Monday, February 17, 2014


These are a few issues we encountered.

1)  Peers.  We have had difficulty finding children of Chinese heritage for our daughters to speak to and play with in the US.  From my observation of children of Chinese heritage (CCH) from non-southern CA areas, their Chinese colloquial skill peak at around 4 to 7 years old. Afterwards, their Chinese are not fluent enough for them to express themselves well; so, they will switch to English. Also, in a group of such children with variable fluency in Chinese, English is their common language; so, the group switch to English as their language of choice, no matter what their parents ask them to do.  As my children are still in grade school, it is my hope that, in a few years, they will meet the many newly arrived immigrant children (fresh off the plane) from China who come to attend US high schools and will be able to speak more Chinese with them.  Until then, I will be content with them speaking Chinese with us, Chinese tutors (often young ladies in mid 20s), grandparents, and oversea in Taiwan.

2)  Time.  By about third grade, it got more difficult to keep up their Chinese lessons.  By this time, kids start to have more extracurricular activities, which are almost all held in English. So, despite our best effort, their exposure time to Chinese became less.  So, their Chinese language acquisition did slow down some at this stage.  Fortunately, by this stage, our daughters have achieved good grasp of Chinese already and can move along relatively smoothly in their learning.

3)  Price.  There is a "price" to pay for emphasizing Chinese to this extent.  Our daughters' English language art lag behind their peers for a couple of years in elementary school but they have been catching up over time.  My two daughters have pretty much caught up by now.  You must have patience and faith in the process. 

4)  Third language.  Do not bother with learning a third language seriously in elementary school.  As Chinese and English are from completely different linguistic families, it takes tremendous effort to learn these two languages well (or well enough).  We tried serious study of Spanish for a year to two, including hiring a Colombian live-in au pair, but had to put it off till later.  Most likely, your children won't have enough exposure to a third language, after all the extracurricular activities.

5) Extracurricular reading.  This is probably THE major obstacle to learning Chinese for children of Chinese heritage (or anyone learning Chinese as second language really).  One probably needs to know 1,000 to 2,000 characters to recognize about 85-98% of the characters used in the real world.  The pace that typical CCH learns the characters in Chinese school is too slow, such that the children can not enjoy extracurricular reading by 10-12.  In that case, which occurs almost all the time in the US, English takes over.  We are able to overcome this only through biannual immersion and schooling trips to Taiwan and/or daily Chinese lessons (M-F) in the US early on, such that Charlotte, our elder daughter, can read junior novels comfortably without phonetics a few months before she turns 11.  That came as BIG relief for us and the family celebrated big time!  We expect Georgia, our bright younger daughter, to make that milestone by nine and a half, if not sooner.

6) Priority.  There is only 24 hour a day.  How each devote his/her time to acquiring new skills is different.  I would rather that my daughters have superior Chinese (for a CCH) than becoming a typical accomplished pianist (or whatever it is that they pursue) when they leave for college.


  1. Just came across your blog and after reading a lot of your entries, I have to say great job on what you had done with and FOR your kids. My story is very similar to yours in terms of goals but completely opposite, thus far, in terms of actual success in getting my kids (6 and 8 now) to speak mandarin.

    I started my journey when the elder was 2.5 years old, with a full time nanny and within 6 months some of his first sentences were in mandarin. Within 2 years it was so odd but pleasantly surprising to hear him converse back and forth with the nanny, even more fluently than he could with us in english. It was my intent to have him favor mandarin as i knew once he was in school the crush of english would challenge everything he learned.

    So far so good. Once my younger son reached about 2 the flood of words came but all in english. He wasn't internalizing any mandarin apparently and didnt speak much in mandarin. Strange because he was with nanny from birth.

    I then decided to put them in a "chinese school" to get exposure to other kids who spoke mandarin. But, as it turns out they found the 1 or 2 other kids who spoke english and they clung to each other. They stayed at the school for about 2 years as it none the less provided a good education in english with some mandarin classes. Needless to say the efforts to teach mandarin in that school didn't click with them. This is when I realized that this is how some of the "chinese" students I went to school with couldn't speak "chinese" well or couldn't read or write in "chinese". Even these young "chinese" kids, who were, like you said, fresh of the plane would probably end up losing a lot of their ability to interact in "chinese" due to the overwhelming focus on english here and lack of any effective formal language education outside of english.

    At this point we decided to continue with english schooling and have nanny on weekends. Ollder son was doing well with lessons but the constant english interaction of my younger son, who is very vocal and out-going, made learning very difficult when together. Even when alone with nanny, youngest son stuck to english like a life vest in the middle of the ocean. English had taken over.

    I now understand a lot of what you say here about the constant effort to keep mandarin at the fore which is almost impossible in the US. Unfortunately we have no family in Taiwan or mandarin speaking country nor do either of us speak mandarin.

    1. I applaud you for trying to do so much for your children also. In the past 20+ years that I have lived in the states, I have found only one Chinese speaking family with American born children whose spoken Chinese was good enough on initial contact that I could not tell that they were born and raised here. So I knew from the very beginning that it would be very difficult for me to raise my American born children to be bilingual in Chinese and English. In the past 3-4 years, it became obvious to me that it is even more difficult that I had thought. I have seen family with only one Chinese speaking family who hired a full time Chinese nanny for years to teach their extremely bright children Chinese from birth pretty much. Even then, without other fluent Chinese speaking children to play with often, their children still developed heavy accent by 10 or so and likely can not express themselves fluently in Chinese.

      Now that there are many new adult Chinese immigrant who moved to the US in the last 15 years or so, I am VERY interested to learn if some of these families who reside in heavily Chinese populated area such as Los Angeles county or Silicon Valley have some luck in getting their children to be bilingual.

      For young teenage Chinese immigrant these days, I think most of them will be able to retain their Chinese fluency, given all the modern technology and communication conveniences.

      As for families with neither parent able to speak Chinese, without full immersion in Chinese speaking countries for a number of years, it is probably almost impossible to raise children to be fluent in Chinese in the US.

      Investment guru Jim Rogers moved to Singapore for such purpose. Check out her daughter, Happy Rogers, demonstrating her very impressive Chinese a few years ago:

      It has taken a dedicated 3 generation team (parents, grandparents, and compliant children) for my children to achieve what they have and I am so very grateful. Even with their Chinese, it will be difficult for them to do business in China in the future without many more years of studying and living the culture/custom. Their Chinese will open up new opportunities and experiences but will likely NOT lead to better financial reward, given the opportunity cost.

      I think Spanish is a much easier and more practical language to acquire in the US. I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavor. Please let me know if you have any questions. Best.