersion school, moving to a Chinese speaking country, etc. but not necessarily in their family; can be any ethnicity – even of Chinese/Taiwanese descent (because hey, just because someone is ethnically Chinese/Taiwanese doesn’t mean they learn the language upon birth).
5) Non-speaker: Someone who doesn’t speak/understand Chinese; can be any ethnicity – even of Chinese/Taiwanese descent (because hey, I just wrote about this).
Whew! That is quite a long prologue (and some of it might have even been necessary). In fact, I think it really would be better to think of this entire post as an introduction to a series – that way, you won’t be quite as disappointed if it’s not as meaty as you had hoped. Thank you for making it thus far.
First, before you even go through the arduous (and expensive!) journey of Chinese Immersion for your children, you need to decide for yourself what your ultimate goal is.
I find that many people tend to have high expectations of full Chinese fluency but when real life hits, Chinese learning falls to the wayside and folks feel a lot of unnecessary guilt. So, like all major undertakings, it is helpful to be clear on what you want and then make a plan of action. Then, do everything you can to follow through on the plan, re-evaluating when you hit snags. (Gracious, I sound like a generic business/weight-loss coach.)
Also, there is no shame in adjusting your goals to a lower, less “fluent” option. This is not a contest. There is no quiz at the end. And even if you do everything “right,” your kid still might not be fluent in Chinese to the degree that you prefer. And that’s ok! Because truthfully, learning to speak Chinese is not the only thing in the world, nor even close to the most important thing in the world. It’s just a nice bonus.
So, what is your ultimate goal?
1) Understand only
2) Understand and speak (and to what degree of fluency, authenticity of tones, etc.)
3) Understand, speak, read (and again, to what degree)
4) Understand, speak, read, write (to what degree)
Depending on your end goal, you may or may not have to work as hard. After all, if all you want is your kids to understand Chinese only, then that’s a lot less investment of time and energy than having them be literate in Chinese!
Once you know what you want, the whole prospect of Chinese acquisition becomes less overwhelming and easier to maintain and pursue. (And by “easy,” I don’t really mean, “easy.” Chinese acquisition and retention is some hard ass work. I just mean “easy” in the sense of a clarity of purpose and resource allocation.)
So, on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being native level and 1 being a dilettante who knows a few phrases and can perhaps order food and ask for the restroom, my hope for my own children is thus:
1) Listening/Understanding: Fluent (4-5) except for specialized words in business, science, medicine, etc. But I would even hope for some of that!
2) Speaking: Fluent (4-5) except for specialized words in business, science, medicine, etc.
3) Literacy: Functional (3-4); ideally, they can read a newspaper, follow basic directions, navigate in Chinese, and can function in society
4) Writing: Basic functionality (2-3); with technology, I am assuming my children will rarely be called upon to hand write characters. As long as they can type or text the words and function in society, I will be pleased.
Next week, I will expound on some hard truths about learning Chinese that you may not want to hear. But as my mother always tells me, only the people who truly love you will tell you the things you don’t want to hear like “You’re fat” or “Your haircut is terrible” or “You have a pimple on your nose.”
In future posts, I will also address more of the nitty gritty details such as how to get your kids to the level you want; available resources; zhuyin; how to make Chinese fun; hard truths about learning Chinese, etc. (I swear, the more I write this post, the more I feel as if I’m writing a sales letter or an infomercial.)
I know this has been a super long post (some of it boring), but hopefully, it is helpful and edifying in your pursuit of your kids’ learning and retaining Chinese. I would love to hear more about you and your experiences in the comments. What are your goals/hopes, what are you doing to achieve them, and how has it been going? Is it what you thought it would be? Harder? Easier? Let me know in the comments.