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.
For more about Learning Mandarin, see: