TODAY’S Wall Street Journal offers a useful update to the annual “Americans are rushing to teach their kids Mandarin” story. The reporters have found several families that have gone to unusual lengths. One Californian lawyer took a year’s leave of absence from work and moved the clan to Chengdu, for the sole purpose of immersion in the language. Another family moved to Singapore in 2007, again only so the kids could grow up speaking Mandarin. Other parents are not quite so committed, but nonetheless,
families are enrolling their children in Mandarin-immersion programs that are springing up from California to Maine. They are hiring tutors, Skyping with teachers in Beijing and recruiting Chinese-speaking nannies. Some are stocking their playrooms with Disney videos in Mandarin—not to mention the iPhone apps aimed at making kids into Mandarin speakers.
The article goes on that
Mandarin is notoriously difficult to learn. The language is tonal, and fluency requires mastering thousands of characters. Mandarin competence takes 2,200 class hours, with half of that time spent in a country where it’s spoken, according to the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, whereas Spanish can be learned in 600 to 750 class hours.
My upstairs neighbours’ children have attended a Chinese-English bilingual school in New York for several years. It’s the only public school of its kind in the city. Curious one day, I plied the younger one (eight years old) with a little quiz as we walked to the park with my son.
Me: “How do you say ‘house’?”
Boy: “Uh, I forget.”
Me: “How about ‘car’?”
Boy: “Uh… hm…”
Me: “How about ‘I am American?'”
Boy: “Wo shi Zhongguo ren.”
Me: “Hm, I’m pretty sure that means ‘I am Chinese.’ Isn’t American Meiguo ren?”
Boy: “Oh, that’s right!”
Me: “How about ‘he is my friend?'”
Boy: “Oh! Ta shi wode pengyou.”
Finally a perfect answer on the first go.
This kid has been in this program since kindergarten. The Mandarin program is strictly speaking an after-school, voluntary one, but all kids go after school and study the language for 2.5 hours per day, I believe. At 180 school days a year, for just two years, he would have had roughly 900 hours of instruction and exposure, starting when he was quite small. (He may have had three years; I’m not sure.) Of course he’s still quite small, and unlike State Department diplomats, doesn’t have adult intellectual equipment to bring to bear. He does have a child’s still-plastic brain, one of the reasons his accent was excellent. He’s a bright kid. I can only take it that the State Department is right: learning Mandarin is very hard for a native English-speaker, and true immersion is pretty important.
I’m interested in the experience of those who have studied Chinese for a while. The Journalmentions both the tones and characters as difficulties, but I have a hunch one problem is rather bigger than the other. Which is a tougher challenge: mastering and using the four tones (several each second) for accurate and fluent speech? Or learning the thousands of characters needed to read and write?
I also know—because I’ve seen calligraphy homework around their apartment—that the kids spend significant time reading and writing. Is this a good idea? Or would you focus on speech and use pinyin first with young children? The answers are important, as more and more Americans are going to be studying Mandarin in coming years, and getting the pedagogy right will be crucial.