It is not your fault!

You are a parent (most likely a parent of Chinese heritage), trying to raise your children to be bilingual / biliterate in Chinese and English.  Come the time when your child is 6, 7, 8, 9… years of age.  And you are frustrated, literally pulling out your hair, about either the crawling progress of his Chinese proficiency (or often, regression of his colloquial Chinese), or the amount of time and resource diverted to keep it up Chinese.  And everyone in family, probably including your spouse who is ever so supportive, is getting worn down by the bickering or arguing about Chinese.  And you don’t know what to do!

Should I just lower my standard or just drop the whole thing?  That thought cross your mind, like everyday.

Well, it is not your fault.

As it is said on radio station NPR: let’s do the numbers (or at least the ballpark figures).

According to Wikibooks:

“The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages based on the length of time it takes to achieve Speaking 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3) and Reading 3: General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3). The list is limited to languages taught at the Foreign Service Institute, minus languages which don’t have their own Wikibook. Note that this only states the views of The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State, and many language learners and experts would disagree with the ranking. It must also be kept in mind that students at FSI are almost 40 years old, are native speakers of English and have a good aptitude for formal language study, plus knowledge of several other foreign languages. They study in small classes of no more than six. Their schedule calls for 25 hours of class per week with three or four hours per day of directed self-study.

Well, Mandarin Chinese, along with a number of other languages such as Korean, Japanese, and Arabic, takes 2,200 class hours, with “about half that time preferably spent studying in-country”.

Wait a minute!  Did FSI just suggest that it takes 2,200 class hours, at 25 hours of class per week?  Assuming 5 days of class a week, that work out to be 5 hours of class a day and 88 weeks of instruction.  IN ADDITION, did FSI suggest that these almost 40 years old adults spend an additional 3-4 hours per day of directed self-study.  Assuming 5 days of self-study a week and 4 hours of studying a day, that works out to be an additional ~ 1,760 hours of studying.

Adding the two together (2,200 hrs + 1,760 hrs), and you get ~4,000 hours of time.  

Adults and children obviously learn languages differently.  Children will win out in pronunciation though adults can make it up in other aspects through efficient and intentional practice/study.  Give an adult and child of similar intellect the same amount of time to learn a new language (say a month) and it is a good bet that the adult will win in overall proficiency.  And let’s not forget about all the CLE (Chinese Language Ecosystem) time used to make Chinese relevant and interesting to the child.  Factoring all those things in, a child need to spend at least ~ 5,000-6,000 hours of time on this pursuit, to get to ILR level 3 in speaking and reading.

 Assuming the following:

  1. 6 years of concerted effort from kindergarten through elementary school
  2. 48 weeks of instruction/learning a year (yeah, you get 4 weeks off!)
  3. 5 days per week of instruction/learning

That works out to 240 days of instruction/learning a year or ~ 3.5-5 hours a day of Chinese.

Now, that’s a big and extended commitment for any child and family.

Of course, these are just ballpark figures, meant to shed light on the overall magnitude of this effort.  Sure, we can talk about how we can work the instruction time, self-study time, and CLE time into our daily school structure (immersion school, homeschool, weekend school, home tutoring, etc.), work-flow, and lives.  But, we simply can not wish away the opportunity cost.  If the child is learning Chinese, he is not learning English and whatever other subjects/skills that can’t be effectively combined with Chinese. Furthermore, the majority of the students perceived to be the “real world” scholastic “competitors” for your child don’t spend nearly as much time on Chinese or another foreign language, if at all.  It is also a legitimate concern that there is a huge discrepancy in effort required to get the same score for Chinese and a level 1 foreign language AP test, such as Spanish.  Does college admission officer put more weight on Chinese AP test?  Is your child’s effort discounted if he is a heritage student?

That’s enough to discourage any parents, including myself.

Another way to look at it is as follows: 88 weeks of full time instruction + study = about TWO full academic years of studying Chinese, to get to ILR level 3 !!!   This is not accounting for CLE and other inefficiencies related to the age of the child.  Therefore, the decision parents have to make is which other priorities the parents (yes, mostly a parental decision at this level) are willing to exchange or sacrifice.

This will apply even to gifted students.  Below is a cautionary tale of ours:

Homeschooling my girls for about a year and half several years ago confirmed our suspicion that my younger dd (now 10, 6th grade) is gifted, which we initially noticed shortly after she turns one year of age.  This is confirmed by her tested IQ, well above 99th percentile.  Though she is by no means brilliant, she is a fast learner.  So, upon returning to private school, we let her skip second grade (no good gifted programs in our small city), as she had gone through most of the materials already at home.  I figure, whatever English deficiency, she will catch up in a couple of years.  Over the last three years, though she has done well at school, it wasn’t without much effort.  I thought she would have cruised through it.

Now reflecting back on the experience, I would put it like this.  My dd was born in a month close to the end of the school year; as such, her current classmates are on average 1.5 years older than she is.  Adding in an estimated 1.5 years of time spent on learning Chinese so far (or more, as she is ~ ILR level 4-4.5 in reading/speaking), she started out ~3 years behind compared to her classmates in her English and related course work (reading, composition, math word problem, etc.).  So, she has been playing catch up for a few years and will continue to do so for a couple of more years.  I think her English has caught up to her original grade level (5th this year) but it will likely take the entire middle school to catch up to her classmates and students all over the country one year older than she is.

It would have been much easier for her (and me) if we didn’t let her skip a grade. Spending time to catch up on English and the related coursework means that she has less time for extracurricular activities, an obvious choice of ours but we didn’t know to account for the combined effect of grade skipping plus time required to learn Chinese well.  But, hindsight is 20/20, as there weren’t previously published roadmap (to Chinese ILR 3 and above) to follow.  So, I am now entertaining the idea of holding her back a year while we still can, by adding back a homeschool year to work more on English, Chinese, extracurriculars, and other interesting projects.  This can mean the difference between a good high school experience vs. a superb high school experience, with the corresponding transcripts, knowledge, and skill of course.  After all, few people, if any at all, care that one skips a grade.

In conclusion, learning Chinese well to ILR level 3 and above caries some real sacrifices.  If you feel like switching to lower gear, it’s not your fault.  It’s not you or your child!  It’s just that Chinese is sooooo darn difficult to learn in an anglophone society.


5 thoughts on “It is not your fault!

  1. So very true! My mantra now after 17 years’ self doubt and experience is : so long as I do my best, I shall let the chips fall where they may.
    I was asked to share our experience, so here it is. Perhaps it provides some hope, even though it is also another cautionary tale. I hope this is what you wanted, Oliver 🙂

    Circumstances : my kids are now 17 and 10. We have lived on 4 continents the last 16 years, with zero Chinese community in 2 of these countries. From the start, we needed a minimum of 3 languages to reach most members of the extended family : among just first cousins of my generation, we have 9 languages through migration and marriage. So we were bombarded from the get go as everyone wanted equality in treatment for our mix of cultures and languages : From the English part – better make sure they master English for their jobs and don’t forget it is also part of their identity. From the Chinese family – better make sure they don’t end up as bananas (yellow skin, white interior. Apologies if anyone is offended by this, none intended). From the French relatives – remember that a French who doesn’t master his language and culture will be discriminated against (unfortunately, VERY true). My husband comes from a monolingual and monocultural French family with deep roots; he has family members who were in the French resistance, and even his half Spanish mom turned her back from her roots when she entered the family, although she did end up teaching Spanish as a foreign language to French kids.
    Pressure, pressure!

    Here, I will repeat Oliver’s point that even gifted children have it hard with learning Mandarin in any environment that doesn’t provide any/little Mandarin support, e.g. In an anglophone, francophone, whatever else environment. It just is. My experience may be anecdotal, but I see it everywhere, even within my multicultural and multilingual family.
    My kids are classified as gifted on many accounts, which in theory means that their learning curve is much shorter in many areas : they were both reading and writing in all 3 languages at 4 (could independently write 100 characters in Mandarin for 听写, reading more). French school kept wanting them pushed up grades (and thankfully I could resist the school administration with varying degree of success), both took on sport and music because I believe in a holistic education. My son graduated at 16 with distinctions in French Bac (arguably considered one of the world’s most rigorous high school diplomas for depth and width of coverage) + perfect scores in SAT and max notation in each of his 8 AP subjects that included English Language and Literature. He was also ranked (France) in judo and played keyboards in a band. My daughter is now 10, and is flourishing in Grade 7 doing both French and American curricula, does Spanish and Latin in school. She also has karate, piano, and was cold called to be part of a professional dance theater group at 7. BUT.

    You see, I thought that as my son found everything easier than anyone expected, then Mandarin shouldn’t be THAT difficult for him. At 4, you couldn’t tell he wasn’t “native” so shouldn’t this guarantee continued success down the road? Perhaps they would have done much better if they had been put into full immersion? Impossible with our professional lives to date, moving countries every 3-4 years, sometimes to isolated places. Perhaps if I had homeschooled? Perhaps if I had chosen only Mandarin and sacrificed other activities?
    To have my kids happy, with some constancy in their lives and to integrate faster into any new community/country, those activities were crucial for continuity and for breaking the ice. To obtain the required mastery in French language and culture, they needed full time French school, interaction with French community. Plus French national curricula is standardized and of a high and consistent standard around the world, important in our situation, and which tipped the balance in its favor. English at home is also easier to handle. Mandarin at home, not so much. Not enough hours in a day, wanting the children to have full AND happy lives, Etc. But Mandarin IS a priority at home, even though my French husband still doesn’t know the language after 19 years of marriage. For years, I felt guilty both to my children and to my Chinese family because my kids have always been better than native monolingual kids in French and English, but trailing same in Mandarin once they hit school. It behooved me, as the one with Chinese origins between the two of us, to make sure my kids’ Mandarin was up to par!!

    Both did Mandarin at home with me, supplemented with short term immersions in Beijing and Singapore during holidays. At this point, I should say that I truly aimed for equality with my boy insofar as exposure to all his languages. There is however, a huge difference in quality of exposure to be had when Mandarin isn’t at all supported by the community; it was much much easier for me growing up as I had spent the majority of my childhood in Singapore in a Chinese school. My son, not so lucky. For 7 years, I was the only source of Mandarin, zero community. So let me tell you right now from my experience with the first kid : equality for the languages means a much higher percentage of time and effort for Mandarin if you want equality in language level! Thankfully I have a second child, and I can tweak my strategy with this newfound understanding. With my girl, I am choosing to just focus on Mandarin. Today I just glance through her English and French homework, and totally ignore Spanish and Latin. Why? Because Mandarin is altogether a different beast! And instead of those 18 years I had counted on to bring them up to acceptable (by my Chinese relatives’ standards) fluency and literacy, I actually only have 15/16 years for each child. Thank God they power through all their stuff very quickly.

    Does this mean that learning Mandarin in such an environment is a lost cause? ABSOLUTELY NOT in my book. For heritage kids, it is important that they are able to link back to their culture. For Third Culture kids like mine, it is critically important that they can use their language and customs to try and create roots for their own lives down the line. And even if you think it isn’t going as well as you hope, it is somewhere in there. Further, even if linguistically they aren’t where you want them to be, culturally they have been bathing in your “home culture” and incorporating it into their psyche.
    When we moved to a country fresh out of war, my son was 6. Up til then, he was on almost equal footing in his languages. However, the shock of the chaos, change in continent, lifestyle, community language different from any of his own languages etc etc proved too much. He turned his back on Mandarin, the hardest language in his arsenal for literacy acquisition. For 2 years, he refused everything related to Mandarin. His sister was born when he was 7, so I just bombarded her environment with Mandarin, and hoped that by hearing it in the background, he wouldn’t lose it all. When he picked it up again (in a new country), it felt like he had to start from scratch again. At the age of 9. Frustrated? Sure! Guilty? Absolutely.

    How we want to treat our experiences determine how we move forward. How we want our children’s childhood to be like must take priority over any self imposed goal. Hindsight is 20/20. So, instead of saying he only managed HSK 4 on Graduation, I now say he managed HSK4 after 5 years of “homeschooling” in Mandarin across 2 continents, with native level schooling and fluency in 2 other languages and cultures, AND a generally happy childhood with extraordinary experiences (this last bit directly from his own mouth). Plus, he is connected to the Chinese in him, just not all the linguistic part. His sister will sit for HSK4 5 years “ahead” of him, but that is because he was our prototype and I am applying lessons learnt from him to her. And today, I am generally at peace with that.

    Therefore, if at times, it feels like you are facing a high wall, and it seems so hard, I present to you my mantra : so long as I do my best, I shall let the chips fall where they may.
    Don’t beat yourself up. Chances are, we are giving the best possible foundation in Mandarin to our children. Where they take it to once they are adults, it is up to them. What they have acquired during their childhood, it is probably somewhere in them, and will come out again with use and time. It is no one’s fault; we just do the best with whatever we have and if expectations aren’t met, maybe we should revise them if we can’t change the circumstances.
    So long as I do my best, I shall let the chips fall where they may.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks. Hope this helps.
      I am looking forward to see how my daughter will grow; she enjoys a certain stability in her life her brother never had and age for age, is doing better than him on many accounts. She actually loves Mandarin now and is also doing Chinese paper art.


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