Chinese in the teen years and beyond

There have been recent discussions in the FB group “Raising Bilingual Children in Chinese and English” that my co-administrator Virginia and I manage regarding the extreme difficulty many parents have in getting their children to learn Chinese in their teen years, living in areas where Chinese is a minority language.

Yes, it is all true.  It is extremely difficult.

It requires tremendous or unusual effort, time, “intelligence”, opportunity, money, or some such combination.

You probably understand very well all the above factors but may find it disconcerting that I include “intelligence”.  Please refer to the end of this entry for a brief discussion on this matter.  As far as the relationship between intelligence and “foreign language learning”, you can find some discussions on the matter in this site.  According to this one paper, “Taken together, the findings of the study are compatible with the conceptualization of language aptitude according to a hierarchical model which subsumes specific abilities of importance in the language classroom under a more encompassing general ability, or general intelligence.”

The point I want to get across is, learning Chinese in this kind of setting is more like learning a foreign language and less like a first language, and such ability correlates with our “general intelligence”, which typical IQ tests try to assess.  This type of “general intelligence” has little correlation to anthropologists’ idea of intelligence, which some consider as the global capacity to adapt to one’s environment and to exploit it to one’s advantage.

Basically, a “smarter” child in the sense of IQ test typically learn things faster, things in the usual academic sense.  So, a “smarter” child can pick up Chinese faster and with less committed resources.  When the kids approach and reach middle and high schools, there are simply tons of worthy pursuits other than Chinese and the opportunity cost to learn Chinese shoots up, typically in the sense of college application.  So,  children and their parents may find it much more appealing to hold off or slow down Chinese learning to pursue other worthy subjects.

This is the reason that, in my Letter to Parents in 2015, I wrote: “Lastly, given the immense effort required to achieve level 3 or above proficiency by mid-teens, I don’t think it is realistic and “necessary” for most heritage families to do so.  I think it is perfectly fine to achieve level 1-2 proficiency by the end of middle school.  For those students who really want to excel in Chinese in high school, college, or beyond, intensive studies then will typically be more efficient and less frustrating.  The difficult part for high school students is time constraint, due to the various academic and extracurricular demands.   However, in college and beyond, a couple of years of living abroad and intensive studying will be all it takes to achieve level 3 to 4 proficiency.”

Four years later, I maintain the same sentiment.  I do, however, want to provide you some real-life examples to assuage your anxiety.

As you may know, my family and I moved from a relatively rural NC community, where my daughters grew up, to metro Atlanta almost two years ago.  Here, I meet middle-aged professionals who immigrated to the states at a young age (say, 3 – 7) and speak Chinese pretty well now (ILR level 3.5-4).  One thing they have in common is their large Chinese speaking clientele.  They had good basics and relearned and picked up much Chinese due to their professional needs.  (I don’t know their reading comprehension proficiency.)

Recently, I met up with two couple friends, who immigrated from Taiwan in their mid 20s and one of their American born and raised daughters.  Their DD was able to speak fair Chinese by the end of high school (ILR ~2) but had limited Chinese reading comprehension.  She is smart, but likely not “crazy” smart.  If I remember correctly, she scored about 98-99th percentile in SAT and ACT with little preparation.  After taking two years of Chinese coursework in college, enough for a minor, I would say her Chinese speaking proficiency is now ILR level 3.  Her writing (typing, of course) and composition picked up tremendously with her course work.  The following is one of her college essays on 程蝶衣 in the 1993 movie, 霸王別姬 (Farewell My Concubine).

Some of the requirements for the essay are as follows.  “The length requirement for all essays is 600-800 Chinese characters. Provide the Chinese character count at the end of each essay…..  You are encouraged to use the dictionary for this assignment, but the use of translation tool is not allowed! You are also encouraged to use grammar and vocabulary beyond what you have learned in class, but you should be able to identify and know the meaning of the new words you used. You may not have a native speaker of Chinese help you write or correct your homework assignments.”

程蝶衣的各種感情

在《霸王別姬》裡,人物的相互關係反映在文化改革的中國社會情況裡面。這部電影隨著程蝶衣的故事,從他小時候呈現在戲班子的生活到他長大以後面對的關於各種關係的挑戰。程蝶衣的故事表達了古時候個人的關係,也讓觀眾看出他的性格怎麼影響他在那個社會的生活。

在電影的前幾分鐘,程蝶衣的媽媽,一位妓女,帶著一個小小的程蝶衣去戲班子,因為她沒辦法在妓院照顧他了。那時候程蝶衣被叫做小豆子,遇到了另外一個男孩,小石頭,開始他在生活中最重要的關係。因為兩個孩子還有其他的科班孩子從他們的師傅受到了非常大的壓力和挨打,所以他們得互相依賴才能繼續練習,繼續長大。小豆子是個年輕貌美的男孩,師傅指定他在戲裡扮演旦,然後小石頭扮演淨,兩個在同台演情侶的情況下一起長大。由於程蝶衣把自己投入到他的扮演角色,他就開始真正的愛上段曉樓。程蝶衣的性格其實很簡單,他很容易愛上他身邊的事,比如說,一開始他不愛戲,可是他沒有別的選擇,為了生活只好學戲,然後慢慢地喜歡上它。段曉樓跟戲一樣,讓程蝶衣有安全感,也天天跟他在一起,因為這個原因程蝶衣才會喜歡段曉樓。

第二個人物關係是戲班子的師傅和程蝶衣。在科班的時候,為了訓練學生,讓他們背腳本背歌詞,師傅以打為主,不管學生說得對說的錯,師傅還是打他們。雖然師傅在孩子的眼睛裡是他們得最尊重的人,但是在社會裡,他的地位其實是很低的,跟妓女的地位差不多。 其實師傅打他們是愛他們的,是為了他們好,也是愛他們的,因為如果這些學生沒有學好戲,那他們根本就沒有機會在傳統的社會裡生活。到程蝶衣長大以後,他變成一位明星了,還是跟段曉樓一起回去科班找他們的師傅,三十歲的時候被師傅打還是能忍受,因為師傅收養了他們,給他們機會。

第三個人物關係是程蝶衣和菊仙複雜的關係。由於菊仙嫁給段曉樓,程蝶衣他從一開始就恨她,她也恨程蝶衣。菊仙本來也是一位妓女,地位也沒比程蝶衣的高,可是程蝶衣心愛的段曉樓愛上了菊仙,沒有愛上他。他的性格比較冷漠,對別人的關係不感興趣,所以其他人如果沒有跟戲有關係,那程蝶衣就不管,他就狠心地不接受菊仙。不過,幾年以後,程蝶衣還是慢慢地容忍菊仙,因為程蝶衣非常愛段曉樓,還有他吸鴉片上癮的時候也收到菊仙的幫忙,到最後為了配合他的好友,就對菊仙好一點,但是在他的心裡還有一些不甘心。

程蝶衣並不是一個有愛的人,可是他很珍惜他和他尊重的人的關係。由於他兩個最愛就是京戲和段曉樓,他最重要的人物關係就跟著兩件事有關。在電影裡,這些不同的關係表達了各種的愛,讓觀眾受到深深的感動。

Here is the simplified Chinese version:

程蝶衣的各种感情

在《霸王别姬》里,人物的相互关系反映在文化改革的中国社会情况里面。这部电影随着程蝶衣的故事,从他小时候呈现在戏班子的生活到他长大以后面对的关于各种关系的挑战。程蝶衣的故事表达了古时候个人的关系,也让观众看出他的性格怎么影响他在那个社会的生活。

在电影的前几分钟,程蝶衣的妈妈,一位妓女,带着一个小小的程蝶衣去戏班子,因为她没办法在妓院照顾他了。那时候程蝶衣被叫做小豆子,遇到了另外一个男孩,小石头,开始他在生活中最重要的关系。因为两个孩子还有其他的科班孩子从他们的师傅受到了非常大的压力和挨打,所以他们得互相依赖才能继续练习,继续长大。小豆子是个年轻貌美的男孩,师傅指定他在戏里扮演旦,然后小石头扮演净,两个在同台演情侣的情况下一起长大。由于程蝶衣把自己投入到他的扮演角色,他就开始真正的爱上段晓楼。程蝶衣的性格其实很简单,他很容易爱上他身边的事,比如说,一开始他不爱戏,可是他没有别的选择,为了生活只好学戏,然后慢慢地喜欢上它。段晓楼跟戏一样,让程蝶衣有安全感,也天天跟他在一起,因为这个原因程蝶衣才会喜欢段晓楼。

第二个人物关系是戏班子的师傅和程蝶衣。在科班的时候,为了训练学生,让他们背脚本背歌词,师傅以打为主,不管学生说得对说的错,师傅还是打他们。虽然师傅在孩子的眼睛里是他们得最尊重的人,但是在社会里,他的地位其实是很低的,跟妓女的地位差不多。其实师傅打他们是爱他们的,是为了他们好,也是爱他们的,因为如果这些学生没有学好戏,那他们根本就没有机会在传统的社会里生活。到程蝶衣长大以后,他变成一位明星了,还是跟段晓楼一起回去科班找他们的师傅,三十岁的时候被师傅打还是能忍受,因为师傅收养了他们,给他们机会。

第三个人物关系是程蝶衣和菊仙复杂的关系。由于菊仙嫁给段晓楼,程蝶衣他从一开始就恨她,她也恨程蝶衣。菊仙本来也是一位妓女,地位也没比程蝶衣的高,可是程蝶衣心爱的段晓楼爱上了菊仙,没有爱上他。他的性格比较冷漠,对别人的关系不感兴趣,所以其他人如果没有跟戏有关系,那程蝶衣就不管,他就狠心地不接受菊仙。不过,几年以后,程蝶衣还是慢慢地容忍菊仙,因为程蝶衣非常爱段晓楼,还有他吸鸦片上瘾的时候也收到菊仙的帮忙,到最后为了配合他的好友,就对菊仙好一点,但是在他的心里还有一些不甘心。

程蝶衣并不是一个有爱的人,可是他很珍惜他和他尊重的人的关系。由于他两个最爱就是京戏和段晓楼,他最重要的人物关系就跟着两件事有关。在电影里,这些不同的关系表达了​​各种的爱,让观众受到深深的感动。

How about that?!!!!  Reflecting back on my own daughters, I now understand why, shortly after turning 13 a few years ago, having read quite a few teenage American novels in Chinese edition, my elder DD was able to compose the following, which could be the beginning of a short story or novella:

下課的鐘終於響了。  我馬上把所有的課本和習作塞進書包裡和跑出教室。  春假開始了。  我得快點敢回家。  我走到許阿姨的麵包店,買了哥哥最喜歡吃的新鮮奶油吐司。  我進家門時突然感到頭暈, 然後正常。  我慢慢的走進客廳,看到哥哥和另一位我不認識的男孩子的背影。  哥哥轉向我而開始微笑。  我給了他一個大擁抱後,把麵包給了他。  哥哥接過了麵包後便給我介紹他旁邊的男孩。

“凱雅, 這是我的朋友維斯。” 哥哥說。  維斯有一雙鑽石藍的眼睛和深咖啡色的頭髮。  他穿著休閑褲子和一件白色的上衣。

“妳好。“ 維斯說。

”你好。“ 我回答。

”維斯跟我是在大學認識的。  因爲他春假沒事所以帶他來。“ 哥哥解釋。

我怎麼覺得維斯好像不太對勁。  每次靠近他時,我的頭越來越暈。  在吃飯時, 我故意坐和他最遠的坐位。  維斯總是令爸媽和哥哥笑而他很有禮貌。  可是我還是覺得他不太對勁。

半夜, 我起來去拿一杯水喝。  當我回來時, 快經過哥哥房間時,聽到他和維斯在悄悄的說話。

”你確定?“ 哥哥問。

”你妹是。“ 維斯回答。

”我妹是我們在尋找的天使?”

“是。”

“你確定?”

“安靜, 有人來了。” 維斯說。

我停下了腳步。

“那是凱莉。” 哥哥說。

我還是站在走廊中間。  為什麼他們在三更半夜講那麽奇怪的話?

“凱莉。  你三更半夜在家裡走來走去幹嘛?“ 哥哥問。

”你們幹嘛三更半夜在講一些奇怪有的沒的?“ 我問。

哥哥把頭探出門外而說, ”妳還沒回答我的問題。“

”你也還沒回答我問你的話。“

“妳先回答我的問題。“ 哥哥又說。

”你們兩個不要吵了。“ 維斯說。

“明天再講吧。  我要睡覺。” 我說便回了房間。

********

(睡夢中……)

太陽的光照射在石門上的圖案。  那些圖案是為了封閉門後面的靈魂。  我拍一拍我雪白的翅膀而降落在門的正前方。從門裡的一些小縫隙我能看到靈魂淡藍色的光。  傑克也在門前降落。

  “妳準備好了嗎?他問。  我點了頭。  我從口袋裡拿出一把銀色的鑰匙然後解開了門上的鎖。  古老的石門慢慢的打開。

********

有人在門上一直敲門。  我看了床頭櫃上的鬧鐘。  現在早上7:45。

“幹嘛?  今天禮拜六。” 我問。

“我們跟你哥哥和維斯要出外爬山。  妳要去嗎?” 媽媽回答。

“不用了。”

“好, 傍晚見喔。”  我聽到大家穿鞋和門上鎖的聲音。  幾分鐘後, 我走進哥哥的房間。  在他的床上有一本很厚的書本。  書的封面是用深色的牛皮所做的而且上面沒有字。我把書拿起來便把它拿回我房間去看。  前幾頁記載著一個神話故事:

她的使命, 是守護他的靈魂。  他為了人類跟地獄的鬼魂爭鬥而喪命。  她答應了湯姆斯她會盡所有能力保護他。  幾百年過去了。  湯姆斯還是沒有回來。  她的答應,也跟著那些年一天天的消失。  直到那天使死了, 他還是沒有回來。 

真是一個悲慘的故事。  我才不會那麽耐心地去等一個永遠沒回來的人。  這個天使也真是的。我再翻了一頁。  這一頁上面寫了不同人的名字。

So, as you can tell, all is not lost for you parents out there!  There is great hope!  I would say your children’s Chinese can improve by leaps and bounds in college and beyond, if they apply themselves later,  with the basics that you painstakingly provide in their youth.  If you have to put Chinese on hold in their teens, just trying to maintain their level of proficiency would be more than fine.

Good luck and good journey!

Oliver

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Like many things in the field of IQ, there is more than enough controversy: “No anthropologist believes that IQ tests measure intelligence. At best he believes that IQ tests measure only a small part of intelligence, and by far the least important part. This is because the anthropologist does not use the word intelligence in the same way as the psychometrician uses it. The anthropologist thinks of intelligence as the individual’s global capacity to adapt to his environment and to exploit it to his, and his group’s, advantage. To the anthropologist, any nonphysical ability possessed by man but not possessed by animals, or possessed in only a rudimentary way by animals, is a legitimate manifestation of intelligence. An individual’s ability to sing, dance, create art, see visions, or fashion tools is as much a part of man’s intelligence as his ability to do geometry or argue philosophy. IQ tests are good estimates of the latter, but have little correlation with the former, and in the context of man’s evolutionary history, the anthropologist considers these non-IQ attributes to be the more important. There can be little wonder, then, that anthropologists regard IQ tests with skepticism. IQ tests are not measures of general adaptability……..  When intelligence tests are factor analyzed, there are normally seven factors extracted: verbal meaning, verbal fluency, reasoning, number, space, memory, and perceptual speed. But all of these factors correlate, or overlap with one another to such a degree that what is common to all of them accounts for most of the variance in test scores. This common property is itself a factor, the general factor, and has been given the symbol g.  All of these factors now have the status of hypothetical constructs, but g is by far the most important of them.  A test is an intelligence test only insofar as it is saturated with gPsychometricians make a conceptual distinction between intelligence and g, but for all practical purposes they treat both terms as interchangeable………. The two with the highest g loadings are the verbal and reasoning factors.