Saturday, November 7, 2009

Chinese as a third language

I’ve begun the process of looking at preschools, since it’s getting to be that time if I want him to attend next fall. I swore I wasn’t going to get in the preschool frenzy that some people do, especially in New York City. I don’t believe that preschool has significant life effects for a child who already has a lot of advantages in learning opportunities (I do think it can for disadvantaged children). I don’t think that preschool is a necessity for River. But I do think he’d enjoy the opportunity to interact more with other kids. I’d also like him to be able to do some things we don’t do so often at home – such as arts and craft, music and group games.

My standards were initially very simple. I wanted it to be:
-within walking or biking distance of home. No spending large amounts of time
in the car for a 2-3 hour enrichment.

-preferably 2-3 days per week, morning only. I would still like to maximize the
amount of time he is in a Spanish-speaking environment as well as the amount of
peer influence.

-not very expensive

-a huge, huge bonus would be if it was immersion Spanish, but I can’t find
anything like that locally.

The Waldorf program appeals to me a lot. But it’s not within biking distance and it’s very expensive (plus it requires the parent to attend with the child until age 3). So that one is out. Montessori is so crazy expensive we are not even looking at the details.

I figured we’d apply to the five that are close by, then see what the options are in the spring and which one would work best for us at that time. I thought the most difficult decision would be deciding between a cheap option where many low-income Hispanics send their children (so that he could have some peers to speak Spanish with) and other places where he wouldn’t get Spanish exposure, but would be with children of some very smart people. This brings up issues of classism, social grouping and opportunity that trouble me. It makes me sad to think that these issues start so young. It also makes me unsure of what the right decisions are. Do we support him interacting with a wide-range of people (which is my natural inclination) or do we put him with kids who are most likely to teach and challenge him intellectually?

But the other day, I was poking around on the internet and started looking at the immersion Chinese preschool. While there is no Spanish option, there are Chinese and French options. I think French is not very useful, so I wouldn’t even consider that. Chinese though began to intrigue me. It’s a really hard language. How cool if he could absorb it while his mind is young and sponge-like. Also, of the more than 50 countries I’ve traveled to, China was among the most difficult two. The culture, especially in the rural areas, was so far from anything I was familiar with. The language was so incomprehensible. I really felt lost.

What if I could give my son the tools to operate in that vastly foreign environment? What if he could communicate with and understand the Chinese, a significant percentage of the world’s population? What if he could do that, and communicate with and understand Hispanics? He’d have a great amount of freedom and opportunity.

Of course, neither Mark nor I know Chinese. If River was to learn it, I would probably start studying it as well. But would this be crazy? I had been leaning toward a relaxed childhood, not too many activities, not too much pressure. Is teaching him three languages before kindergarten violating those beliefs and putting too much stress on him? Or is it just taking advantage of the fact that his brain is now a sponge, especially for language, and allowing him to play while he soaks in another way to communicate? This preschool is neither within walking distance nor cheap.

When I presented the idea to Mark, he was very resistant. “You are going to turn him into a version of you – a linguist and world traveler,” he said. Well geez, I didn’t know that being like me was so bad. But I’m not trying to turn him into me. I’m trying to make things easier for him while the window is open. I’m also very enthusiastic about him pursuing opportunities in math and science when his brain is at the stage to absorb those.

“If he already knows three languages by kindergarten, then he’s not going to have to work at those,” I said. “He’ll be free to focus his efforts in school on learning other subjects, which I fully support.”

I think Mark feels threatened by not being able to speak the same language as his son. He says he doesn’t learn languages well. Mark is picking up some Spanish through absorption, but it’s unlikely he’d pick up Chinese and I doubt he’d have the interest to study it. He seems to downplay the value of being able to communicate in other languages, since he thinks that smart people in other countries learn English.

Mark wants to put the discussion off. He wants to see how our financial situation is then. Which is fine, because River isn’t even eligible until at least next fall. But the temptation to allow him a third language at the age of 3 has planted itself in my mind and it excites me tremendously. Even as I worry whether River will appreciate these opportunities or if he will resent them.

In the meantime, if a Spanish language preschool were to open, I’d be thrilled.

1 comment:

doshimaitri said...

If you cannot immerse yourself in the language and culture by living abroad, this is the best way to learn a language immersion.Learning a new language forces the brain to think in new directions.It gives us invaluable insight into other cultures. Languages have a sociological impact beyond simply communication.The Japanese language, for instance, is full of respect words and honorific attachments.The language is a reflection of the culture, and it’s impossible to learn one without learning something of the other.So learning them is a cultural experience as much as it is a practical exercise.Since teaching languages is much more than syntax it stands to reason that our efforts, with that language, should deal with other, more cultural, encounters also. With any learning activity we should know why we’re studying it. Is there a good reason, or are we just trying to appear educated to look good for the neighbors? There is no right age to start a language either. Anybody can learn, and it doesn’t matter the age.