Bilingual is Better

Why we chose a Chinese Over Spanish Immersion

When it came time to decide on a public school for our 4-year-old daughter last spring, it ultimately came down to a choice between two very different language immersion programs: Spanish or Chinese.

We’ve done a pretty good job at weaving our cultura into our daily lives — Texican, on my side, and Nicaraguan on my husband’s side – but our daughter is still far from fluent in Spanish. While I do want her to eventually become fluent in Spanish, I also know that Mandarin Chinese is one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn, a Category 4 in difficulty, according to the State Department. But if you learn Chinese as a child, and from native speakers …

So, our decision came down to this: If our daughter was ever going to learn Chinese – or Arabic, Korean, Japanese or any other language that has completely different roots, characters or tones, thereby making it more difficult for English speakers to learn – now was the prime time to immerse her in it. Plus, language is the gateway to understanding a culture, and we very much want to cultivate an appreciation of other cultures in our little girl. So, we took the plunge.

In late August, our daughter started pre-K in her new Chinese language school, which is taught in 100% Mandarin this year. I was nervous at first, but she was fearless on her first day. I think much of what her teacher was saying those first few days went over her head, but no matter. By the second week she had learned simple phrases: greetings, rules to follow, directions given by the teacher. And by now, well, she’s reciting ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?’ in Mandarin to her little sister. Can you feel me beaming?

It’s an indescribably amazing feeling to see your child leave you in the dust and learn something you simply don’t have the ability to teach them. And it’s refreshing to be able to learn bits and pieces of a new language from my daughter every day. It reminds me of why I love languages so much in the first place – there’s nothing like that aha! moment when run-on sounds separate into discernible words in your head. And yes, I can count to 20 in Mandarin, and we’re working on writing Chinese characters together. And I can even sing (so, so awfully) some of the simple children’s songs she’s learned, although she’s always correcting me. Yes, a 4-year-old is correcting me on my language skills. I love it.

And yet, I do worry about putting her Spanish language learning on the back burner. Will she end up speaking broken Spanish? Possibly. Will she be able to understand her abuelos? She does a pretty decent job already. But what really gives me hope is that I took enough college Spanish literature courses with enough non-Latinos who spoke, read and wrote Spanish just beautifully – and most first learned it in high school. So yes, I think the Spanish will come, eventually.

In the meantime, I’ve got a second daughter who is 11 months old, who listens and dances to Cri-Cri, El Grillito Cantor and is read to in Spanish almost every day now. For that matter, I still read to my older daughter in Spanish, too, and she Skypes in Spanish with her abuelos often. So all is not lost in our quest to teach our children Spanish, and we are still very much a proud Spanglish family, only know, with a little slice of Mandarin thrown in for more flavor.

 Have you considered enrolling your child in a language immersion program other than Spanish? What language have you considered, and why?

{Photo by <cleverCl@i®ê>}

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