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Learning Foreign Languages Should Be Challenging, Even For Kids

My daughter has demonstrated difficulties with learning Chinese. Finally.

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“My Chinese isn’t very good,” my daughter spoke sadly as we walked home from school together one day last week. She was upset and feeling discouraged. She should have been:

She had just been put into an all Chinese language class at school. There is no English relief for her now, even if she needs it. Neither teacher nor peer speaks English in her class, it’s time for her to sink or swim.

Up to here, learning foreign languages has always been a fun sort of game for her — something that she can do when she feels like it or refuse to do if she doesn’t. She had her mother and another teacher who spoke near fluent English in her former class at her last school, but here in Xiamen she has no bilingual option: she must speak Chinese all the time.

When I tucked her into bed that night she was still moaning her linguistic woes:

“I hate Chinese! I hate Chinese!”

Good. By all accounts I viewed this as a positive development. Learning Chinese in a 100% full immersion setting should be difficult — even for a kid who has so far shown an amazing attribute for learning languages. Expressing having difficulty with learning Chinese in this manner demonstrates that she’s being challenged, that she’s being pushed to progress. This is good.

My daughter was in this all-Chinese class for a week up to this point, and I was beginning to think it was a little odd that she showed no visible growing pains. “How is she doing this?” I asked myself. I truly had no idea how a person could hold up under these circumstances without showing signs of struggling. The full immersion Chinese instruction didn’t seem to faze her, and I found this rather remarkable. She should have difficulties in this setting, this should be a challenge, she should be coming home upset about her struggle to linguistically keep up with the rest of her class.

The following day after expressing these difficulties she went back to school and had a blast. She didn’t even want to come home after class was over. I asked her how it went looking for some sort of continuity from the day before, but she said that it was good and ran off to play somewhere.

She has since had nothing more to say about language difficulties. So far, the growing pains here seemed to have lasted a single day, but I’m sure there will be more in the future.

I really don’t get this kid.

While struggle alone is not a fool proof indicator progress, progress on any big initiative is rarely obtained without struggle.


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

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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