To Improve Kids' Chinese, Parents head to Asia
This article primarily discusses Americans moving to China. But the article adds more data points about what happens to your kids' Mandarin once you move back to the US.
podsterJune 28, 2012, 03:53 AM
I'm a little surprised that a nine-year-old (maybe she was eight when she was in China?) would be citing difficulty with tones as a challenge. I would have thought at that age that she would have picked it up unconsciously. It leads me to suspect that her curriculum was one developed with adult learners in mind. Reminds me of a comment I once came across that if we English speakers tried to teach our children English using standard teaching practices we would be exposing our children to grammar drills in the crib, etc., and they would never learn to speak. Does anyone else here have experience with early childhood Mandarin immersion?
We moved to Beijing when my oldest was 4, and my youngest was 1. The oldest had the benefit of a 1.5 hour Chinese class on saturday for about a year prior to moving to Beijing. But at the end of the year, she could only reliably count to 10 in Chinese. Upon arriving in Beijing, both kids learned mandarin through having a Ayi that only spoke mandarin to them. Dare I say it, but they now have "native speaker" mandarin. I can say this because my wife is merely "fluent", and the kids point out to her that she has an accent.
wa, that's awesome mate. You must be proud. Kids put us to shame, hey. Someone recently posted their definition of fluent was knowing 100% of the words. I thought that was a bit extreme, but it does emphasise the point that peoples notions of fluent can vary quite a bit. I'd love to hear how your young'un is specifically going...where she's at. btw, how do you address her...."laoshi" keneng, hehe.
well, I would be proud if I thought learning mandarin fast was a reflection of her brainpower. But I realize that its what we all know all along; kids pick up mandarin quickly and easily because of learning/youth/brain development/brain working processes we don't fully understand.
The kids are "fluent" in mandarin the same way they are "fluent" in english; they understand 4-7 year old english and mandarin, not business/IT english, or business/IT mandarin for example. They can't do integral calculus in mandarin or english :-)
My concern was hinted at in the article: non-chinese parents that give their kids a great start by moving to China to learn Chinese risk having the kids lose 100% of the Chinese they learned by leaving China and going back to their english speaking home country. Parents had better figure out fast what to do to protect their kids' chinese once they move back to the US. And parents have to make sure the actions taken to protect their kids mandarin are effective until the kid turns 13 or so, when the language starts solidifying in their head.
And my native speaker kids do not want me speaking to them in Chinese with my accented, halting, mixed-up, awkward-at-times Chinese, so I just call them by name in english :-)
The kids are "fluent" in mandarin the same way they are "fluent" in english...good answer pretz and good definition.
It would be nice to eventually reach a level of "fluency", but unfortunately as an adult learner of mandarin it will never for me be based on an equivalence to English fluency....that seems unrealistic to me at this point. I'd like to be able to follow movies, news and conversations effortlessly and be able to join in comfortably....but it would all be pretty basic I would think.. But all your kids have to do is continue on their current path. But yeah, if you're planning to return to US at some point, it's good you're giving this some thought as it would be a shame for them to lose it.
This is interesting, thanks for sharing your family experience. I would like to point out that this kind of experience is by no means automatic. Kids, even when quite young, do not automatically acquire language. I have met a few people in my time in China who brought kids to China to encourage language acquisition and it did not always work. In one situation I know a child born with two Chinese parents was brought back to China at kindergarten age (5) for a year and did not successfully learn the language despite being full-time at an all-Chinese school. Another family comes to mind with three children (various ages from kindy level up) put into an all Chinese school - the kids did not successfully socialise and had to be withdrawn and sent to an international school. All of the children had Chinese lessons back in the US before their China experience. (I'm not sure whether that had any positive impacts at all, or indeed any negative impacts.) The key to language acquisition at this age is being able to socialise with peers and this is difficult in China, even when you look exactly like them. You say your kids learnt from the ayi - it's a useful learning setting, but I wonder how that translates to language acquisition that will be useful in other settings (schools, kids in the neighbourhood, other adults outside the family etc.) For some children there are significant barriers to successfully engaging with Chinese children of their own age, in a variety of social settings. Any thoughts?
I've just had a look at that article and interestingly I can't see any reference to whether the language experience is a success (recognizing that it is difficult to measure success.) In one case it implies that the child or children had 'a' teacher, rather than being immersed in the school system.
I should say that I also know kids who have learnt Chinese successfully - one comes to mind where neither parent is Chinese but the child went to live there when about 3 months old, and now after three years she is a competent speaker of three languages (for a 3 year old) - English and standard Chinese at about the same level. I can think of many successful cases where one parent is a native speaker.
What is the difference between these cases? Be nice to know. In the successful cases both parents speak Chinese, and in the unsuccessful cases neither parent does (although all are are at various stages of the process of learning). I wonder how important that is? In the two best cases I know personally (ages 3 and 4 respectively) the children in question already speak three languages.
Yes, I am kind of interested in all of this for personal reasons, as I hope our grand-daughter will speak Chinese well in later life, and she looks like heading soon for a new home where the most common language is English.
bodawei, thanks for your observations. I guess my working hypothesis based on your observations, my observations and others is that there are (at least) a few requirements for successful early age mandarin acquisition:
1) mandarin must be spoken at home by someone all the time.
2) the person teaching the non-country language at home must not switch between non-country and country languages. So if mom is Chinese, mom better not start speaking English to the kid. And if the kid asks mom a question in English, mom better say 什么？我听不懂, even if she asks her husband a question in english 3 seconds later.
3) kid's circumstances must force the kid to speak mandarin hourly.
4) how well these rules are enforced determines if the kid's mandarin is any good.
Where I have seen success on the multi-language front is similar to your experience. I know a German guy who married a Chinese woman. He only spoke German to the kids at home, and the wife only spoke Chinese to the kids at home. The kids were born in Beijing and lived here much of their lives. Their German seemed good. Another couple I know is from the middle east, and they are going for Arabic, English and Mandarin. I've heard the kid's English and its good. I assume his Chinese is good, but I don't know. According to his parents, his Arabic isn't great, and that is partly due to a dearth of Arabic language reading material.
'the person teaching the non-country language at home must not switch between non-country and country languages.'
I have heard this 'rule' before, and friends of mine applied it successfully - a Spanish speaking mum always spoke in Spanish with the kids.
Unfortunately for some of us, we don't have the luxury of parents speaking different languages, but i am sure that there are other ways to teach children successfully. I have heard of good results from 'immersion' schools. On the other hand, teaching kids Chinese for a few hours a week may be a bit of a waste of time, and you have to be careful that it does not create resentment - like being forced to learn the violin when it means you have no time for your first love, skateboard.