Reading metrics

Here are some reading metrics based on our experiences that may help you decide the relative pace of Chinese and English instruction for your children.

Comics stage: DD#1 started reading comics at ~ 8-8.5 years of age and DD# 2 started reading comics at 7.

Character only short novels or novels: DD#1 started reading 沈石溪’s animal stories at ten and half (10.5) and was able to advance to reading 金庸 by ~ 12.7 (select novels whose plot she knows already through watching TV, via initial Scaffolding Reading Experience or SRE). DD#2 was able to read Narnia in Chinese at ~ 9.8 years of age and now (~ 11.3) can read Harry Potter book#1 in Chinese (i.e. books that he read in English already) without SRE.  Since DD#2’s Chinese has always been about a year to a year and half ahead of DD#1 in terms of reading, I have now slowed down DD#2’s Chinese to focus more on English since I know that she should be able to read 金庸 by 13.

I hope these metrics help you choose the relative pace of instruction for both Chinese and English.

Pains in our bilingual and biliterate journey

The biggest pain for us in our Chinese-English bilingual and biliterate journey over the last 14 years are:

  1.  It takes a LOT of resources and time to create and maintain CLE (Chinese Language Ecosystem) throughout the years, in order to maintain their interest.  I have to watch a lot of Chinese videos with them as a result.  I was consumed with figuring out how to get more Chinese in for about 12 years.
  2.  Similarly, it takes a LOT to provide Chinese instruction in sufficient pace to enable them to read comics or interesting books independently by ~ 7-9 years old.
  3. It is extremely difficult to find local peers, whom you are comfortable with, for them to interact with in Chinese.  The most difficult age group is probably in the 8-13 years of age, when locally raised kids lose more and more of their Chinese proficiency.  By 8 years old, I would say 99% of heritage kids won’t or can’t carry a conversation in Chinese with another kid.  In high school, one can find teen immigrant Chinese speaking peers if one wants and needs to.
  4. The logistics and cost of sojourn abroad and acquiring a Chinese book collection at home!
  5. Devoting so much time to Chinese requires less time devoted to other extracurricular activity and requires the parents to take the long view (20-30 years).
  6. They need to devote additional time for regular American cultural exposure and appreciation for friendship and peer interaction purposes, particularly around middle school years.
  7. To ensure that dd#1’s Chinese is proficient enough for her to speak Chinese with dd#2, I didn’t work on her English much early on and she was more proficient in Chinese by age 8-9.  We had to spend a few years in upper elementary and middle school to “close the gap” in English.  That was a nerve-racking period, despite knowing that her English would catch up over time, based on the experience of youth immigrants.
  8. With their education and Chinese language focused upbringing, they appreciate a much broader range of culture but often in less depth than functionally monolingual kids.  So, it can make it even harder to make friends with peers (particularly non-Asian ones) of different backgrounds who may have very different concern and appreciation, particularly as they enter middle and high school.  They have to look a little harder to find friends.
  9. Based on the experience of those of my generation who were raised here, I knew from the start that this would be a difficult journey.  I couldn’t find anyone back in the early 2000s who “succeeded” to guide me, before the days of widespread internet use and creation of social media.  Well, I was wrong.  It turned out to be much more difficult than I had imagined.

Maintaining interest

Over the years, my daughters (10 & 13) had watched a number of kungfu TV shows, which certainly help pique their interest in the Chinese language.  Recently, the benefit of those TV shows seem to have run its course and I figure it is time to watch some modern drama that explore cultural issues and employ languages  (as in language usage) more relevant to their daily lives.

I therefore recently introduced them to Love Cuisine, a Taiwanese romantic comedy TV show with two culinary school teachers as the main romantic interests and teenage student romances as the side show.  There are 22 episodes, each about 80 minutes long.

Well, the show is a hit!  My dds love it from the very first episode!  They would scream with excitement or cringe at times watching it.  After watching just a couple of episodes, they were already talking to me and each other about the funny parts.  Riding in the car during our winter break family trip, I find them talking about the show for extended periods of time, all in Chinese of course.  The dialogue from the show, particularly the more dramatic ones, has visibly made a positive impact on my dds’ colloquial proficiency.  They are able to hold conversation in Chinese longer before having to code-switch to English, particularly when they talk about English based experiences.  One of the reasons is that my dds now have one more interesting shared experience to talk about, that are entirely in Chinese.  Another reason is that the setting of the show is a school with teenage students, young love, and your standard romance plot, which my dds (particularly my 13 year old) have increasing exposure to through multimedia and interaction with other middle schoolers (not personally, in terms of dating, of course, LOL).  It certainly helps that they are familiar with the general and peer group social interactions and overall surrounding in Taiwan through their sojourns and several short stints in elementary school there.

The point I hope to make is that, as the children grow up, it would be ideal that they have adequate language proficiency and cultural knowledge/appreciation to be able to take advantage of native multimedia programs that suit their shifting interests, which will further enhance their understanding, appreciation, and proficiency.  Being able to share these experiences in a social context help maintain the CLE (Chinese Language Ecosystem), even into their teens.  The CLE can continue to run parallel to the ELE, as long as the social context continue to provide a net positive experience.  (I can see that it may be much more difficult for siblings who are more than a few years apart in age or of different gender with very different interests.  Parents may have to help establish other social groups.)

Lastly, given that I explain to my dds the reason and method of my Chinese language pedagogy, my 13 year old dd understands that few peers share similar Chinese-English bicultural and bilingual experience, unless they are youth (1.25 to 1.75 generation) immigrants.  Furthermore, thinking ahead (and this part maybe controversial), she understands that a future non-Chinese speaking spouse for her will likely mean that either she will have to take substantial amount of time away from her career to raise her children in similar way, or that she likely won’t be able to replicate similar experience for her children, which of course, means that her children will likely have substantially lower Chinese proficiency growing up.  Certainly, having two Chinese speaking parents by itself in the US means little in terms of their children’s Chinese proficiency, but that’s an entirely different issue.

Closing the gap (English)

As I had mentioned in previous posts, it takes A LOT to achieve Chinese literacy level above ILR level 3 (age adjusted).  The way I had suggested is to “open the gap” between Chinese and English reading proficiency, by strongly emphasizing Chinese literacy and proficiency before working on English.  The result is that the child will have to “close the gap” and catch up in English as s/he approaches middle school.  This can be a VERY stressful few years for the parents, ourselves included.

I am going to use dd#2 “Georgia”‘s reading comprehension as an example.  Since third grade (7 years old at time, as she skipped a grade), Georgia has taken TerraNova test annually at school.  It is a national normed standardized achievement test.  Compared to other third graders at the time, she scored in the 78th percentile in reading comprehension.  I had expected that her reading comprehension, along with other more English intensive parts of the test, would improve over time.  I spent a good bit of time working with her on her English assignments, gradually letting her do more and more independent work on her own.  In fourth grade, her reading comprehension score improved to 92nd percentile.   However, by fifth grade (spring of 2016), she did worse in almost all areas and scored 45th percentile in reading comprehension.  That really threw us off and put us in “DEFCON 2” “emergency mode”.

After some “root cause analysis” early summer, we decided that Charlotte really needs to read English more.  She had not picked up English reading previously, preferring to read her Chinese comics.  So, upon her return from 6 weeks of educational trip to Taiwan in mid-July, we worked on her English more and made a few changes to her routine.  We figured that the time she spent on iPad, YouTube, TV, and Chinese comics have had a negative impact on her interest in English reading.  So, we cut out most of her electronics time and put away most of her Chinese comics, except for the science/history/finance comic series.  Georgia did not take it well initially, with a few tears shed.  I asked that she does a certain amount of English reading (Harry Potter series) almost every day and started reviewing her homework assignment with her more intensively again.

After 3 months of effort, Georgia now enjoys English reading much more and has done much more reading as well.  She quickly got used to the new routine and is a happy camper again, which is very important to us, of course.  To assess her progress, I decided to get her tested privately, outside of school.  Since TerraNova can only be administered by school or homeschoolers, I chose BASI, which is another standardized and normed achievement test that is administered at testing centers.  Georgia took the two hours computer test today.  She thought the test was difficult but had “fun” taking it.  We are pleased that her reading comprehension has rebounded to 90th percentile, up from 45th percentile just a few months ago!  What a sigh of relief!  (And this is normed to students who are on average one year older than she is.)

We hope that with continuing concerted effort, her English reading comprehension percentile score will improve further by the end of the school year.  I may get her tested privately again in 3-4 months to monitor her progress.  So, if things go well, we won’t need to pull her back a grade.

(In case some parents are wondering, her math rebounded also and she scored 95th percentile compared to other sixth graders.  That should improve further over time, as she will do better on word problems with improving English and maturity.)

At the mean time, we had continued our Chinese lessons, though at a slower pace.  Georgia continues to read youth novels from 東方世界少年文學 series several days a week.  She continues to practice Chinese reading-aloud with video recordings as shown on this blog.  We haven’t done much Chinese writing recently though.  On the side, she continues to take guitar group lessons at school and is the “top” player for her grade level, though she is still a novice player.  She also enjoys tennis lesson once a week.




One English milestone reached!





Strange as this may sound, though it should not as this is a blog on raising Chinese-English bilingual/biliterate children, dd#2, who is almost 10 and half, finished reading all ~ 730 pages of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire today!!  She loved it!  Yay!!!

This is the fourth book in the Harry Potter series, with Lexile Rank 880 and of 5-6th grade reading level.  This is the first of the Harry Potter series of this heft.  The first three books are much shorter.  Some children probably read this book around 8-9 years old, but most of them probably didn’t spend as much time learning Chinese.  As I explained in an earlier post, Foreign Service Institute (FSI) estimates that it takes an English speaking adult about 1.5-2 years (88 weeks) of full time instruction, studying, and practice to achieve ILR level 3 in speaking and reading.  Though dd#2 is a child, I think it is a reasonable estimate that she devoted a full 1.5 to 2 years of time learning Chinese to an overall ILR ~ 3.5-4 level.

Accounting for these factors, had my dd#2 not spend this much time learning Chinese, she probably would have been able to read Harry Potter #4 at between 8 to 9 years old.  The difference, of course, is one of the “price to pay” to learn Chinese to this level, at least for our family.

For nonacademic research purpose, it will be most interesting to survey families to find out the age of their child when s/he finishes reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and the Chinese ILR level that the child has achieved by that time.  There are obviously many other factors involved, but may be such quick survey can help us understand the whole process better.


HSK level equivalency

Many Chinese immersion schools test students’ Chinese proficiency with Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì (HSK or 汉语水平考试), which is China’s only standardized test for non-native speakers such as foreign students and oversea Chinese.

Parents may wonder what HSK level means in terms of proficiency and its equivalency to other scale, such as Interagency Language Roundtable scale (ILR), used by United States’ Federal-level service, or CEFR, a guideline used across Europe, or ACTFL, created by American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

According to Wikipedia entry on HSK:

HSK 1 = 174 characters = CEFR* Below A1

HSK 2 = 347 characters = CEFR* A1 = ILR 0/0+ = ACTFL Novice

HSK 3 = 617 characters = CEFR* A1/A1-A2 = ILR 0-1 = ACTFL Novice-Intermediate

HSK 4 = 1064 characters = CEFR* A2 = ILR level 1 = ACTFL Intermediate

HSK 5 = 1685 characters = CEFR* B1 = ILR level 1+ = ACTFL Advanced low

HSK 6 = 2663 characters = CEFR* B2/B2-C1 = ILR 2/2+ to 3/3+ = ACTFL Advance Mid-High

Personally, I like the general descriptive explanation used by ILR scale, which can be found here: Wikipedia & Interagency Language Roundtable.  The ILR levels are as follows:

ILR level 0:  no proficiency

ILR level 1 = elementary profiency

ILR level 2: limited working proficiency

ILR level 3: “working” or “general” professional proficiency.

ILR level 4: full or advanced professional proficiency

ILR level 5: functionally native proficiency

From prior research of Taiwan and mainland China literature, I note that by end of second grade, students from China/Taiwan are taught a total of 1600/800 characters (though students from Taiwan on average knows about 1200 characters).  By end of fourth grade, students from China/Taiwan are taught a total of 2500/1600 characters (though students from Taiwan on average knows about 2600 characters).

Therefore, in terms of characters that students are taught or know, I draw the following conclusion:

HSK 3 ~ first semester first grade in China/second semester first grade in Taiwan

HSK 4 ~ second semester first grade in China/first semester second grade in Taiwan

HSK 5 ~ second semester second grade in China/first semester third grade in Taiwan

HSK 6 ~ second semester fourth grade in China/Taiwan

But of course, characters don’t equate to words, which are typically combination of characters.  It also says nothing of fluency and content knowledge.

In terms of Chinese AP test, a brief internet search suggests that it is HSK level 4.  Based on the study guide we are using, I would say the language used is closer to third/fourth grade level in Taiwan, which would place it at HSK level 5 at least. In any case, let’s just say it is HSK level 4-5. However, that’s just the language level, not the content level.  There are lots of Chinese cultural knowledge and adult real-life language usage that the students have to learn and know to do well on the Chinese AP test. Therefore, I suggest not taking the AP test at least till 10th grade.

Going back to Chinese immersion school, a few parents mentioned that their 5th, 8th, or X graders passed HSK level 3.  Parents can be the judge of whether achieving HSK level 3 (617 characters = CEFR* A1/A1-A2 = ILR 0-1 = ACTFL Novice-Intermediate = first semester first grade in China/second semester first grade in Taiwan) after X years of Chinese immersion school is desirable.  I am sure family of different background and situation will view this differently.

I hope this helps.

*Per German/French association of Chinese Language teachers respectively.  Hanban estimates place each HSK level two CEFR levels higher.  For example, Hanban estimates HSK 2 to be CEFR A2 but the German/French association of Chinese language teachers thinks HSK 2 is CEFR A1 only and it takes HSK 4 to be CEFR A2.  I myself lean toward the more independent opinion of German/French Chinese language teachers.

**American University Center of Provence

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.


Learning Chinese: allocation of resources

It is fantastic that many people are interested in all things Chinese.  That is all too important for our country to continue to thrive in this world.  One of the things I ultimately would like to understand better is whether having children residing in the US without at least one Chinese speaking parent to learn Chinese is a wise way to allocate resources for the child, family, community, and country at large.

As a 1.5 generation immigrant from Taiwan and parent of two daughters who have learned Chinese better than the vast majority of heritage children, I am very much cognizant of missed opportunities and sacrifices needed for my children to learn Chinese well, while trying to do so without affecting pursuit of English proficiency, other subjects/knowledge, and other skill set too much.  I view Chinese language as one of their major extracurricular pursuits, which certainly displace other pursuits to variable degrees.  To have them learn Chinese well, my entire family has had to allocate much time, effort, and money for more than a decade so far.  It is fitting for me to say that, unless under unusual circumstances, if a family hasn’t paid, contributed, or “sacrificed” dearly in one way or another in order for their children to learn Chinese, the child has not learned Chinese well enough.  Of course, there are always exceptions, particularly families with exceptional circumstances (such as living in China for a few years) or the resource to employ additional enrichment practices and activities, like some of the non-heritage families in my FB group

Foreign Service Institute notes that it takes English speaking adults four times as long to learn Chinese, as compared to Spanish or other category 1 “foreign” language.  It takes motivated adults 2,200 hours of instruction time (plus ~ 1,800 hours of study) to reach ILR level 3 in Chinese, as compared to 600 hours of instruction for Spanish or other category 1 “foreign” languages.  I think it is fair to say that it takes children much longer.  Even though Spanish is far easier to learn and our countrymen have much more exposure to the Hispanic culture, the most common thing I hear American adults say about Spanish is: “Yeah, I took X number of years of Spanish in school, but…..”.  And adults who acquired only mediocre Chinese as children loose their limited proficiency very quickly without constant practice and exposure.  A friend of mine who is a high school Chinese teacher once commented that her non-heritage students lamented that they could only get a Chinese AP score of 2 despite years of Chinese classes and hours of hard work.  Imagine what they would have scored if they took up Spanish or French instead.

With the huge spike in Chinese immigration over the past 10-15 years or so, with no end in sight, and a projected 14% “Asian” population by 2065, with sizable percentage being of Chinese heritage, there are and will be many 1.25/1.5/1.75 generation Chinese immigrant adults who can fill employment positions that require solid bilingual/bicultural skill or even those requiring just ILR level 2 proficiency.  Will “Chinese” be the new “Spanish”, to a lesser degree of course, with plenty of native or near native bilingual speakers who can readily fill the corresponding positions, except it is four times as difficult to learn?

As the cognitive benefit of bilingualism (including global mindset) can be obtained much more readily by learning easier and no less consequential languages, do you think that it is a wise allocation of resources (children, family, community) for children of families without at least one Chinese speaking parent to learn Chinese, under the usual circumstances?


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.

Social inclusion

Food for thought and discussion:

I hope this is not too much of a touchy subject.

It is natural that people of similar background befriend each other.  

For children of Chinese heritage who pretty much speak English all day long (which would be the majority), I think (I may be wrong) it is often the case that many, if not the majority, of their close friends are of other heritage, Asian, or minority children, particularly if they live in areas with good percentage of such ethnic/racial groups.  

For heritage children with parents like us trying so hard to raise our children to learn Chinese well, do you think that prolonged heavy exposure to CLE (Chinese Language Ecosystem) and diligent Chinese instruction into the teens can lead to decreased social inclusion in groups formed by members of majority ethnic/racial group, namely Caucasian, who do not share such upbringing and ecosystem?   Not to mention that many of us probably want our children to do well in various academic and extracurricular activities, with their own time commitment.  (I suppose sports can bring some of the kids together, particularly boys.)  I am not suggesting that there is a preferred choice of association.

In my prior blog entry, based on informal survey of fellow parents, I noted that a child need to spend a minimum of 2/3 of the waking hours in CLE between the age of 4 to ~ 8 or so to achieve a ILR level three or above in Chinese proficiency (listening, speaking, and reading).  Please note that full time English only school takes up about 25% of the waking hours averaged over the entire year (180 days of school).

What are your experiences so far?   I would love to hear thoughts from our non-heritage parents as well!  Thank you in advance!