As someone who began learning Chinese at 22, I was excited to wander through the corridors of the Early Learning Center when I first joined the Avenues staff last fall. Touring Chinese immersion classrooms was a gleeful experience: besides the primary colors and impossibly tiny chairs, the ubiquity of Chinese characters made me giddy. Every object—from a box of crayons to the classroom sink—was labelled in Chinese. But, I wondered to myself, how do these classrooms function day to day? What happens when you place a group of very young children into a foreign language environment and ask them to go on as usual? And how is their experience of learning Chinese different from mine?
Early in March, I spent a day in a pre-K Chinese immersion classroom at the Early Learning Center trying to find the answers to these questions. I arrived at 8:05 in the morning to find Teacher Zhuo and Teacher Li—or, in the spirit of immersion, Zhuo Laoshi and Li Laoshi—preparing for the imminent arrival of 16 zise de niao, or “purple birds.” (In the ELC, classrooms are identified by color, and classes are named after animals.) Red paper lanterns hung from the ceiling, scrawled with Chinese characters—evidence of the recent lantern festival, which is celebrated in China on the 15th day of the first lunar month. On one wall, the daily schedule was displayed in pictures labelled with Chinese characters: morning meeting, activity time, snack, story time, lunch and so on.
At 8:30, Teacher Li put on some jolly music before opening the classroom door. The children filed in, bundled up in winter coats and hats, while their teachers greeted them in Chinese. Before long, the children had gathered in a circle on the floor at the back of the classroom, ready for their morning meeting. One little girl gave the class a weather report after looking out the window (“jintian shi qingtian,” or “today it’s sunny”); Teacher Zhuo announced that they would not be going outside today because it was too cold; everyone sang Cheshang de lunzi (“The Wheels on The Bus”).
Soon after, the children were absorbed in a playtime activity of their choosing. During this first hour, the purple birds were reluctant to respond to me in Chinese. It was clear, however, that they understood every syllable that their teachers and I spoke to them. I asked one boy, who was concentrating fiercely on the paper in front of him, what he was drawing. “Ni zai hua shenme?” “A restaurant,” he replied. “Wo keyi zai nali chi fan ma?” (Can I eat dinner there?), I asked. “Yes, you can, here you are…eating pizza.” I continued to address him in Chinese, only to have him reply, grinning, in English. He finished his picture and presented it to me, “something to decorate your room with.”
The transition from English to Chinese, from the streets of Chelsea to the purple classroom, wasn’t seamless. With temperatures outside well below freezing, it was hard not to think of the children as needing some time to warm up, to literally thaw out the Chinese they knew so well, and build up their confidence (a process with which I am familiar). Sometimes it seemed attritional, a quiet battle of wills: the children were never chastised for speaking English, but the teachers, gently persistent, spoke nothing but Chinese.
Soon enough, those efforts paid off. During the second and more structured play session of the day, I witnessed several children play a round of the card game Go Fish, supervised by Teacher Li. Seeing the children use Chinese to ask each other breezily if they had a dolphin or an octopus card, and respond, “meiyou, qing diaoyu” (“no, go fish”) was exhilarating. The stimulation of play combined with the raised stakes of competition seemed to inspire a very pure form of focus in them. I also got to brush up on my marine biology vocabulary and learned the word for “jellyfish.”
After their mid-morning snack, the children reconvened on the floor for story time. Teacher Zhuo sat cross-legged at the front and read aloud from a picture book in Chinese. I listened with the children. A bear, a rabbit, they’re friends, it’s snowing outside. But then? I lost the thread. Five years of Chinese, and the rabbit had me stumped. “Ta shuai jiao le,” the teacher said. She fell down. It occurred to me that in all my language classes—from first-year noodle stand survival to graduate-level Chinese history seminars in Chinese—I had never learned how to say “I fell down.” The purple birds knew exactly what had happened to rabbit, because they were learning practical Chinese, Chinese for living in and through.
Lunchtime came around and I put on my coat, preparing to take a break with the teachers. As I turned to leave the classroom, I heard a small voice behind me: “Wo xi huan ni de xiezi” (I like your shoes). It was the little boy who had drawn me eating pizza in the restaurant. I knelt down and pointed at my socks. “Na shi ni de wazi” (“those are your socks”), he said. By this time, several other children had gathered around to watch our conversation unfold. I couldn’t suppress my smile as we entered into a discussion of the color of my shoes, all in Chinese.
I began learning Chinese in 2009 as a visiting student at Harvard. At that time, I had no idea that my desire to become fluent in a second language would lead me to spend two years in Taiwan and another two at graduate school. When I told people that I was going to begin studying Chinese in my early twenties, they responded with incredulity. Encouraging smiles gave way to mumbled references to the fact that it’s hard—really hard—for monolingual adults to become fluent in a second language.
Those people were right. It was hard—at times, excruciating—and often humiliating. At Harvard, first-year Chinese meets for one hour, every day of the week, at 8:00 am. I was the token graduate student in a room full of preternaturally industrious, shiny-bright Harvard freshmen not yet addicted to coffee. By the end of the second week, I realized that there was a tangible difference between the rate at which an 18-year-old brain and a 22-year-old brain absorb new information. It simply took me longer—sometimes days longer—to internalize all those strange new sounds and attach them, in my mind, to the even stranger symbols in the textbook. During that first year, I often left the classroom dispirited, having failed to memorize the text properly and convinced that my teacher was on the brink of giving up on me.
In accordance with pedagogical convention, my Chinese teachers taught all four skills—reading, writing, speaking and listening—simultaneously. In order to add a syllable to our vocabularies, we had to write a character over and over again while speaking it aloud. Ni, ni, ni, ni. Hao, hao, hao, hao. For a beginner, the relationship between sound and image seems utterly arbitrary (after a couple of years of exposure, it is possible to connect certain radicals—the constituent parts of characters—to certain sounds, but those relationships are far from consistent). My teachers—Beijingers, mainly—followed the same pedagogical methods with which they had grown up, and for which China is infamous in international education circles: memorization, repetition and cold-calling. These principles applied even in the advanced classes that I ended up taking in Taiwan: read this sentence aloud, substitute the object for something else, read it again. Repeat. Memorize.
The purple birds, however, approach Chinese like Chinese children do. They don’t study Chinese, as I did, with flash cards, taped dialogues and endless notebooks; they learn Chinese, by observing and mimicking adults who support them through work, rest and play (but mainly, in the ELC, play). Children in the ELC are not made to practice writing characters, but spend their days learning Chinese as though the whole language were a song. Freed of the obligation to visualize the characters while speaking, the children can attend fully to the rhythms and melodies of speech—a crucial advantage in a language that relies on tonality to convey meaning. By the time they get to Lower School*, they’ve already internalised the spoken vocabulary necessary to see them through their daily lives. Then, like their Chinese counterparts, they are ready to begin connecting familiar sounds to unfamiliar symbols.
The crucial difference, I observed, is that in the immersion classroom, children acquire the new language as a communication tool and not a performance piece. In the ELC, Chinese is not a foreign language, but a means of getting what you want (water, more blue beads, a cheese sandwich instead of a ham sandwich) or need (a trip to the bathroom, help tying your shoes, a napkin to clean up the cake that you just dropped on the floor). I spent two years staging various versions of Chinese for my teachers in Taiwan before I became truly comfortable riding the bus or calling a native speaker on the phone. I got there in the end, but only after a period of anxiety and self-doubt, which it seems the purple birds will simply bypass on their way to fluency. And while I don’t regret the long and winding path that I took to my second language, I hope that one day such a path will be rendered obsolete by immersion, and that every school will be able to follow the example of Avenues.