As I am not a linguistic expert, the following are my two cents of opinion, under constant revision and editing. I hope interested parents set a realistic goal for their children and achieve good return on the investment of their various resources.
Based on my experience as a young immigrant at the age of 11 in the mid 1980s and 11 years of experience of raising my daughters bilingual and bi-literate (and counting) and constant search for exemplary families, I put forth the following observation and recommendation regarding what I called the three phases of Chinese language acquisition, with the goal of 5-6th grade verbal fluency and literacy in Chinese by 18 years of age. At this point, my elder daughter (11 years of age) remains a fluent native Chinese speaker and reads young adult novels without phonetics in Chinese. My younger daughter (8 years old) is about two years behind in her Chinese. You can tell from the blog the amount of resources that we had to allocate to achieve this. As I have daughters, I will use she/her to refer to both a male or female child.
Before I start, I want to touch on what I perceive as the benefit and nature of bilingualism in Chinese and English in the US. Certainly, bilingualism has many benefits, including family bonding (assuming one is of Chinese heritage), travel, cultural knowledge, expanded social (acquaintances, friends, spouse) and employment options (not necessarily better), and possibly higher neurological and cognitive function. It is my belief that, for children raised in the US, becoming bilingual and biliterate in Chinese and English has, on average, limited financial benefit, with significant opportunity cost. I will explore these issues more throughout this article. In addition, with the advent of artificial intelligence and amazing recent advancement in real time speech-to-speech translation (see other posts) that will likely significantly raise the opportunity cost of non-fluent language learning by 2035, I am dubious that there is a net financial benefit for our children to become a non-fluent Chinese speaker by adulthood, on average. To put it crudely, what I am suggesting is that don't have your children learn Chinese for the money!
Having stated the above, the followings are the goal I set out for my children:
1) Listening: Understand colloquial conversation and mass media at ~ 5th-6th grade level. This likely include most TV shows/movies, soap opera, and basic news reporting, which include common sense technical terms taught in grade school.
2) Speaking: Converse fluently for extended period of time on activities of daily living and grade school subjects, adding only occasional English words and phrase, especially if they are technical terms. Also, the child should be able to convey personal emotions and common expressions accurately. Fluency and correct syntax are more important than truly authentic accent.
3) Reading: Read comic books in Chinese fluently and chapter books, non-technical magazines, and young adult novels comfortably at ~6th grade level, without phonetics. I believe this would encompass romance/kung fu novels AND novels like Chinese edition of Harry Porter, which is about 5-6th grade level in English. Many slightly gifted students in the US are able to read the English version by second or third grade.
4) Writing: Know how to write Chinese characters with the right stroke sequence even without having learned the character before, be familiar with writing the most commonly used 500 characters, and be able to do simple writings at about third grade level.
With these in mind, the following are the three phases:
With these in mind, the following are the three phases:
I. Phase 1: 0 to ~7 years old. Induction phase. Difficulty level: moderate (but more difficult for parents not fluent in Chinese). There are different curriculum and materials for this phase with a good bit of information out there. As language skill is comprised of four components (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), there are two main goals in each phase:
1) Listening and speaking: Comprehend conversation involving activities of daily living and achieve FLUENCY in such expression. Once again, fluency is much more important than authentic accent. Obviously, the main difficulty for goal #1 is 1) lack of fluent speakers (ideally two or more) at home for those families where English is spoken amongst the adults, and 2) as peer to peer interaction and learning become increasing important after four years old, finding young fluent Chinese speaking children for play-dates is a constant struggle for parents and feels like a second job!
Though some of these difficulties can be dealt with through sufficient fund and pure resolve by hiring Chinese speaking nanny or au pair, the lack of practice with peers often is the limiting factor for the great majority of children (except for exceptionally gifted children probably). Therefore, once a year, or even better, twice a year sojourn for 1-2 months each time in private preschool and kindergarten in Asia starting at 3-4 years old would make this process SO MUCH SMOOTHER, even for most families where Chinese is the language spoken at home (including my own). For families where household members (parents, nannies, grandparents, etc.) all converse in a language other than Chinese (regardless of the background or ethnicity of the members), I regard these sojourns to be INDISPENSABLE for the children to ACHIEVE AND MAINTAINING VERBAL FLUENCY by the end of this phase. Obviously, the logistic and high cost of sending children abroad for such sojourn, both in terms of time and monetary commitment, are often prohibitive.
2) Reading and writing: Learn pinyin or zhuyin down pat (like know it cold!) and to learn about 100-200 characters (or more) toward the end of this phase. Writing mechanism is a developing skill at this phase. The main difficulty for goal #2 is that this is a time consuming process, though it is still doable by knowledgeable immigrant parents or parents of Chinese heritage (e.g. ABC, ABT, etc.). Spending a couple of months in kindergarten abroad will make learning the phonetic so much easier.
At this stage, the child and environment that she is exposed to are still, more or less, under the control or influence of the parents. Frequently, the Chinese of American born parents gets better first, after relearning the material once learned in their own youth. Achieving verbal and reading fluency at the end of this phase will get the next phase off to a good start.
II. Phase 2: ~7 to 12-14 years old. Consolidation phase. Difficulty level: extremely high.
Once again, there are two main goals in this phase:
1) Listening and speaking: It is very important to maintain FLUENCY till past about 9-10 years of age. This is the time when the child's pattern of language use can be made more semi-permanent. It will almost certainly require exposure to native level children since the range of expression of one's emotion and feeling needed to be expanded for the child to be able to express herself fully in Chinese. Otherwise, the child will start expressing herself in English, which is what happens to just about every child of Chinese heritage, born and raised here or immigrant child who moved to the US at a young age (say, before 8). More reading and studying are required to acquire the additional vocabulary and expression needed for verbal expression at this phase. Having the chance to play and interact with native level children allows the child to practice those expression verbally. Without the verbal fluency at this phase, the child often looses interest in reading/studying Chinese, which becomes a double whammy. The verbal skill and the reading/studying go hand in hand, for the great majority of the children. The most common scenario is that the family finds it too traumatic and/or difficult to continue to require the child to converse with the parents in Chinese. After that, the child will speak mostly English or a combination of Chinese and English, depending how good her Chinese is.
2) Reading and writing: In terms of reading, the child will need to learn a total of about 1,000 to 1,500 words. This would probably be equivalent to going from first grade to middle of fourth grade. Besides the traditional method of learning phonetics first and then the characters, 馬立平's curriculum is an alternative choice, for children adopting the pinyin/simplified character route. It is important that your family has access to a wide variety of Chinese books, comics, and junior novels. With 1,000 to 1,500 characters, the child can likely recognize about 95-97% of the characters in casual readings. However, it is not simple recognition, it is the fluency. It is extremely important that the child can read junior novels (or at least comics) fluently by sometimes during middle school, to reinforce her desire to learn Chinese and to expand the breadth of her language skill. In terms of writing, knowing how to write using the correct stroke sequence, familiarity with writing the most commonly used ~500 words, and simple essay (third grade level at most) would likely suffice. I would say that, at the end of this phase (if reached), the child's Chinese language per se is AP level at least. However, this is not to say that the child will do well, if she is to actually take the AP test (not feasible due to age restriction, I think), since the subject matters on the test is more geared toward late teens, with more adult type materials.
This is the toughest phase for the following reasons:
1) It is next to impossible to find fluent Chinese speaking peers in the US by this age. Most children either were born here or immigrated here at a young age. Highschool international Chinese students are not peers whom children this age interact with.
2) Most extracurricular activities are in English and there are many more activities parents have their children involved in. So, the exposure time to Chinese drastically goes down.
3) Weekend or after-school Chinese classes, in those areas that offer them, are almost always insufficient in terms of the time allotted and materials covered, for good reasons. As the children, even in the same class/grade, have variable Chinese skill and English is the common denominator that almost all are fluent in, the children speak English to each other almost exclusively. If your child is fluent in Chinese and attempt to speak it with their non-fluent peers, it would be frowned upon and everyone end up speaking English.
4) Slowing down of Chinese character acquisition with less time devoted to Chinese, such that the child can not get past 3rd grade level (~ 1000 characters) to do extracurricular readings for pleasure comfortably.
5) Most children and parents see it more worthwhile, at this stage, to spend more time doing something else, like math, science, sport, or music.
6) Relative lack of access to a good collection of books in Chinese (novels, magazine, comics, self-help books, etc.),
7) The logistic and high cost of sending children abroad for Chinese summer camps. In addition, the Chinese camps for this age group are typically meant for oversea children, which means that interaction with native speaker children are more limited and English is the main language these children use to converse with each other. Some lucky families maintain legal residency oversea and have access to intermittent public school education abroad, which is ideal, though there maybe conflict of school schedule between the two places.
THIS PHASE TAKES A TEAM and a combination of different sources of language exposure. This may include oversea relatives who can supervise the children over the summer while they attend camp or school there, Chinese speaking live-in nanny or au pairs, Chinese tutors, dual immersion school (not enough by itself, with dearth of older students fluent in Chinese), homeschooling for a year or two, and other fluent speaker(s) at home (we have done almost all of these). It is unlikely that parents can find fluent Chinese speaking peers in the US for the child at this stage (I gave up looking). It also takes a lot of work for parents to create an enticing environment for the children to want to continue to learn Chinese. Some parents who can afford to do so simply bring the children back to Asia for 1-2 years of studying (second and third grade recommended). This phase can be achieved only by the most resourceful families and/or through extraordinary circumstances. If the child is exceptionally gifted (say, IQ ~ 145 and up or fewer than 1 in 1,000), the reading part may be achieved much more readily and with less resources devoted. Achieving verbal fluency still require frequent interaction and practice with fluent speakers.
If the child is still not fluent in speaking Chinese by the end of this phase, it will likely take longer term full immersion (at least 2 years) of living and studying in Chinese speaking regions (like China, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.) to be fluent in Chinese. By then, studying in regular local school won't be an easy option, since the subject matters and language requirement would be quite difficult.
So, I consider the consolidation phase to be the key for a successful Chinese program for US based parents and, unfortunately, the most difficult phase. The opportunity to periodically interact and play with fluent Chinese speaking peers is typically the linchpin for all three phases. It takes a most determined and resourceful family to see this through. For families with fluent Chinese speaking parents, this phase is very difficult still, unless the child is at least highly gifted. For families without two fluent speakers at home, this phase is exceedingly difficult without yearly sojourn and study in Asia.
III. Phase 3: ~12-14 to 18 years old. Maintenance phase. Difficulty level: low. There will often be teenage immigrants or Chinese speaking international students, who are already fluent in Chinese, with whom the teenager can associate. The Chinese pop culture, movies, novels, and magazines will be easy supplemental materials. This is past Chinese AP level already. Occasional shorter trips to Asia would be a nice bonus and affirming. This phase becomes more or less auto pilot with some adult supervision and coaching. Preparing for the AP exam should be fairly easy.
If a child can't get past phase 2, she will be in what I call palliative phase, with slow progress in her Chinese, until she expresses an interest in preparing for Chinese AP test or get interested in Chinese in high school, college, or after. And you all know the rest of that story. If one is lucky, the accent may be pretty decent, though verbal fluency is typically lacking and the child can not express herself well in Chinese and so speak Chinese only to the parents, if at all, with English added in frequently. Typically, the topics spoken in Chinese would be limited to activities of daily living. For topics in other subjects or when dealing with feelings and emotions, the child will frequently switch to English. To me, there is absolutely nothing wrong going this route, as it is the least resource intensive, with acceptable return on parents' more limited investment. In college, she may express interest in furthering her study in Chinese and/or take oversea trips to Asia for this purpose. As an adult, if employment circumstances calls for relocation to Asia, after two to three years of stay there and with further study in Chinese, she may be able to achieve verbal fluency and may be able to get past 4-5th grade level in reading/writing.
In general, I recommend that the great majority of the parents attempt phase 1 and beginning of phase 2, and then switch to palliative phase. For most parents, they really have little choice but to accept this path. I think most parents should just treat Chinese as a CSL skill (Chinese as Second Language). Frankly speaking, I think most families get the best bang for the buck this way. We only have 24 hours a day and there is opportunity cost to consider, in terms of time, other opportunities missed, and resource allocation.
For commercial and professional use in the US, it's important to be fluent enough in Chinese so that one can express one's thoughts and feeling correctly. Since the laws and customs would mostly be American, Chinese cultural knowledge requirement is relatively low. If one is to use the Chinese language in Asia professionally, the cultural knowledge requirement is different and much higher. One will have to know the culture and habits and that will take STUDYING and immersion. Things in Asia are not infrequently done differently, both on the surface and underneath. A mentor would be ideal. So, having the child learn Chinese to (only) 2-3 grade level by age 18 is likely a prudent decision for most families. Even for a child who has reached 6th grade level by 18 years of age, she will have to live and study more Chinese/culture in Asia, if she is to work there and use Chinese professionally (not just teaching English).
I know all these sounds frustrating, but I ask that you see the big picture. English is THE global business, cultural, and technical language and will remain so for many years to come. The benefit of learning Chinese in English speaking countries typically PALES in comparison to the benefit of learning English in Chinese speaking countries. If one lives in Asia, learning English can be of critical importance in job advancement. Regardless of geopolitical issues, learning English is promoted socially and culturally across the board, with much more comprehensive materials and ancillary support. Interaction with the west is more straight forward also, with much more defined and adhered legal standard and more familiarity in cultural exposure and understanding. The same thing can NOT be said about learning Chinese in the US. In fact, the OPPOSITE can often be said about learning Chinese here.
There are plenty of people who immigrated from Asia to English speaking countries (US, UK, Australia, etc.) around their tweens and are bilingual and biliterate in Chinese and English by 18, though intricacies in English expression are likely still a few years away. And there are many college students in China who have excellent English. I was truly impressed with the command of English of HS and college participants in Chinese TV shows featuring English debate/speech competitions. Even the international Chinese students who came to the US to attend HS has much better English nowadays. And there are ever growing number of Chinese who come to the US to study and then live/work but the same can not be said the other way around. So, these days, in Chinese speaking countries, there are quite a few locals who are now functionally fluent in English given prior study and work experience in the west, who are hired locally by Chinese or global companies for their operations there. My understanding is that they are now typically preferred over foreign nationals, given their cultural knowledge and connections. So, I have been told that expat package are much less common these days.
In conclusion, for the various reasons that I discussed above, I don't think it is practical or feasible for the majority of families in the US to set phase 3 by age 18 as their goal. The resource needed and diverted is quite substantial. For those with the necessary resources and who are committed to this path, I hope we can support each other through my FB group and beyond indeed.
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