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.