Updates on “Mind the gap”

As I have indicated before in a prior POST, it is important to have a stronger foundation in Chinese than English early on, before the age of ~ 8.

“One important aspect of achieving early high level competency in Chinese (by ~8 years of age) is that the parents likely have to forgo high level English competency early on.  Compared to Chinese, English is so easy to learn in the ELE that surrounds us, that children will instinctively favor speaking English and reading English books, unless they have much stronger Chinese listening/speaking/reading proficiency.  Therefore, the parents have to create a English-Chinese proficiency differential in favor of Chinese early on, for which I have coined the term “open the gap”.  Toward the end of this phase, it is important that the children can enjoy the CLE through multimedia AND reading.  The inability to read a variety of Chinese books that the children are interested in by around the end of third grade can often deal a critical blow to the children’s interest in the CLE.  (And this is one major benefit of learning phonetics, either zhuyin or pinyin.)  However, around the end of third grade, it is important to start catching up in English proficiency, given that the transition from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn takes center stage in subject classes +/- annual standardized testing.  I call this phase, “close the gap”.  It often takes at least a couple of years (~3 years for my elder daughter) to close the gap to achieve native level English proficiency, matched for age and intellect.  That period of time can be nerve-racking for parents, and probably intolerable by parents without decent command of English and/or decent understanding of English pedagogy.  I think it can be critical that one of the parents have decent English proficiency, so that the parents are willing to “open the gap” in the beginning and then know how and when to “close the gap”.  If neither parents has decent English proficiency, such as when both parents are adult immigrants and neither had learned English reasonably well, they may not be comfortable with this aggressive approach to learning Chinese for their children.  On the other hand, if the child is gifted and the parents can establish a good CLE, it is possible that the child can learn both languages reasonably well early on at the same time.  Regardless of the circumstance, it still takes lots of work for the child to learn Chinese reasonably well (IRL level 3 and above) and English very well (native level) by early teens and lots of patience and work too (plus frustration!) for the parents.  Luckily, parents of this generation can take comfort in the experience of tens of thousands of youth immigrants who immigrated to the US in the 1980s and 1990s around their tween years and had been able to catch up in their English while retaining much of their Chinese.  “

To put things in perspective, my elder dd “Charlotte” was able to read Chinese youth short stories and then young adult novels WITHOUT phonetics starting at ~ 10.5 years old.  She was capable and able to truly enjoy reading English youth/young adult novels starting ~ 10-10.5 years old, using the Harry Potter series as the reference point (Lexile rank 880-1030, mostly ~ 900 or grade 5-6 reading level).  She was in 5th grade when both mile stones were reached.  [Previously, her English was so terrible by the middle of third grade (sigh, by my design – CLE, yes) and her Chinese was not good enough still, that I pulled her out of school, along with her younger sister in kindergarten, to homeschool them for ~ 20 months. ]

Moving forward a few years, my younger dd “Georgia”, was able to read Chinese young adult novels without phonetics at ~ 9.5 years old (see POST), about a full year before Charlotte was able to do so.  Based on their relative progress in Chinese acquisition, I was pretty confident several years ago that Georgia would reach that milestone at an earlier age and she did.

After homeschooling them, we let Georgia skip a grade unto third grade upon their return to your typical all English private school, since there is no good public gifted program in our small, relatively rural, town.  I knew that we will have to work on “closing the gap” in English along the way.  Georgia was able to do relatively well but did show sign of deficiency in areas where English proficiency is important.  We continued our CLE at home but did spend extra time to work with her on English, trying to “close the gap”.  I have to say that the last three years have been trying, as the instruction (English, of course) shifts more and more from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”.  It was our hope that Georgia would start to catch up in English in 5th grade, like her sister, though she would be one year younger than her sister at the same grade (9 instead of 10).

Well, that didn’t happen.  Using the Harry Potter series as a reference point once again, it was not till this week that Georgia, who just started middle school, is capable and able to truly enjoy reading the novels.  She is now engrossed in reading the series in earnest, on her own time.  She is right in the 10-10.5 years age range at this point, just like her elder sister was three years earlier.  This comes as a relief for us, especially since the second chapter of her sixth grade’s World History textbook is very dense, discussing some fundamentals concepts, such as trade, globalization, business cycle, supply/demand curves, before moving unto the easier story-telling portion of of the textbook.  The entire textbook, to no surprise, assumes competent 6th grade English proficiency.  It is definitely NOT “learning to read”.  So, it is a BIG relief that Georgia finally starts to “get it” and should “close the gap” in the coming 2 years.  This whole scenario would have not been as “acute”, had we not allowed her to skip a grade, since she would have an extra year of cushioning.  It seems that Georgia applied her “intellect deferential” to Chinese (1 year ahead of Charlotte), and not so much English (similar to Charlotte).

Both my daughters’ experiences mirror those of tens of thousands of youth immigrant like myself (1.5 generation) and many of you in our initial struggle to learn English.  It is infrequent to see such “ordeal” in heritage children born and raised here.  In the unintentional and “natural” scenario that such occurs, those children were probably raised in ethnic enclaves in one way or another.  What I had designed was to create such an “artificial ethnic enclave” through heavy doses of CLE + “accelerated” Chinese language instruction early on, such that my daughters kind of grew up as 1.5 generation youth immigrant instead of as 2.5 generation, despite being born and raised here.  Given no prior published “success” stories to guide me, that was what I figure would take to get them to achieve ~ ILR level 3.5-4 Chinese proficiency and native level English proficiency, matched for age and intellect.

Is it doable?  Yes……, even in relatively rural eastern North Carolina, but the family have to have the resources, knowledge, and grit to pull it off.  But it sure is tough and not for the faint of heart.  As I had mentioned in prior post, I knew it would be tough.  But I was wrong.  It was tougher than I had ever imagined.  (But, it depends on your expectation, of course.)

*********************

Lastly, a couple of corollary, observation, and comment:

  1.  It shouldn’t be a surprise that it is next to impossible for any Chinese immersion school in the US to conduct subject instruction (namely, science and social studies) competently in Chinese by 6th grade level.  The demand for Chinese language proficiency is simply way too high.  Just look at the English textbook and imagine the same book in Chinese!  Also, even upper elementary math word problem would be too difficult for many.
  2. Based on my daughters’ intellect (observed and tested), they should have been able to enjoy reading the first few Harry Potter novels by or during third grade (~ 8 years of age) at the latest, had they been effectively monolingual  in English.  Instead, it took them till 10 years of age to do so.  That occurred by design, namely through years of heavy doses of CLE.  Those two year gap was the “price” we had to pay.  Had I shifted and accelerated their English learning pace, I would have increased the risk of them not being able to read Chinese young adult novels early enough, thus not achieving my initial goal.

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