"To avoid criticism do nothing, say nothing, be nothing". - Hubbard
I had never heard of Billionaire Jim Rogers when I was raising my baby as a trilingual in Mandarin, Spanish and English in 2000 when she was born. He thinks we all need to learn Mandarin. Is he raising his global kids (who are learning to read, write and speak fluent Mandarin) in China? Nope! He is raising them in English-speaking Singapore and sending them to Chinese schools there. The five star Mandarin schools in Penang are just as good BUT living costs and school costs are MUCH less.
WHY PENANG FOR LEARNING MANDARIN?
Penang is not a Mandarin led environment, English is also more common here than much of Europe, but it is a fantastic place to immerse in Mandarin reading, writing & speaking through the local Chinese schools ( which ARE Mandarin led environments). Most expats in Taiwan, Shanghai ( where Mandarin is NOT the local home language) and Beijing only speak English. I've read quite a few disasters of travel bloggers unhappily visiting China and NOT successfully learning Mandarin, which makes me even happier that we chose this route. No one is going to be deeply fluent in Mandarin in a short visit.
If one is just wanting a little conversational Mandarin, then perhaps visiting a Mandarin speaking area of China is better (yet hard to get long stay visa's there, not to mention the expense in the cities, severe pollution, firewall, bad weather and primative conditions in the rural areas). BUT if you want your child to be fluent as a native in reading, writing and speaking Mandarin, I don’t think you can do better than an all Mandarin local school in Penang like we have our child in. Of course, we will also supplement this with some time in China as well, but life is MUCH easier and cheaper in Penang than Chinese cities. It's not a perfect solution, but I am not sure there is such a thing as a perfect solution, at least not for everyone.
Two thirds of the students at my daughter's school in Penag are local Chinese Malay, but one third are foreign students from all over Asia who come to learn Mandarin, so they start with a foundation class the first year. I've met many foreign Asian seniors who came to this high school not knowing Mandarin or English and leave, fluent in both as they graduate. ( Many of these kids live in the dorm at the school).
Just like in her school in Spain, our child is getting the exact Mandarin reading and writing curriculum that the locals get starting in first grade, using the same books and materials. That is a BIG advantage for an older child, rather than being just thrown in at high shool grade level with kids who have been speaking Mandarin from birth and reading and writing it from Kindergarten. She is now at about a third grade level at reading and writing and does very well conversationally. (She will complete the entire Primary School curriculum, 1st through 6th grade by spring 2014).
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN PLACE-BASED CONVERSATIONAL SKILLS AND SCHOOL-BASED MANDARIN LITERACY
I am not talking about place-based immersion for Chinese conversational skills but I’m talking about School-based Mandarin immersion for total literary fluency as strong as an educated Mandarin native. The conversational part of Mandarin is the easy part, knowing how to read and write it well too, is another thing altogether and takes time.
Proficiency in face-to-face communication doesn’t imply proficiency in more complex academic language needed in a classroom or in life. My friend ( linguist and fluent Mandarin speaker living in China) John at Sinosplice explains the 5 stages of learning Chinese well. I am not sure if she will get to the tippy top level, as most live long years in China, married to a Chinese spouse to get that, but we shoot to get as close to that as possible in childhood and she can increase what ever she wants in languages when older.
Our whole purpose of being in Asia is to immerse deeply in Mandarin and Chinese culture, so of course we are geared towards that experience where our child is daily immersed with everyone speaking, reading, writing Mandarin. Our PRIMARY purpose for our travel is educating our child, immersing deeply in her three languages ( adding bits of others) and time to bond as a family. Yes, she could learn Mandarin at home, but the experiences are so much more rich here and we can live large on much less money which gives us more time together.
It worked wonderfully in Spain with Spanish, so she is working hard now to increase her Mandarin reading and writing. I really don't see the point in family long term travel without the kids learning languages deeply ( in childhood when it is easy). You can't really know another culture without knowing the language. Plus having different "homes" around the world, gives her stability. If this is the Asian century, it's a great thing for her to know Asia and Asians well and Penang is a fabulous base for that ( as well as understanding Islamic life in deeper ways).
PICKING THE BEST LONG-STAY PLACE FOR LEARNING MANDARIN
When we look at a long stay for language that we will return to over many years ( as we did in Spain.. which then becomes one of our "homes" around the world), we want to also pick a place that is very comfortable for all of us, not polluted, friendly to expats, good weather, low cost but luxurious, lots of organic and healthy food, open government and warm people plus very enriching on many different levels. Malaysia is VERY expat friendly and the only place in Asia where one can buy landed property.
Of course, we will spend time in Mandarin- speaking China as well, but this is a more logical base for us now. Many say the Chinese community here is much more friendly and there is great adaptibility because it is just one of three cultures here and many different foreigners. Since we parents don't speak Mandarin, we want her reading, writing and speaking level very strong before putting us all into an isolated, sink or swim, all-Mandarin environment in China with no English available and much harsher conditions.
PENANG CHINESE CULTURE AND MANDARIN
Malaysia is known to be a country of 3 cultures ( Malay, Chinese & Indian) and that is true in Penang as well, but perhaps this info from wikipedia will clarify why we picked UNESCO World Heritage site Georgetown, Malaysia for Mandarin and why it is so very Chinese in many ways.
“Penang was long the only state in Malaysia where ethnic Chinese formed a plurality…Nevertheless, the Chinese remain more visible because most of them live in the urban areas. Penang is still the state with the most percentage of Chinese……in Malaysia as a whole, the majority of ethnic Chinese speak Mandarin as their first language”
The malls and areas that we go to, one sees about 98% Chinese or Asian. The largest malls here have huge bookstores filled with Chinese and English books with Chinese families & kids reading them. We purposely seek out the Chinese culture as that is our mission here. Also many Malays do not speak English, so we find it easier to connect deeply with more of the Chinese Malaysians and Indian Malaysians.
Friends who have lived in China and here, tell me there is a MUCH larger selection of books in Mandarin Chinese ( for kids and adults) here than any where they saw in China. The Chinese community in Penang, is VERY motivated in teaching their kids to be fluent in Mandarin and English ( as well as Malay). Many do also speak the Hokkien dialect ( similar to Taiwanese) or Cantonese ( like in Hong Kong), but all seem to speak or read and write in Mandarin because it is favored ( and Hokkien has no written language).
The government says Malay is the dominant language, but the reality is different in our experience here in Georgetown as English seems dominant (and it was a British colony until 1957). There is certainly MUCH more English here than we ever saw in Europe ( which is a bit of culture shock for us now after so many years touring Europe). Most signage is in English as well as Malay and Mandarin. This makes things like shopping and going to movies VERY easy here, so much easier than most of our European travels.
Also from wikipedia: “The Malaysian Chinese have traditionally dominated the Malaysian economy with more than 90% of the commercial shops in urban areas being owned by the Chinese. The Chinese household income is the highest among the 3 ethnic groups.”
"90% of Chinese children in Malaysia enroll into Mandarin-medium primary schools and Many Chinese educated Malaysian Chinese families have taken to speaking Mandarin with their children due to the notion that other Chinese dialects are growing increasingly redundant in an era where Mandarin is increasing in importance. This has led to the emergence of a community of young Chinese who are fluent in Mandarin but unable to speak their native Chinese dialect, understand but do not speak it, or prefer not to speak it in public.”
PROS AND CONS
In order to immerse deeply in Mandarin ( reading, writing and speaking) or any language, it takes many years of effort ( especially if one wants to be equal to a native speaker which is our goal with her 3 dominant languages). Without going to an all Mandarin school here,and deliberately working consciously to improve one’s Mandarin, Penang would be less optimal than an area where it is only spoken in China. BUT, if one uses an all Mandarin school here and focuses on learning the language, we find it a superior place for many reasons to immerse in the language as well as Chinese culture.
Is it perfect? No it's not and I don't think anything is, especially for someone like us who have an unschool/homeschool/freedom priority to our philosophy and value system. We are just making this up as we go, learning by doing. We didn't know anyone else who world schooled as we are doing in Spain or Malaysia ( combined with months of homeschooling as we travel). We didn't even know that it could be done and we are the first Caucasians at this school. We are not billionaires like Jim Rogers, but ordinary folks living on $23/day per person trying to make the best choices for our child.
It was actually MUCH harder to find a school here in Malaysia than it was in Spain. We would have preferred to put her in a primary school when we arrived rather than skipping her 3 grades and putting her in a 1000 kid, 30 acre high school at ten. The primary schools in Malaysia do not accept foreign students unless the families are working here or own property. I wouldn't put my 10 year old in an American high school, but this strict school feels very safe, wholesome and like a school from the fifties without the drugs, sex, make up, or mean girls.
We didn't know how the schools worked here until we arrived and tried to do it, so we kept looking until we found a solution. We knew these challenges might be a possibility and we were open to just hiring a tutor and in fact did that our first few months because the school year here runs from January to November ( something we also did not know until arrival).
There are many quality international schools here, but I don't see the point in that for our language purposes, nor do we want the international school "bubble". ( Unlike the Chinese school kids, they don't speak Mandarin or Malay). Her courses in English are the same also at a much lower price. She is the only native English speaker in her school, so for us one of the biggest downsides is the English courses.( I am going to attempt to get her out of them and add more Mandarin instead).
Unlike Spain, most of the teachers are at least bilingual ( Mandarin and English) as are most of the students, so she talks and socializes in more English than what I'd prefer. ( BUT, she still talks mostly in Mandarin there as it is the dominant language for most of the kids and teachers and she also spoke some English while in Spain with the expat kids at the school there).That is the biggest downside, but I am afraid the same downside would happen in many parts of China as well ( as most expat kids speak English there as well. It's the relationships with the expat kids that are the challenge, not the locals).
We were very nervous on her first day at school here at 10 as we were for her first day of school in Spain at just 6. We prepared her for the challenges and hoped for the best and knowing that we could always pull her out if it didn't work. So far, now into our second year here, it seems to be working well and as long as it works we will continue. Mozart enjoys her friends, the social things like choir, earth day celebrations and English elocution contest, and the autonomy of handling herself in a large school with cafeteria and van. She even has friends here in Asia to talk Spanish to which is very,very rare in Asia.
MULTICULTURAL, MULTILINGUAL FRIENDS AND ADVANTAGES
Her best girlfriends in her school are from Korea, Indonesia, Japan & Thailand ( as well as many local Chinese Penangites) so this also adds a richness to visiting those countries, hearing those languages and appreciating multicultural and multilingual lives. She is also exposed to different religions here, many Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Taoists and Hindus.
One of the advantages of school for a traveling kid is long term friendships. When we returned this year, after 10 months away homeschooling around the world, she lit up when we drove by her school and she said, "That's my school! Hang on, I am coming back!".
She does have friends in our building that she plays with daily after school and friends from our building last year, but because of the day to day interactions, she is closer to her school mates most of all. This is a big advantage that traveling unschool kids do not get, long term friends , and perhaps is one of the reasons she prefers to school here rather than just doing Mandarin with tutors.
MANDARIN AT HOME AND AROUND TOWN
We don’t watch much TV, but there is a Mandarin station & it is just another way to immerse. On outings around town, my child also usually talks to the native Chinese here in Mandarin which pleases them and gives her even more practice. She can sing Mandarin Pop Karoke with friends at the mall.
There are also many Mandarin after-school programs and Chinese tutors that come to our home or at school for very little money that add to her immersion. We are bonding with other Chinese families through the school environment and our home environment here, thus learn more about the culture first hand
DEEP FLUENCY AND OTHER BENEFITS
She is fluent already by some definitions and has spoken Mandarin from birth, but the all-Mandarin school will make sure her reading and writing levels are up to a high level. And the Chinese friends and culture here as well as in China will add value and experience to it all. She will not only know the language like a native, but the culture and exactly what a Mandarin native school-life is like from uniforms, to food, to holidays, to discipline masters, monitors, prefects & more.
We think it is an advantage for her that she knows what different schools are like on 3 continents as well as homeschooling when we travel the world. She is building a network of deep friendships around the world while learning firsthand about life on our earth and hopefully adding value to the people she befriends as well.
ENJOYING MALAYSIA AND WHY FEW WILL DO THIS
We are truly enjoying the Malaysian experience, do not see it as a substitute for visiting China ( we’ll go there too) but grateful we have found a perfect place for *us* to immerse our child in Mandarin and Chinese culture in this tropical paradise and multi-cultural country.
Most western folks will not do this ( there is a reason she is the only Caucasian in the school & every Mandarin school we went to had no Caucasians & they as well as the Ministry of Education thought it VERY unusual that we would prefer to go to a Mandarin school instead of the international UK or US schools where the few Caucasians go).
Still, I take time to write this so it is a resource for others as well as a record for my daughter. I really didn’t know how ideal it was until we did it, so I just put the information here for those that might also have an interest. This seems to be a secret gem that few know about, so who knows maybe we will be accidental pioneers and trendsetters in this way as well.
RAISING A MULTILINGUAL CHILD WHEN THE PARENTS ARE MONOLINGUAL
Most kids here are multilingual and the Chinese kids do have to take English & Malay classes in school, but Mandarin is the strongest language and the one most used. Even in the English class at school the teacher talks in Mandarin some to help the kids learn English as a second language. All weekly assemblies are done in Mandarin and even our parents orientation was done in Mandarin.
It certainly is helpful to be in an environment where one must read, write, listen and speak continually in the language one is learning. The Mandarin school provides that for us here as well as many other things in the environment.
We have been working on raising a multilingual child since I was pregnant..so a long, involved goal for us monolingual parents, since kids can lose languages as easily as they pick them up. It was a lot of hard work & risk on our part, but it is working great so far and she has never known such sweet girls in school. We like the Principal, the Dean, the 70 year old Discipline Master and most of the people we have met at the school who seem to care deeply about what they do.
Would you consider a Mandarin school abroad? Have you ever gone to a foreign school in another language or sent your kids? Is it crazy? Any questions for us?