Why I Chose Chinese for My English-Speaking Son

Cavanaugh a week old

On one random Thursday morning, staring down at my 2-week old baby boy, I made the decision of a lifetime. He would learn Chinese.

And, that’s how my love affair with Chinese began. Outside of egg rolls, fried rice, and general tso’s chicken, my exposure to Chinese culture, let alone the language was relegated to what I had learned at the carry out.

But, regardless, I was determined to be the monolingual mother of a bilingual Chinese speaking genius.

The next few weeks and then months flew by, as they always do, when you have a newborn. It was April 2013, and my son, now a bubbly and loveable 6-month old was starting to crawl and mumble a few indistinguishable English words. That was the signal I needed and I knew it was time to start the Chinese journey I had set out to take with him months before.

So excited to share my new adventure with the world, I called my mom and rattled off a 5-minute rant about how my son would learn Chinese and how great his life would be. Her response, “Chinese…are you serious?” Followed immediately by the question I thought I was ready for, but obviously I wasn’t, “Of all the languages to choose, why Chinese?”

After I sat for what was the longest two minutes of my life, I suddenly realized I didn’t really have an intelligible answer. I mean, it was my child, so it was my decision, right? Who was she (even if it was my mother) to question why I chose Chinese. Wasn’t it obvious why? Well, fast forward three years, $40,000+ in tuition fees, and over 300 hours of research later and now, I finally see why for her (and for many others) it appeared to be an odd choice. As a well adjusted, Chinese and English speaking preschooler, my son is well on his way to Chinese fluency and seemingly loving every minute of it. But, if you’re ever in a similar boat, or if you’re asked as part of an intense game of trivial pursuit, “Why Chinese?” Just simply state, “Chinese is a mathematical language.”

Here’s why…

Higher Mathematical Proficiency

It’s no secret that Chinese and many other Asian students outperform American students in Math. In fact, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, just 2% of American students reached the highest level of math performance, compared to 30% of Asian students in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Chinese Taipei. Does this difference in mathematical ability mean that our English-speaking children (mine included) are not capable of achieving higher math performance or that there is something inherently different about the Asian brain? Of course not!

The Role of Language in Mathematical Development

Believe it or not, the difference lies in two key areas: parental support and language. Yes! language…

The Chinese language, itself, may largely contribute to why Asian students are able to master key foundational math concepts faster than English-speaking students. In a 2015 study, researchers pointed to the Chinese language’s frequent use of numbers and more numerical concept exposure in everyday conversations as the leading reasons why Chinese-speaking students are excelling in math.

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The Secret Is In The Numbers

Chinese, like Arabic, utilizes the base-ten number system. Take, for example, the number 11. In English, we would say “eleven”. In English, we have to memorize that it means ten plus one more. In Chinese, the word for eleven is shíyī which translates into “ten and one”. If a Chinese-speaking child can count from 1 to 10, then they already have the numerical language they need to count to a hundred. By combining numbers together like shíyī or èrshí (which means two tens or twenty), even children as young as 3 can start to grasp the concepts of addition and multiplication – just through their everyday language.

Less Is More

The lack of plural words, such as “they”, “some”, “those”, “few”, etc. make it a necessity for children to use exact numerical quantities. For example, if you had cars in your hand. You might ask your child to take “those” cars from you. The word “those” serves no real mathematical purpose because it could mean the three cars you have in your hand, or two people, or fifteen rocks. The Chinese language doesn’t have plurals, so in order for a child to communicate quantity, they would have to count and use the number correctly in a sentence. Researchers have studied the influence number words have on our ability to grasp math later in life. And, studies suggest that the mathematical performance gap between the Chinese and other parts of the world is a mere reflection of the fact that the English, Dutch, and Spanish languages have irregular number names.

Plus, Chinese preschoolers, are on average, about two years ahead in math and have often mastered numerical magnitude representation (i.e. placing numbers accurately on a number line) before they step foot into kindergarten.

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There is a significant cultural component that is at play as well – but, don’t let this refute the mathematical power that the Chinese language has. A 2011 study examined the effects of numerical language on the development of later mathematical thinking and processes. The study tracked 52 Chinese-speaking children and 68 English-speaking children, between the ages of two and five years old. Researchers categorized over 1,000 hours of verbal interaction between the children and their parents. Surprisingly, they found that Chinese-speaking parents used more numerical language with their children, 34% more than the English-speaking parents. But, why is this the case? It could be that the Chinese language “forces” more numerical language or that Chinese-speaking parents reinforce mathematical learning at an early age – it’s a bit of a linguistic mystery.

So, if you’re considering a second language for your child. Pause for a minute and consider Chinese. If I can do it, then you can too!

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