You don’t have to be like a Chinese immigrant we talked with this past summer in Louisiana. She said she tells Americans to not even bother trying to learn Chinese because “it’s just too hard.”
Chinese is not impossible. It’s not even all that hard. But it is slow. Without an alphabet, it’s tough on kids who grew up on phonics and spelling rules and “it’s good to colour outside the lines!” There’s just a ton of brute memorization. And memorization is not a highly valued skill in our Western education systems. But it’s an absolute necessity for a non-phonetic language.
For example, this is our 6-year-old’s box of Chinese reading curriculum, which she uses at a training centre in our neighbourhood for kindergarten and Grade 1 students (she’s the only 老外):
It says, “Primary students’ commonly used 1500 characters.” That’s FIFTEEN-HUNDRED Chinese characters. For five-year-olds. To memorize in 4.5 months. So that they won’t be left behind next fall by the speed and pressure of Grade 1.
And this is a non-traditional, less-pressure, relatively fun learning system.
By comparison, her English homeschooling curriculum has her memorizing maybe five sight words per week for Grade 1. I googled around, and current standards for 5-to-6-year-olds seem to aim for recognition of around 50 high-frequency words by the end of kindergarten, and familiarity with 300 total words (sight words and sounded-out words) by the end of Grade 1.
Thankfully, our oldest daughter is loving the class and the teacher, who’s competent and experienced, warm but firm in a ruthlessly efficient, no-nonsense Chinese Mary Poppins kind of way.
Of course we have a bunch of Berenstain Bears books, which are full of quaint life lessons (Bully trouble at school? Learn self-defense and punch her in the face!), and feature the usually-wrong-but-never-in-doubt clueless man-child dad trope, which had a satirical purpose once a upon time in a galaxy far far away, as the foil for the unfailingly patient and composed Mama Bear, who gently directs the show from backstage with an endless reservoir of commonsense wisdom, propriety, and savvy wifely interventions. Still, we loved them as kids and our kids love them now (though I did permanently shelve one of the religious ones).
Turns out there are tons of new ones (“new” as in, written after I graduated from primary school, once upon a time in a galaxy far far etc.), and our Chinese preschool library even has some. This one would have made me laugh even if we’d never moved to China but it’s extra funny here, where we’re the foreign neighbours. The Bear family gets some ChinesePanda neighbours! And apparently Papa Bear has gone from picnic spots to prejudice!
So suspicious Papa Bear! Just because they’re short and their fur is different and they like to wear matching outfits… don’t you know that’s just how they do in China Pandaland?
“What do they think they’re doing? They’re not actually moving in, are they??”
“Putting up a fence? Who puts up a fence?? Bad people who have something to hide, that’s who!”
Well, thank goodness for bamboo juice and travel stories. (Just nobody tell Papa that pandas aren’t actually bears…)
Here’s some fun we’ve had as the foreign neighbours in China: