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Three Year Old American Child Learning Chinese Mandarin in China

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“All of the kids speak Chinese. I don’t know what they’re saying,” my three year old daughter, Petra, spoke in frustration.

While young children can learn languages far more adeptly and easily than adults, they don’t just learn them as though through osmosis. Learning foreign language is tough for kids too. Petra is struggling with Mandarin, she is hitting a language barrier for the first time in her young travels, and she’s not liking it.

“Get used to it, kid,” is all I can say.

My daughter wants to speak to other kids here in China, but they have no idea what her English words mean and she cannot understand their Chinese. Often, Petra resorts to making Chinese sounding noises in an attempt to talk with her peers. Good try, but of course it doesn’t work. The kids often just ask me what language she is speaking when affronted by her gibberish, and I must tell them that I, too, have no idea.

The game is different here in China, Petra is three years old and is capable of having complex conversation in English. This is not like how it was when she was a baby spurting out random Spanish words and phrases in Latin America. Words are now Petra’s main form of communication, she has moved into a different stage of development. For just about everything she wants to communicate she can do so in English, which is far different to how things were in Latin America when she was just venturing into language usage and did not come close to having a full vocabulary set in either English or Spanish. She was simply learning the words to descibe her world then, and, as she was learning both languages from the start, she approached both directly, without using one to understand the other. It was an organic process, there was no translating, no learning a new language through a familiar one, she was becoming simultaneously bilingual.

(Read about Petra’s Spanish/ English bilingual development.)

This has changed now, as my daughter is familiar with the concept of the foreign language. In fact, she was smacked right in the face by it as soon as she hopped off the plane in Shanghai. It must have been a shock after becoming use to a world that was all English or Spanish.

Petra’s English speaking ability has soared this past year, and she now invariably learns Chinese words through English ones. “What is this in Chinese?” she often asks. It is evident that she now thinks in English, and she is using it in her approach to learning Mandarin. For the first time Petra is facing a foreign language barrier. She knows words for what she wants to say but those are not the type of words the person she wants to communicate with understands. It frustrates her, as she truly wants to communicate and have friends, but the language barrier is thick here in China.

This is especially problematic for her because many of the children in Taizhou speak the prefecture’s dialect, not even Standard Mandarin — and the two are mutually unintelligible. So some of the “Chinese” words that Petra is being taught won’t even work on some of the kids she tries to use them on. That’s tough and damn confusing — try explaining dialect to a three year old: “Yes, they’re speaking Chinese but it’s a different kind of Chinese.”

It was my goal to have my daughter speaking English, Spanish, and Chinese Mandarin fluently by the time she’s seven or eight years old. The plan was that we would continuously bounce between Spanish and Mandarin speaking countries until she had mastered all three languages.

(Read about my Multilingual Language Learning Plan for Petra.)

But I’m feeling now as if this may have jumped the gun by leaving Mexico when we did. She was learning Spanish well, and was beginning to speak in sentences. “Esto es me papa, se llama Wade,” I remember her introducing me to one of her new acquaintances. By removing Petra from Latin America her Spanish quickly went into remission. We still show her cartoons in Spanish and try to use it to talk to her, but it’s nowhere near effective.

It was my thinking that I would expose her to the sounds of all three of these languages when very young — as this is the time that humans tune their ears and mouths to verbal communication — and then work on comprehension and fluency through the years. There is only a short span in a person’s life when they can learn to speak a language without a foreign accent, and these are between birth and four or five years old. It is my hope that these initial exposures to the sounds of new languages will provide the foundation for my daughter to master them later on.

But, for the time being, she is struggling.

While Chinese culture provides a very fertile condition for adults to learn Mandarin, for children it seems to be another story. China is one of the best countries in the world to practice Mandarin in because if you can come close to making the proper sounds many people will genuinely try to understand what you’re trying to say and they will correct your mistakes. But if you can’t speak any Mandarin at all you are placed into the vegetable-lasagna category, and are treated rather inanimately. An adult can worth through this, but for children it seems vastly more difficult. Petra is often treated as some sort of inantimate play thing as she moves through this country. “Can she understand me?” many adults ask me when they’re ogling over her. “Yes,” I always say, in an attempt to at least give my daughter a head-start, but then they talk with her in Mandarin and they soon realize she can’t understand. Then the laughs begin: “Hahaha, hohoho, she can’t understand us,” and the poor kid becomes an attraction befitting a zoo.

The Chinese language hurdle that Petra is facing is also leading to behavior issues. She has begun taking her frustrations out on people she struggles to communicate with. She sometimes insults them in English and, occasionally, tries to strike out at them. For the non-English speaking Chinese people she meets she often treats them as inanimately as they treat her. This is a normal tendency in much of the world: verbal communication and respect go hand in hand, it is often difficult to take someone seriously who can’t understand your words.

Learning languages will probably be the biggest struggle of my daughter’s childhood. But once she masters a few of them life will all of a sudden become a lot easier, and opportunities will be more prone to falling in front of her. It’s my job to make sure that Petra stays in the game, keeps making friends, and keeps facing the challenge. It’s my job to help and guide her to the best of my ability, but the desire to really learn how to communicate with her peers must be her own.

Petra is learning Mandarin, albeit at a much slower pace than she was learning Spanish. She has a teacher, Chinese-only speaking friends, and watches Mandarin-language cartoons. She has the sounds down perfectly — which is truly a difficult task. While the language barrier frustrates her it is something that she’s working through. The fact that she often wails, “I don’t want to speak Chinese!” is evidence to me that she is facing up the challenge, which is one that all travelers face through much of their journey. Right now Petra’s biggest challenging with learning Mandarin is inertia. She often says that she doesn’t want to speak it, and she often turns off when I try to teach her. “Speak in English,” she yells at me, and screams if I keep prompting her to speak in Chinese. She sometimes does the same when Chinese people try to teach her a word or two. Like adults, children have to want to learn a language in order for it to happen. But I rest assured that Petra’s desire to make friends will motivate her to practice Mandarin.

(Read about bilingual language development.)

Does Petra have the resolve to tackle a third language? We will soon find out. Petra begins school next week, she is going to be in a classroom full of Chinese kids. It’s time to sink or swim.

(Read: What are the best languages to learn for world travel.)

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Filed under: Language, Petra Hendele Adara Shepard, Travel With Family

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Cincinnati, Ohio, USAMap