"…her eyes began to swell in tears when she was asked to take out the Mandarin work sheets…"

« previous post | next post »

The following post is from an old, now defunct, blog, but the description of little Eunice learning three languages at once (none of which was her natal tongue spoken at home) and other discussions of Chinese are unusual in their detail and sensitivity, so worthy of sharing with Language Log readers:

"Primary learning in a multilingual society ", Grammar Gang (5/24/14)

The author of the post is Jyh Wee Sew (Centre for Language Studies, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, National University of Singapore).  I will simply quote a few passages of the post and make a few concluding remarks, but warmly recommend that anyone who is interested in second (and third) language pedagogy / acquisition read the whole post.

Eunice Lee is a seven-year old girl who is studying in primary one. She is enrolled in a private school, which requires her traveling for two hours each morning to the so-called better school. On the eve of Labour Day, she returned to her grandparents' house with exercises from school in three languages. Eunice has to learn Malay, English and Mandarin in school. Her favorite language is English and she dislikes Mandarin, her school-based mother tongue. Right after lunch at 3 o’clock one afternoon Eunice started to complete her homework. The problem-solving strategy that required her selecting and creating answers for the blanks was invoked. This strategy was chosen with the awareness that she hated the Spartan learning style, which made her cry before when she was attending kindergarten. It was the least stressful method in solving linguistic problems for her without sacrificing learning too much.

Mandarin, a tricky subject for Eunice, was the last exercise type to complete. Eunice, who dislikes Mandarin, has to deal with Mandarin school work that contained very many characters testing one's linguistic-visual spatial memory. The hardest exercise already had the answer choices marked with the number of the questions. Eunice informed that the teacher dropped hints for them, reinforcing negatively the pupil's belief that Mandarin was indeed difficult. The hints that resolved 15% of  the work have made learning Mandarin more opaque.

Eunice did not cry after three and a half hours of homework coaching on Wednesday, although her eyes began to swell in tears when she was asked to take out the Mandarin work sheets the next day for reading practice. The reading practice was intended as a means to strengthen her linguistic-visual spatial memory for Mandarin. She did not do it, of course. The domestic helper came to her rescue by switching on the DVD player showing Walt Disney’s top computer-animated musical fantasy-comedy film, Frozen. Yes, I let it go by asking Eunice to play the song ‘Let it go’ sung by Idina Menzel again.

Elsewhere in his post, the author discusses Sinitic topolects (Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese) and the complexities of phonological mapping (especially tones) among them.  He also addresses differences between oral and written forms, both in their nature and in the language learning process.  An unusual feature of his pedagogy is the use of onomatopoeia to smooth over challenges to understanding in multilingual learning contexts.

Little Eunice's biological mother tongue is Hokkien, which is spoken in her paternal household, and that poses yet another obstacle to the learning of Mandarin, which is promoted by the government.

Bottom line:  English is easiest for Eunice, Malay is next easiest, and Mandarin is by far the hardest language for her to learn.  This is not due to any preconceptions, and certainly not to any prejudices, since Eunice comes from a Chinese family and is growing up in a society where Mandarin is privileged by the government.  The difficulty for Eunice in learning Mandarin — especially in its written form — must be due to something innate in the language itself.

Which reminds me, I owe Language Log readers the results of the survey on "Difficult languages and easy languages" (3/4/17).  I haven't forgotten — actually tabulated the results months ago, but never found the time to type them up.  Will do so within a week — I hope!

[h.t. Bathrobe]


  1. Pete Speer said,

    October 9, 2017 @ 8:32 am

    For Language learning in a neurological context, Eunice's age is appropriate. At that age the brain is a buffet, Some researchers have remarked that there is within the brain, starting at birth but extending perhaps to the early formal public education grades an innate ability to shorten the process of translation to instantaneous, When those synapses close the ability to translate into a scond language and reply in that language becomes more complicated.. From hear-understand-respond all without having to translate into a native language and and then retranslate into the second language to communicate is the gift of our humanity. The formal rules are complied with automatically, A third and a fourth language become automatic. No tedious going through the native language is required,

    This synapse closes (do not know if synapse is the right word.) At the social level (obedience to family) the child is required to use the private language, enforced by the parent. In the classroom the teacher is king/queen. The child's loyalties are challenged. Conflict ensues. When the closing occurs without mastery having been obtained, Eunice falls forever behind her peers.

  2. Andrew said,

    October 9, 2017 @ 8:37 am

    Is "natal tongue" something different from "native tongue"?

  3. J said,

    October 9, 2017 @ 9:46 am

    From the viewpoint of second language acquisition, I agree that it's an optimal time for learning a spoken language. However, that doesn't extend to the technology around a language, such as its writing system. She is probably having the same problems with it as any adult second language learner of Chinese, only with much more pressure and much more stress. (Indeed, for most adult learners of Chinese, mastery of the writing system is still just 'gravy'.) I can't say I have ever seen a Chinese child learning characters with the same happy look as almost any learner learning an alphabet.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    October 9, 2017 @ 10:43 am

    From a colleague who grew up in Singapore:

    Poor Eunice! I can totally relate! And your hyperlink "…her eyes began to swell in tears when she was asked to take out the Mandarin work sheets…" could have easily referred to me as a child. I remember dreading Chinese class and my private Chinese lessons—I was always swiftly caned if I could not read/write the characters, which reinforced my dislike of Chinese even more. They didn’t use much pinyin then, so I would come up with my own, after the teacher went through the list, and write them next to the characters so I could remember how to say them and what they were. Oh the horrors of tingxie and moxie … AHHHHHHH!!! I’m back again in my dining room, waiting for Chen Laoshi to come and berate me yet again, and the cane has already been conveniently placed where he sits.

  5. cameron said,

    October 9, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

    The way it was explained to me, the requirement that Singaporean students have to demonstrate proficiency in their "native language" (Mandarin, Malay, or Tamil) in addition to English, when they apply for admission to university, is a roundabout way for the government to implement what in the US is called an "affirmative action" policy to give a leg up in the admissions process to the non-Chinese applicants.

  6. mg said,

    October 9, 2017 @ 12:44 pm

    The prevailing wisdom on when is the best time for language learning is like everything else – one size doesn't fit all. There are kids with learning disabilities (more common than people realize, exacerbated when dealing with multiple languages and writing systems) for whom this is disastrous.

    I first became aware of this many years ago when working at a day care center where there was a very frustrated Portuguese 2 year old clearly ready to speak, but only gibberish would come out. He was miserable until the teachers asked his parents to speak English at home for a few weeks, at which point he quickly became a happy fluent speaker.

    Years later, I put my son in a Jewish day school. It turned out that he could not learn Hebrew auditorally (I'm the same way – I have to see foreign words written out before I can learn them). He also could not learn to read & write Hebrew and English at the same time. He needed to only do English in order to pick up grade level written language skills. If he'd been in a monolingual environment, he likely would have been at the lower end of normal but managed adequately – trying to do two systems that not only have different alphabets but where the writing is organized differently (right-to-left with vowels underneath or above consonants vs. left-to-right and completely linear) was impossible.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    October 9, 2017 @ 9:35 pm

    From a colleague who grew up in Singapore (see above):

    Here is one of my pinyin concoctions–da chow jing ser (I was in the 4th grade)–this has been seared into my memory because I was caned soundly at each syllable for not recognizing the characters. Every time I see a snake, I think of this chengyu! We also had comprehension tests (read an essay and then answer questions) with some mighty strange topics. One was on ear wax, of all things! It went into great detail about its purpose, consistency, smell, and a whole host of other baffling qualities of ear wax. I remember struggling through the page of characters, trying not to throw up. Not the best way to entice an elementary school kid into learning the language!

    The explanation, finally given to me in English by my extremely exasperated tutor, for this was “don’t make any disturbances to alert the enemy,” and “beat the grass and alert the snake,” which neither made any sense to the then ten-year-old me nor helped me in learning the chengyu. Thank goodness for pinyin (granted it was my own wrong pinyin—I would have used the correct one had I be given it—but it saved me from Chen Laoshi whacking me another 4 more times!


    VHM: This is the chengyu ("set phrase") the commenter was trying to write:

    dǎcǎojīngshé 打草惊蛇 ("beat the grass and frighten away the snake; act rashly and alert the enemy; beat emptily upon the grass, and the snake will be frightened; beat the grass and drive the snake away; beat the grass and the snake will be startled")

  8. Alex said,

    October 10, 2017 @ 5:25 am

    Aside from writing the Chinese Characters the next greatest torture is the Chengyu. My son started learning them in the second half of first grade and went full throttle in 3rd grade. So many have historical references.

    I feel its all part of the "wannabe" elitist / faux cultured element and has nothing to do with preserving culture. Starting in third grade, all are forced to take French, they say it's very useful, but it seems like they do it because its "gaodang" ("upscale") rather than Spanish, a much more useful language. Oh, do the mothers love to say "my little boy is learning French" to the non-public foreign languages schools.

    On Chengyu, perhaps if they had a semester of it starting in 6th grade it would be enough rather than continuously learning them since first grade. Kind of like an etymology semester.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    October 12, 2017 @ 2:03 pm

    From William Nee:

    This reminds me a bit of my kids (ages 5 and 4), learning English, Cantonese and Mandarin in local schools in Hong Kong. Yesterday my son was corrected for not writing 麗* correctly, which he had to write about 20 times, among other characters.

    I wonder to what extent kids dislike of Mandarin (or Cantonese) is related to horribly boring and tedious second language acquisition theories used by schools, while English is more positively correlated with things like Frozen and cartoons.

    *[VHM: lì 麗 ("beautiful; pretty") 19 strokes, simplified 丽 7 strokes]

  10. Ponder Stibbons said,

    October 13, 2017 @ 1:09 am

    I hated learning Mandarin in Singapore because
    1) I grew up reading books in English; we spoke both Mandarin and English at home but the vast majority of reading material that I was able to read at a young age was in English (probably due to the difficulty of teaching young children to read Mandarin)
    2) At school we were taught Mandarin through these 'moral fables' that were super boring. (To be fair, all second languages are fused with 'moral education', so it would be the same with regular Malay and Tamil, but if Eunice was taking Malay as a third language, that's a totally different story.) By the time I was 13 we were reading Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies in English class, but still reading stupid moral fables and the state-controlled national newspapers in Chinese class. Even when there was what would be considered contemporary Mandarin literature assigned for holiday reading, it would be highly sanitized stuff that promoted very traditional (conservative) viewpoints of the world. No surprise that we all thought English class was a lot more fun.

    The people I know who were into Chinese literature read (in their spare time) wuxia. I was never exposed to these, but I imagine they are more fun than what we had to read.

  11. Phil H said,

    October 13, 2017 @ 7:19 am

    I have to say that I think the idea suggested by William Nee and Ponder above seems telling to me. Learning Chinese characters can be a hassle, no doubt, but the distaste of children for the exercise surely has much more to do with the caning and the boredom of bad pedagogy than with the intrinsic difficulty of characters.

RSS feed for comments on this post