A few recent posts and comments got me thinking once again about the limitation of the typical Chinese pedagogy in anglophone society, whether it be weekend Chinese school, home instruction, or immersion school. I, of course, always have to refer to Foreign Service Institutes’s list of the approximate time one needs to learn a specific language as an English speaker to reach ILR level 3 in speaking and reading. Basically, Mandarin Chinese takes about 4 times as long to learn as category 1 languages, which include Spanish, French, and Italian.
This, along with other observations of mine, generates a number of implications for children born/raised in anglophone society:
- An immersion school model that works for Spanish/French will not work well for Chinese, given the 4x factor. Anglophone elementary students typically have good proficiency in basic English language by the end of third grade such that they can learn non-ELA (English Language Art) subjects such as fourth grade science and social studies without stumbling on the English language itself. Though I am no expert in immersion school models, I doubt that current Chinese immersion school models can achieve equivalent result for Chinese for non-heritage students. My suspicion is that, by the end of elementary or middle school in Chinese immersion schools, the most that almost all non-heritage students can achieve is ILR level 1 or 2, matched for age. Heritage students who have substantial exposure to and enrichment in Chinese at home or non-heritage students who receive much additional Chinese enrichment often through the sheer will of their parents are a different story, of course. For these groups, they are in effect going for the 4x factor.
- To achieve a minimum of ILR level 3 in Chinese speaking and reading proficiency, one has to devote substantial effort early on due to the 4x factor, particularly between the age of 4 to 8. By the end of third grade, the basic foundation would need to be laid already, achieving ~ end of second grade reading level in Taiwan or ~ middle of second grade level in mainland China. I would say that about 50% of the work would need to have been done by the end of third grade. Otherwise, it is difficult to proceed without lowering in ILR proficiency level. The main difficulty past third grade is, of course, the inability of the child to read interesting Chinese books without at least ILR level 3 reading proficiency (matched for age, of course). There are few who can overcome the magic of Harry Potter and the likes. And you all know the rest of the story.
- Weekend Chinese school curriculum are generally evenly distributed from K to 12th grade and are not FRONT LOADED in the first few years. Therefore, students strictly following such curriculum will typically achieve only ILR level 1 and 2 proficiency in reading by the end of 12th grade.
But, it is certainly not the end of the world. There are a number of ways to reach higher Chinese proficiency in college and beyond, for those who elect to do so. Not to mention other skills one hopefully acquire by not devoting such time and effort in Chinese. For me, the question that I pose to other parents is pretty simple: “Do you prefer that your child have good Chinese proficiency vs. good piano or violin proficiency (or other skill sets you may prefer) by 20-30 years old?” There is certainly no right answer, just your answer.