Mandarin, Oriental, and the Bilingual American Children

Back in 2008 in Barcelona, I was at a slow night gig, where the auditorium was too large for the crowd, a standby musician came to me and spoke in less-than-fluent English, “I always be very interested in the oriental culture. “ At that moment, I didn’t know he meant me and my culture.

A journalist friend on the scene corrected his use of words and said the term “oriental” has an underlying foundation of imperialist aesthetics. The journalist knew better probably because he had read Edward Said’s  “Orientalism”.   In the state of New York, the term “oriental” has been removed from all official documents, and as of last year, in 2016, President Obama just signed the bill to strike use of the word nationwide.

Another archaic word people used to call Asians is Mandarin. I haven’t heard anyone using that word until recently, it was on TV, surprisingly and not surprisingly for our time, in the News.

On May 28th 2016, during a live news commentary show on MSNBC, Ann Cultour called the Asian American protesters that she saw in the video footage Mandarins. After another commentator Joy-Ann Reid corrected her, she insisted on it, “No you’re not gonna police my language. They are Mandarin, and [their pro-Trump signs were] written in Mandarin..

Oh, Ann! Seriously?

Mandarin Chinese is not a written language, it’s a group of spoken dialects under the Sino-Tibetan language family. It’s an heritage term rather than academic, the correct name for this most spoken dialect group is Standard Chinese.

When Cultour said “these are the Mandarins”, it seemed that this Cornell-educated woman is not less  side-blind than those who assume every Caucasian person is English-speaking and American. It’s not only wrong, it is kitsch. And how not to end up being kitsch is perhaps to learn the basics of the Chinese language. Firstly, in writing, there are two sets of characters in use: Simplified is used in Mainland China and Singapore, and traditional (some refer to it as “Complex”) is used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.  As for the spoken ones, there are hundreds of dialects and one characters can be pronounced in many different ways.And if I may add a note the basics, please note the prevalence of Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan was not a gradual process of cultural development. It was actually not normal.

Without international relocation, the latest three generations of my family adopted a different native language. My grandparents got married in Taiwan in 1939, when Taiwan was still a colony of the Empire of Japan and Japan was already at war against the Republic of China. Their official language was Japanese, and The Rising Sun flags of Japan shown at their wedding were mandatory. People went to their wedding in their nicest clothes; men in suits and women in kimonos. The island was handed over to the Republic of China seven years later. In 1946, the year my mother was born. My mother’s first language was the dialect Taiwanese Minnan and mine was Mandarin Chinese. I remember when I was in the elementary school, there was a nationwide policy campaign forbidding kids speaking dialects at school. Some students were punished for letting slip a single word in Minnan or Hakka.  I am a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese because the policy enforced it.

Mandarin is also different from other dialect groups in Chinese language, that the name doesn’t represent any region or ethnic trait, it literally means “ language of the officials”, or, when referring to a person, “a bureaucrat ” in the government. The modern Mandarin Chinese became the largest spoken language on the planet, with one sixth of the world’s population speaking, is the result from centuries of a centralized examination system that was conducted in the Mandarin’s tongue. It was used to determined who could become members of the government, and who could make decisions for the people. It also made it possible for a country like China, with immense size of territory and unimaginable ethnic complexity to be able to have one spoken language in common. In 1910s, a group of academic leaders promoted vernacular sentencing and made the access to knowledge more democratic. After 1949, introduction of simplified Chinese writing system help most of the billion population, especially those from the lower classes, have opportunities to read and write more easily. We also have learned from history that enforcing an official language in a huge country helps to lower illiteracy but kills linguist diversity.

Back on our side of the planet, in America, constitutionally, there is no official language. Although 79.29% of the total population over age of five speak only American English, English, by law, is not the official national language of the United States.  There is none. Then why has English become a dominating language? One main reason is that in the American education system, a foreign language is defined as “a language other than English”. Public schools in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and the offshore territories teach primarily in English, with the exception of some specialized programs. These exceptions come in two categories: one is to help new immigrant students to learn in English.  One example is the Internationals Network for Public Schools consists of secondary schools in New York, California, Maryland, Washing D.C. that enrolls English Language Learners (ELL) who have been in the U.S. for less than four years and are under-performing in English proficiency tests.  Approximately 1 million English language learners are high school age and they have four years to prepare themselves for their early adulthood in the job market that requires fluency in English. Although improving English proficiency is highly emphasized here, the ultimate goal for these educators is not only the students will have good conduct of English, but they can learn Math, Sciences, Philosophy or Arts in English.

The other kind of programs that are taught in foreign languages is for native English-speaking students to learn foreign languages, such as Immersion Language programs. I have seen many English Immersion Kindergartens in Beijing, but I didn’t know that Mandarin Immersion preschools have become a trend in New York.


Two summers ago, a friend from graduate school told me she was taking her to visit Shanghai.

“He speaks Chinese, he is dying to see Shanghai.” She told me.

“How wonderful. ” I was wondering, “How old is he?”

“He’s tuning six this year.”

“Oh.” Then I didn’t know what to make of it.


My friend is Polish American, and none of their family member is of Chinese descant. Obviously her son had been learning Mandarin in preschool in New York City, and I am guessing it’s an Immersion Program, where kids start communicating in two languages at an early age. The sign of non-Chinese children from high-income families choosing to be in Mandarin Immersion Preschools may suggest the rise of a strong culture in the global economy. It could also indicate that a new generation of American parents do not wish their children to grow up as monolingual English speaker, moreover, they want their children to know what they don’t know.


Other than New York, another historic gateway city for Chinese-speaking immigrants is San Francisco, where for more than a century, many community-based K-8 schools have offered classes taught in Chinese, mostly Cantonese, to preserve their language and cultural ties with home. St. Mary’s School is part of the Catholic mission heritage in Chinatown and has been around for 95 years. A news photo shows that Traditional Chinese characters were taught in evening classes in 1948.


[Girls learning Chinese characters at Chinese Language School conducted by Paulist Fathers of Old St. Mary’s at 902 Stockton street] [photo courtesy of SAN FRANCISCO HISTORY CENTER, SAN FRANCISCO PUBLIC LIBRARY.]


The school with 95 year-long teaching experience didn’t benefit much from the recent trend of learning Chinese. In March 2016, local news reported that the St. Mary School might be closing due to low enrollment. While old schools are experiencing difficulties recruiting young souls, many new Chinese-learning programs are prospering, from pre-K to K12.

I sat down with Lee Drolet, head of Presidio Knolls School in San Francisco, which adopted the progressive model of language Immersion education. Established in 2008, the school is young, Lee relocated to San Francisco from Minnesota as an experienced education of Immersion Program and from whom I learned about CARLA, Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, whose role is to improve the nation’s capacity to teach and learn foreign languages. Minnesota does not look like a linguistically diverse state given the fact that about 81% (U.S. Census Bureau) of the population speaks only English, yet CARLA is a leading language resource center in the country.   By CARLA’s definition for an Immersion Elementary School in the U.S., that at least 50% of the day at school should be taught in Mandarin. The content to be taught should be academic subjects, as opposed to simply the grammars and vocabulary of the language. Progressive model emphasize learning by doing and de-emphasize textbooks and grading, which provides a fundamentally different learning experience from millions of native Mandarin speakers in Asian countries.

We were given a brief walking tour in the elementary school campus. A class of about ten forth graders was excited on their way out to the playground. We spoke with them in Mandarin Chinese, the student body is mixed of native-level speakers and new learners, yet they were all enthusiastic to engage in a conversation with the visitors. When a boy unconsciously code-switched from Mandarin to English, because he couldn’t find the right word for it, Lee immediately used one of the few Chinese phrases she knows and reminded him: “Shuo Zhong Wen (speak in Chinese). ”

On our way out, we passed by an art studio. A parent volunteer is preparing art class materials. She spoke gently with a heart-melting warm smile. I would never believed that a parent like her would send kids to learn Mandarin because of China’s market potential. I asked what inspired her to have chosen this program and did she make the decision because of any family ties with the ethnically or culturally Chinese groups. Her answer was quite simple, no, they have no Chinese family members or relatives, but if the kids like learning a new language, it is a great thing and they should be encouraged.

I think she has a point. You learn a foreign language because it can take you to a different world. French-speaking Businesswomen in Rwanda study English diligently  because English is believed to be the language for trade.  In higher education, number of students taking Middle Eastern language classes had risen since 9/11, for they believed knowing such“strategic languages” could expand their future job opportunities. Out of pure interest in the culture, my cousin Yvonne took German classes for years before moving to Singapore, where the language is barely spoken. During the 94 years in my grandmother’s life, the Japanese-Taiwanese bilingual lady never spoke Mandarin, nor she understood any word in English. Yet every time she saw her grandchildren speak fluent foreign languages, she was always delighted and proud of us.

Copyright © 2016 Commonwealth Magazine All Rights Reserved


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