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 be 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 which can be undertaken lightly. Because the language is so different than English — in its pronounciation, sentence structure, thought process — it requires a lot of personal motivation and dedication.
My son does not have that burning desire. He has had a childlike curiosity, which brought him willingly back to Chinese class for the past three years. And there has been a toll on the family in other ways. 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, 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 OpenSalon.com:
“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 is 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.”
© Grace Hwang Lynch 2010