The Hardest Part of Raising Your Kids Bilingual

hardest part of raising kids bilingual*A/N: This piece is part of an on-going series. You can find the rest under the So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese tag or in the Main Menu.

Alright folks, super short post today. At least for me. Especially in regards to Chinese language learning.

But truthfully, there isn’t much to say on the subject. (Other than perhaps a “No duh” from you to me about it. I understand. I promise not to be offended if you do. After all, I am pretty much telling you that I’m expecting that exact reaction.)

As parents who are trying to teach our children to be bilingual in Chinese and English, (with the bulk of our emphasis on Chinese acquisition and retention), we are constantly worried about making sure we are using our time wisely and of course, with the “best” materials.

We research whether we should choose Simplified or Traditional characters; pinyin and/or zhuyin; Mandarin Immersion or Saturday Schools or homeschooling; summer trips and then whether local or overseas programs; au pairs; types of curricula; philosophies and approaches; etc., etc., etc.

This, of course, doesn’t include all the time we spend forming/attending/searching for Mandarin playgroups; schools; Mommy and Me programs; really, ANYTHING in Chinese to help bridge the gap and teach our kids vocabulary and everyday usage they might not otherwise receive.

We do all these things because we know that we and our children have limited hours in the day/week/month/year and before we know it, the “easiest” times for our kids to “effortlessly” absorb and spit out Chinese will have passed and then all we have is a kid with a calcified brain that can no longer pick up new languages and tones with ease.

Some of these are easier than others to set up or decide depending on our own language/ethnic/family backgrounds; physical locations; resources; and our Chinese language goals for our children. (After all, if you just want your kid to speak and understand Chinese at a basic level, then your work is a little bit easier than someone who wants their kids to be a fluent speaker as well as read and write at a high functioning level.)

But regardless of all this work (and it is work!) we put in, that is nowhere near the hardest part about raising bilingual kids.

Why?

Because although what we choose to use with our kids surely has a major impact, it is the how and really, the how often that is just as – if not more important.

We spend all this time and effort and resources on finding a solution to our kids magically speaking Chinese – when really, if we just consistently applied what we already knew or were doing (or knew that we should be doing), that would take care of the majority of our problem as it is. 

But it’s really, really hard to be consistent.

I mean, seriously, all of parenting is really to be consistent – be it discipline, mealtimes, cleaning up, homework, bedtime routines, stability, etc.

It’s just that it’s really, really hard.

For instance, I am horribly inconsistent when it comes to discipline and bedtimes. Is it any wonder that my children are terrors and don’t go to bed at a reasonable time to promote optimal growth?

Also, my kids are speaking more and more English. I know why and how to solve it (drastically reduce their English media consumption and replace with Chinese media consumption), but I am honestly too lazy to enforce it.

I have lots of reasons why it would be hard or difficult for me to properly enforce, but ultimately, it’s because I’m inconsistent.

I know Cookie Monster (6.5) and Gamera (4.5) are capable of reading many Chinese books (especially with the presence of zhuyin), but that would require consistently sitting with my children as they struggle through blending tones or recalling some of the characters. I mean, even just applying fifteen minutes a day per kid (for a max of thirty minutes), would make a huge difference.

I know for a fact that their Chinese speaking and reading would vastly improve with just these two changes because my good friend, Fleur, IS consistent with her eldest daughter, Bebe. (Ok, in all fairness, she is disgustingly consistent with all THREE of her daughters. I can’t believe we’re still friends.)

Bebe is about nine months older than Cookie Monster and she learned zhuyin at approximately the same time as Cookie Monster. But because Fleur makes a monthly trek all around the Bay Area, hitting every single Chinese library within a fifty minute radius of her home to borrow a bjillion (actual number) of Chinese library books for Bebe to read, Bebe’s Chinese reading comprehension and ability far supersedes Cookie Monster’s. (How she keeps track of which books come from which library and when they’re due is beyond my limited brain capacity.)

Bebe consistently reads the books almost every day and pretty much always has her nose in a Chinese book. It is fantastic. (Keep in mind, the kids have incredibly full schedules due to attending a Mandarin Immersion school about an hour away from their home and have rare down time.)

Now, Bebe is a bright and talented girl, but there is no reason to think that her potential vastly outstrips that of Cookie Monster. The key difference is all the consistent hard work and effort on both Fleur and Bebe’s part (and the utter lack of it on mine and Cookie Monster’s).

And to compare Fleur and my Chinese learning philosophies, they’re pretty similar. Again, the main difference (and the most important) is that Fleur consistently applies our philosophy.

What is my point with all this folderol? (And also, ~950 words in! Whoo! Sorry, I guess I totally misled you on the super short post part.)

My hope is that you find both freedom from “perfection” as well as a challenge to be more mindful of what you are currently doing.

Odds are, you embarked on this Chinese/English bilingual journey after much research and consideration of all the stuff I stated at the start of this post. And those are all important things, to be sure.

But now that you are done, or mostly done, making “decisions” (which, incidentally, you can change your mind on and do something else), just do it already. And do it a lot on a consistent, steady basis.

To paraphrase my old boss, “A mediocre plan brilliantly executed will usually outperform a brilliant plan executed with mediocrity.”

Meaning, of course, that even if you don’t have the latest research or perfect curriculum or teaching method or whatever, as long as you execute your plan well (and usually, that means being consistent), you will do far better than the parent with the most brilliant and up-to-date language acquisition plan that fails to consistently apply it.

Whew. That is one long, run-on sentence.

The “Duh” part of this post, of course, comes when figuring out how to be consistent. And unfortunately, the only way to be consistent is to actually be consistent.

And as every parent knows, that’s the hardest part. I mean, if it were that easy to be consistent, then my children would be amazingly obedient and I would never yell and my kids would always know what to expect from me versus being somewhat unsure which mommy is going to show up at the moment.

The beauty of it though is that you can start any time. All you have to do is start. And the more you build whatever it is you want to do into a habit, the less mindful of it you will have to be, and the more and more “natural” it will become.

Fake it til you make it, friends. Fake it til you’re no longer faking it and it’s exactly what you want it to be. (And when that works, please let me know so I feel better!)

Have a great weekend!

 

The People Who Sabotage Your Kid’s Chinese

Sabotage Chinese*A/N: This piece is part of an on-going series. You can find the rest under the So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese tag or in the Main Menu.

Last week, we talked about how you can undermine your kid’s best efforts at learning Chinese. This week, we talk about OTHER people who do the same. (Or as Hapa Papa calls it: cockblocking Chinese acquisition.)

Now, whether or not these people sabotage your kid’s Chinese learning on purpose because they are grade-A assholes, or because they are clueless and well-meaning, that is open to interpretation. (I want to say that most people are the latter and not the former. If they are the former, it would behoove us to extricate ourselves from their influence.)

Regardless, here are the types of people who will hurt your child’s journey to Chinese fluency. Special thanks to GuavaRama for helping me brainstorm.

1) Parents/Family Members/Friends who insist on speaking English (and oftentimes, poorly) to your children even though their Chinese is native-level.

Usually, it is because our parents and family are so used to operating in English – this being an English world (at least in the US). Our friends and family simply forget because they are un-used to speaking in Chinese. This certainly was the case for myself when I first had Cookie Monster. It felt strange and odd to be speaking Chinese when I had spent at least a decade or more NOT speaking or thinking in Chinese.

Even now, when we have our Mandarin playdates, it is hard and takes conscious effort and will to speak to the other moms in Chinese versus resort to English because it is easier. I wish I could say that I’m a really good enforcer about speaking Chinese, but I want to say I’m speaking Chinese only 40% of the time to my friends. To the children, I speak Chinese 90% of the time – but the whole point of a Mandarin playdate is to model and speak Chinese around the kids. After all, they can’t learn Chinese in a vacuum.

2) Unsupportive spouse and parents/family members.

Similar to the first point, this is a less benign situation. I’m talking about spouses and family who are actively unsupportive and campaign against you through:

– Snide remarks such as, “Why bother? English is more important!”
– Arguments about time, money, and resources being “better spent” in other areas
– Purposely speaking English when they know you want to emphasize Chinese
– Putting all the burden on you because you’re the one who wants the kids to learn Chinese
– Sabotage efforts to implement OPOL (One Parent, One Language) or other language learning methods

Of course, we would all ideally love to be related to (and married to) people who agree with everything we want and actively support us by learning Chinese to fluency. Short of that, however, I have no real advice to give other than if your spouse or family are actively not caring for you and are dismissive of you, that is a huge red flag of other issues in your relationships. (And totally out of the scope of this post. I digress.)

3) Dismissive and/or judgmental people.

Similar to point 2, this is for folks outside your family to whom you may turn to for advice or help.

These are the people who, when you ask a question about sending your kids to Taiwan for the summer or trying a Saturday Chinese School, respond with statements like:

“I could never send my children away for so long…”

“Why bother? We’re in the US so they should learn English.”

“Chinese school is such a huge waste of time. I spent twelve years in Chinese school and didn’t learn anything at all.”

“I only expect my children to speak. Learning to read is too hard.”

“I don’t want my kids to spend all their time doing chinese and nothing else. I want them to learn other things.”

Again, it’s not so much the statements that are bad, per se. After all, these are valid opinions the speakers hold. However, it’s the tone that I find most troubling. I mean, when someone has already made a decision to do something, is it really helpful to make disparaging remarks instead of giving them discrete and helpful advice?

4) People who misrepresent either the time or effort their children expend on learning Chinese.

Whether this is because of wanting to humble brag or make it seem like their kids are “gifted” when it really is just sweat equity, I don’t know. I doubt it’s because they’re actively trying to sabotage you and your child’s efforts.

However, to my mind, these types of people do more to harm your child’s Chinese language journey than anyone else (except perhaps Mandarin Immersion adminstrators who sell an implausible dream of Mandarin fluency – but more on that in the next point).

In fact, anyone who actively contributes to unrealistic or implausible expectations of Chinese acquisition and fluency is doing a huge disservice to everybody.

At best, other parents feel like failures since their kids take a lot of work to be fluent and literate in Chinese. At worst, parents erroneously believe that learning and maintaining Chinese in an English-speaking country is a cake walk and as a result, under-prepare their children – with less than spectacular results.

So, let me set the record straight. If you want your child to be fluent and literate in Chinese, it takes a fuckload of time and effort. Fluency is not magic. It is hard work. Odds are, your child is not a language savant. Sorry.

5) Mandarin Immersion or Chinese School administrators/school officials/teachers/board members who sell you an implausible fiction of native grade-level fluency via 50/50 (or even 90/10) model. 

I know I discussed this last week but it bears repeating.

That is utterly ridiculous. Kids in China and Taiwan are achieving that status with 100% immersion, 24/7/365. The administrators say you will get that from 50/50 immersion 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, 9 months a year?

Keep in mind that minimum Chinese literacy is 2,000 characters (Chinese 3rd or 4th grade level and Taiwanese 6th grade level). The average Mandarin Immersion school expects 430-700 characters/words at 5th grade. That is at best, 35% of the minimum literacy level. Can you imagine reading this post and only understanding 1 out of 3 words? That’s not reading (let alone comprehension) in even the loosest of interpretations.

6) Well-meaning people who have zero understanding of how language acquisition/fluency or Chinese work. 

As I mentioned last week, most people don’t understand the basics of bilingualism/multilingualism – let alone the best way to teach and learn spoken and written Chinese.

If you can figure out how to just nod politely and thank them for their words without seeming to ask for more “advice,” please let me know. I need all the help I can get on that front.

So, with all these types of people out there putting up roadblocks in the way of our children (or quite frankly, US), what can we do to prevent them from sabotaging our efforts?

Remove the toxic people from your life. Ignore them.

Obviously, if it’s your spouse or your family members, that will be a little more difficult. And I’m definitely not advocating divorce or estrangement just because of learning Chinese.

However, I do adjure you to examine your relationships with the toxic people in your life and determine if that is something you want in general. The conflict and the way people address that conflict is telling of the health of your relationships and can be a red flag.

But again, that is not the focus of this post (and really, none of my business or expertise anyway).

So, what can we do instead of just removing negative people from our circles?

Surround yourself with your “tribe.”

By “tribe,” I refer to people who have similar goals and aesthetics as yourself – be it having your kids learn Chinese or whatever else you want to pursue in your life.

Without a tribe, this long and sometimes difficult journey can feel really lonely and isolated.

For myself, I have three main groups of people who “get” me and my Chinese obsession. The main one being a group of women that I met through a Mandarin Playgroup when Cookie Monster was 15 months old. Through these women, I have found two amazing Chinese preschool teachers, various Chinese classes, Mandarin Immersion schools, Chinese libraries – you name it, they’ve found it. I just provide some comic relief.

Between us five, we have kids in regular public school with Chinese tutors and Chinese school; kids in Mandarin Immersion charter schools; kids in Mandarin Immersion private schools, and kids who are homeschooled in both Mandarin and English (that would be me). We have varying enrichment classes in Chinese, swap resources, gossip about schools and our families, and of course, supplement this all with copious amounts of delicious food – chief among them being boba and ramen.

My next huge sense of belonging was when I found the Raising Bilingual Children in Chinese & English Facebook group. It’s definitely a super intense “Tiger Mom” type of group – but it is filled with great resources, advice, and I love tapping into the hive mind. Plus, I found Oliver Tu, and since he’s a few years ahead of us in the child-rearing game, and has excellent results with his kids, I am super pleased.

Through this group, I have met a new group of friends, including the incomparable GuavaRama. It’s been good to see that there are other super intense people out there who have even higher standards than I do. What a revelation! And a comfort!

Lastly, I have the moms who have kids going to my kids’ Chinese preschools as well as the moms who homeschool their kids in both Chinese and English. This is a more casual group, but it’s a nice way to provide my kids with friends and socialization, while meeting my need to have friends who are all over the spectrum in terms of Tiger/Panda parenting.

So again, I exhort you. Surround yourself with your tribe. With the people who “get” you and your Chinese goals for your children. (And with the stuff you find important and love in general.)

In regards to the Chinese aspect, find people who have similar goals, aesthetics, and general level of intensity. The level of intensity is important. If you are only with people who are way more gung-ho than you are, you will feel discouraged and as if you’re constantly failing.

If you are only with people who are much less invested in Chinese, then you will be annoyed and frustrated because none of their suggestions will be helpful (or at least, much less so) and their experiences and standards will feel too elementary and not applicable.

I find it helpful to have a bunch of folks who are a lot like me, but not exactly. Not only because that is unlikely and impossible since (thankfully), there is only one of me, but also because it is helpful and useful to have friends who are just a smidge more intense as well as friends who are just a tiny bit less intense.

The super Tiger parents have a ton of great ideas and I get a glimpse of what my life could be like should I so choose it. Plus, it’s so awesome to see their children speak such excellent Chinese as well as be so literate! The Panda parents are there to remind me to chill out and that there are other things in life besides my kids learning Chinese. (Blasphemy!)

However, remember that too vast a philosophical divide can have you back at square one, where you feel isolated and alone; as if you are the only crazy person forcing your kids to learn Chinese.

Oh, and chemistry. Chemistry is important.

Incidentally, I include myself in this caveat. I know I can be way too intense for some folks and I realize that my methods (not to mention profane proclivities) are not for everybody. That’s okay with me. There are so many good resources out there that I am not arrogant enough to think that I have the last and final word on the subject.

Keep what is good and helpful. Toss the rest.

Alright, friends. I hope this post was helpful and that I’m not one of those “toxic people” for you. (But if I am, you know what to do.) Have a Happy Friday and I wish you best of luck in finding your tribe.

 

How to Sabotage Your Kid’s Chinese

How to Sabotage Your Kid's Chinese*A/N: This piece is part of an on-going series. You can find the rest under the So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese tag or in the Main Menu.

Has it only been a month and a half since my last post in the series? It seems much longer. Welp, I guess I haven’t been as derelict as I thought. Whooo! Bonus!

Since I’ve written so much about what to do, I thought I could write a post about what not to do. (Basically, I’m lazy and thought I would rehash the same topic with different words so it seems like I’m more prolific than I actually am. I see that you’re on to me. Oh, look! Shiny!)

So, without further ado, if you want to undercut your child’s efforts at learning Chinese, all you have to do are the following:

1) Don’t have a clearly defined goal or plan of action.

I know. You’re likely sick of me harping about this after months of this series – but it cannot be said enough. Chinese fluency requires intention.

This is just basic common sense.

Without a clearly defined goal, you have no idea what you’re working towards and if you’ve achieved it. Without a plan of action, you’re just engaging in wish fulfillment.

Solution: Clearly define your goal in regards to your child(ren)’s Chinese acquisition. Create a course of action and do it.

Do you want your child to:

a) Understand only (and to what extent)

b) Understand and speak (and to what degree of fluency, authenticity of tones, etc.)

c) Understand, speak, read (and again, to what degree)

d) Understand, speak, read, write (to what degree)

Once you determine what you want, then you can figure out what you need to do to get it. Plus, it saves you a lot of unnecessary angst.

For example, if you only want your kid to understand and speak Chinese on a basic level, you really don’t need to waste any time on reading and writing Chinese. Or, if you want your kid to also read and write, you know you need to invest resources to do so versus thinking they will somehow magically become literate.

2) Fail to understand how language acquisition works. 

To be fair, although there are a lot of theories, scientists aren’t really that sure, either. However, there are studies out there as well as a ton of articles on the internet (especially those focused on bilingualism/multilingualism). Read them to get a sense of how your child can learn another language – especially Mandarin.

For instance, many of us erroneously believe that all our children really need is exposure to a language. Thus, we play Chinese songs or stories on endless loop. However, according to NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children (affiliate link), unless your child already knows Chinese, your kids will tune out the language because in their mind, it’s gibberish.

A better way for your children to be exposed to Chinese is to have them watch shows – especially where you can see the mouths of the characters while speaking. That way, your children can see distinctly when and where the sound of a word begins or ends.

The other day, a woman on a homeschool forum I read asked local parents for recommendations for her 10 year old daughter. Her daughter wanted to learn Mandarin, but had no previous exposure to the language. This woman is convinced that all she needs is to find or create a two week camp that teaches art or music or whatever but ALL in Chinese and her child will magically learn Chinese in this manner.

After reading the post, I was beside myself with incredulity. Sorry, lady. That is both a complete failure to understand how language is learned – as well as having totally unrealistic expectations.

Solution: Avail yourself to reading a few articles on bilingualism/multilingualism – especially in children. Here’s a helpful article on some of the myths regarding early language learning. (It also lists sources that can be useful.)

I’m not talking so much about how bilingualism changes your brain scans or whatever – but more on the process of how to encourage fluency, or to teach a second language (or a third). Learn about OPOL (One Parent One Language) and other language methods.

3) Fail to learn or understand how Mandarin is different than English – as well as fail to understand how written Chinese works.

One of my readers pointed out to me that many non-speaking parents don’t realize just how different Chinese is from English. Most parents’ only frame of reference for learning a different language will likely be from learning Spanish or French (or some other romantic language) in high school. The romantic languages are not that different from English and a lot of the words and phrases can be guessed due to Latin roots and commonalities between the languages (such as a shared alphabet).

Not so with Chinese.

Not only is Chinese a tonal language, the grammar is quite different, too. (Although there are no verb tenses so that’s easier!)

Furthermore, the written language is so different and uses different parts of the brain that many parents don’t realize just how many characters one needs in order to be barely literate – let alone well-read. Parents simply have no frame of reference for how to learn characters in an efficient and effective manner.

Solution: Learn about the Chinese language – both the basic understanding of tones/tonal languages, as well as how the written language works. You don’t have to be an expert, but have a general understanding of the topic.

4) Speak English to your children.

Now obviously, if you do not speak Chinese (or do not speak it with high proficiency), how else are you supposed to communicate with your kid? Don’t worry, I’m referring to folks who can speak Chinese. (I’m also referring to folks who can speak little to no Chinese.)

Since we are raising our children in an English speaking country, the fact is that our children will not have much (if any) exposure to the sound and rhythm of Chinese. It is very hard to learn to speak a language in a vacuum.

Therefore, the easiest way to expose our kids to Chinese is to speak it to them. After all, that’s how people in Chinese speaking countries learn to speak and understand Chinese, right?

Solution: Whenever possible, speak Chinese. Even if you think it’s terrible or not up to snuff.

If you don’t speak Chinese, learn a few basic words and start using them. Have your kid teach them to you. Studies have shown that your bad accent really won’t hinder your children’s Chinese – especially if they are surrounded by people who do speak correctly.

What is most important is your enthusiasm and encouragement.

5) Believe the hype (especially if you and/or your child are not ethnically Chinese).

What do I mean by hype?

I’m talking about Mandarin Immersion school administrators overselling the efficacy of their programs, telling you that your non-speaking, non-heritage kid is going to be grade-level fluent/literate with kids in China and Taiwan in their 50/50 Immersion school.

That is utterly ridiculous. Kids in China and Taiwan are achieving that status with 100% immersion, 24/7/365. The administrators say you will get that from 50/50 immersion 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, 9 months a year? What delusional world is this?

I’m talking about the False Sense of Fluency (FSOF) folks get when Chinese people ooh and aah over your non-Chinese kid when they open their mouth and say, “Ni hao” as if they’re some prodigy. Due to American Mandarin Fluency Standards (AMFS), Chinese people have a super low-bar for Americans speaking Chinese. As a result, anything more than complete ignorance is given worthless acclaim.

I’m talking about when language teachers may prevaricate about your child’s actual ability due to fear, avarice, or even a misplaced sense of encouragement. (I’m reminded of tone-deaf American Idol contestants bragging that their voice teachers tell them they’re brilliant.)

I mean, your kid might be a language savant. (But probably not.)

Solution: Trust, but verify. Find out what actual metrics successful immersion models are using. What is the real word/character count of Chinese learning in native schools? Ask your administrators hard questions – and demand accountability.

6) Have inappropriate expectations.

Often because of FSOF, AMSF, not understanding how language works, bilingualism, education, limits of different immersion models, etc., we may have false expectations of our children and their progress with Chinese. Whether it is expecting kids to be “fluent” after a few weeks of class, or thinking that all you have to do is send your kids to class without any supplementing on your part, that will greatly hinder your child’s Chinese.

Solution: Acknowledge your expectations. Write them down. Be specific. (Often, these are very similar to our stated goals.)

Examine what you are currently doing and determine if what you are doing is enough to meet your expectations. Like with point 5, find out what metrics you can use to accurately measure your child’s progress and use them. Educate yourself. Speak to actual people who can speak Chinese and who will tell you the truth about your child’s abilities.

7) Emphasize literacy and writing over fluidity in speaking and understanding.

Personally, I’m a big fan of my children being literate in Chinese. However, in my list of priorities for them, speaking and understanding trump all. Mostly because it is possible to be good at reading and writing without ever being able to speak well. And truthfully, what we really want for our children to do is effectively communicate in Chinese – and without good speaking or listening ability, they cannot.

Take French or Spanish, for example. I took 4-5 years of French in junior high and high school. And while I can likely read some French and say some basic things, there is ZERO possibility of me understanding a conversation in French. Not unless the French person spoke so slowly as to be barely speaking at all.

As for Spanish, I can read some due to my exposure to French. But although I never took a single Spanish class, I can understand far more in Spanish than French simply because I used to live in LA and am used to hearing (as well as attempting to speak) Spanish.

Instinctively, we understand that someone who is learning English overseas is not going to be speaking at native-level English – even after many years of study. In fact, it is a common complaint (especially, if we want to stereotype), when we call customer service and are routed to folks who can speak English, but perhaps might not be easily understood.

This goes triply for speaking Chinese. Why are we so arrogant in assuming that a 50/50 Mandarin Immersion model (or even a 90/10) will replicate native level?

Keep in mind: being able to converse in limited contexts (eg: following a modeled conversation) is not actual fluency.

My friend’s kid attends a local Mandarin Immersion school and she was attempting to have a conversation with a first grader. The kid could not understand my friend’s basic questions because they were not within his context of school. He also kept insisting that 200 in Chinese was “two hundred” and didn’t understand that 兩百 (liang3 bai3/200) is the same as “two hundred.”

This is after a YEAR of Kindergarten Mandarin Immersion and part of first grade.

Solution: Focus more on watching TV or listening to audio. Don’t focus so much on reading in Kindergarten. (Especially if you are not native speakers.)

People in other countries get it. They know that they need to improve listening and speaking – and that’s why English learning starts younger and younger. My cousin in Taiwan has her son in English Immersion schools and is doing the complete opposite of what I’m trying. I think her son can read more English than my kids!

The closer your children are to native level speaking, the easier it will be for them to learn and read Chinese characters. After all, then it is just literally putting symbols to words they already speak. Otherwise, not only is learning to read an issue, comprehension will be as well.

Find and encourage speaking and conversational opportunities.

This will be especially difficult if you are not a native-speaker since some people might take advantage and feed you a line of BS. But thankfully, there are lots of ways around this particular difficulty.

Alright, I know today’s post is short on details and specifics (well, for me, anyway). That’s because I have covered most of the bullet points in great detail (some might say too great) and specificity in previous articles in this series.

If I am so inclined, I may go back and insert the appropriate posts as links. However, you can always find the rest of the series under the So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese tag or in the Main Menu.

Thanks for reading! And Happy Friday!

How to Get Your Kid to Speak Chinese

*A/N: This piece is part of an on-going series. You can find the rest under the So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese tag or under the Resources Menu.

I confess: this is a somewhat misleading title since truthfully, you really can’t force your child to speak Chinese if they really don’t want to – at least not without some major relational and communication costs.

Also: this article may be less useful to folks who are in non-heritage and/or non-speaking families. Mostly because if you don’t speak Chinese, your opportunities for your child to speak Chinese are limited and you have to get creative with your methods since it’s not as if you can verify that they are indeed speaking Chinese, let alone correctly.

Plus, it’s possible your child might be more excited to either “show off” their Chinese since the response to their speaking Chinese (especially if they are white or not ethnically Chinese) will likely be amazement and praise due to the novelty and not actual ability whereas if your child does have Chinese heritage, the expectation (however unfair) will be that they should speak Chinese anyway so unless they are fluent or native level, there really isn’t anything marvelous about it (even though it really is) and quite frankly, why isn’t their Chinese better than it is – don’t they care about their heritage at all?

Furthermore, many ethnically Chinese kids often do not want to speak Chinese because everyone else speaks English and why should they be compelled to speak a language that is not their native tongue? And besides, everything is in English anyway because we’re in America and it’s really hard and seriously, no one speaks Chinese and please just stop making them try and communicate in a language in which they are hamstrung by their lack of vocabulary and comprehension and ability.

Incidentally, this is not a bitter rehash of White Sense of Fluency (WSOF) or if you prefer, American Sense of Fluency (ASOF). Just a statement of fact in how our world works right now. Also, I readily concede that just because your child is not ethnically Chinese and also learning Mandarin does NOT guarantee that they will be excited about speaking Mandarin. In fact, they might experience similar objections their ethnically Chinese counterparts experience. Really, it just depends on your kid.

So, tl;dr: You can’t force your kid to speak Chinese – at least not without major consequences and fractures in your relationship. Personally, I don’t think that is worth causing major damage in the parent/child relationship.

However, with that said, I often think that parents (especially Chinese speaking parents) give in too early and too easily with their kids. This is not to judge you if you are one of the parents who have given up. After all, it’s hard to be constantly waging a never-ending battle to get your kid to speak Chinese. It’s hard to consistently speak Chinese (especially if you’re not all that great at it in the first place – or used to speaking Chinese) and require them to speak it back.

Truthfully, I’m not you or your kid. It might only seem as if it was too early or too easily from my outsider’s perspective. I have no idea. And honestly, I have no idea if any of my suggestions will work for you (or for non-Chinese speaking parents, for that matter).

So really, this is all just a lengthy caveat and YMMV (although if you’re a long time reader, you’ll note that this is also one of my briefer disclaimers). Also also: these suggestions might work better when the kids are younger. Anyhow, here then, are some of my suggestions for how to get your kid to speak Chinese:

1) Decide if you even want your kid to speak Chinese. 

No, seriously.

It seems like such a bullshit answer but really, is this what you really want? Because remember: Chinese fluency requires intention.

So, do you want your kid to speak Chinese? And if so, how fluently? And if fluently, the more fluently you want them to speak, the more work you will have to do. How much effort is too much? And at what point will you say, “This isn’t worth it?”

My two cents? (Alright, with the amount of words I’m outputting, it’s more like two dollars.) If it is to the point where you and your child are fighting all the time, your kid doesn’t even want to speak or communicate with you, or your child doesn’t even want to touch anything Chinese with a ten foot pole, maybe it is time to either pull back on the Chinese speaking thing or reconsider your tactics.

Healthy relationships with your children trumps Chinese fluency any day of the week.

Also, if you decide after reading this post that you don’t particularly want to put in the effort of having your kids speak Chinese, that’s okay. They will still go on to have perfectly good, complete, and happy lives. Plus, their Chinese journey isn’t necessarily over. There is always college or after college. I mean, seriously. As long as they’re alive, there is still a chance.

dumb and dumber

2) Do not respond to your children unless they speak Chinese. 

Obviously, please use common sense. If your child is injured and calling for help in English, that perhaps isn’t the best time to insist on them asking for help in Chinese.

When I was little, I didn’t realize my parents could even speak English (they are Taiwanese immigrants). As a result, I had little choice but to speak to them in Chinese because otherwise, how would they understand me?

As I got older, my parents refused to respond to me unless I spoke to them in Chinese. I quickly got the picture that if I wanted anything at all from my parents, I would have to ask for it in Chinese. When I got into my teens, I have no idea what language we communicated in. It was likely a motley of Chinese and English and sometimes, Chinglish.

There are variations of this method, of course.

Until recently, I told my children in Chinese that I didn’t understand them. A blatant lie since I obviously speak and understand English just fine. However, four year old Gamera now calls me out on this because of course. She tells me that I understand English because I can speak it. I’m just grateful she humored me as long as she did.

Six year old Cookie Monster is much kinder and has never commented on my obvious falsehood. He just switches to Chinese and repeats what he just said (although he does sometimes require a few reminders before he switches).

Now, I have started to either ask them to tell me in Chinese and if I get push back, I say that I want them to practice their Chinese because it’s really easy to forget and lose their Chinese if they don’t. It helps that I have first hand experience with losing Chinese language skills so I use myself as an example. And since Gamera enjoys being superior to me, she likes to remind me how I used the Chinese word for “sticker” when I should have used “tape.” This tact has been successful thus far.

When they get to the point where they don’t care about losing their Chinese, I may go to my parent’s method of ignoring them until they do speak Chinese.

3) Create a Chinese Language Ecosystem (CLE) as much as possible. 

It is difficult to speak Chinese if you do not have the vocabulary to support what you want to say or the comprehension to understand what someone is saying to you. The only way to boost vocabulary and comprehension is to increase Chinese exposure.

To that end, your best bet is to create as comprehensive CLE as possible. Many of the remaining suggestions expand upon things you can use when creating your CLE. (Protip: maximize your car time with the kids. You have a captive audience. I constantly have Chinese songs and stories playing in the car. If you have a DVD player in the car, you can have them watch movies or shows in Chinese.)

How do you create a CLE? In short, as much as possible:

– Speak to your kids in Chinese

– Have them consume Chinese media (either original works or Chinese translations) by watching Chinese YouTube videos/DVDs/movies; listen to Chinese songs/stories; read Chinese books (I often translate simple children’s board books regardless of the book’s written language); use apps in Chinese; etc.

– Tell stories in Chinese

– Attend Chinese playdates/playgroups/classes/extracurricular classes/cultural programs

– If you need childcare, hire a Chinese speaking au pair/nanny/day care

– Travel/Extended stays overseas in Chinese speaking countries

For more in-depth explanation on what a CLE is and entails, I highly recommend Oliver Tu’s excellent post about the CLE and its applications. Shoot, in general, just go to his blog and read everything he has written. His daughters are nine and twelve so he is much further along on this Chinese language journey – not to mention, incredibly successful. I pretty much just copy whatever he does or recommends.

4) Bribery.

In general, I would refrain from punishing your kids when they do NOT speak Chinese since that will cause a negative association with speaking Chinese. (I do, however, break this rule when my children start speaking predominantly English. I tell them if they do not speak in Chinese it is because they are watching too much English YouTube/media and I start pulling back their English media time and amp up their Chinese media time.)

I’m pretty sure bribery is self-explanatory.

Reward the behavior you want. In our house, I do not enforce our screen time limits if they are watching anything Chinese or are using Chinese apps.

5) Hire help.

If your Chinese isn’t up to snuff (or you just want more support), hire tutors/conversation partners/mother’s helpers/nannies/conversation only Chinese classes. Remember, the focus here is in speaking and conversational skills – not necessarily reading and writing skills.

Additionally, your children might respond in Chinese more willingly to people who they ONLY associate with Chinese speaking. Plus, children can often be evil and listen to or speak in Chinese with anyone except you, their parent.

6) Find Chinese speaking peers.

This one is a little more difficult because most kids will resort to speaking in English to each other since that’s the norm. Also, if your kids are really proficient in Chinese, the older your children get, the more difficult it will be to find peers with comparable Chinese levels unless they are recent immigrants. That, of course, brings about a different set of difficulties in terms of relatability, and the recent immigrant’s parents likely wanting their child’s English to improve more so than practicing their Chinese. Perhaps a bargain can be made.

7) Tell older siblings you need their help to teach their younger siblings Chinese. 

In multi-child families, the eldest child usually has the best Chinese skills. (Not always, but usually. Also, sorry to my baby brother for ruining your Chinese.) Mostly, this is due to the fact that once the older child learns English, they will most likely speak to their siblings in English because it is easier for them, and as a result, their siblings will a) have far earlier English exposure and b) have far more English exposure in the household.

Some variations on this include: telling your older children that their younger sibling only understands Chinese or enlisting their help in preventing their younger sibling from losing their Chinese.

Whatever helps you promote speaking Chinese between your children. Personally, I think this is easier when the kids are small versus when they’re older and will require more sophisticated words.

8) Go overseas for camps, classes, or extended trips.

If financially feasible (because tickets, food, lodging, and tuition are not cheap and add up), consider going overseas. The focus at these camps will be to promote Chinese speaking – however you still run into the same problem of kids speaking mostly in English if the camp is catered to overseas Chinese. Another option would be to enroll your children in camps for local kids (but just know that there will likely be a huge communication barrier even if your child is really good at Chinese).

9) Encourage your kids to create performance art in Chinese. 

Does your kid love Minecraft? My Little Pony? Singing? Acting? Writing? Whatever it is, encourage your kid to make videos/songs/music videos/fan vids/short stories/whatever in Chinese. This combines bribery (play all the Minecraft you want as long as it’s in Chinese), relevance (stuff they’re interested in), and narcissism (seeing their work shared on YouTube or amongst friends).

Plus, I’m sure there’s all sorts of educational theory on how this synthesizes language into different parts of their brain or something sciencey.

10) Use the time-honored tradition of Chinglish.

Allow your child to speak as much Chinese as possible and to sub in English if they do not know the words in Chinese.

Now, some folks object to this route entirely because they feel it either dilutes their efforts or gives their children a way to slack off and cheat. However, I am of the opinion that any Chinese is better than no Chinese and that many children (myself included) would rather be silent and not risk looking foolish than to try something in Chinese only to stall, grope around desperately for the right word, and then fail miserably.

Instead, allow your child to say in English the parts they don’t know in Chinese. Then, show them how to say the phrase or word in Chinese and have them repeat it. It now becomes a teachable moment and your child will have a better shot of remembering the new vocabulary because they needed the word versus some random word they have to memorize as part of a lesson.

Chinglish allows your kid to attempt to speak Chinese without losing too much face or the expectation of perfection. It can be freeing.

11) Have realistic expectations.

I wrote a long post about having realistic expectations for learning Chinese in general. This will likely be more along the same lines.

– Be reasonable.

– Learning new skills (especially a language as complicated as Chinese) requires time.

– If your child has limited exposure to Chinese, it isn’t really fair for you to expect that their spoken Chinese will be fluent.

– Even if your child can understand Chinese, if you do not encourage them reply to you in Chinese, they will never learn to speak Chinese with confidence or proficiency.

– If you try to make your child speak to you in Chinese but do not equip them with the appropriate vocabulary, they will still be unable to communicate with you to the level and nuance they would be able to in English.

My friend, Irish Twins, has a great analogy. Imagine that your children have two toolboxes, one Chinese and one English. You want your kids to build a house with only one of the toolboxes and you want them to use the Chinese toolbox. Unfortunately, the Chinese toolbox is tiny and only consists of a hammer, some nails, and a phillips head screwdriver. There is no way your kid can build a house of the same magnitude as they could with the fully equipped English toolbox.

– Unless you can predict the future, do not be too pleased with your child’s Chinese before they start any type of English school full time (be it daycare, preschool, Kindergarten, etc.). This is not to discount your hard work up until that point, but that is totally counting your chickens before they’ve hatched. For sure, the better your child’s Chinese is at this stage, the more set up for success you will be – but by no means is anything guaranteed.

Until your child starts English schooling, their English exposure will be limited and Chinese will have no competition. But once English schooling begins, that’s when the appeal, allure, and relevancy of English will encroach on their Chinese. (Not to mention social pressure to conform and be liked by their peers.)

Trust me. Unless you have an intentional plan of action, your child’s fluent Chinese will disappear faster than a blink of an eye.

Well, now that I’ve thoroughly depressed and overwhelmed us all, hopefully, I have mentioned a few things that can help in our long road to Chinese speaking fluency. I would love to hear your thoughts on what has or hasn’t worked for your family. Let me know in the comments.

The Case for Zhuyin (Bopomofo)

*A/N: This piece is part of an on-going series. You can find the rest under the So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese tag or under the Resources Menu.

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)
1-21600800
3-425002000
5-630002500
7-935003000
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)
150-10050-100
2130-250130-250
3230-400230-400
4330-550330-550
5430-700430-700
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.

Should Your Child Learn Traditional or Simplified Characters?

traditional or simplified*A/N: This piece is part of an on-going series. You can find the rest under the So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese tag or under the Resources Menu. Special thanks to Mind Mannered for many of the references re: Traditional Chinese. I would not have been able to write much of this post without her diligent work and research. Thank you!

ETA: Also, I particularly want to apologize to Mind Mannered. I am very sorry if my laziness and lack of due diligence caused her harm in any way. My original post used her Tables without her permission. I didn’t realize she had done all the hard work of making the charts and tables in the references into a comprehensible format. I have removed her proprietary work and included the original charts instead. The original Table 1, I no longer included because the abstract is behind a pay-wall. However, I have now gone through and added links to the original references when possible. 

**A/N2: Also, this is a highly sensitive topic for some so please be respectful. I will employ my commenting policy with a tyrannical hand both here and on my Facebook pages. I presume the admins will monitor the threads on the pages I do not “own.” Don’t be a dick. Also? I get to decide who’s being a dick. You’ve been warned. Behave. 

I’ve taken a few weeks off from the series because my brain broke while writing it. Who knew I had so much to say and required so many words with which to say it? Furthermore, some of these topics require a lot of background research and reading and although I would love to spend all my time doing that, my family actually requires attention. (I know, I know. RUDE.)

Anyhow, I thought I’d get back into the swing of things by launching myself head first into a somewhat contentious and heated debate on Traditional and Simplified Chinese Characters. (What can I say? I’m a giver.)

For those of you without a personal stake in the matter, the issue may seem a bit silly and perhaps, unnecessarily muddies the water in Mandarin Immersion schools and curriculum discussions. However, it is a rather important thing to consider and decide because even though they are both the written language for Chinese, they are different enough that someone who only reads Simplified may have difficulty reading Traditional (and vice versa).

So, what is the difference?

Traditional Characters are Chinese characters that do not contain the newly created characters or character substitutions performed after 1946 by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). These characters are used primarily in the Republic of China (ROC aka Taiwan), Hong Kong, Macau, and overseas Chinese in South Asia.

Simplified Characters are the standardized Chinese characters in use in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the 1950s, the PRC drastically simplified many Chinese characters on average by about half their strokes in order to promote literacy. (See, even Chinese people thought Chinese was hard to learn!)

Okokok. Those are pretty dry definitions and actually do little to help folks completely unfamiliar with Chinese characters which to be fair, likely all look the same to the illiterate.

After all, how does a person who has little to no first hand experience with Chinese characters decide what their kid should learn?

For those of you who see the rather intimidating block of text below, here’s the tl;dr:

If you do not have a particular preference, choose whatever will be more easily supported by your time, interest, resources, and abilities.

If you have just a little bit more time, I refer you to my Fancy Flowchart™ (aka: Mandarin Mama’s Guide to Deciding Whether Your Child Should Learn Traditional or Simplified Chinese Characters) that should help 80% of you out there. As for the remaining 20%, let’s be real. No flowchart, no matter how amazing, would suffice. But fear not! There’s more info after the Fancy Flowchart™.

(As a side note, I am inordinately pleased with myself for creating this flow chart. It’s a sad but real thing that it took me HOURS to create. But I will forgive myself because most of that time was spent trying and discarding different free flow chart software both online and off. Now, if I can figure out how to make it Pinnable, I will win the internets for today.)

Traditional or Simplified Characters Flowchart

For those of you who do not know, there is a raging debate within the Chinese community about whether Traditional or Simplified characters are better and why. Some of it is due to political ideology, some based on preference, and some based on practicality. If you are really curious, may I suggest to you this link.

It will be no surprise to many of you that I preferred Traditional Characters – and staunchly. However, as much as I personally prefer Traditional characters, that doesn’t necessarily follow that I think your child should learn Traditional. (Of course, it would benefit me if more folks chose Traditional because then there would be more materials easily available in the US, but that is an entirely different topic and not altogether germane to this particular discussion.)

In true fact, my opinion on what people should choose has changed greatly. I find that the further along I am on this journey of teaching my kids to be literate in Chinese, the more nuanced and pragmatic my opinion becomes.

When I was younger, I was told Mao butchered the Chinese language in order to pass along a Communist agenda. After all, why else would you take the “heart” out of “love” and truncate characters associated with goodness and virtue but leave whole all the characters associated with evil and disobedience?

(Incidentally, whether this is true or not, I’ll leave up to you to decide. But also know that many of the Simplified characters were changed to older or cursive forms of the characters, so it’s not as if Simplified characters were just made up out of whole cloth. There are rhymes and reasons to the simplification.)

In fact, I was so against Simplified due to this “Communist agenda” that I had at first, refused to allow Cookie Monster to go to one of his current Chinese teachers because she only taught Simplified. I didn’t want him learning to read and write Simplified Chinese. It seemed contrary to all that I had been taught and believed about the beauty of the Chinese language. Plus, I was worried that he would be confused learning both Simplified and Traditional characters – as well as prefer Simplified because it would seem easier.

And yet now, I can’t imagine Cookie Monster not attending class with this teacher. She is wonderful, kind, and fantastic. (I had initially been intimidated because she seemed super Tiger Mom and I was really worried Cookie Monster’s spirit would be crushed. I was so, so wrong.)

Cookie Monster has no problem recognizing the same Chinese character in both Traditional and Simplified. He just accepts that there are different ways to write the same word and rolls with it. I think that is a good way to go.

Here’s the thing: Language isn’t static – no matter how we may wish it.

After all, American English evolved from British English – which itself has evolved from Old and Middle English (which is nigh incomprehensible to us modern folks). Yes, the different spellings, phrases, and terminology isn’t as drastic as the differences between Simplified and Traditional, but you get the idea. My point is that they all still manage to be English and neither are Old English.

There will always be people who lament change to language. (Confer “literally” now also meaning “figuratively” and joining the dubious ranks of “cleave” being both itself and its antonym. Boggles the mind.) I am often one of those lamenters. But I also recognize that language is a living, breathing organism, constantly changing and morphing, depending less on official definition and more so common use. So, if the common person is woefully ignorant, so thus changes the language.

And say you object to Simplified characters on an ideological basis (ie: Communism is bad, etc.). I get it. I do. However, you speak English, right? Americans, the English, and other English speaking countries have totally edited their history and language to erase the past and their colonial and genocidal tendencies. That has not led to my boycotting English.

Or perhaps you speak Spanish? Or Japanese? Or German? Or Russian? Or Arabic?  I mean, seriously. If we’re going to argue against a written language based on bad shit that people speaking/reading/writing the language did (eg: mass genocide; fascism; you name it, a country’s done it), then quite frankly, we should just all start speaking Esperanto.

But I digress.

Anyhow, for the rest of this article (and really, any other articles about Traditional and Simplified characters), you will need a basic understanding of how a Chinese character is formed. I promise it’s relatively painless and quick. (I also blatantly copy/pasted from Wikipedia because: laziness.)

Ok. Here are the basic types of Chinese characters and what they mean. If you want actual examples of characters, click through to their respective links.

If you are a language nerd like I am, you can find out more here (The last three are links to GuavaRama because quite frankly, she’s awesome and breaks things down in very simple terms. She is, after all, teaching her young children.):

1) How a Chinese character is formed.

2) Chinese character structure

3) Chinese character shapes

4) How to write beautiful Chinese characters

Alright, enough preamble. (Good Lord, I babble.) Here then, are some more of my abbreviated thoughts on Traditional/Simplified characters. I am using bullet points because quite frankly, I’m tired and it’s far more concise and easier to visualize.

(A/N3: Much of this information would not be possible without the fruit of Mind Mannered and her careful research, summary, and references. Seriously, without them, my post would be mostly opinion, conjecture, and wikipedia links. All of the academic references and a good portion of what follows comes from Mind Mannered’s summary as indicated in the references, but I also include many of my own points.)

Traditional

1) Strengthens parsing semantic and phonetic information due to the way Traditional characters are structured and formed (see above). (1)

a) Provides more visual cues to support reading and helps facilitate learning and character recognition. (1)

i) Researchers have explained how this often helps young children recognize Traditional characters more easily than Simplified characters. (2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

b) Focuses more attention on the general principles of the written language, particularly how phonetics and semantic radicals are combined to make characters. (1)

i) Children perceive characters as being more similar based on how they sound vs how they look (3)

ii) Allows children to guess words based on context and combined phonetics/radicals.

iii) Follows more regular patterns (7)

iv) Research on language learning emphasizes how explicit, systematic instruction in the structure of the language is more helpful than incidental exposure and rote memorization (7)

2) Easier transition to reading Simplified even without prior instruction (Table 1)

3) Harder to write

4) Even within the Traditional script, there have been adoptions of Simplified characters.

a) 台灣 (tai2 wan) instead of 臺灣 (irony: the “Tai” in Taiwan)
b) 画 (hua4) instead of 畫
c) 什 (she2) instead of 甚

5) Fewer resources in the US and harder to access materials unless you buy/ship from Taiwan/Hong Kong

a) No textbooks/curriculum adhering to Common Core

i) I can understand that unless a Mandarin Immersion school was formed specifically with the Traditional characters in mind, most MI schools may choose Simplified for this reason alone.

Simplified

1) Strengthens visual and spatial relationship skills due to the way Simplified characters are structured and formed (see above). (1)

a) Provides fewer visual cues so requires more attention to detail when learning characters via rote memorization. (1)

i) Even with fewer visual cues, 1 billion Chinese people still manage to learn and be literate.

b) When controlled for reading ability, results showed that children learning Simplified characters demonstrated superior visual skills. (Table 2)

c) Children perceive characters as being more similar based on how they look vs how they sound (2)

2) Easier to write

3) Approximately 1 billion people use it

4) Lots of resources in the US due to the Chinese government, in conjunction with the Obama administration, actively encouraging US students to learn the language.

a) Common Core textbooks/curriculum are developed (although untested and many are in their first editions)

5) Harder time reading Traditional without prior instruction (Table 1)

a) However, I know plenty of people who have figured it out with great facility so I doubt it’s much of a hurdle.

6) Same character represents multiple words.

a) Context helps and I refer you again to 1 billion people who have figured it out. Plus, English has many homonyms and English speakers figure it out without much problem so even though I find it weird that Simplified Chinese has made many separate characters with the same pronunciation into the same character, I am confident that people can figure it out from context.

I know that this is far from all-encompassing, however, short of becoming a PhD in the subject (and I emphatically am not), I think this should suffice for most folks who have no preference (or clue) regarding Traditional or Simplified characters. And if not, well, Google is your friend. Also, the library.

And so, after this ridiculously long post, (and come on, when have my posts in this series been short?), I refer you again to what I said at the very start:

If you do not have a particular preference, choose whatever will be more easily supported by your time, interest, resources, and abilities.  

(See? I told you all you needed to do was read my Fancy Flowchart™.)

Thanks for sticking it through. If you’re still wanting more, I have included tables and references below. Many thanks, again, to Mind Mannered for her research and hard work. Your summaries cut down my research time significantly. Plus, your documents were so well executed!

Have a great weekend, everyone!


ETA: Again, my extreme and humble apologies to Mind Mannered. I would be furious and hurt if I were in her shoes. I was super lazy and and an idiot and didn’t check your references to ensure that I wasn’t stealing proprietary work. I am very sorry for any and all distress I may have caused. Also, thanks to Mind Mannered, we have a lovely list of references to check out. 

References

  1. Mind Mannered (2015). Research Highlights on Learning to Read and Write Chineseprivate paper
  2. Seybolt, P. J., and Chiang, G.K.-K. (1979). Introduction. In P. J Seybolt & G. K.-K. Chiang (Eds.), Language reform in China: Documents and commentary (pp. 1–10). NY: M.E. Sharpe.
  3. Chen, M. J. and Yuen, C.-K. (1991). Effect of pinyin and script type on verbal processing: Comparisons of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong experience. International Journal of Behavioural Development, 14(4), 429-448.
  4. Hannas , W. C. (1997). Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  5. Ingulsrud , J. E. and Allen , K. (1999). Learning to Read in China: Sociolinguistic Perspectives on the Acquisition of Literacy. Lewiston, NY : E. Mellen.
  6. McBride-Chang, C., Chow, B. W.-Y., Zhong, Y., Burgess, S., and Hayward, W. G. (2005). Chinese character acquisition and visual skills in two Chinese scripts. Reading and Writing, 18(9), 99-128.
  7. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  8. Liu, T.Y., and Hsiao, J. (2012). The perception of simplified and traditional Chinese characters in the eye of simplified and traditional Chinese readers. In N. Miyake , D. Peebles, and R. P. Cooper (Eds.), Proceedings of the 34th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 689-694). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

Additional References:

  1. Lin, D., and McBride-Chang, C. (2010). Maternal mediation of writing and kindergartners’ literacy: A comparison between Hong Kong and Beijing. In Research in Reading Chinese (RRC) Conference.
  2. Lin, D., McBride-Chang, C., Aram, D., Levin, I., Cheung, R.Y.M., Chow, Y.Y.Y., and Tolchinsky, L. (2009). Maternal mediation of writing in Chinese children. Language and Cognitive Processes, 24(7-8), 1286-1311.

Tables:

Table 2: Compares the skills of college-attending adults’ in reading and writing Chinese in their less familiar script (excerpted from Liu & Hsiao, 2012, Table 1).(8)

Table 1: Compares the skills of college-attending adults’ in reading and writing Chinese in their less familiar script (taken from Liu & Hsiao, 2012, Table 1).(7)

 

Table 2: Compares the reading and visual skills of kindergarteners at two different time points (taken from McBride-Chang, et al., 2005, Table 1).(5)

 

How to Gauge Chinese Fluency

*A/N: This piece is part of an on-going series. You can find the rest under the So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese tag or under the Resources Menu.

Before I continue, I recommend you read my post about setting realistic expectations to get the most out of this week’s article. This is not because I want to whore out my previous posts (ok, that, too), but more to properly frame this week’s post about gauging Chinese fluency in your children. (You know, so you can have realistic expectations about what I’m about to write.)

Also, I just want to say upfront that many people will likely take umbrage at my remarks. I totally understand. I might be skewering one of your sacred cows. No one likes their cows skewered unless they are the ones skewering – and even then, only if they also get to eat the skewers. So, I get it. But that doesn’t mean the cows weren’t in need of a good skewering in the first place.

Anyhow, enough with the belabored metaphors and on with the post. Whooo!

So, tl;dr version of my Realistic Expectations post (because I know you didn’t go read it): Chinese fluency requires intention. Your goals may differ from mine, but your kid isn’t going to be magically fluent just because that would be a nice thing to have. It takes work. And depending on your expectations and goals, more work than the minimum of showing up to Mandarin Immersion school every week day or a weekly three hour Chinese School session. (Of course, there is a lot more nuance to the post, but why would we care about that?)

Oh, your kid is from a non-speaking family and is fluent from going to a few years of MI?

Oh, your kid is from a non-speaking family and is “fluent” from going to a few years of MI school?

For the sake of this post, I’m going to assume you want something similar to what I want, which is for my kids to have a native level of speaking and understanding Mandarin as well as functional literacy. (If your idea of fluency is for your kid to know a few phrases and perhaps order some food or ask for the restroom, we need to have a discussion about the correct usage of the word “fluent.” Words have meaning and it behooves us to use them precisely.)

At the risk of being a clichéd college application essay, a quick Google of the word, “fluent,” brings up the following definitions:

  • (of a person) able to express oneself easily and articulately.
  • (of a person) able to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately.
  • (of a foreign language) spoken accurately and with facility.

Of course, I know that not everyone has the same expectations of their children as me – nor do I think that is necessary. In general, I think the above definitions will suffice for most people in terms of fluency; we want our children to be able to understand and express themselves in Chinese with ease, accuracy, and facility.

In our pursuit of this fluency, many of us enroll our children in Mandarin Immersion schools, weekly Chinese schools, after school programs, or tutors. We want to believe the claims of “complete fluency” or “native grade level fluency” from the principals and teachers. However, let’s be real: these folks have a slight conflict of interest and unless they have quantifiable results to back up their claims, what you’re really buying is hype.

And honestly, without additional supplementation, either from heritage parents speaking Chinese at home, or hiring additional tutors, native level fluency is most likely improbable from just being enrolled in an MI school or Chinese school.

Alright, I hear you saying. Where’s my proof? Where are my studies? Why am I such a snob?

I’m going to cheat and say, sorry. That’s not the type of post I’m writing today. (Or ever, actually.) I fully admit that I’m just a regular person with no fancy degrees in Mandarin Immersion or secondary language acquisition. However, I really would offer you as proof the millions of ABCs (American Born Chinese) and BOBAs (Brought Over By Airplane) who have come before you with varying levels of success in Chinese fluency. If it were really that easy, there would be far more fully fluent ABCs and BOBAs in existence and this topic wouldn’t be such a sore point for so many of us.

Anyway, even if you don’t believe me, given all the time, effort, and money you are investing in this pursuit, wouldn’t it be nice to know if your investment is giving you the appropriate returns? In short, how do you know your kid is as fluent in Chinese as you think they are?

As I am wont to do, I will split the families up into two categories: Speaking and Non-Speaking Families.

1) Speaking Families (Wherein at least one of the parents speaks, understands, reads, or writes Chinese. Depending on the degree of fluency, however, you may also need to refer to the Non-Speaking Families section.)

Clearly, the higher degree of fluency, the easier it will be for you to determine how fluent your own children are in Chinese. Just like a native English speaker doesn’t need much help with figuring out if their kid is fluent in English, you will have that same ability.

In cases of mixed-fluency/ability, I will refer you to the next section. In my own particular case, I am pretty fluent in speaking and understanding so I have no problem ascertaining how fluent my children are at speaking and understanding. However, my reading and writing are sorely lacking. I can read perhaps about 500 characters if we are being considerably generous – but if there is pinyin or zhuyin, I can read everything and comprehend most of it. In the case of reading and writing, I will obviously be less able to judge accurately.

2) Non-Speaking Families (Neither parent speaks, understands, reads, or writes Chinese.)

Now, as a non-speaking family, you don’t have the built-in advantage of being a native speaker to determine how fluent your children are in Chinese. You can only hope that the people to whom you’ve entrusted your children’s Chinese education will be honest and ethical in their assessments and not just tell you what you want to hear.

In other words: Trust, but verify.

This is where adhering to certain standards and testing becomes useful.

Now, I’m not a huge proponent of standardized testing, (I am, after all, homeschooling), but I’m not opposed to them, either. I understand the need to have a way to semi-objectively measure what children are learning in school and to make sure that they enter college with a base standard of knowledge.

What I don’t like about all the standardized testing is our children’s education being reduced to how well they do on these tests, and that if they don’t “pass” them with a sufficient margin, that they are somehow failures.

At any rate, I think it is totally legitimate for parents (both from speaking and non-speaking families) to demand accountability in the form of standardized testing from their Mandarin Immersion and Chinese School administrators. However, it is also important to understand what the tests measure and what they do NOT. Please do not equate passing a test with being fluent.

At any rate, the tests are still useful for what they do measure. Some of the possible Chinese assessment tests are:

a) SOPA/ELLOPA – Interactive, listening and speaking assessments designed for children who are learning a foreign language in a school setting. They include hands-on activities and are conducted entirely in the foreign language. Students are assessed in pairs by two trained test administrators and, during the activities or tasks, are encouraged to interact with each other as well as with the interviewers. The focus of the interview is to determine what the students can do with the language. (PreK-8)

b) Linguafolio – A three-fold portfolio assessment that takes into account the child’s language/cultural background; samples of the child’s work over time; and formal qualifications, certificates or diplomas, achievements, and self-assessments.

c) STAMP – Web-based, computer-adaptive assessments that measure proficiency in reading, writing, listening and speaking for middle school through university students.

d) HSK – China’s only standardized test of Standard Chinese language proficiency for non-native speakers such as foreign students and overseas Chinese.

e) AP Chinese Test – The exam assesses students’ interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational communication skills in Mandarin Chinese, as well as knowledge of Chinese culture. The exam is administered on a computer. The student reads on the screen, listens through headphones, types using the keyboard, and speaks into a microphone. Students may choose between traditional or simplified Chinese characters for reading and writing in Chinese.

Beyond these tests, there really is no better way to check fluency than to speak with native speakers. Of course, you are also depending on the kindness of friends and strangers and their willingness to be completely honest with you for fear of hurting your feelings or their being amazed at your child’s novelty.

Sometimes, that really is the best you can do.

Here then, is the official end to my post.

However, I do have a few things that are related to gauging Chinese fluency that I wanted to speak to. Of course, I don’t speak for all Chinese/Taiwanese Americans, but I can say that I am not alone in my opinions.

So before I continue, I want to give fair warning that some of you will find much of what I say next offensive and perhaps unnecessarily harsh. I would apologize but quite frankly, I don’t care.

I want to address a few common pitfalls when it comes to gauging Chinese fluency that occur most often in non-speaking families: False Sense of Fluency (FSOF) and White Mandarin Fluency Standards (WMFS) (terms courtesy of Fleur).

False Sense of Fluency is pretty self-explanatory. Often, non-speakers with children in Mandarin Immersion are under the misunderstanding (often due to purposeful misrepresentation or unrealistic hype from teachers and administrators) that their children are more fluent in Chinese than they actually are. There’s no way you, as a non-speaker, would know because obviously, you trust what the teachers tell you!

White Mandarin Fluency Standards, however, is another beast entirely. This refers to the extremely low standards Chinese people have for white people to be considered “fluent” in Mandarin/Chinese – in essence, because they are white. Because there is literally little to no expectation that white people (specifically in the US) would ever learn another language – let alone Chinese, when they (and their children) speak any Chinese at all, no matter how poorly intonated or basic, they get fluency points just for trying. (Thereby leading to FSOF. It is all interconnected.)

If an ABC spoke the same poorly intonated/basic Chinese, they would be excoriated mercilessly. Furthermore, if a Chinese person spoke the English equivalent of this poor Chinese, the response would often be vicious and cruel with comments of “You’re in America, speak American!” or “Go back to your country!” There would be no WMFS equivalent. The contempt would be palpable.

I know, I know. I sound like a really shitty person when I talk about this stuff. But you know what? That’s because I am done coddling white fragility. You might think that we’re only supposed to be talking about Chinese fluency but there is all this subtext that you’re missing.

Here’s the thing: Chinese is not a “white” language and is integrally tied to a specific ethnic people. An ethnic people who, I might add, have had a long and complicated history with the US and white people. (What ethnic minority hasn’t? Also, I am aware that the US is not to be conflated with white people.)

And due to this long and complicated (and by complicated, I mean racist) history, many Chinese folks (who were mocked for their accents or “Ching Chang Chonged” in school) are rightfully annoyed and suspicious when white folks all of a sudden decide that Chinese is now the latest cool thing to acquire for their children. (And yes, of course, there are many legitimate reasons to learn Chinese, and of course, not only white people are wanting their kids to learn Chinese, and yes, of course, not all white people ad nauseam, – people, please! Stay on task here.)

willy wonka chinese

Furthermore, there are few things as aggravating as non-native speakers popping in on forums (or in real life) and loudly exclaiming how their darling child, after X number of years in a Mandarin Immersion school is now totally fluent in reading and writing Chinese and aren’t they fantastic?

I find these types of comments well-meaning but laughable.

To quote Irish Twins, “That must be one amazing school if they never speak [Chinese] at home and [their child] is magically fluent.”

Look. Someone has to tell you the truth.

That’s like my friend, Not Another DB MBA, saying, “My kid took math for 8 years. Sure, they know calculus!” Or me telling you that just because I can run a mile, I can now run a marathon.

Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn. Not only is it a tonal language (which is notoriously difficult for non-native speakers to even distinguish), it also has over 20,000 characters – of which, only 10,000 are currently in common use. The Chinese government considers a person to be functionally literate (can read a newspaper) if you recognize around 2,000 characters. If you recognize 4-6,000 characters, they consider you highly educated.

Did you catch that?

The Chinese government expects its own people, people who already know how to speak Chinese and are literally immersed in Chinese culture, to be functionally literate if they can recognize 10% of Chinese characters. How can a person possibly think that their child, when only “immersed” in school for on average 6.6 hours a day, without any additional supplementation or support from a Chinese speaking household, be “completely fluent”?

And yes, I am overly petty when I snipe to my friends (I have never claimed to be anything other than petty and prickish). After all, what’s it to me if non-heritage and/or non-speaking families want their kids to learn Chinese? And what’s it to me if they are completely deluded in thinking their children are fluent? Who are they to me? And who am I to correct them?

This is where things get tricky.

It’s TOTALLY TRUE that it’s none of my business and certainly doesn’t merit reading the riot act on my part. Additionally, I concede that truly, your child really could be fluent. (And if so, I do find that to be incredible and wonderful.) HOWEVER, I consider this type of behavior just one of a legion of microaggressions that I, and minorities in general, have to deal with. It is merely one more reminder of the near constant cultural appropriation that happens to us.

I don’t want to retread my older posts, so if you’re interested in what I’ve written previously, I do go into more detail herehere, here, and here. (I will say that if you do not read these posts and then comment and complain about something I addressed there, I will respond with only a link. You have been warned.)

Look. I know no one chooses to be born white or Chinese or whatever. That is just a cosmic crapshoot. I don’t blame white folks and I don’t think being white automatically makes a person have a FSOF or WMFS. I really am pleased that so many people want to learn Chinese because I love the Chinese language and if only for purely selfish reasons, this helps me get more resources for my own children.

So, why did I have to go and ruin a perfectly civil and hopefully useful post by dragging it into the morass that is race and its incumbent squick factor?

As I said in a previous post, “Because it’s true and it happens and it’s real.  If you can’t handle that and don’t really want to navigate the murky and occasionally choppy waters of race and identity and whiteness or ‘otherness,’ perhaps Chinese is not the best language to choose.”

All I ask is that white folks be cognizant of the subtext and all the underlying issues something as seemingly innocuous as learning Chinese can bring up. Nothing exists in a vacuum. And if one of the reasons you want your children to learn Chinese is to become global citizens, it behooves everyone to not only have a deeper understanding of Chinese/Taiwanese culture and history, but Chinese/Taiwanese American culture and history as well.

Thank you for taking the time to read this never-ending post. I know it likely made many folks uncomfortable so I thank you for wading through the discomfort. Have a wonderful weekend.