Chinese School in Asia - 11 Year Old American Doing Physics in Mandarin!

July 26, 2012

Learning physics in Mandarin


As the only American in her Mandarin school in Asia, we are learning as we go as we immerse her deeply through a Chinese school in Penang. Some things you just can't know until you are on the ground and doing it, so one must remain flexible.

Unlike her friends in California or Europe, school is still in session here in Asia for our 11 year old daughter and we remain focused on our language learning primary goal. After a meeting with the principal, we have just switched her to her 3rd class here in six months. I think this will be a big improvement though, even if it will be harder for Mozart in the beginning.

We've made some errors because we can't do it like we schooled in Spain or homeschooling while traveling, so have to make a new way.  Because of her age ( language learning is easier before puberty) we want to get as much deep Mandarin in her as possible now.

Not just for the Mandarin, studies show that bilinguals and trlinguals from birth have many advantages including increased creativity and an easier time solving harder problems than a single language learner ( just as musicians have brain advantages from early, years-long training).

"One free lunch in the world is to learn another language in early childhood." Pinker ( MIT Linguist)

Our thought is why not three while young as a foundation?

Chinese school books in Asia..biology


The first year for foreign students at this Mandarin high school, is a special foundation class that is almost all Mandarin with a little English as most students don't know either or little. We didn't know how this worked when we arrived, so we had plans to leave in May, thus she only got half a year since we arrived in November,but the school year here starts on Jan 1 and ends in November. It would have been better to have done that full year.

We did our best to do as much Mandarin as possible as we traveled the world and the school was very supportive, including doing some classes via Skype with the Dean of Students. We also worked with other online teachers. Nevertheless, she was at a disadvantage this way.

She still spoke too much English in that class in my opinion, because that was the common language amongst many of the foreign students. Her best friends then were from Indonesia and Korea and they spoke mostly in English together. Still her Mandarin improved, but not as quickly as she progressed in Spain where there were no Spanish local English speakers ( but she did have one UK boy in her class and they talked in English as well as some other expat kids on the playground).

She returned to join this same class group this February, and in this second year they are no longer in the foundation class, but more Thai students, mostly boys were added to the class. The Thai kids have a really hard time adjusting to the Chinese style of discipline, can't speak English or Mandarin well, so they are quite wild and get caned many times every day.

learning physics in Mandarin in Asia


Mozart did not like the wild Thai boys who would tease here, hit her or take things from her desk and such, so we quickly moved her to a class that was mostly locals along with about 8 Koreans who were strong in English ( many having gone to an American primary school here to give them good English). They used a curriculum from Cambridge University out of the UK along with their Mandarin. There was virtually no caning in this class because the kids were well behaved and use to the system.

I had some concerns about this class, but we tried it, partly because then she would have Mandarin classes with just 8 students instead of 44, she would be with mostly Chinese locals and away from the wild boys. Despite being years younger than the other students in her class, and coming in 2 months late this year, Mozart did great and is at the top of her class. She loves projects and several of hers were picked to be displayed, often ones that are suppose to be a group project with several students, she frequently does them all by herself but gives credit to the others.

She really enjoyed the social aspects of this class, but I started worrying about how much English she was getting and communicating in all day long. The local students talked to each other in Mandarin, but since they are very strong in English and she is weaker in Mandarin, they often talked in English together. The Koreans also talked in English mostly as they are use to that. She was hearing lots of Mandarin, but also too much English in my view.

Learning Chinese history in Asia in Mandarin


Our whole reason for being here and at this school is to immerse in Mandarin. The school is use to dealing with foreign students, but never had one that was a native English speaker who has different needs than those needing to improve their English too, as English-as -2nd-language-learners like locals.  We're trying to use a system that is not made for native English speakers. Mozart knows more than the teachers teaching English because she is a very well read native speaker and they only know English as a second language ( on British system).

Deep Chinese immersion for many years along with deep and regular study of the language and history is the only way to really learn Mandarin. So we felt like we needed to brainstorm with the principal to find  a way to meet Mozart's unique needs at the school. I would love to take her totally out of the advanced English as a second language class as it is a total waste of her time ( despite her enjoying it) , but it is compulsory in Malaysian schools, they say.

We had a similar problem with English class in Spain, but finally got her out of it after several years. Dealing with any school can be challenging because they are made for mass learning, not individual needs, but I must say that both this school in Penang and the one in Spain have been very generous and helpful to us and our odd way of schooling around the world which has us coming and going on our terms. ( More helpful than American schools we attended, where we found virtually no flexibility other than allowing her to begin several years early based on her advanced abilitiies...which they don't usually do).

Our daughter working on Mandarin while in Jordan


Don't let others fool you who say Mandarin is not hard, or doesn't take years to be fluent, as they are talking about conversational Mandarin, which is doomed to "sounds clever at a party" status, perhaps somewhat useful for China travel, but not deeply fluent speaking, reading and writing Mandarin. Just think how limited you would be in English if you did not read or write it or had a very limited vocabulary.

Listen to these comments from truly fluent Mandarin speakers where most say total immersion and hard studying  for at least 4 years is necessary ( from the recent Economist article I wrote about recently):

"Characters don't really fit into our mental models. If you think of them as words, that will only get you so far. Most units of meaning are actually composed of compound characters. So you can learn that 東 (dong) means "east" and 西 (xi) means west. But 東西 means "something" and "不東西" means "nothing". Knowing the component characters often only gives you a vague guess about the full compound.

In a sense, Chinese has a kind of 40,000 letter alphabet."

"I would say, however, that learning to read, and especially to write, takes a lot more time than learning to speak. In Taiwan and China, locals learn to read only by putting in much longer school days than we have in North America, and learn to write only by writing out each character countless times, while also being exposed to them during their long hours spent learning to read."


Mandarin Chinese school books -history


I think this comment though, explains best about why Mandarin is so hard, especially the writing, and takes so long for an English or European learners:

"Literary Chinese, where multi-character words or phrases are truncated from, say, four characters into two, presupposes that the reader has learned the original phrase. Otherwise the effect is akin to reading an English text brimming with unintelligible acronyms. The same principle applies to the need to learn chengyu, the myriad (literally) figures of speech that inhabit both literature and common speech. There are simply no shortcuts to rote memorization, and to be effective, one probably needs to foster some appreciation for the historical context in which some of the phrases or figures of speech arose."

And it also explains our delimma and challenges  at this juncture. We moved our child to an all local Chinese class where she is taking physics, Biology, History, Math, Art, Geography etc all in Mandarin. The school has never done this before and it is clearly way over her head. She understands the subjects, but the Mandarin is at a very advanced level since these kids are all fluent in it as their primary language and have been doing school work in it for 8 long years.

Poor kid has to go after school every day to work with a tutor one-on-one ( what they call "tuition" here and it is common) to bridge what she is missing and help her catch up in Mandarin. We've asked her to also only talk Mandarin while in school except for English class and to do lunch with these new kids ( who are much weaker in English) in Mandarin rather than with her friends who are fluent in English.  We start the day with Mandarin movies and go to bed with them and plan to do even more of Mandarin Pop Karoke and movies for entertainment.

Learning biology in Mandarin

It is a very hard decision for basically unschoolers like us who like to have a lot of time together and believe in lots of play and self directed free time as learning, but we are three weeks into it now and it feels right for her Mandarin. She wakes up at 6 A.M and comes home from school around 5 or 6 P.M., so they are long days, so very typical Chinese schooling. She even goes on Saturday, although that is primarily co-curriculum ( choir) for her which she enjoys. We will most likely try this until the end of the year and see how she improves.

She already says she is getting better. We don't know if it is too far over her head, we will just have to see how it unfolds, but the more intense Mandarin should be a positive hopefully for her language acquisition. These additional Mandarin courses give her opportunities for more vocabulary learning. She can do the Algebra, just doesn't always know what the Mandarin in it says.

This class also has to take Bahasa Melayu ( the local language very similar to Indonesian and supposedly one of the easiest languages in the world to learn) so that gives her free time as she usually enjoys drawing or song writing when that is going on. She gets all her homework done before coming home, so there is still time to play with locals here a bit and relax before bedtime.

We are less interested in her doing perfectly in Mandarin Physics ( etc) than her learning more Mandarin through immersion. She will just do the best she can and we will support her the best we can. We will also have her do a fun class like Udacity's Intro to Phyisics and Kahn Academy to help her understand the concepts in English.

Learning Mandarin in Asia - school books

In some ways she has the best of both worlds as she still has Chinese class and English class with her good friends from the last class, so maintains those friendships. This new advanced Mandarin class also has only 32 students instead of 44 in her last two classes this year. She is also meeting new friends from another major Mandarin school here after her tuition as her van lets her off at a tuition center that is close to that school ( and our home) and then they all take another van home together. She does that three days a week and two after school at her school where she gets to socialize a bit with kids there too before and after.

So even though it is long hours and more challenging, she is not working the whole time as some of it is social time as school is out at 2:30. It's not our preferred way of being, but we voted as a family to try this for this second semester here and see how it goes. She often comes home laughing ( enjoys the girls in the van) so that is a good sign. I also think it is good to learn that sometimes one sacrifices to reach a goal and Mozart does want her Mandarin to be very fluent. Plus she just had 10 months of self led learning homeschool and free time, so good to mix both worlds and approaches to learning.

We're also planning a trip into China in November where she will live with a Chinese family ( who speaks no English) and go to a local school with their child for a month to increase her Mandarin even more. ( We parents will have to learn Mandarin to talk to her). We've been told that a month of no English, ( given her high level of Mandarin now) and immersed so deeply, will bring her to an almost native level ( with a good accent) , which will make the whole writing process even easier when she returns to her Penang school as well as more easy socializing in Mandarin here.

Our goal is to get her Mandarin up to the same level as her Spanish and English as quickly as we can, so hoping these new changes will help. I loved this quote from that article in the Economist from a fluent Mandarin Speaker who is American:

"Far easier to get a degree in Engineering, build an automobile, learn 10 operas or learn C++, Oracle and Calculus combined than to speak Mandarin fluently as an adult."

 Since it is so hard to learn as an adult, our race is on to complete this in childhood, before puberty. Any other questions about our schooling process?

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Sammy Corfield

Wow that sounds intense, but I wish my folks gave me that sort of opportunity when I lived in Singapore as a kid. Jolly good show!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks Sammy! Most western folks that do expat lives here do the international schools for sure.

That's why they were so surprised that we wanted the Chinese school. So much easier to get languages when young, so we're really glad we've done this.

It is a bit of a hard slug just now, but not too bad and I think it will pay off in the long run.

I like it that she comes home with lots of drawings that she can do during the Malay classes to she gets freedom that way. She is starting a whole comic manages to keep her homeschool mentality creativity even in a school setting. ;)

Besides languages, I don't really like the international school bubble, so really glad she got to immerse with locals here and in Spain.

She is the type of kid that lives up to the challenge so is doing great.

Of course, I wouldn't do this kind of intensity with a younger child, she's had years of freedom and knows it is temporary so I think that helps.

Matthew Ho

Really enjoyed reading your detailed blog post! Its not easy to learn another language and immersion is way to accelerate it. You've shown a lot of dedication to your daughter in learning Chinese & Spanish.

I took Chinese saturday school for 5 years+ when I was young, plus Chinese lessons when I was older, so I understand the difficulties your daughter is going through. My parents also taught me Cantonese when I was young and it was my first language, so I had advantage in learning.

Keep up the good work!


Where will you be staying in China? How did you set up the homestay?

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Thanks so much Matthew! Yes, indeed, one knows the challenge well when you have walked the same road.

Good for your parents for giving you languages and your hard work too!

I've read that studies show that bilinguals ( or more) from birth have advantages in learning other languages.

So for us, it's been worth the hard work.

Jeanne @soultravelers3

I am pretty sure we will be based in Beijing, Meghan when we go to China in November.

The homestay is being arranged by a great language school and we will be writing lots more about this soon.


We just returned from a short stay in Beijing and really enjoyed the city. I have a choice to stay in Shanghai or to transfer my job to either Beijing or Hong Kong for next year. What a hard decision to make!


I would like to know how long you stay in one place for school. I plan on traveling with kids soon and would like to know how the schooling work on the road.

Lynn Williams

I loved reading about your attentiveness to your daughter's education. So many parents overlook the opportunity for language learning before puberty. I am going to use some of what you wrote as inspiration for educating my own child (who is only 15 months at the moment.) Kudos! Your daughter is going to be one smart cookie.

Jeanne @souitravelers3

Good choices Meghan! ;)

Thanks for the kind words, Lynn!

Jeanne @souitravelers3

Well, that depends,lexymarie as we are making this up as we go. If one wants the kind of fluency we want, it takes years.

We spent 4 winters in Spain where she was in a local school for 5 months each winter. She also spoke Spanish from birth, so was pretty fluent when we arrived, but now is like a native speaker/reader/writer.

We don't know how long Mandarin will take, although she has some advantages because she is a fluent bilingual from birth and also learned quite a bit of Mandarin starting in the womb. That makes language learning easier.

We like returning to places for languages ( and friendships) so will probably do this for a while.

Also, how old your child is matters in the equation and how much you keep up the daily practice ( because kids can lose languages as quickly as they get them....we've seen this repeatedly).

So kind of a hard question to answer. The longer you spend, the more fluent, your child will be.


This is one of the most amazing posts you've written, Jeanne. Extraordinary and a joy to read. I loved these words:

"I also think it is good to learn that sometimes one sacrifices to reach a goal and Mozart does want her Mandarin to be very fluent. Plus she just had 10 months of self led learning homeschool and free time, so good to mix both worlds and approaches to learning."

Count your linguistic blessings each day that your own native language is one of our planet's most dominant and most coveted and most taught. Just as your world travels helped to nurture a deeper appreciation for your home state of California, my own linguistic journey has done much the same with English.

French, Spanish, and German...that's what my family and I learn/speak. And now I have a real curiosity for Mandarin!!!

Jeanne @soultravelers3

Aw, thanks @HullsEdge, glad you liked it!

I think it's great to give kids challenges. I am not big on school for many reasons, but I think it is good to learn the "game of school" since is part of our planet system.

Besides Mandarin, she has learned a lot about that process...tests, finals, midterms and such...something she had never had to learn before...and in a very competitive environment.

She has had to learn to study..what someone else wanted her to learn and do projects with others or by herself. Keeping track of books and schedules etc. ( Things an unschool kid never needs).

So, certainly more stressful now that when she was doing child led learning, but valuable too I think, as I've seen her grow in new ways.

I wouldn't want a lifetime of this kind of learning...but in this short "dip" she has leaned new skills besides just the Mandarin.

You and she have advantages of learning Mandarin because you grew up as bilinguals/trilinguals from birth. This makes learning any additional languages much easier.

Learning Mandarin is quite different than learning other languages ( reading and writing that is) but builds good skills in other ways ...not just the language. A friend who does both said it was like being an expert on both PC and a Mac. ;)

Languages are worth the you are lucky to have so many. I am happy that Mozart will be able to pass these on to her kids some day!!

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