This article uses affiliate links and was originally part of a series of posts that became my book, So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese. Updated February 11, 2020.
Just like we ourselves can inadvertently undercut our children’s efforts at learning Chinese, other people can also make it more difficult for us to pursue Chinese fluency and literacy for our kids.
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.)
The Types of People who Will prevent Your Child from learning Chinese
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
There are few things as infuriating as family members and 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 – the U.S. being an English world. Our friends and family simply forget because they are no longer used to speaking in Chinese. This certainly was the case for myself when I first had Cookie Monster (10). 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.
When I used to have Mandarin playdates, it was hard and took conscious effort and will to speak to the other moms in Chinese versus resort to English because it was easier. I was never a good enforcer about speaking Chinese, but I might have spoken Chinese only 40% of the time to my friends. To the children, I spoke Chinese 90% of the time – but the whole point of a Mandarin playdate was to model and speak Chinese around the kids. After all, they can’t learn Chinese in a vacuum.
Now that my children are much older, Mandarin playdates are a pipe dream. Despite all the children present being perfectly fine communicating in Chinese, they choose to speak English. I was not surprised – just a little sad and melancholy for a simpler time when my children’s English was terrible and embarrassing and endearing. Because my children primarily communicate with me in English – no matter how much I scream and beg – inevitably, I also slip more and more into English. How can I not when English is the language of my soul?
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 One Parent, One Language (OPOL) 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 administrators 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.
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 in the article about what we do when we sabotage our children’s learning efforts, 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 in the self-sabotage piece, 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.
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 people who have similar goals and values.
Find 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 group of people, 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 had 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. 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 where I now also admin. It’s 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 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 have differing standards of education and Chinese fluency.
So again, I exhort you. Surround yourself with people who “get” you. Both in terms of your Chinese goals for your children and with the stuff you find important and love in general.
What to look for in People with similar Chinese Goals
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 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 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.