The Case for Zhuyin (Bopomofo)

**This piece was originally part of 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

Before I go any further, I want to point out what this post is NOT. This is not a post pitting pinyin against zhuyin.

I am not interested in some dogmatic discussion about how zhuyin or pinyin is superior to the other. That is boring and stupid because it assumes that there can only be one thing that helps kids and adults learn Chinese. Life isn’t The Voice or American Idol. It is quite possible to have multiple good things simultaneously existing without resorting to which is “best.” Best for what, anyway?

What I actually want to do with this post is to make the case for why, if you want your kids to learn Chinese, in addition to having them learn pinyin, to also learn zhuyin. 

Also, this post pre-supposes you want your child to be literate in Chinese (be it Traditional or Simplified). And by literate, I mean actual literacy – not just recognize a few words here and there like 大小上下. For our purposes, by literate I mean that your child should be able to read a newspaper with ease and recognize about 2,000-4,000 characters (at approximately Chinese 3rd or 4th grade level and Taiwanese 6th grade level). That is what both Mainland China as well as Taiwan consider “literate” and able to function in their societies. (I, personally, do not qualify as literate in this case. I am, on my best best best day, at about 800-1,000 characters.)

Incidentally, I could write a post focusing on a lower standard of literacy, but really, what would be the point? How would that even be remotely useful? (Sorry, this is totally a pet peeve of mine when people complain about my posts having standards that are too high. I digress.)

Anyhow, I actually think it is impractical not to know pinyin since it uses the romantic alphabet with which most English speakers are familiar. Also, it is especially useful for typing in Chinese since we are already used to typing using the American keyboard. I am much faster typing Chinese via my pinyin keyboard versus my zhuyin or handwriting keyboard.

For adults and children who already know how to read English, they don’t have to learn a new “alphabet” and can almost immediately begin to try “reading” Chinese (albeit without comprehension) as long as there is pinyin next to Chinese characters. There is definitely a huge benefit to that!

Of course, this does prove problematic when it comes to proper pronunciation because if you already know how to read English (or any other language that uses the romantic alphabet), you are already used to another way of pronouncing those phonics. It is hard to get rid of that initial learning. Personally, I think the only reason I can pronounce things correctly with pinyin is because I already knew zhuyin.

But first, before I continue, for those who have zero knowledge: What the heck are pinyin and zhuyin anyway? Lucky for you, I link to stuff on Wikipedia with abandon!

Pinyin – A standardized form of phonetics for transcribing Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters into the romantic alphabet. Used in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore. Introduced in the 1950s. Replaced the old Wade-Giles Romanization.

Zhuyin (Bopomofo) – A standardized form of phonetic notation/symbols for transcribing Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters. Introduced in the 1910s in China and Taiwan although pinyin replaced zhuyin in China whereas Taiwan still considers Zhuyin its official form of phonetic notation.

The history of zhuyin is fascinating (and all the symbols are derived from “regularized” forms of ancient Chinese characters) and I highly recommend you read the Wikipedia article.

Okay, you might be thinking. That’s great that there is another phonetic notation out there to help kids read Chinese, but why would they need to learn an entirely different phonetic system if they already know pinyin? Isn’t that just redundant and adding an extra layer of unnecessary difficulty for your kids?

That’s a totally legitimate question and before I get to it, I want to point out a few things first.

One of the best ways to learn how to read and comprehend what you’re reading is to actually read. And to read a lot. (I know. It seems so obvious and unnecessary to point out, but nevertheless, I did.) So, for most children, their English reading (as well as Chinese reading) improves and gets better the more often and varied materials they read. It is especially helpful when kids find subjects and stories they love because then reading is fun, engaging, and interesting.

For English readers, this is not really a problem because once children learn phonics, they can pretty much read anything as long as they can blend the sounds. The limiting factor for children reading in English (whether native speaker or not) is then a matter of comprehension.

However, Chinese is NOT a phonetic language. Written Chinese is logosyllabic (ie: each syllable is represented by a character) and there are upwards of 20,000-40,000 unique characters – of which you require about 2,000-4,000 to be considered functionally literate. A word can be either a single character (eg: 大 /big) or a combination of characters (eg: 眼睛/eye).

Here’s the sad truth: If your child understands more Chinese than they can read, the limiting factor for them reading Chinese books is character recognition. 

Furthermore, if your child is not a native speaker and doesn’t have much additional language support, they will be severely limited by both comprehension as well as character recognition.

Chinese literacy will be difficult. I cannot overstate that fact.

Consider also, the fact that millions of American Born Chinese (as well as Brought Over By Airplane) people can speak and understand Chinese and yet, even for them, they can perhaps barely read a menu. (And only because food is an incredible motivating factor.)

Here are some more sobering facts for you:

Chinese Character/Word Recognition by Grade Level, Taiwan

Grade LevelReading (characters / words)Writing (characters / words)
1400 / 600300 / 400
2800 / 1200600 / 800
31200 / 1800900 / 1200
41600 / 24001200 / 1600
52000 / 30001500 / 2400
62400 / 36001800 / 3000
Chart excerpted from GuavaRama's excellent post on Chinese Characters by Grade Level.


Chinese Character/Word Recognition by Grade Level, China

Grade LevelReading (characters / words)Writing (characters / words)
Chart uses data from Stackexchange's forum that references the original source at Baidu.


Chinese Character/Word Recognition by Grade Level, Mandarin Immersion in US

Grade LevelReading (characters / words)Writing (characters / words)
Chart uses data pulled from the few Mandarin Immersion schools that posted Character guides for each grade level. Also included some other data from anecdotal sources. Jinshan Mandarin Education Council, Woodstock School, MIP


Unfortunately, if your child already knows how to read English, it is highly improbable that their Chinese recognition is advanced enough for them to read at the same level (in subject matter, depth, and difficulty) as they can already read in English. (Incidentally, because they already understand and have applied the concepts of phonics and blending, they should pick up zhuyin really easily.)

From 我要吃小孩 (I Want to Eat a Child) by Sylviane Donnio, children's book

Zhuyin Sample 1: From 我要吃小孩 (I Want to Eat a Child) by Sylviane Donnio, children’s book

Consider Zhuyin Sample 1, an excerpt from a children’s book (click to embiggen). My almost six year old son, Cookie Monster, can read about 400-500 characters but still can’t read ALL of these characters on this page. He can read most of them – but definitely not ALL. So, even though he knows about 15% of the High Frequency Words, he still cannot read a children’s book.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that Cookie Monster is at about the 3rd-5th grade level in US Mandarin Immersion schools. If you think a 3rd-5th grader will find this book interesting beyond possibly five minutes (if even that), I would daresay you should reconsider.

Now, Cookie Monster is turning six in a few weeks and cannot read English (something I have chosen to do purposefully). But if he could read English, likely he would be able to read a comparable children’s story in English with great ease. And if he were used to that level of reading and comprehension, the fact that he could not read all the words in this “baby” book would be incredibly frustrating.

I have many friends whose kids, at six and a half, are already reading chapter books in English. There is NO WAY they could read chapter books in Chinese (and these are kids in 90/10 Mandarin Immersion schools).

As a result, the Chinese books they can read are too “babyish” for them and they lose interest either due to dull subject matter or because the stuff they would actually be interested in reading is too hard so they give up.

Zhuyin Sample 2: The explanation of a Tang classical poem, 靜夜思(A Quiet Night Thought) by 李白 (Li Bai)

Zhuyin offers your child a way to read the materials they want at the level they want without character recognition being a hurdle.

Because zhuyin is phonetic, it is a fantastic tool for “leveling” the reading field, as it were. As you can see from the pictures (click to embiggen), zhuyin is usually placed to the right of Chinese characters so children can read the characters they know and if they happen upon a character they don’t know, they can just look at the zhuyin to read the phonetic notation and they will be able to continue through the story with no problem. The only limit, again, being their understanding/comprehension (as it would be in English).

Zhuyin Sample 2 is an excerpt from a Chinese Tang poetry book I owned when I was a child. This particular page is explaining the meaning of the classical poem, 靜夜思(A Quiet Night Thought) by 李白 (Li Bai). Now, even though I can read perhaps at best, 800-1,000 characters, I can read every single word in this sample because of the zhuyin. Now, whether I comprehend these words is a different story, but I am not hindered from reading and learning from the text by my limited vocabulary.

Thus, a child, if they were interested in Chinese Tang poetry, could read and potentially understand this subject matter. (Truthfully, I think that if it were the same type of text explaining a Shakespearean sonnet in English, the comprehension level would likely be about the same).

Now, I don’t know too many kids interested in classical Chinese poetry – but surely, you can extrapolate and come up with some books a 3rd, 4th, or 5th grader might be interested in reading – and THOSE could be in zhuyin.

My point is that now, the primary obstacle (character recognition) to your child reading in Chinese has now been removed. English and Chinese reading are both now on a more “level” playing field. Of course, if your child is not a native speaker of Chinese, (and even if they are), most likely, because we live in an English speaking country, your child’s English comprehension will still surpass their Chinese comprehension.

But as I mentioned earlier, the more your child reads (in both quantity and variety), the more your child will understand.

Well, I can hear you thinking. Why not just get books in both pinyin and Chinese? And what about kids in China? Don’t they use pinyin and their pronunciation is just fine?

Great questions.

To the first, in China, my understanding is that only textbooks use pinyin with Chinese characters – and even then, only for young children. There is a reason children in Mainland China learn Chinese characters at a higher rate than kids in Taiwan. They need to amp up their character recognition in order to read the books at their intersecting comprehension and interest levels.

In Taiwan, zhuyin is only phased out at the 3rd-4th grade level so children can afford to learn Chinese characters at a slower rate than their Mainland Chinese counterparts. As a result, the majority of children’s literature will also have zhuyin so kids can enjoy many types of books without being limited by their lesser character recognition.

For kids in English speaking countries, there is a reason Immersion schools delay the teaching of pinyin until their students have already mastered reading in English. Otherwise, it is too easy for kids to confuse the “different” sounds each letter symbolizes in English and pinyin. When they finally do learn pinyin, their pronunciation of Chinese often suffers because it is much easier to “slip” into the English instead of the Chinese letter pronunciation.

As for why kids in China aren’t affected by pinyin pronunciations, I should think it’s obvious: they’re Chinese. They live in China. Where the official language is Mandarin Chinese. They already speak and understand Chinese (just like an American kid already speaks and understands English). I think it would be a little ridiculous to expect the Chinese people to have trouble pronouncing their own language.

When kids in China use pinyin, they are literally using it in the same manner kids in Taiwan are using zhuyin. But since they learn so many more characters at a lower grade level, there is less of a need to have books with pinyin in them. (Plus, there is a little problematic matter of formatting. Fitting Chinese characters to pinyin makes for very awkward formatting issues in books. Can you imagine how bulky a chapter book would be?)

However, since Taiwanese kids are still using zhuyin up to about 3rd or 4th grade, there are lots and lots of books (both chapter and non, fiction or non-fiction) with zhuyin. (I recall that in 5th grade, I read Little Women in Chinese first – and all due to the presence of zhuyin. So to this day, I still think of the four women’s character names in Chinese first.)

As a side benefit, because the books have more complicated characters with zhuyin, it also helps children with literacy and recognizing harder characters. They have already encountered them in their books and subject matter so when they finally learn the actual character without zhuyin, the kids have already been exposed enough so that it is relatively easier to remember.

Plus, now it doesn’t matter as much whether the characters are in Traditional or Simplified because regardless, as long as there is zhuyin, the kids can read the characters. In full disclosure, this is a bit of a false benefit since zhuyin is pretty much only used with Traditional characters since it is used primarily in Taiwan. So, it doesn’t really help kids who only know Traditional characters with Simplified.

However, it does open up a huge section of books to kids who only know Simplified (and honestly, Traditional, too) because as I mentioned, as long as they can read the zhuyin, character recognition is no longer the problem. (I wouldn’t be surprised then if kids also picked up Traditional characters, too. Another win!)

Another ancillary benefit of learning zhuyin is that since zhuyin was created from ancient forms of Chinese characters, lots of them show up as components in the actual Chinese characters (as well as look like the sound they make). This helps children recognize and remember the parts and components of more complicated characters. (My post last week discusses a little more in depth how characters are formed, as well as Traditional and Simplified characters.)

I know that Cookie Monster and Gamera, as well as Guava Rama’s son, Astroboy, all point out the different zhuyin, smaller characters, and radicals they see as components in a word. These visual cues definitely help the children remember what a character looks like, sounds like, and means. (My guess is that this may prove more useful with Traditional characters since many Simplified characters might have elided these components.)

For example (for clarity, I’m only including the components that look like zhuyin):

– An ㄠ and ㄏ in 麼
– 3 ㄑin 輕
– An ㄦ in 兒
– A ㄙ in 台

Now, obviously, kids can find other visual cues without knowing zhuyin – so by no means is it conferring a benefit the kids wouldn’t otherwise have. However, it is just an extra tool (actually, an extra 37 tools) the kids can use to help with recognizing Chinese characters – and as we have already established, Chinese is a difficult language to read and our kids need all the help they can get.

So, in summary, here are the main reasons why I think you should consider teaching your kids zhuyin in addition to pinyin:

1) Removes the considerable barrier of character recognition from reading age/interest appropriate materials. This leaves only the problem of Chinese comprehension which can easily be ameliorated by more reading practice (as well as listening and conversation which usually are well ahead of reading comprehension in English as well).

2) Opens up a vast selection of age/interest appropriate materials from Taiwan because character recognition is no longer an issue. This way, even if your child has only learned Simplified characters thus far, if they know zhuyin, they can also read (and perhaps learn) Traditional.

3) Improves pronunciation and tones because the symbols more accurately reflect those sounds. (Again, I realize that though the symbols may convert to roman letters, we as native English speakers, have a harder time “switching” pronunciation and can either slip or get lazy. Whatever the reason, the temptation to “read” the pinyin with English pronunciations is high.)

4) Increases character recognition of more complex characters due to exposure.

5) Adds an additional visual cue for children to help remember more complex and compounded characters.

6) If your child can already read English and understands the concept of blending and phonics, they will learn zhuyin quickly and easily. If they cannot already read English, this will introduce these concepts and make learning to read English easier.

7) Adds more tools in your children’s Chinese Toolkit in the sense that zhuyin is an alternate way to type on keyboards, look up words in dictionaries (sometimes, I just cannot figure out the pinyin of a word for the life of me and I just end up resorting to zhuyin and I find it in second), and substitute for unknown characters when writing (although I suppose technically, they can do that with pinyin, too).

8) Adds a “sound” cue for children. (h/t Guava Rama)

– ㄦ(er) in 兒 (er):  sounds like the zhuyin
– ㄅ(be) in 包 (bao): starts with the ㄅ zhuyin sound

Alright folks. As always, I am incapable of writing anything in brief. Thanks for sticking it through.

I sincerely hope you consider adding zhuyin to your children’s Chinese Toolkit. Most Mandarin Immersion elementary schools expect their kids to graduate at 5th grade with about 600-800 characters. That is only 20-27% of the High Frequency Words your children will need in order to be actually literate.

If that is fine with you, wonderful!

I am at approximately that level and except for when I’m in Taiwan or China, that has rarely ever prevented me from living a full and wonderful life in the US. (And even when I have been in Taiwan or China, the pain was relatively minor. Mostly my ego and being illiterate in a country where I look like the people there and the shame I feel – well, that’s a temporary and small thing.)

However, if you would like to increase your child’s Chinese literacy to be functional in Chinese/Taiwanese society, zhuyin will help you reach that goal with greater facility.

Thanks so much for reading! Have a great weekend.

Other resources:

1) Zhuyin Table – a complete listing of all Zhuyin/Bopomofo syllables used in Standard Chinese

2) A great Zhuyin/Pinyin conversion chart from Little Dynasty. (I don’t know how printable it is, but it’s the prettiest table I found.)

3) Miss Panda also has a great printable Zhuyin/Pinyin Conversion Table.

So You Want Your Kid To Learn Chinese

*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.

Who Made Me Gatekeeper?

It has occurred to me that based on my previous posts, it can seem that I have some sort of chip on my shoulder when it comes to Mandarin Immersion. (Perhaps “chip” seems inadequate. “Boulder,” maybe?) And perhaps, at times, I do. But like I mentioned in my previous post, just because my delivery isn’t to your liking doesn’t mean what I’m saying is not also accurate.

At any rate, I’d like to clear some things up and answer some (self-selected) questions folks may have. To change things up a bit, I’ve decided to do the post Q&A style today. If only because that requires less transitional writing. (Hey, what can I say? I want to be informative, but also, I’m really lazy.)

So, without further ado, a highly curated and self-induced Q&A.

Q: Why are you so mad all the time anyway? Just what is your problem with Mandarin Immersion and people who are not Chinese/Asian (non-heritage speakers) who want to do Mandarin Immersion?

Since I’ve already written several posts on this topic, I’ll refer you to those:

1) How An Article Confirmed My Worst Fears About Mandarin Immersion

tl;dr: Even on the topic of Mandarin Immersion wherein the majority of students are of Asian or Chinese descent, the focus is on the white experience. STOP OBLITERATING ASIANS FROM THEIR OWN STORY!

2) Hating On Mark Zuckerberg’s Chinese

tl;dr: Why is a rich white guy learning and having mediocre Chinese so impressive when millions of immigrants are FLUENT in English (albeit with an accent) but insulted and maligned and told, “You’re in America, speak American!” (And usually with laughably bad English.)

3) Will All This Mandarin Immersion Be For Naught?

tl;dr: My internal conflict re: the Mandarin Immersion bandwagon. On the one hand, I’m pleased at the increase in resources and classes. On the other, I’m still really annoyed by my language being relegated to a trend.

Q: Why can’t you be happier for more Mandarin Immersion opportunities?

As I have repeatedly mentioned, I am happy there are more opportunities for Mandarin Immersion. Anytime more people can be introduced to another language (in this case, Chinese) is a good thing. The more folks there are who express interest, the more resources and opportunities there are for me to take advantage of for my children. So, in purely Machiavellian terms, it is in my own self-interest to promote Mandarin Immersion.

However, it is possible to be both happy about more Mandarin Immersion opportunities and point out shit that makes me angry about the current situation.

Truly, even though there are parts of me that scoff at all the unrealistic expectations folks have for Mandarin Immersion, what’s it to me? Who cares if people are doing it for the “wrong” reason? Or don’t have a snowball’s chance in Hell for their kids to actually become and retain fluency? How does it harm me? And how is it any of my business?

The only time it does matter to me is when there is actual harm to me and my kids. (And by harm, I consider racism, entitlement, etc. all forms of harm.)

Again, my main concerns relate to the following:

1) When non-heritage parents and students think that just because they know some (or are learning) Chinese that they are now somehow Chinese and can understand and speak for the Chinese/Asian American experience.

2) When non-heritage parents and students dismiss the legitimate concerns and experiences of Chinese/Asian American parents and students.

3) When heritage parents and students dismiss the legitimate concerns and experiences of non-heritage parents and students.

4) When the white experience and viewpoint is of primary importance and spotlighted to the exclusion or tokenism of other experiences. (Ie: business as usual.)

5) The entitlement and utter cluelessness non-heritage (okokok, I mean white) parents exhibit when they complain about their kids being excluded or not popular or otherwise experiencing what every single minority person in America experiences to some degree on a daily basis. Then they cry “reverse racism!”

Q: Why are you so divisive? 

As for division, I am not advocating for exclusivity or some sort of litmus test. But rather, truthfulness in a community. There is no peace when the offenses and hurts of part of the community are papered over and over again for the sake of “unity.”

That isn’t real unity, opportunity, or peace. That is a lie.

ETA: Just had a thought. Why is it when I, as a Chinese American person, don’t like the idea of white people jumping on the Mandarin Immersion bandwagon, I am considered an elitist? But when white people do it about their golf courses, or financial institutions, or neighborhoods, they’re just “keeping tradition”?

Q: It seems like you’re wanting a litmus test or some type of delineation to see who should be allowed to participate in Mandarin Immersion. As if there were a “right” way to do it.

As appealing as a litmus test initially sounds, ultimately, I find it a dangerous slippery slope.

After all, who is to say who should “qualify” and be a “good” Mandarin Immersion candidate? Should it only be native speakers and their children because the parents want to pass on their cultural heritage and legacy? Should it also include heritage parents who CANNOT speak the language because they feel regret at their lack of fluency and because they also want to pass on their cultural heritage? Should it include only white and non-heritage allies? Should it include only white and non-heritage families who show the appropriate amount of dedication and commitment to learning a whole different language and culture? For that matter, should it include only native families who show the appropriate amount of dedication and commitment?

And even if we could “decide” who the “right” people are to allow in the Mandarin Immersion classes, who should do the deciding? And why them? And the danger of having such a calcified code of rules and qualifications is that all of them are so subjective. A person runs the risk of failing their own litmus test!

You know what that’s called? DOGMA.

I am uninterested in dogma.

I think the only litmus test is that the participants be human and someone in their family signed them up and enrolled them in Mandarin Immersion. Everything else is gravy.

Q: Who made you The Mandarin Immersion Gatekeeper?

No one. Aren’t you paying attention?

I am not The Mandarin Immersion Gatekeeper. Nor do I wish to be. After all, who wants to be the one who’s telling others that the “Seat’s Taken?”

I’ll freely admit. I used to wish there was a gatekeeper of sorts. You know, to keep the rabble out. But over time, I realized that that type of thinking was incredibly arrogant and divisive and ultimately, not helpful to the conversation. Plus, if I loved Mandarin Immersion, then really, I want as many people to take part in it as possible.

Personally, I think all schools should have some type of language immersion – be it Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic, Russian – whatever. Having more languages and cultures can only be a good thing. Keys to better understanding our allies and enemies and what have you.

Some instrumental posts that have changed my mind from being super “conservative” as it were about Mandarin Immersion, have actually come from the geek/SFF world. Many long time gamers or purveyors of Geek Culture (yes, capitalized) got all upset by the mass marketization of the things they love. And SF author, John Scalzi, wrote several posts that helped me a lot.

Now, I realize that the analogy is imperfect because I wouldn’t say geeks are or ever were an oppressed minority with major justice issues needing address. But the parallels are there. (Although there IS a need to address injustice and minority representation WITHIN the forms of comics/games/books. But that is an altogether different post.)

Anyhow, the main articles that really resonated with me are:

Who Gets To Be a Geek? Anyone Who Wants to Be – John Scalzi

A Creator’s Note to “Gatekeepers” – John Scalzi

When Someone Says They Love A Thing That You Love, Don’t Challenge Them; Embrace Them, And Love That Thing Together – Wil Wheaton

Q: You talk a lot about what you don’t want from fellow participants in Mandarin Immersion. What are things you would want? Or think that people “should” do?

Sigh. Again with the “shoulds.” I know. It’s human nature to want to draw a line in the sand and separate the sheep from the goats.

I don’t want people to live in fear of a bunch of “shoulds.” I don’t want non-heritage families to be kow-towing to heritage families. (But wouldn’t that be a nice reversal? NONONONONONO. Let’s not even go down that path.)

Rather, I consider some of these on my Wish List. A bunch of, “Wouldn’t it be nice if people acted in this manner?”

Here then are some of my “It Would Be Nices”:

– For non-heritage parents to listen, truly listen (without being the Tone Police), to the experiences, pain, and opinions of Chinese and Asian American parents. Language does not exist in a vacuum.

– For non-heritage parents to think before they speak. Especially thoughtless comments like, “What is ‘Asian,’ anyway?” or “Will they make any friends that speak English?”

– For both sets of parents to remember that not all Chinese Americans can already speak or read Chinese.

– For heritage and native speakers to not seem/be so smug.

– For non-heritage speakers to remember that it’s not all about them.

– While we’re at it, it would be nice for heritage speakers to remember that, too.

– For each group to remember that there are unique challenges each type of parent faces and to be a safe space.

Ultimately, the community of Mandarin Immersion families needs a healthy mix of heritage and non-heritage families. If the community is limited only to heritage families, there is no way Mandarin Immersion will reach the critical mass it needs in order to get more resources and money. If the community is limited only to non-heritage families, there is a great loss of cultural context.

Truly, it is possible to recognize that there can be different needs for different families – and to address those different needs. Let’s be respectful to the unique challenges each type of parent faces and be a safe space. Ultimately, we want to raise happy, healthy, and hopefully bilingual children.

Feel free to add more questions in the comments! As per usual, all trolling will be ignored and/or disappeared.