Ideal social group for Chinese learning

As you all know, it is extremely difficult to find for your grade school child other playmates who speak Chinese fluently.  If you are so fortunate to find one, the Chinese speaking between the two of them is highly unlikely to last long.  I came up with a couple of good reasons for this.

  1.  If the child is a new child immigrant, the parents are most interested in having the child get their English up to speed ASAP.
  2. Children in this age group have not developed the full spectrum of Chinese (or English) language proficiency to describe and verbalize their developing and evolving emotional and social life.  They will learn much of their new and evolving colloquial expressions in English, from their peers and schooling.  Unless there is a mechanism through which these children learn the equivalent expressions in Chinese and have a chance to become proficient at using them, children will shift gradually (and often rapidly) from Chinese to English.
  3. Chinese immersion schools likely have very few older native Chinese students enroll as new students in the school, if at all.  Older native speaker students can play a role in passing on their Chinese colloquial skill to their peers and younger students, creating an “institutional colloquial knowledge”.  Since Chinese immersion schools start from scratch with their first class in kindergarten or first grade, there are no upper-class students who can demonstrate to younger students how to play and socialize in “proper” Chinese.   So, it’s more akin to the blind leading the blind, limiting the use of Chinese to the academic sphere, at best.
  4. Even among the very rare families who are super gunho in teaching their children Chinese at home, like my family, different families have different Chinese usage pattern based on their interest, schedule, and proficiency.  These families are unlikely to be “slackers” in other areas also, and the children likely participate in many different extracurricular activities, in English.  With limited time and different usage pattern, the range of proficient Chinese language acquired by the children in each family is a smaller subset of what the adults have.  With these limitations, the Chinese colloquial language acquired by the children are “incomplete” and not readily “sharable” among children of different families.  Therefore, the children simply and quickly resort to their community language – English, and everyone then understand each other just fine.

Therefore, the “ideal” social group for Chinese learning may have some of the following features:

  1. Children are of different age groups with the older teen children being native or fluent speakers.
  2. Many parents of these families are first-generation adult-immigrants and many keep close ties with their motherland.
  3. These families share a close-knit community with Chinese as their spoken language and have frequent gatherings, allowing the children to play and interact with each other often in Chinese.

These features allow the younger children to develop a near native level colloquial proficiency, upon which reading proficiency can be acquired much more readily with consistent instruction.  I believe these are the main reason why a number of young immigrant friends of mine in the Caribbean were able to develop > ILR level 4 speaking proficiency and > ILR level 3 reading proficiency.

Finally, in some instances, children of select immigrant families need to help out in the family business, such as a Chinese restaurant, and Chinese is used constantly in the process.  I can see that the children grow up to be proficient in colloquial Chinese.  But that’s not exactly a social group that other children can join.

What do you think?


Revised 2-2019

4 thoughts on “Ideal social group for Chinese learning

  1. This is so helpful, Oliver! I will share with the few Chinese moms in my area! One more challenge to add to the list is different dialects and accents. Still, even if everybody ends up speaking English, it’s still nice to have a friend group of similar backgrounds for moral support.


  2. A very eloquent portrayal of a problem in often thinking about! Interestingly, at my daughter’s immersion school, we’ve had quite a few native speakers join in the upper grades (even middle school) – but by quite a few I mean 1-3 each year. Certainly not enough to have a huge impact on the class. The local students do get an opportunity to speak more Chinese to them when they first come, but I have noticed that they are very diligently picking up English, so the switch to English is only a few months. It’s not “cool” to speak Chinese, even in the immersion school, so the kids don’t spend lots of time learning from the new immigrants. That’s too bad.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment! That’s too bad indeed. That’s why I discount immersion school hours by half as effective Chinese exposure time. Did the new upper grade native speaker students just immigrate to the US from Chinese speaking regions or were they born and/or raised in non-Chinese speaking regions such as the US? I would be surprised that new immigrant family place their upper grade youth immigrant children in an immersion program, unless they were previously enrolled in international school abroad.

      Liked by 1 person

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