Assimilation-You Should Just Learn Mandarin

Elanor and Rhiannon are learning Mandarin.  I have blogged before about the humbling experience of being the parent who doesn’t speak a language your children are learning.  Today I’m going to answer one of the most irritating questions I am asked on a regular basis–“Why don’t you just learn Mandarin?”

Irritation #1-That learning a second language is easily done

I studied French for 8 years (at one point majoring in it, and finishing my bachelor’s with a minor) and lived in France for a month without actually achieving fluency.  My French can best be described as “adequate.”  I can get along in French-I get the gist of what people say to me (as long as they don’t speak too rapidly) and what I read, and I speak it well enough to be understood even though my grammar and vocabulary are lacking (especially my grammar–I never fully mastered the more complex verb tenses, and as time passes, both grammar and vocab fall to the side).  If I were dropped in the middle of France surrounded by people who didn’t speak English (which isn’t the case, but let’s play what if) I could get by on a basic level.  If I lived in France I’d come closer to fluency over time (years, not months) but the probability is very low that I could ever achieve achieve true fluency.

French isn’t actually considered a terribly difficult language for a native English speaker to learn.

Now, compare French with Mandarin-a language that is considered one of the hardest for native English speakers to learn and throw in Mandarin characters (because my children aren’t learning pinyin) and I have to ask you–exactly how easily do you think I can do this?

doorThe character on the very bottom is kai.  When paired with the character for door it means to open the door.  When paired with the character for car it means to drive the car.  But it can also be paired with another character and mean happy.  That’s without getting into which strokes are involved in writing that character and in what order they’re supposed to be written.  Mandarin is really complex.

Irritation #2-That I have copious amounts of free time during which I can learn Mandarin.

I have a great deal of privilege, including the fact that I am the primary caregiver for my girls.

However this doesn’t mean I have all the free time in the world.

I find Mandarin very challenging, especially when it comes to hearing the 4 tones.  I cheerfully greeted Laoshi “oo ah” instead of “wu an” for over a year before Elanor corrected me earlier this year to my mortification.  I share this because after hearing it multiple times a week for over a year, that was what I thought I was hearing.

In order for me to learn Mandarin I need one on one tutoring, or better still a classroom environment supported by daily one on one tutoring.  I don’t mean that I can have a tutor come over while the girls are at home and playing because I will be distracted.  This is the same reason that while I’ve certainly picked up words here and there from E’s weekly tutoring session I haven’t learned nearly as much as I’d want to because I’m trying to keep Rhiannon out of their hair and focused on other things, if not out of the room entirely.

We’ve covered this here in depth, but I don’t have a helper and I don’t have alternative childcare.  So I have an extremely limited number of child free hours a day.  I have to prioritize what I do in those hours.  Even if I could magically stop going to the gym without any consequence to my back, never needed to go to physical therapy or any other doctor’s visit again, see my friends without my/our kids or skype my friends in the US, or work, Mandarin still wouldn’t be my next use of those hours.

I have a limited amount of free time and while I would love to learn Mandarin, it’s just not what I’m going to use that free time for.

Irritation #3-If you are a rank beginner at a skill, you can not teach it

Let’s assume #2 isn’t an issue and I did have copious free time daily to learn/practice Mandarin.  This is still a huge impediment/irritation to the assumption.

My biggest motivation for actually trying to learn Mandarin is that my children are studying it in school and I’d like to be able to help them with their school work.

mandarinSome of E’s work from earlier this year

While Ellie is a “beginner” at Mandarin (and really, she’s been getting it in school for 2.5 years now with a brain that’s far more capable of rewiring itself to learn a language, so by comparison, light years ahead of me already), she needs the guidance of someone who actually knows the material well enough to teach it.

When Ellie took violin for a brief time, we were learning together.  I’d never picked up a violin prior to our first class.  So I was still trying to learn what a correct bow hold looked/felt like and I was supposed to correct hers.  It was almost a relief when it became clear that Ellie didn’t yet have the fine motor control to hold the bow correctly/play at that time.  Having studied violin for almost 2 years now, I would now feel competent being the parent teacher for Ellie or Rhi if they wanted to learn the suzuki method of violin (the parent oversees daily practice and reinforces the teacher’s notes).  But not nearly as good a parent teacher as my friend Dawn, who is a professional, will be for her kids.

Irritation #4-Exactly what kind of Mandarin do you mean?

It is worth noting that the Mandarin spoken in Singapore today isn’t the Mandarin spoken here 50 years ago.

Kirsten wrote an article where she explains

The elderly gentleman smiled at me, gesturing to my name tag with his wine glass. “Oh, you’re a Han too, like me. You should come join the Han Clan, we have trips back to Hainan Island. You speak Hainanese?”

“No, I don’t. Actually, my dad’s family is Hainanese but he was born and raised in Shanghai.”

“Oh, so you speak Shanghainese then.”

“Erm… no, I don’t speak Shanghainese either.”

“Then what dialects do you speak? Cantonese? Hokkien?”

“Ah… actually, I can’t really speak any dialects at all.”

He smiles again, faintly this time, and nods knowingly. It’s a bit of a disappointment, but not a surprise.

When the first Chinese settlers arrived in Singapore, most of them spoke their own dialects: Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, so on and so forth. People preferred to use the dialect of their province rather than Mandarin, the “official” language. (In China, Mandarin is often known as guoyu or putonghua, translated as “language of the country” or “common tongue”.) This was what they passed on to their children, and how they communicated in their families and communities.

After Singapore’s independence, the government saw this preference for dialects as a hindrance to their bilingual education policy, which sought to have Singaporean students learn two languages at school: English and their mother tongue (depending on their ethnicity). Thus, the government launched the Speak Mandarin Campaign in 1979. In that year, the campaign slogan was, “多讲华语,少说方言” (translation: “Speak More Mandarin, Speak Less Dialects”).

From what I’m told by native speakers, Singaporean Mandarin is its own dialect just as Singaporean English is.

Irritation #5-That because it’s not my priority today doesn’t mean I’m shunning it

Learning Mandarin isn’t a priority for me today.  That doesn’t mean I’m not picking it up at all.

xiao lao shu

I’ve learned this song because Ellie loves it.

I’m picking up vocabulary randomly from Elanor and her tutor as well as Rhiannon (who attends a bilingual school).

For me, each remembered word is a small (really small) victory.  Over our three and a half years, I’ve won a lot of small victories.  For me, that’s enough.

Screen Shot 2013-11-08 at 1.19.20 AMSeriously.   Stop telling people to “just” learn a language like it’s a skill you can master in an afternoon.

How about you?  If not a native speaker–Are you learning Mandarin?  Tried and quit?  Succeeded?  Succeeded to the point of tutoring your kids?  Do you have any pet peeves about “just learn Mandarin”?

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7 Responses to Assimilation-You Should Just Learn Mandarin

  1. Jim says:

    I can’t speak for Mandarin (no pun intended), but as someone who’s studied other languages, this topic strikes a chord with me. Background: I’m a native American English speaker who speaks conversational Spanish and a bit of Japanese. At the moment, I’m studying Hindi.

    Time is by far the biggest issue with trying to learn a new language. I took a refresher course in Japanese last year to brush up in preparation for a trip to Japan (I studied Japanese for a year in college), and it was hard for me to retain things from one class to the next, because the classes were once a week and I didn’t have much time for reviewing the material in between classes. I have the same issue with Hindi, although our teacher does assign us homework, which helps a lot. I always find myself wishing I had more time, though.

    Some languages are more difficult than others, to be sure, and Mandarin is one of the most difficult for native English speakers to learn. There’s a chart at http://www.effectivelanguagelearning.com/language-guide/language-difficulty which has more information on this. I also think some people have an aptitude for languages, and can learn more quickly.

    I would say that to learn any new language, you have to be willing/able to spend at least 3-5 hours a week studying it. If you don’t have that time, there’s no shame in saying you have other priorities.

    I will say that if you do have the time, studying other languages can be quite rewarding. Even with my limited Japanese proficiency, I was able to communicate while in Japan, and people seemed to appreciate that. My greatest triumph was when I had to buy train tickets: I didn’t trust my Japanese would be good enough to talk to the ticket agents, so I wrote a note in Japanese in advance saying when and where I wanted to go and what train I wanted to take. The Internet was very helpful in looking up some of the characters, and I remembered enough penmanship from college that I could write the characters correctly (stroke order can be a tricky thing).

  2. Rebecca says:

    As a linguist who learned Mandarin and Cantonese as an adult, I understand your frustration, but I thought I should offer a different perspective on some of your points. Mandarin is a bit harder for English speakers to learn than French and Spanish due to shared vocab, but its difficulty gets overstated. It’s totally doable, and the Mandarin tones tend to be quite easy for learners to pick up. Also, Singaporean Mandarin is not nearly as different as Singlish, it’s more of a Boston accent situation. Finally, research suggests that adults are actually faster than young children at many second language learning tasks, particularly academic tasks like vocab learning and reading comprehension. The difference is that most adults simply don’t have the time to spend learning a new language. And that’s fine, I don’t think anyone should feel obligated to study a language because their kids are taking it. But don’t get discouraged from trying due to the Chinese mystique!

    • I think that one’s ability to pick up language in general plays into it. I wish I had the time and the natural talent to do so more easily. Just sadly not at this point.

  3. bookjunkie says:

    I wish it wasn’t, but it’s soo hard to learn a new language in adulthood.

  4. Pingback: Assimilation-Chinese spelling tests are my new circle of hell | Expat Bostonians

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