The Costs of Learning Chinese

**This piece was originally part of a series of posts. You can find the updated version, along with exclusive new chapters, in the ebook, (affiliate link) So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese

Previously in this series, I wrote about clarifying your goals and setting realistic expectations. Well, now that you’ve done that, you then need to count the costs. (Seriously, I really am sounding like a B Grade business plan – but like all worthy endeavors, it is best to go in with eyes wide open on both the costs and benefits.)

The main types of costs I will refer to today are:

  1. Monetary
  2. Opportunity
  3. Relational/Social
  4. Cultural

I’m sure there are many more costs to be delineated, but these are the ones that stuck out in my own mind. Feel free to add any I missed in the comments!

Alright, here we go!

1) Monetary Costs

One of the most obvious costs, of course, relates to money. Actual dollars and cents. And believe you me, learning Chinese is not cheap. Here are some of the things you might spend money on (but by no means is this all inclusive):

– Books, CDs, DVDs, flashcards, apps, additional educational materials
– Tutors, Mandarin Mommy and Me, Chinese School, Chinese Immersion schools, US based Chinese camps, Overseas Immersion camps/schools
– Chinese speaking Au pair/nanny/daycare
– Travel/Extended stays overseas
– Cultural programs (eg: Chinese dance, martial arts, museums, cooking classes)

Now admittedly, I might be a bit on the extreme side because my stated goals for my children are for them to be near native fluent in both speaking and understanding, and functionally fluent in reading and writing. However, here is a rough estimate of my cost breakdown for 2014:

– Books/CDs/DVDs/materials: $2,000
– Chinese Preschools:
$9,000 (half day programs for 5 days/wk, 1 child from Jan – Jun, 2 children from Sep – Dec)
– Chinese Mommy and Me:
$1,350 (2 children in class – one ending in summer 2014)
– Overseas Preschool:
$2,000 (2 children in 4 week class)
– Travel/Room/Board:
$7,500 (includes 4 international tickets, splitting an Airbnb apartment with a friend for four weeks, and food)

That’s a total of approximately $21,850.

**A/N2: Keep in mind that I only recently added martial arts – and that yearly cost was close to $1200/child. I included martial arts because the class is taught in half Chinese and half English. One could argue that many of these items only need to be purchased once – but remember that kids grow and their interests will grow and change as well. Also, the schooling reflects the combined tuition of my older two, as well as some activities for my youngest.

Whew. After seeing the money laid out in such a stark way, I have to hope that Hapa Papa doesn’t read my blogs very often.

Don’t get me wrong. Learning Chinese for very little money can be done, but that also requires a lot more effort. So, what you might offset in terms of monetary price will show up in terms of effort and work.

For instance, if you come from a 1st Generation Heritage Family (both are heritage parents and native level speakers who immigrated to an English speaking country at a later age), you might not need to hire tutors or speaking partners for your children since you and your partners are both native level speakers. However, you will then need to be vigilant about speaking to your children in Chinese (at least 90-95% of the time) as well as asking that your children reply to you in Chinese (another source of pain altogether).

As I repeatedly state in the last post, Chinese fluency requires intention.

In future posts, I will talk about how you can offset some of your costs both monetarily and otherwise.

2) Opportunity Costs

Opportunity cost refers to the loss of potential gain from other alternatives and activities when you choose instead to focus on Chinese language learning. In other words: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).

You and your child only have limited hours during the day from which to parcel out your time. The time you spend on supporting Chinese will have to come from other things which your child may also enjoy.

This is basic time management and a bane to overscheduled parents and children everywhere, so I don’t really feel like I need to belabor this issue. However, I will say this: most parents don’t realize just how much time supporting Chinese really takes.

For example, let’s say you’re the typical parent and send your kid to a weekly Chinese school (usually Friday night or Saturday morning). Depending on the age of your kids, Friday nights can be a big social event such as school dances, dates, Church youth groups, movies, hanging out with friends, sleepovers, etc. Saturday mornings are for cartoons (I am still bitter about this as an adult!!), sleeping in, sports meets and tournaments, recitals, family time, etc.

Are you prepared to have your kids give those things up? (I can guarantee you that your kid won’t enjoy that!) And if you are not and more than willing to let your kids skip a few classes here and there, I guarantee you it’s a slippery slope and before you know, you’ve lost out on most of the school year and because Chinese is cumulative and your exposure is limited, your child will be very behind.

This, of course, doesn’t even touch upon homework!

In fact, this is one of the MAIN reasons I have for homeschooling my children. I haven’t even officially started my homeschool school year for my Kindergartener (Cookie Monster) and I already have a feeling he is overscheduled. There are so many fun classes I want him to take (we signed up for a Lego building class that deals with the physics of marbles) and if I didn’t also homeschool him in Chinese, I would never see him. Furthermore, his Chinese exposure would be cut in at least half due to attending regular school.

If you consider that I have two other children and include their activities (both present and future), I might as well live in my minivan.

ETA: Someone brought up on Facebook the opportunity costs related to all the time spent on researching – whether it be for Chinese-speaking nannies, books, CDs, schools, forums, etc. I know I have personally spent countless hours researching this stuff – and I even “cheat” by having trusted people who are ahead of me on the Chinese Learning Train and blatantly stealing all their recommendations. I trust these folks so much that if they like something, I rarely dig much deeper and just starting handing over my money. 

Again, opportunity cost is something all parents are already aware of, so I don’t need to go on more than necessary. Just keep in mind what your goals for your kids are regarding Chinese language learning. The more fluent you want them to be, the more opportunity costs you will have to be willing to make.

3) Relational/Social Costs

As I may have mentioned before in previous posts, there may also be relational costs in your relationships with your own parents, your in-laws, your children, your spouse, and even your friends. This will be especially true if these folks are not down with the Chinese Language Train for many reasons such as worrying about English fluency, wanting the kids to learn another family language, and sometimes even perceived judgment on their parenting choices.

Furthermore, your own children might be the main ones against this Chinese thing. No matter how much you try to shove Chinese down your kids throats, sometimes they just don’t care and don’t want to have anything to do with Chinese. Is it worth damaging your relationship with them just so they can be fluent and curse you in Chinese? (Personally, I don’t think it’s worth it at all.)

You know your kid better than anyone else. Do what you think is best.

There will be social costs, too. You may not have a lot of Chinese speaking families in your area (or if you do, they might not be your natural affinity group). You may have to choose to drive farther, or hang out with people you normally don’t hang out with, in order for your kids to be around other Chinese speaking kids.

Alternately, if your kids are stronger in Chinese than English, they might have a hard time with their peers who are only English speakers. It may be very hard for you as a parent to see your child struggle socially, so you may be tempted to beef up their English. Trust me when I say you have no need to worry about their English at all. Your kids are sponges and you’ll blink and BAM! Now, they’re fluent.

Since I send my children to Chinese preschools and pretty much only attend Mandarin playdates, my social circle is pretty much limited to Chinese people (and often, their white spouses). This is not diverse by any stretch of the imagination. But since I am most concerned about Chinese language fluency at the moment, I am making this sacrifice.

As a result, my children think everyone should speak either Chinese or English. Only recently have they come to understand that their are other people in the world who speak other languages. (I suppose this is not exclusive to my kids but just something children need to learn in general.)

In the future, since I do care about diversity, I will have to seek out opportunities for the kids to play with folks who are different than my typical Chinese/white mixed families.

4) Cultural Costs

We all know that life as a kid is more than just academics and extra-curriculars. It is also cultural fluency, which is often turned into a social currency. If you happen to focus on Chinese language, there may be things in American (or whatever English speaking country in which you reside) culture that your kids will miss entirely.

I will address more of this in next week’s post, but some of this “cost” can be ameliorated by how much American culture you expose your kids to. My kids watch a lot of English shows in Chinese, as well as watch a LOT of YouTube so they know a ton of stuff about American culture and toys and etc. without me even trying. (I took Gamera to Target the other day and because of her obsession with the YouTube Channel, DCTC, she knew every single toy and brand that we ran into in the toy department. She only asked for half of them.)

Of course, this also depends on what generation you are (I’m 2nd generation so I do have cultural fluency), whether or not you are a heritage parent, and all sorts of other factors. But do keep in mind that even if you were as “American” as they come, there will still be choices that you make that limit your kids’ exposure. (For instance, you could be very religious and choose to opt out of popular music altogether!)

Don’t worry too much about this. I didn’t listen to the radio until 1989 and I somehow still know all the music prior to that time. It was a little isolating in junior high and high school, but I more than made up for it by consuming more than my fair share of pop culture in my latter years.

Just like with my last post on setting realistic expectations, ultimately, it depends on how vital and important learning Chinese is to you (and your kids). Chinese is only one of the millions of awesome things out there for your kids to learn and acquire.

It will not be the end of the world if you take a look at the costs and decide that it is not for you. There is no bell you have to ring to announce your “quitting” like they do at the Navy Seals. There is no one docking points from how “authentic” or how “Chinese” your kids are. (Which is totally ridiculous and arbitrary anyway.)

Plus, remember that your stories are not yet at an end. If your kids don’t like Chinese now, that doesn’t mean they will hate Chinese forever. I have friends who didn’t learn Chinese until college and are fluent and their kids are fluent. I have friends who are white and spent three years learning Chinese and darn it all if their Chinese isn’t amazing. I have friends who have “terrible” accents and yet their kids still have fantastic Chinese. I have friends who don’t speak a lick of Chinese and yet, have created material for their children (and for others) to learn and practice Chinese.

There are many roads to Chinese fluency – as well as many timelines.

Ok. That’s it for this week because quite frankly, the post is nearing gargantuan proportions again. Next week: how to lower some of these costs.

6 thoughts on “The Costs of Learning Chinese

  1. Thanks for your article… With all that work, what do you hope for your kids to gain, other than an appreciation of the culture they came from (and hence their understanding of you) ? Perhaps economic opportunity (that’s one reason my parents pushed Chinese on us)? I don’t know how Taiwan citizenship works… But do they have some kind of status there that could enable them to work there more easily? (maybe you’ve mentioned this in a prior post that I’ve missed)

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Tim. I don’t have any particular hopes for any gains. Anything in terms of employability or economic opportunity is purely bonus (and not guaranteed anyway). The main reason is for them to have a link to our relatives in Taiwan and China. I think I wrote a post a few months ago about it. I’ll see if I can dig it up. As far as I know, neither I or my kids would be able to qualify for Taiwanese citizenship. And I have no interest in giving up US citizenship anyway. 🙂 Thanks again!

  2. Unfortunately, a charter school like Yu Ming won’t help with preschool costs, which are significant. And with the lottery and waiting list, it is not something you can count on. This is a great series of posts for anyone trying to raise Mandarin speaking children. It makes the task seem daunting – because it IS daunting. Better to go into it armed with information and the experiences of others.

  3. Pingback: How to Lower the Cost of Learning Chinese | Mandarin Mama

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