Monday, August 1st, 2011

Chinese School Dropout: Why I No Longer Torture My Son With Bilingualism


After three years of flashcards, tracing sheets, computer games and CDs, I’m giving in. I’m a Chinese School Dropout. Or rather my second-grader is.
It’s a decision we have not come to rashly. We have had a love-hate relationship with learning Chinese. Sure, there was some whining. But not kicking and screaming and crying—especially since first grade, when my son started in a homework-free program aimed at non-native Mandarin speakers. Of course, the Pokemon cards the lao shi handed out as prizes helped ease the two hours on a Thursday afternoon spent in a classroom practicing bo-po-mo-fo Mandarin phonics. As did the post-Chinese class Happy Meal run (which by the way, seemed to be a traditional method of bribing kids to attend Chinese school—at least for my childhood friends).

So why did I let my son quit Chinese class? To answer that question, we probably need to take a look back at why I enrolled him in the first place. The answer—as with many of my parenting choices—lies in my own childhood.
Unlike many children of Taiwanese immigrants, I was not (repeat NOT) forced to spend precious Saturday hours memorizing poems or tracing characters. The reasons behind that are complicated, but the bottom line is that by the time I started high school, I had a better command of French than Mandarin.
This was a problem for a person with a Chinese surname—and face—who by circumstances, ought to be able to speak enough Mandarin to order off the “authentic” menu or hold a basic conversation with an Auntie. Instead, my repertoire consisted of “a glass of ice water please,” and “my mother isn’t home.”
In college, I was determined to own what should have been one of my native tongues. I enrolled in a Mandarin I class, which I assumed should be at least as easy as French, considering I had heard my parents’ whispered Mandarin conversations my whole life.
The lessons from the Practical Chinese Reader, imported from the People’s Republic of China, featured the simplified characters taught on the mainland since the Cultural Revolution, and dialogue tapes heavy in the shirring Beijing accent. While I hoped for an easy A, the course proved to be at least as hard as Organic Chemistry, and I ultimately elected to take it on a Pass/Not Pass basis. (By the way, I passed.)
Learning Mandarin is not a task that can be undertaken lightly. Because the language is so different from English–in its pronunciation, sentence structure, and thought process–it requires a lot of personal motivation and dedication.
My son does not have that burning desire. He does, however, have a child’s curiosity, which brought him willingly back to Chinese class for the past three years. And the toll on the family has not been insignificant. In order to take these classes, we’ve had to make special requests for soccer practices, forfeit the martial arts lessons he’s been wanting to try, and (last but not least) I, as mom and chauffeur, have had to fight rush-hour traffic on the drive across town.
And as Dr. Linda Shuie writes in her post, “Why I Torture My Kids with Chinese School” on
“Cognitively, it is known that the ability to learn languages “like a native” expires at age 7. Period. So while kids over 7 and adults can learn foreign languages, it gets more and more difficult.”
That window is fast closing for my son, who turns eight soon. I feel good that I gave him the opportunity to learn Mandarin during his formative years and that we got out while the going was good. For the most part, his experience has been a pleasant one, and I’d like to protect that. After all, he says, “Maybe I’ll try learning Chinese again in eighth grade.”

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Grace Hwang Lynch is a broadcast journalist turned turned blogger. She writes about Asian mixed-race family issues at HapaMama and is also the Race and Ethnicity Section Editor for BlogHer. Her work has been published on Salon, Talking Writing, and included in Mamas and Papas: On the Sublime and Heartbreaking Art of Parenting and Lavanderia: A Mixed Load of Women, Wash and Word (both by City Works Press).

Leave us a comment!

  1. Commentsclaire niala   |  Tuesday, 02 August 2011 at 5:42 pm

    kudos – especially on the courage it took to make the decision to drop out. my daughter after having been effortlessly trilingual for the first few years of her life is starting to prefer to use just english and initially it was hard to respect that. in the end though i believe it is important for them to make their own way with language regardless of our parental reasons for exposing them to more than one.

  2. CommentsGrace Hwang Lynch   |  Thursday, 04 August 2011 at 3:57 pm

    Yes! We can give our kids a good start, but as they get older, we need to respect their interests and as well. Personal motivation can be a really important factor in learning a new language. Thanks for reading and leaving feedback!

  3. CommentsOmar Leung   |  Friday, 05 August 2011 at 11:22 am

    I was dropout myself. My friends who did learn Chinese did it a different way. They listened to music and shows from Hong Kong and ended up being quite fluent.

    I always like to think about why we want to pass on language. Is it for the various advantages of bilingualism or is to pass down a culture? They are similar, but not the same goals.

  4. CommentsAmanda Hsiung Blodgett   |  Friday, 05 August 2011 at 1:32 pm

    The motivation is the key. Bravo for you! I have many American born Chinese (ABC) cousins and I saw the struggle they had when they were pressured to learn Chinese. When I came to the States to study I had the opportunity to teach Mandarin Chinese to young ABCc at a Saturday Chinese school. I experienced firsthand the tension between kids and parents on my first day on the job. I never thought I would have to teach my own children Chinese until I had my own hapa kids. I decided not to send them to Chinese school but to teach them at home instead. In the end learning the language has to be something they want to do. If I can convince them that having a second language is beneficial to them and not a duty to me I think I can succeed! 🙂

  5. CommentsJen   |  Thursday, 18 August 2011 at 8:22 am

    I don’t agree with the quote by Dr. Linda Shule. The ability to learn a language “like a native” does not suddenly expire. However, the ability to make the sounds of a language “like a native” gradually drops off and once a child hits puberty, it becomes much more difficult/near impossible to sound native-like. If your son can already create the sounds of the language, he may be able to pick back up where he left off years later. You could just make sure he practices the sounds from time to time so that he doesn’t lose that ability. Also, the puberty “timeline” refers more to children/teens that are learning a new language for the first time, such as immigrants/refugees that come to the U.S. and are taking English classes.

  6. CommentsHiragana Mama   |  Wednesday, 31 August 2011 at 11:09 am

    Great article, Grace!! I have a feeling this is what will happen with our daughter as well (with Japanese school). We’ll keep attending as long as it is a positive experience for our family.

  7. CommentsKC   |  Monday, 23 April 2012 at 7:02 pm

    I don’t see the issue, especially if there is no pressure. Honestly not a day goes by where i don’t curse my parents for not teaching / forcing me to go to chinese school when I was younger. The world is changing and when your child grows up, chinese is going to be VERY important…

  8. Commentsveronica   |  Friday, 09 November 2012 at 11:46 pm

    Well we allhave our different opinion of how many languages we want our kids to learn and I respect that, and I know later on they will decide what language they prefer or keep my kids goes to a Trilingual local school luckly it is free our main language is Spanish they learn english in school and Mandarin, wich they love. My son has been in the Mandarin emmersion program for 2 yrs. wich is combine with English he is in 3rd grade now and I am amaze on how many characters he knows and he can handle some chinese conversation. wich my Grandfather was chinese. wich I will keep them in this school till the end of elementary. great article.

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