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.
- If the child is a new child immigrant, the parents are most interested in having the child get their English up to speed ASAP.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Children are of different age groups with the older teen children being native or fluent speakers.
- Many parents of these families are first-generation adult-immigrants and many keep close ties with their motherland.
- 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?