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  • Apr 17, 2014
  • Updated: 5:13am
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PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 10:03pm

In one household, a losing battle to keep the Chinese language alive

Kelly Yang believes the Chinese language is so important a part of her son's heritage that she won't let him lose it without a fight

Every day, I wage battle with my son. The subject of this battle is Chinese. It is a battle my own parents lost decades ago. Raising me in the US, they gave up on teaching me to read and write Chinese when I was a child. They thought just speaking the language was enough. I rejoiced until, years later, it became my biggest regret.

I wish my Chinese reading and writing were better, not so I can get a better job or make more money but to have a better knowledge of China.

The stories the local Chinese people tell me say more about the current state of China than any headline. I remember once asking a local Chinese person whether he thought the one-child policy was cruel - and he laughed at me. "What difference does it make if I have the right to have more than one? I still have to feed them, don't I? And I can't!" he said. "Foreigners care so much about rights. This right, that right. Well, guess what, you can't eat rights!"

Thoughts raced across my brain when I heard this - thoughts like, "that's indoctrination for you". Most of all, I remember thinking I need to know more Chinese. I need it to ask more questions; without it, we're getting someone else's opinion of China.

But Chinese is a ridiculously hard language to learn. Try talking to a Chinese person in substandard Putonghua and he'll immediately switch to English. Reading and writing are even more difficult. Not only are there tens of thousands of characters, but there are correct strokes, stroke order, radicals, traditional versus simplified, and countless other complications.

"Why can't you just let him write it however he wants?" my American husband asks me. My son and I have been sitting at the kitchen table for two hours - him, glaring at his Chinese journal, me, sighing as I erase his imperfect strokes and ask him to start over yet again. "Because I can't!" I hiss back.

Chinese is stubborn like that; there's no fun way to learn it. And if you're not going to write it perfectly, don't bother. That philosophy has been passed down from generation to generation.

To get it "perfect", we have had to change our lives. My mother moved to Hong Kong when my first child was born, mainly to teach our children Chinese. This move has come at significant cost - my father, still not retired, has had to live in California pretty much alone and my husband has had to live with his mother-in-law for the past six years.

Still, the battles continue with my son's daily chorus of "it's too hard" or "I just can't do it". At just six, he is a tough warrior with excellent debating skills. Whining, negotiating, crying and breaking pencils in frustration - these are his weapons of choice.

"Is it really worth it?" my husband sometimes asks me. It's hard for a non-Chinese speaker to understand why we're putting in such an effort.

Yet, even if one day all Chinese people can speak English, I'll still want my son to know Chinese because it's who he is; he's half Chinese. I fear if he loses the language, he'll lose a part of himself.

And so, I continue to wage battle every day to protect a king that I myself once overthrew.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. kelly@kellyyang.com

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dunndavid
In addition to the importance of learning Chinese in order to be able to communicate with a very large number of people, there is now a large body of evidence to suggest that bilingual people have a general intellectual advantage, when adjusted for all other factors. It follows that knowing a less related language to English like Chinese would yield a greater intellectual advantage than knowing a more related language like Dutch or German or even French. I suspect there may be a relationship between the fact that China's best students come from the province where most people speak a language most different from the language they learn in school - that is Fujian province.
Another great thing about knowing a foreign language is how confidence inspiring this process is. Take someone who has learned as a foreigner how to speak Chinese into the vast territories in China outside of a few major cities and this person can accomplish practically anything. Someone without any language ability can accomplish only the most simple communication-based tasks, and these with difficulty.
As for the idea that most Chinese will become fluent in English anytime soon dream on. In 1984 when I was acting as an interpreter for my company in China, my boss told me this to 'put me in my place' because of his frustration that he had to rely so much on my interpretation "there are now 100s of millions of Chinese learning English - in 20 years you won't be needed." How did that work out?
sudouest
Honestly, the husband should put some effort into learning Ms Yang's language: Chinese, rather than brushing things off. From learning himself, he will be able to understand why the wife is having so much believe in the language. Just saying. No offense ok. I don't know more than what the article has described.
All the best.
tennisboy
You'll never have a strong grasp of China if you cannot read Chinese. Reading English books alone is not enough.
likingming
For daily usage, around 500 chinese characters are sufficient. So if you learn 5 characters each day, it takes you around 3 months to master.
sudouest
I disagree with stroke orders. I learned the orders, but I quickly "violated" it. The strokes are needed to count, and to look up dictionaries. I don't see any other reasons to follow _strictly_ the orders. Buy him a dictionary and teach him how to look up the dictionary. That way he will appreciate the strokes, and finally he will realise that he can violate the stroke order, if he wishes.
Secondly, buy him books like 汉字王国 from Cecilia Lindqvist (林西莉) . She's a well-respected long-time Chinese professor of Sweden. It tells each character and why it is written and formed. And tell the kids about people like Moshe Kai Cavalin. Half Jew-half Chinese. His Chinese is top-notch. Published a book in Chinese language and made his own website.
Thirdly, the only language that embodies the wisdom of mankind and is a walking historical record of a civilisation is Chinese. Some characters embody such rich philosophy that it takes a matured person to understand. I learned Chinese by myself when I was in high school. I was curious. When I know the characters, it was like opening a treasure. But I already had a mature mind to understand and appreciate the language.
Don't teach him do this do that, write this write that. Tell him why this why that. Chinese language is about WHY and not WHAT. And that demands every learner to make connection with logic and humanity. It doesn't have grammars which are illogical and are just some bunch of rules or laws to follow.
TigerJ
Dear Kelly, I have enjoyed most of your articles. On this topic, however, I must break it to you - the day you married an American husband, you basically gave up your Chinese roots. Forcing your half-Chinese son to learn Chinese is a futile exercise...
You can't have it all...
impala
I disagree. Strongly. Children are perfectly capable of growing up bilingually, and it is very feasible to shape their identity with elements from two (or even more) cultures.

Even without this bicultural element, please realise that cultural identity is NOT some static, high and lofty ideal that is better consumed pure and undiluted. Cultural identity, on both an individual and aggregate basis is very pliable and ever-changing, especially for Chinese. Mainland China is changing rapidly because of economic growth and urbanisation. Outside of the PRC, the Chinese diaspora has had and is still having a very profound effect on Chinese culture.

Being Chinese 200 years ago meant a very different thing than it does today. Being Chinese in Singapore is very different from being Chinese in Beijing, even if your bloodline is 100% Chinese. Variations, adaptations and assimilations occur over time and geographically, not in the last place by interaction with other cultures. What would Chinese culture be today without the Mongolian influences of yore?

Parents chooses how to raise their child, and what cultural elements they want to value and emphasise in education. Ms Yang's strive to give her son insight into his Chinese cultural heritage by helping him study Chinese is admirable. And yes, her son can have it all. He has the luxury to be able to experience two different cultures first-hand through his parental lineage. That is not a zero-sum game, but a richness to envy.
TigerJ
Jve, I appreciate your idealistic view. However, there are lots of mixed-blood kids running around HK. Go talk to some of them, and find out how bilingual / bi-cultural they really are. You will likely be disappointed.
megafun
Referring to "Chinese is a ridiculously hard language to learn"; as such the time is better spent on playing games / sports. And as for "even if one day all Chinese people can speak English, I'll still want my son to know Chinese because it's who he is; he's half Chinese. I fear if he loses the language, he'll lose a part of himself." Well, that was what most European thought, when Latin went into decline.
Language is for communication, and with a strinking world, only one language will eventually win out - and that is English.
impala
Yeah that is working out well in Hong Kong, where more and more English is spoken every day right.

And even if we follow your flawed way of thinking, I hope you know that English (350 million native speakers) is outflanked by both Spanish (406 million) and Mandarin (884 million) in numbers of native speakers?

Even when we include secondary speakers (of which English has about 750m, although the level of fluency required to include someone in this category is debatable), it is a close call with Mandarin, which also about 1.1bn total speakers.

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