Why We Won’t Continue the Chinese School Experiment

We committed to Chinese school for Zac on the apparently random basis that we would reassess when the time came up to renew our lease.

I took, in turn, a four month lease on the basis that that would be about the right amount of time to get Zac into a Chinese school and see whether Mandarin immersion was working or not.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the boy doesn’t want to carry on beyond this point. Which is his call.

The time he has had is, honestly, not long enough to get anything like the full benefits of immersion. For what it’s worth, I suspect six months in Chinese school is really what’s required to see the benefits.

That said, even a little less than three months, which is what Zac will have had, has vastly improved both his literacy and his spoken Chinese, though I’d say the literacy gains are larger than the speaking gains.

To get to reasonable fluency and reasonable literacy would, I think, take at least two years of Mandarin immersion in China (or Taiwan), whatever the age of the child (with some variations depending on their starting point).

And to get to fluency and literacy (by which I mean able to do what you like in the language, speaking, reading, writing and listening) would take roughly double that time.

The US State Department, for the record, aims to get its highly educated professional diplomats, most already with a language under their belt, to business-calibre reading, speaking and listening (NOT writing) in a little over a year and a half.

That’s level 3 out of a possible 5 levels of fluency, based on 40 hours a week in intensive classes for 88 weeks, plus intensive homework – and note that those 5000-odd study hours exclude writing Chinese, and exclude, of course, the other topics that any child in Chinese school will be actively learning.

The language is, well, a bitch. More of a hobby, or an addiction, than a language. And a lifetime project.


Well, Chinese is not a language like French or Spanish where a native English speaker educated to, let’s say, A* GCSE level in the language can build rapidly on that base.

And that’s down to a range of things, which I’ll write about in due course, but primarily the characters.

If you hear a new word in French or Spanish, and it happens to be accompanied by text, you can look at the text, spot which word it is, and remember how to write it. If you see a new word, you can sound it out: even in English, with its famously irritating spelling, you’re not going to go far wrong, and nor are you going to be far wrong with other alphabetic languages, like Greek and Russian.

If you look up a new word in the dictionary, you are, most likely, going to be able to remember roughly how to write it, if you hear a new word you’ll know roughly how to spell it, etcetera.

In Chinese, that’s not the case. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the characters are a hindrance rather than a help – the more you know, the more helpful they become (building vocabulary in a character-based language is a series of AHA! moments that become more frequent the more characters you have as a base), but learning a new vocabulary item may also entail having to remember characters that can take more than 20 strokes to draw.

Add into this the near-total absence of cognates, the difficulty of pronunciation (tones are less hard than you’d think, but most native English speakers will really struggle with some or all of the consonants ji/zh/j, xi/sh/x, ch/q, c/z/s) and sentence structure (Chinese dictionaries are replete with words identified as “struc.”), and the language is, well, a bitch.

More of a hobby, or an addiction, than a language. And a lifetime project. (I’ll write more about why Chinese is difficult at some point, not least because there’s a tonne of disinformation about this on the web, but in the meantime here is the ne plus ultra on that topic.)

Most Chinese parents don’t really want the Chinese childhood for their children, but because there are so few good jobs, so few good universities, and so many people fighting for those places, they honestly have no other option if they want their children to do well in life. We have other options.

So… Why does Zac want to stop school?

Well, as I’ve described, China has an extremely tough school system, arguably the hardest on the planet, and it’s almost impossible to understand how hard it is until you’re in it.

He has adapted remarkably well to 5.30am starts and long school days (I haven’t, and never will, adapt to 5.30am), but the homework is a struggle on top of that: 60+ hours of study a week would be tough even in your native language aged 12.

And deeply ingrained into the Chinese school culture is the idea that you should feel ashamed of not being the best, ashamed of failure: he thinks that he’s already starting to internalise a very competitive culture, and wouldn’t like to go further down that road.

Most important, though, is the limitations of the social side. One area where I hoped his spoken Chinese would really progress was if he had a buddy with whom he might perhaps play computer games once in a while. We knew, of course, that Chinese children don’t do sleepovers, but I hadn’t really understood that even the odd evening/afternoon hanging out once in a while would be off the cards as well.

After a long week of commute, school and homework, neither of us felt that classes at weekends would be a good idea – but, as Zac’s Chinese peers are all in classes all weekend, that would have been, sadly, his best chance at socialising outside of school.

Now, it is possible to make non-class social engagements with Chinese families, but it requires lengthy and careful planning, even at middle school age, around the child’s schedule of tests: a Saturday dinner may not be possible for four weeks, because a child has a test in three. And casual gaming? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Zac has been playing with his peers at playtime (when they get playtime), and having little chats with them before class and between classes. But the only way for him to have a social life, really, would be to inflict on him the full might of the Chinese childhood, with another class or two at weekends on top of his 70+ hour week.

Now, most Chinese parents don’t really want the Chinese childhood for their children, but because there are so few good jobs, so few good universities, and so many people fighting for those places, they honestly have no other option if they want their children to do well in life: it’s not a society whose infrastructure easily supports freelance/entrepreneurial projects unless the family is extremely wealthy. We have other options.

Zac hasn’t just transitioned from primary to middle school, a transition most parents and children approach with a degree of apprehension, but transitioned from unschool to a 3000-child high school IN CHINA, in which he’s been in an ethnic and linguistic minority of one.

Now, this isn’t to say that this experiment has been a failure. Overall, we both agree that it’s been a useful, interesting and overwhelmingly beneficial experience on all sorts of levels.

Firstly, there’s a deeper understanding of Chinese culture and a mindset very different from our own. I’m extremely impressed by the way Zac’s adapted, both complying with an extremely rigorous routine and remaining his own person.

Secondly, there’s the confidence gains. Zac hasn’t just transitioned from primary to middle school, a transition most parents and children approach with a degree of apprehension, but transitioned from unschool to a 3000-child high school IN CHINA, in which he’s been in an ethnic and linguistic minority of one. He hasn’t just handled it but, in many ways, enjoyed it.

Thirdly, there’s the intellectual side. He has not been bored in Chinese school: he’s been constantly challenged, and so his energy levels have stayed high. His maths has come on about a gadzillion years (Chinese seventh graders cover maths we don’t touch until A-level).

His calculations are infinitely faster than they were; he shows his workings painstakingly, including Tippexing items out to make the workings clearer; he’s been “not bottom” in maths for a while now (which is a big deal when you’re a foreigner from our soft Western tradition in a Chinese academic elite school); he actually did better than “5 to 10” of his classmates on a 2-hour timed test, for which they had prepared and he hadn’t (really no small achievement when you see the terrifying wall of text that makes up a typical Chinese maths test).

Fourthly, there’s the linguistic side. His Chinese has come on a mile, although not as far, I think, as either of us hoped. Unless he opts for Turkish, pretty much any other language he adds is going to feel easy (Chinese would give him a jumpstart on Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese, three other candidates, I have belatedly learned, for the dubious prize of the world’s most difficult widely spoken language).

Fifthly, and this seems ironic in this most disciplined of environments, there’s self-discipline. He has got himself up every morning, without fail, at 5.40am. He’s set another alarm on his phone to put himself to bed every night at 9.30pm so that he can make the 5.40am start. And he’s done hours upon hours of homework after these long days.

On some levels, I wish he’d been prepared to stay longer, to allow the immersion more time to work. But he didn’t want to.

On some levels, I wish he’d been prepared to stay longer, to allow the immersion more time to work. But he didn’t want to. He wanted to go travelling. He wanted to see Mongolia, and I wasn’t going to push him.

I’m frankly amazed, in all honesty, that he stuck it out. I know I couldn’t have done it at his age. And I’m extremely proud that he’s managed it, although that’s tempered for both of us with the knowledge that Chinese kids do exactly that, all the time.

We’ve talked a bit about where we go from here in education terms.

Zac wants to stick to Asian maths as we head back into unschooling. Why? “It’s better, because it’s actually challenging, and Asian kids are better than Anglo kids at maths.”

And for the meantime he’ll be doing it in Chinese. He’d rather switch to English but we can’t find Asian-style maths book in English (Singapore Math, as marketed outside Singapore, is quite ludicrously dumbed-down for its target US market).

We will also be carrying on Chinese learning with our teacher, to build on the gains he’s made, and watching the odd Chinese movie from time to time. Learning Chinese is a lifetime project (here’s where we started), but these three months have given him a good base.

And it’ll be nice for him to have the time to read and write and draw and programme again.

We are both, honestly, more than a little conflicted about leaving, on all sorts of levels. But I think, given we’re not going to commit to two years, this time is a good a time as any.

It’s going to be a wrench, though. It’s really going to be a wrench.

32 Responses

  1. Talon says:

    I sure know a young lad who will be quite pleased that Z is online more now.

    • Theodora says:

      Yes, we’ll see how Mongolian internet holds up… We should be online quite a bit next week, in fact. Then probably not for a fortnight.

  2. Joel says:

    A week of that would pretty much destroy any kid (or adult) I know. Amazing he stuck it out so long. Would be interesting to find out if you do track down Chinese-quality maths texts in English.

    • Theodora says:

      Well, I think we’d need to do a physical recce to Singapore. But I’ll have a good solid look when I’m in a place that I can receive deliveries again…

  3. Jac says:

    I think it speaks very well of you and Zach that he can make such a rational and mature decision on his studies, because at his age I’m pretty sure I was more concerned with the trivialities of youth vs whether I was actually getting a good education! (and I say this as someone who’s been through the Singaporean school system… the irony perhaps is even though I’m Chinese, I had to have tuition for a long time to get by exams in school as we hardly speak the language at home!)

    All the best to both of you, and if you ever do come to Singapore, I can attest that the stuff they do these days is a lot harder than what I learned back in my day…

    • Theodora says:

      Yes, it seems that Chinese maths has got harder than it was back in the day, as well. Though not MUCH harder. English maths, in contrast, has got progressively easier over the last three generations…

  4. Yvette says:

    Hell I’m proud of Zac and I’ve never met the kid. And I’m glad to hear he’s keeping up with the math system- I’m no expert cause I’m not there, but if nothing else I think it’s a very good thing that he now knows where he needs to be in that on an international scale.

    Plus I mean geez let’s be honest, if my parents asked me at age 12 if I’d rather go traveling to Mongolia instead of school I know what my answer would have been. 😉

    • Theodora says:

      I hadn’t thought of it that way, but of course, he does need to be on the international scale rather than the national scale. My cousin observed that since some Chinese schools are now doing IB Higher Maths the grade boundaries have soared, so it will be interesting to see if the global playing field does open up…

      • Yvette says:

        Trust me- the biggest thing these days is (as you know well) one can work from anywhere and go to school everywhere. And people naturally do: when it comes to graduate school odds are more than half the students are from abroad.

        It might matter less in other fields, but in science/technology where one can get a visa pretty much anywhere as a skilled laborer you really need to be at the top of your game.

        • Theodora says:

          Oh, I think it matters immensely. The arts are largely protected geographically, but, yes, it’s not going to cut the mustard in a globalised world “Oh, sorry, I’m not Chinese! So I’m not as good as them! But I’m good for a Brit!”

  5. Antik says:

    Great work Zac, so impressed. Could you both imagine another stint at immersion in China or anywhere else in the world? Inspiring journey you are on.
    Do you know anything about what happens in respect to kids that are average or below academically but live in that system? As the pressure and humiliation must surely take a massive toll if you are an only child and all family expectations are on you.
    Enjoy Mongolia and freedom

    • Theodora says:

      I’ve asked about that, actually. Children who are below average do extra classes and extra tuition to keep up. Children who can’t handle it at all go into “special schools” (ulp). Literacy levels in China are extremely high, though, despite the huge barrier to entry, so I’d suspect numeracy levels are similarly high.

  6. Paz says:

    I am so impressed with everything he/you have done and consider this a win win on all fronts. The amount that he was able to achieve in such a small amount of time and the ability to say “hey..this is enough” is so mature. Way to go!

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks, Paz. We both kind of wish we’d stuck it out longer, but that would have meant missing Mongolia, and by the end Zac was literally counting the days.

  7. A very healthy experience, in my opinion, but not a nomad-friendly Brave New World. Time to saddle up and hit the road to escape from that straitjacket culture.

    • Theodora says:

      Yes. We never really explained to anyone what we are doing because Chinese don’t really get longterm travel, unsurprisingly.

  8. Thursday Took says:

    I wanna be like Zac when I grow up!

  9. Interesting post (as always)–was wondering why you were stopping school in China. It was very brave for both you and Z to give it a go. And I fully agree with you re: ‘Now, most Chinese parents don’t really want the Chinese childhood for their children’. This was the reason my parents emigrated from Hong Kong when I was a toddler and you just have to look at the emigration rates as well as the high number of foreign students from china, even at the secondary school level, to see that it’s still the case now.

    • Theodora says:

      Nice to hear from you! I think what Westerners don’t realise when we comment on how hard ethnically Asian students work in school is what a doss they are having compared to what they’d be doing at home, from the hours downwards.

  10. Edna says:

    Very impressed Zac stuck with it as well as he did. Watching my cousins in China growing up and working so hard, I’ve always been grateful my parents had me in the States so that even though I still had to do a lot of extra homework at home (my math scores were always typically excellent), at least I had some semblance of a social life growing up.

    • Theodora says:

      I can imagine Chinese parents arriving in the US wanting you to keep up the maths! But, yes, Chinese children have close to zero social life, which is very sad. University is like freedom for them, big time.

  11. Tiphanya says:

    I think that all languages are a lifetime challenge, as it’s so easy to forget.
    But I’m impressed by what you both manage to achieve in China. I’m learning japanese and teaching French to chinese people. And japanese is way much easier. Pronounciation is easy, there is an alphabet (so it’s easy to look in the dictionnary).
    Mongolia is a great plan too. I went to Kirghizstan and often heard there are quite similar countries. And I loved Kirghizstan.

    • Theodora says:

      That’s interesting! I always thought Japanese involved learning slightly more characters than Chinese — 5000-8000 was the number a Japanese friend cited.

  12. Nonplussed says:

    What a relief! The stress was killing me.

  13. Honestly, I don’t blame him for not wanting to continue. But what an experience!

  14. rosie says:

    So – when we go to China a part of our family gap year, we cant hope that our kids will be able to play much with Chinese children – they’ll be in school all the time!

    • Theodora says:

      Yep. If they’re pre-kindergarten age, they’ll be out and about. Friday evenings are a good time to catch older children in the cities, and rural children have a lot more freedom — and there are more children in the countryside than in the cities as the one-child policy does not really apply to peasant/farming families. But, essentially, there are relatively few children in China and they are incredibly overworked…

  15. Theodora,
    I stumbled upon your blog accidentally while doing some research on the Songhua river. I am an expatriate as well and married a Chinese woman and have a (now)) 15 year old step daughter who I have been homeschooling for the past few years in preparation for her emigration to America this year. I LOVE YOUR BLOG and website ! So inspirational for me as I have been educating my daughter purposely outside of the Chinese educational system for exactly all of the things and problems you have been talking about on your blog. Yes it’s ironic how everyone in the ‘West’ have such a superficial view of the Chinese schools and think the educational system is so great because Chinese students test scores are so high. No wonder. The ONLY THING THEY LEARN in Chinese schools is how to take test. I taught English in Beijing for over 5 years at the college level and that’s what all of the students always complained about. In Chinese schools you are told what to to and say and creativity is totally non-existent. My daughter, who I have (since homeschooling her) discovered is a very gifted and talented artist once told me that when she was in primary school a teacher laughed at a picture she had drawn and mocked her in front of the house. Now that she has is fluent in English she has often told me more and more horrifying stories of what life was like for her in a ‘regular’ Chinese school. I say regular because my cousin has brought up 3 children in Hong Kong ‘international’ schools which are absolutely nothing like a real Chinese school. Anyways you mentioned some positives about Zack’s Chinese school experiment but I want to tell you that he and you really made the right decision in pulling him out. I won’t go into detail because this is a public site and I still live in China. But I have lived here for almost 8 years now and have made a very conscious effort to study and understand the educational system from first a professional and then a personal level and I don’t have a very high opinion of the educational system here. Personally I feel it’s very detrimental to a child’s emotional well being. Anyways I would like to correspond with you directly if possible but I would prefer to do it not on a public site. You can reach me at [email protected] and I would love to hear from you. I love your ‘3 C’s”…really got my attention to read blog. As I mentioned before my wife and daughter are both Chinese but their lives before and now with me have been anything but traditional with respect to Chinese culture. Nevertheless she has given me a lot of insight into the mind set of Chinese people which I would probably would have never know before had I not married her. And I would like to share with you our knowledge if your interested. All the best, Wesleyy Wong

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks for your comment, Wesley. It was only ever going to be a short-term thing for us, but it makes me glad we didn’t try to extend it for a year or two. I’m behind on my life at the moment, and Zac’s away, but I’ll talk to him about conversation practice — might be good for both of them. Interested to see how your family will find the US!

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