Editor's note: "Beijing Welcomes You" author Tom Scocca discusses raising his bilingual child, who speak English and Mandarin Chinese.
I started to truly appreciate the power of early childhood Chinese-language education when our son, at the age of two, started speaking English wrong. “The blue of cup,” he would say, meaning his blue cup.
This wasn’t a random preschool linguistic hiccup, we realized. He was trying to use Chinese syntax: “of” was standing in for the Mandarin particle “de” to turn the noun “blue” into an adjective. And his odd habit of indicating things by saying “this one” or “that one”–he was rendering the Chinese “zhege” and “neige” in English. That is, he was speaking Chinglish.
The usual arguments in favor of Mandarin education say that he should be on his way to conquering the world. An extra language, the theory goes, supplies extra brainpower, and Chinese in particular is a skill that will prepare young children to compete in the global 21st-century marketplace of talent.
Fun, right? If building an optimized little academic and economic performer were all there is to it, we’d have pulled him out of bilingual preschool long ago. Luckily, the reality of having a little Chinese learner underfoot is messier and more entertaining than that.
Our son’s head start in Chinese was mostly an accident. He was born in Beijing because my wife and I were living and working there, and he arrived before we could get back to New York for the delivery. So his first influences were Chinese nurses and the sound of Mandopop on the night-shift radio in the newborn unit.
He spent the first year and a half of his life in the Chinese capital, the seat of standard Mandarin. This is a point of pride for him now, at age four, though in fact he mostly was exposed to his second-generation Chinese-American mother’s lax Taiwan accent and the Sichuan countryside accent of our nanny, who amused him by chanting old schoolhouse rhymes about the glory of Mao.
That early input, followed by half-days of Chinese preschool in New York, hasn’t yet produced a junior trans-Pacific CEO. If you’re considering Mandarin as part of a program of intensive child-improvement, it’s worth remembering that children aren’t so easy to improve.
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