Chinese and why some parents don't want their kids to learn it in school, Wall Street Journal Article,, Pragmatic Mom

Rise of Mandarin Chinese at Elementary Schools

Chinese Language Gains Popularity in U.S. Elementary Schools

Capability:Mom sent me this link from The Wall Street Journal by Yuliya Chernovaas she knows that I’m a huge proponent of exposing children to foreign languages at an early age.  But not everyone agrees.  Here’s the perspective of parents in New York City.  It appears that foreign language curriculum is a politically charged hot potato.

I have excerpted two comments:

  • “But is it really necessary for a child at the age of 5 to be taught some random language? I can think of 10 other things that could be done with that time.”
  • “anyone who has tried to teach toddlers a foreign language that no one in their household speaks (inc nanny) will realize that the classes are just not enough – you need to either live there and immerse or have the immersion at home for it to take hold.”

And here are some excerpts from a research paper,  First- and Second- Language Acquisition in Early Childhood by Beverly A. Clark.  The pdf is here.

  • Most children in the world learn to speak two languages. Bilingualism is present in just about every country around the world, in all classes of society, and in all age groups (Grosjean, 1982; McLaughlin, 1984).
  • “In the United States monolingualism traditionally has been the norm. Bilingualism was regarded as a social stigma and liability” (McLaughlin, 1984, p. 3). Language represents culture, and the bilingual person is often a member of a minority group whose way of thinking and whose values are unfamiliar to the “majority.” Language is something we can identify and try to eradicate without showing our distrust and fear of others (McLaughlin, 1984).
  • Even those who begin to learn a second language in childhood may always have difficulty with pronunciation, rules of grammar, and vocabulary, and they may never completely master the forms or uses of the language. There is no simple way to explain why some people are successful at second-language learning and some are not.
  • McLaughlin notes that “ultimate retention of two languages depends on a large number of factors, such as the prestige of the languages, cultural pressures, motivation, opportunities of use— but not on age of acquisition” (McLaughlin, 1984, p. 73).

As for my children, we don’t have foreign languages at part of our public elementary school curriculum.  My kids are learning Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.  We speak neither at home.  Only their grandmothers are alive and one speaks Japanese, the other Korean.  Why Mandarin for us?  I figured that  it’s such a difficult yet useful language that it was best to start early.  I started them on Spanish first because it’s less difficult and widely spoken where we live.  It was the warm up.  Once they seemed to tolerate Spanish, I threw in Mandarin Chinese just to see if it would fly.  My goals are very different from these parents in The Wall Street Journal.  You can’t expect fluency when your children get a half an hour or so of instruction a week.  Come on!  Could you learn a language that way?

Instead, I focus on two areas:  correct pronunciation and conversation.  NOT grammar. My hope is that by starting very young, they will get an intuitive sense for language that words can be said many different ways and it’s not always a word for word translation. My take on foreign languages:  It’s the Gift That Keeps on Giving.  I notice that while it may take conversational skills to open career doors, it only takes a few words to open hearts.

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By Mia Wenjen, PragmaticMom


  1. In Brookline, we have Mandarin instruction officially in the grades 1-8 curriculum as part of our World Languages program.

    We love the idea of language and culture appreciation but admittedly it’s hard to know its effectiveness. And yet, we know many local families with older children who have gone on exchanges to China and/or chosen to study Chinese in high school and beyond.

    • You are lucky to have Mandarin in your school system — it is one of the reasons (besides passing your tax override) that everyone wants to live in your town!! Foreign languages: the gift the keeps on giving!

  2. The shrinking and flattening of our world, as many have called globalization, are making it clear that we Americans need to pick up the pace when it comes to learning other languages. Learning Mandarin — or Spanish, or another languages — bears rewards that range from improving grades and SAT scores to getting ahead in business. Clearly Americans are — slowly but steadily! — coming around to this conclusion; we’re seeing our children’s language program grow in communities around the US (though not yet in the Boston area).

    • On a personal note, it is so easy to cross barriers by attempting to communicate in someone’s native language. Even though my accent is poor and my vocabulary limited, I notice when I speak just the tad of Spanish that I know, I always get a smile of appreciation back for my efforts. Such a little thing can be so powerful to bring people together. I think we should all learn 3 basic words/phrases (please, thank you, how are you) in a dozen languages and then just try them out every chance you get. You’ll definitely make people smile!

    • My high school (that sends 25 kids to Ivy League schools ever year according to the Wall Street Journal’s Top High School ranking list) is counseling kids that want to get into top schools to be tri-lingual!!!

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