I started to truly appreciate the power of early childhood Chinese-language education when our son, at the age of two, started speaking English wrong. “The blue of cup,” he would say, meaning his blue cup.
This wasn’t a random preschool linguistic hiccup, we realized. He was trying to use Chinese syntax: “of” was standing in for the Mandarin particle “de” to turn the noun “blue” into an adjective. And his odd habit of indicating things by saying “this one” or “that one”–he was rendering the Chinese “zhege” and “neige” in English. That is, he was speaking Chinglish.
The usual arguments in favor of Mandarin education say that he should be on his way to conquering the world. An extra language, the theory goes, supplies extra brainpower, and Chinese in particular is a skill that will prepare young children to compete in the global 21st-century marketplace of talent.
Fun, right? If building an optimized little academic and economic performer were all there is to it, we’d have pulled him out of bilingual preschool long ago. Luckily, the reality of having a little Chinese learner underfoot is messier and more entertaining than that.
Our son’s head start in Chinese was mostly an accident. He was born in Beijing because my wife and I were living and working there, and he arrived before we could get back to New York for the delivery. So his first influences were Chinese nurses and the sound of Mandopop on the night-shift radio in the newborn unit.
He spent the first year and a half of his life in the Chinese capital, the seat of standard Mandarin. This is a point of pride for him now, at age four, though in fact he mostly was exposed to his second-generation Chinese-American mother’s lax Taiwan accent and the Sichuan countryside accent of our nanny, who amused him by chanting old schoolhouse rhymes about the glory of Mao.
That early input, followed by half-days of Chinese preschool in New York, hasn’t yet produced a junior trans-Pacific CEO. If you’re considering Mandarin as part of a program of intensive child-improvement, it’s worth remembering that children aren’t so easy to improve.
Adding a second language means a child can play dumb in two languages at once. Or play smart: “Daddy can’t speak Chinese,” he says sometimes, when Daddy speaks rudimentary Chinese to him. Then he demands to borrow my smartphone, so he can look up Chinese characters in the dictionary software.
Lately, he refuses to address his Chinese-born grandparents by their usual titles, insisting on “Grandma” and “Grandpa” in English. But he serenades them with Chinese songs from school, with flawless schoolteacher diction and a gusto that would startle his actual teachers if they heard it. And he is more obedient in Mandarin than in English–when an order comes in Chinese, he has learned, his parents are serious about it.
Mostly, though, Mandarin in the hands of a toddler is not a practical tool. Trying to justify it that way is a bit like the efforts to put a dollar value on liberal-arts education. Chinese is, like math or music, a distinct system of representation, another way to think about the world. You may learn a language because you need to, but you stick with it because it is interesting to think about.
In Beijing, as China prepared for the 2008 Olympics, I used to visit an English class for senior citizens. Officially, the purpose was instrumental: to increase the number of English-speaking residents for the benefit of the foreign tourists during the Games. The students’ questions for me, however, were more esoteric: What was the English for an electrified bus? For saying thunderstorms were coming? For “hidden microphone”? When I came back two years after the Olympics, the class was still full.
So like his other bilingual friends, our son is capricious about how and when to use his own abilities. Have I toweled him off enough? “Chabuduo,” I say, meaning “close enough.” “Chabuduo!” he says, and keeps saying it off and on for days. Language is a playground. He calls up Mandopop videos on YouTube, and snubs American pop. He shakes down a Brazilian babysitter for bits of Portuguese, and asks for Dora the Explorer’s Spanish to be translated to English.
If he came from Boston, I tell him, his animated heroine would be Dor-er the Explorah. “I’m from Beijing,” he says, in English. “I pronounce things correctly.”
By Tom Scocca
Tom Scocca is the author of “Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future.” He is the managing editor of Deadspin and a columnist for Slate, and he lives in New York.