Why My Children Are Learning Chinese (& Why They Started Before They Could Crawl)

My eldest son and his Chinese tutor on an outing to the park several months after their first session.

I Swear, I’m Not As Crazy As I Sound...

When I first told my family that I was paying a tutor to come talk to my 5.5 month old in Chinese, they thought that I was crazy.

At the time of my son's first lesson, he couldn't even sit up by himself so he reclined in his Baby Bjorn bouncer as his tutor read to and played with him. To be perfectly honest, I think that his tutor thought that I was crazy too. Although she had tutored many Mandarin learners before, all of them were at least old enough to talk and she was kind of at a loss for what she was supposed to do with a baby that could not even sit. Since she did not have any children herself, she did not have any board books and she would read to him from a book that she typically used to teach 4th and 5th graders.

As my son, and our family, has grown, I have faced similar baffled expressions when I explain that our white American - Ethnically European family is hosting Chinese au pairs so that our children can learn Mandarin.

Typical responses include, 'I thought that all au pairs came from Europe'...'You didn’t want to get a French or German au pair so your children could speak those languages?'...or...'Why don't you get a nanny from the Philippines or a Latin American country? They are so good with kids.' 

I think that these comments reveal a little about the lack of familiarity that most Americans have about China, but I'll save that conversation for another post.

The truth is, that my answer to these questions is pretty long so I typically only provide abbreviated pieces of it depending on my audience. Since this blog post is dedicated exclusively to the topic, however, I will give you the full version. 

Thinking Forward

As a student at the United States Naval Academy, every year before classes began, I was forced to sit through a variety of briefs on subjects that I can't imagine any college student would willingly attend on her own, but, which, in retrospect, I am glad that I sat through. For example, every year, I had to sit through a presentation from a retired financial planner about saving for retirement, and so, from the age of 19, I started making contributions to an individual retirement account (IRA).

Midshipmen receiving a brief from an Admiral in Alumni Hall, Annapolis, MD (2006)

A group of midshipmen receiving a brief in Alumni Hall, Annapolis, MD. (U.S. Navy Photo by CHPHOT Johnny Bivera, USN)

One of the other briefs, which I can't remember if we received annually or only my freshman ("Plebe") year was about what the world would look like in 25 years. It was the first time that I had seen one of those infographic maps known as cartograms where the size of the country is distorted to represent whatever statistical parameter was being discussed--population, GDP, etc.

It seemed like every other slide was telling the story that China was going to be a major player in almost every meaningful facet of business and geopolitics by 2030. For this reason, and possibly also because I have long harbored a fascination with traditional eastern cultures, when I was given the opportunity to choose which foreign language I wanted to study to fulfill my academic requirements, I chose Mandarin Chinese.

I was extremely fortunate that my first year studying Chinese coincided with Dr. Hu Wenze's first year teaching at the Naval Academy. Hu Laoshi ("Teacher Hu") as we called him, had transferred from Harvard and was the best professor I have ever had. Unlike many other Chinese professors, HuLaoshi was not stern. He was extremely patient and attentive. He was wise and grandfatherly--like Yoda, or WuGui from KungFu Panda. Anyway, HuLaoshi was also a pedagogical genius, and even though we only had three one hour classes a week, he helped us learn so effectively that, even years after graduating, I was able to recall very specific grammatical structures that he had taught--even though I couldn't remember the slightest thing about most of my other courses.

As an aside, I think that this ought to be the way that teachers and schools are measured in the future. If the goal is for students to genuinely learn, then we should test retention at various periods after the conclusion of the course in order to determine whether or not the teaching method was effective.

Anyway, in case it's not apparent yet, I loved studying Chinese. I loved the way that it allowed me to think differently than I had ever thought before (about how to conceptualize time and math, and how to think about social relationships). I loved how the structure of the language gave insight into the values of the culture and I loved my experience exploring China for six weeks in the summer prior to my senior year of college.

I knew, however, that, without some dramatic technological breakthrough which would enable my brain to better distinguish Chinese tones, I would never be able to speak like a native since I had not started learning Chinese as a child.

And so it was, that, long before I ever had children, I resolved that my future children would study Chinese from a very young age so that they could achieve a level of fluency that I had not been able to obtain. 

Becoming Real

Fast forward several years....I was pregnant with my first son and I was spending what seems like every spare moment researching child development and baby products.

Couple with pregnant woman at Cherry Blossom festival in Washington D.C.

Before and after this outing to the Cherry Blossom festival, I undoubtedly spent hours researching baby-related things! 

Somehow, I came across a TED Talk called The Linguistic Genius of Babies. I have learned that babies begin to lose some of their abilities to distinguish sounds before their first birthday!

The First Search

When my son was 4 months old, my husband and I moved from D.C. to southwest London so that my husband could start a new job.

Being a new mom in a new country, and not being able to read anything beyond basic Mandarin, I had no idea where to start looking for a Mandarin speaking nanny / babysitter / tutor for a 5.5 month old. I was desperate.

I asked my few new acquaintances in London if they had any ideas--none. I reached out to London nanny agencies and received outrageously expensive fee proposals.

I went to the grocery store in Chinatown and tried to use my elementary Mandarin to describe the research to staff members and asked if they knew anyone who could talk to my baby--blank stares and polite smiles. And I visited some local nurseries that only offered Mandarin once a week to ask them if I could contact their Mandarin teacher--needless to say, they were not interested in sharing her information and, in case I was wondering, she had signed a non-compete.

Finally, I resorted to looking on Gumtree (the UK equivalent of Craigslist) and I started reaching out to any and all Mandarin tutors that would meet with me. In my notes to prospective tutors, I described myself and my situation and I included a link to the TED Talk and the outline of what I was looking for (12 x 30 min sessions over the course of 4 weeks). The first tutor I heard back from, Eva, is the one I ended up going with. Since we had recently become a single income family living in one of the most expensive cities in the world, it was not easy to convince my husband to spend £30 (nearly $45) for each 30 min session, especially since there was no way to know if the sessions were having the desired impact, but, he knew how important it was to me and so, he reluctantly agreed that we could part with ~$600 if it had the potential to change our son's life. Thus, our eldest son's Mandarin education began.

 

​A video compilation of my eldest son's first several Chinese lessons with his tutor, Eva.

Where We Are Now 

Our son is now 4.5 years old and has had a variety of Mandarin teachers and caregivers in a variety of environments-- including 1 (part-time) nanny, 4 au pairs, several nursery teachers, and even babysitters in the form of the retired Taiwanese-American couple who used to own the local Chinese restaurant I frequented as a child.

Today, he easily converses with our au pair about his day, his brother, and his favorite superheroes and he is learning to read characters in 四五快读 (Sì Wǔ Kuài Dú). 

The journey has had it's share of challenges but, it has also been filled with thousands of delightful surprises.

 
Celebrating Chinese New Year this year! (My youngest insisted on wearing his Christmas PJs and eldest insisted on wearing every Chinese article of clothing he owned!)

Chinese woman and 2 Caucasian children looking at a book.  
The boys are completely enthralled when our au pair or their 姐姐 (jiě jiě, sister) reads to them (even when she is just translating a Star Wars Lego book as she is doing here).

My main hope in starting to write this blog is to share more about my "non-heritage" family's experiences as we try to raise children who are fluent in the Mandarin language and have at least an intermediate understanding of Chinese culture. Gradually, I'd like for this blog to become a community of parents, educators, and caregivers in the west who recognize the value of raising children who are fluent in the principal language and culture of the east, so that we can all help each other and, thus, make it easier for our children to pass on this fluency to their children one day.

Thanks so much for reading my story. I would love to hear your stories about your families' bilingual journeys too. Please comment below, or, if you'd like, contact us about featuring your story as a guest post!

Raising kids who speak Chinese in a predominately English-speaking country can feel daunting and lonely. If you enjoyed this post or found anything about it helpful, please share the learning with others by liking, commenting, or posting to your social media feeds using the buttons below. 

Thanks for reading!

Happy learning,

Caelyn (白梅 bái méi)  

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