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.