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Petra Update: How an American Child Learned to Speak Fluent Mandarin Chinese in Two Years post image

Petra Update: How an American Child Learned to Speak Fluent Mandarin Chinese in Two Years

My daughter, Petra, has been in China for two and a half years. During that time she learned the most vital aspect of cultural cohesion: language.

Being able to speak Chinese has changed the entire travel game for Petra in China. She is no longer a biological entity being carted around for people to squeal over and taunt like some animal in a zoo. Language is touted as the thing which separates humans from other animals, and while this is mostly the fruits of folklore, the fact remains:

Respect comes from a common language.

What my daughter experiences now in China is the total opposite as when she first arrived here. She is now the social aggressor, she’s the one asking questions, she doesn’t back down in debates — she’s meeting people and learning. She basically does the same thing that I do: going around the world looking for people to talk to, convincing strangers to teach me things. I listen as she has conversations. She explains to a little boy why I have a beard. She got into an argument with a women about whether or not our apartment complex has stairs. She talks about food, her kindergarten, and fields the same questions all travelers must answer over and over again.

I listen to her speak Chinese without effort and switch back and forth to English without a grinding of gears. Both languages are now completely natural for her. She can also quickly and fluidly interpret both languages into the other, even when the literal word meanings don’t patch perfectly. That’s the definition of bilingualism: she can use one as readily as the other, one is not a staging ground for the other.

We arrived in China early enough for Petra to learn Chinese as a baby does. For the first ten months she just muttered to herself with Chinese sounding noises, speaking nonsense to her toys in a Chinese accent. Eventually, those noises became words.

What Petra uses English for and what she uses Chinese for has always been compartmentalized. English is the language of her home, so when engaged in family activities she speaks English. Outside the home, she speaks Chinese. Chinese is the language of her friends, so play is conducted in Chinese. Though her schools have technically been bilingual, Mandarin is the dominant language. From the start these divisions have been stark.  Different aspect of life, different language.

She refuses to step over her linguistic lines, even when prompted. She won’t speak to a Chinese looking kid who speaks Mandarin in English and she isn’t prone to talking to Westerner’s in Chinese. To do otherwise seems to be awkward for her.

Watch Petra’s 2014 Chinese language acquisition status report

Petra has also picked up more than just language here in China. She has different mannerisms, different facial expressions, different vocalizations, and a different way of acting depending on whether she is speaking English or Chinese. Each language carries with it a unique way of thinking, seeing the the world, and behaving. Natively bilingual people seem to be able to switch between both spheres at will. When speaking Chinese Petra acts as Chinese kids do. She speaks loudly, makes the “umf,” “ent,” “wah,” and “ahh” sounds that have very specific meanings, sometimes she’s a bully, sometimes folds her arms and pouts like a Chinese women, and she also does this peculiar head twist thing that Chinese people sometimes do when they make a point.

Chinese people seem to pick up on this behavior intuitively and their entire angle on how they interact with her likewise changes. They often first approach her like she is some idiot laowai, but end up treating her like they would any other Chinese kid. They realize that she gets it. Language is not just a bundle of words, it’s the prime indicator of cultural affiliation, and there are many subtle elements involved in verbal communication that indicate whether someone is “one of us” or is “not one of us.” From what I’ve observed I would argue that language is a far more powerful device for drawing tribal lines than physical appearance.

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“My son told me today that he didn’t want me to drop him off at school. He told me to leave him at the corner and he would walk the rest of the way. When I asked him why this was he said that he didn’t want the kids at school to know that he was a foreigner. ‘But they can tell that you are a half breed just by looking at you,’ I told him. ‘No they can’t,’ he said.”

The guy who told me this story was a Caucasian Australian. His kid is half Chinese but looks more like his father. Apparently, the kids at his all Chinese school take him to be fully Chinese to the point that they don’t know his father is a white guy. I believe it.

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I sometimes try to teach my daughter points of Chinese grammar and teach her more adult oriented words that she doesn’t already know, but I can’t take any credit for her progress with Chinese. She learns the language like a child, I learn it like an adult. The two methodologies are starkly different. I teach her something, she repeats it, shrugs, and then runs off to play. I can’t take any credit for my daughter’s language learning other than the fact that I set her up in places where she can engage her social environment for longer durations of time and build relationships. We gave her a good shove off the edge into the social pool.

Sink or swim.

Kids her age float.

Sometimes Chinese people ask me how Petra learned their language. They sometimes just don’t get how it could happen, how someone could learn to speak decent sounding Chinese who is not Chinese themselves. “She goes to school,” I tell them, as though this should explain it. It doesn’t. They often remain curious — suspicious even, as though I’m bullshitting them.

It is my impression that the language/ cultural environment outside the home is far more powerful than the one inside it. Kids are programmed to become part of a group, not just part of a family. This is just as true for immigrants in the USA as it is for Americans in China. When a child enters the broader social sphere they are forever changed. Their parents are no longer their only cultural influence, and they often adapt to the new atmosphere with intuitive precision. Children are programmed to acculturate. They mimic what they see and become a part of “a people.” This means learning the language, first and foremost.

Immigrant parents in the USA raise little Americans. I am unsure of what I’m raising here in China.

Filed under: China, Language Learning, Petra Hendele Adara Shepard, Travel Diary, 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 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3546 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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  • Owen Daniel June 19, 2014, 11:23 am

    Amazing my man! Very happy for you.. she’s a genius already 🙂

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