The Real Point of Learning Chinese


No matter how hard I try, every now and then, I have to remind myself that learning Chinese is not a competition.

This seems so obvious when it’s written out in black and white. (And also, I feel very foolish because it’s now one more piece of evidence that I am a petty, petty person. But I suppose that is no surprise to anyone who has ever read anything I have ever written. Or met me. I digress.)

One of the toughest things about parenting is resisting the urge to compare my children with other people’s children. And of course, when I add Chinese fluency/literacy to the mix, it is just one more thing in the parental jockeying portfolio to prove that I am a better parent than other parents (at least in Chinese acquisition).

After all, if my children understand/speak/read/write Chinese better than other people’s children, then that must validate whatever I’m doing to have my children be fluent/literate in Chinese. (Who cares that my kids are illiterate in English? That’s on purpose. And besides, English is easy.)

And if my kids are “better,” then I am validated as a parent and therefore, as a person. Which makes me better than other people. WHICH CLEARLY IS OF UTMOST IMPORTANCE.

Here’s the thing though: Other children’s Chinese fluency/literacy has absolutely no relevance to my children’s Chinese fluency/literacy.

It doesn’t matter if my kids know more or fewer characters than other kids. How much or little other kids can read has absolutely ZERO effect or influence on how much my kids can read.

It’s not as if Chinese is a pie wherein if your kid is more fluent, they have a bigger piece of pie and therefore my kid now has a smaller piece of pie.

There is no finite amount of Chinese in the world and if someone happens to be more literate, there are now fewer Chinese characters for you to learn to read.

That’s not how learning works.

That’s not how language works.

WE CAN ALL HAVE PIES.

(Yes, I suppose even your children.)

And here’s the other rub. The even pettier part of my dark, dark soul.

I don’t want other people to have pie.

Which is dumb because what does other people’s pie have to do with MY pie? (Or in this case, our children’s pies.)

Also, if other people’s kids don’t have “pie,” with whom will my children practice their Chinese?

Seems counterproductive.

Look. I get that many of us want to know how other people’s children are faring in Chinese because then we get a quick gauge on how well our kids are doing. After all, it can be useful to see if my kid is “at level” (whatever your metrics are) or not. That way, I can determine whether or not I need to do more work or just coast on my awesomeness.

(Coasting on good looks alone is difficult when it comes to fluency. Our kids’ stunning faces can only blind people’s eyes, not stop their ears.)

However, most of us fall victim to the trap of comparing our children and then making it a value judgment of our parenting or Chinese language brainwashing. That somehow, if our kids are “better” than other kids in Chinese, then they are better kids in general. And that if our kids are “worse” than other kids in Chinese, then they are worse kids in general.

Here’s the thing though: even when your kids are “better” than other kids in Chinese, that is completely meaningless.

Why?

Because just because your kids are “better” doesn’t mean that they are actually fluent (or literate).

After all, my children are BETTER than Hapa Papa in Chinese, but that is meaningless because Hapa Papa cannot speak ANY Chinese.

And sure, my children are BETTER than some of my friends’ children at reading Chinese, but they STILL ARE NOT LITERATE. They are just slightly LESS illiterate.

Better is a relative term. Useful for making ourselves feel superior to other people, but meaningless in terms of actual fluency or literacy.

So, before we get too uppity or bummed out about our children and their Chinese fluency and literacy, let’s remember what the REAL point of learning Chinese is.

The REAL point of learning Chinese is to be able to:

1) Understand when someone is speaking Chinese to you

2) Speak and be understood by others when speaking Chinese

3) Read and comprehend Chinese characters

4) Write Chinese in comprehensible Chinese sentences

In other words: to communicate.

I realize this might be a super Captain Obvious type of post, but I think it’s something that we as parents occasionally lose sight of.

All this effort we pour into our kids learning Chinese (and really, anything at all), is not to be better than other people at it, but to be able to use it in a way that is useful. And in the case of Chinese, it is so that our children can communicate effectively with people who speak Chinese.

Alright, perhaps this post was more for myself than for any of you, dear readers. Have a great weekend!

The Ebbs and Flows of Chinese Learning

It’s been awhile since I last wrote about Chinese or Chinese language acquisition. Mostly because though I have some new thoughts, my brain has been mush due to incubating Baby4 and I haven’t been able to rub two thoughts together let alone write a post.

However.

lot has also been because I’ve been feeling a bit like a hypocrite.

Not because I have changed my mind about my opinions (although, I suppose people are allowed to change their minds). But because I am so adamant about creating a Chinese Language Ecosystem (CLE) and always yammering about how a lot of times, people just aren’t committed or gung-ho enough and their kids start losing their Chinese and that’s why I’m homeschooling and forcing my kids to read and write so early and so often and buying so many books and creating Reading groups and Mandarin playdates and etc.

I’m exhausted just thinking about it.

And I think I somehow created this illusion that some of my readers may think I live some impossible ideal and that my children are somehow angels and that every spare moment is cramming Mandarin and Chinese culture down their impressionable throats.

When really, that is nothing close to the truth.

So, here are some updates on our Chinese language journey lately.

1) My kids speak a lot of English. Like, A LOT.

Other than when they are in Chinese classes and the extracurricular classes that happen to be taught in Chinese, they are always speaking English. To each other. To me. To their friends. (Unless they happen to be with kids who predominantly speak Chinese. Then, they’ll speak Chinese.)

I mean, my youngest, Glow Worm (2.75), pretty much speaks only English. He understands Chinese, but due to excessive YouTube (and my incredible laziness), knows all his colors, shapes, numbers, and alphabet in English. I mean, I’m not kidding when I tell you that I have never taught Glow Worm a single thing. He only knows these things because YouTube is the real parent in our household. (And I love it.)

He can speak Chinese, of course. He finally is talking (it only took him almost three years to start) and will repeat all the Chinese words for things when he says the English words for things. And again, he totally understands everything we say in Chinese. But the first words in his mind are English unless he never learned them in the first place.

I have to constantly yell at Cookie Monster (6.5) and Gamera (4.5) to speak to each other and to me in Chinese. I threaten to make them watch more Chinese videos (which always elicits moans of protest) or take away YouTube time, but quite frankly, I’m weak and tired and I have not made much of an effort.

They’ll switch to Chinese for a bit but inevitably revert to English. Most of the time, I’m just glad that they’re playing with each other so I don’t bother them.

2) I have completely ceased any and all reading with Cookie Monster. We finished Sagebooks at the end of 2015 and since then, I’ve done very little. I meant to start up Greenfield and reinforce his zhuyin reading but I haven’t had the desire nor energy to do so. I’m sure he’s forgotten many characters as well as a lot of his zhuyin blending. I haven’t really been concerned because I know he is still learning a lot of characters with his Chinese tutor so I haven’t made an effort to re-start anything whatsoever.

3) I have occasionally gone through and reviewed Sagebooks with Gamera, and she is in the fourth set and remembers a decent number of characters, but I have totally slacked because I know she gets a lot of zhuyin instruction and reinforcement at one of her preschools, and she is also learning a lot of characters with her Chinese tutor. So again, my laziness relies on my paid supporters to pick up my slack.

4) Other than occasionally listening to Chinese kid songs and stories in the car (which they love but eventually, drives me insane), and watching at least one or two Chinese videos before they are allowed to surf YouTube Minecraft videos at abandon, they have very little exposure to Chinese media.

5) I am still speaking to the kids predominantly in Chinese, but even I am slipping up.

6) I am watching a LOT of English TV programming, so they are hearing English all the time in the background. I’m sorry. I am not giving up my TV just so they can hear Chinese.

7) Thank goodness I have outsourced so much of their Chinese learning so that even when I totally fail, others can fill in the gaps. (It also helps that I have so many options.)

Now, I firmly believe we are at a Crossroads.

We can either continue down the path we are going and eventually, Chinese will trickle into an after thought and we will be in more of a maintenance vs. acquisition mode. Or, I can make some changes to our habits and stick to them.

After all, there is no great secret to upping their Chinese. I need to take a more proactive role and stop letting inertia take over. All I have to do is choose to cut their English media consumption and up their Chinese media consumption. It would take a few weeks but eventually, they will start skewing more to Chinese since they will be hearing and watching more of it.

Of course, I should also spend more time reading with the kids and hearing them read Chinese books to me. I’ve spent hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars on these books. WHY DON’T I TRY USING THEM?

And that’s the thing, right? We all know what to do. It’s not “hard’ in terms of figuring it out.

What is hard is follow through and commitment. (Isn’t that most of what parenting is? Sob.)

And truthfully, there is a third option: I can decide that I’m no longer as interested in Chinese as I thought I was and stop altogether. And that’s ok.

I’m not. But I want to make clear that it is a perfectly legitimate option.

Life happens. (Like getting pregnant and having all the life energy sucked out of you so that the mere fact that your children are still alive at the end of the day is a miracle.)

But whatever happens, own it.

Own your choices. Do not blame external circumstances. Like all hard and worthy endeavors, excuses are lies we tell ourselves to shift responsibility.

So, if you choose to let Chinese go, OWN IT. And stop feeling guilty or bad about it.

If you choose to stay in maintenance mode, OWN IT. And stop feeling guilty or bad about it.

If you choose to re-up your commitment for your kids to learn Chinese, OWN IT. And stop feeling guilty or bad about how it got to the point that you even have to “re-up” your commitment in the first place.

For myself, I’m most likely not going to do anything drastic until after mid-August. Mostly because we will be heading to Taiwan for six weeks in about a month and my kids will be surrounded by Chinese every waking moment (unless they’re talking to each other or watching YouTube at home). They will be in 4-6 weeks of camps and preschools and seeing family and friends and strangers fully immersed in Chinese and Mandarin in all their glory.

I will be ditching the iPads and letting them watch as much Chinese children’s programming on TV as possible and forcing them to sleep early so hopefully, we won’t have much screen time at all.

When we get back, they should be in primarily Chinese mode again and I will capitalize on that momentum and since it will be the beginning of a new school year, I’m sure I will have a fresh wave of optimism and have lots of plans.

(Then, I’ll pop out a baby and it will all go to shit and we may coast for a bit on Chinese videos nonstop because I may just have to delete the YouTube app. They will weep but oh well.)

Anyhow, that’s the plan for now. We’ll see what happens. Just know that whatever you choose, you are likely not alone.

Have a great weekend!

 

 

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

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.