How To Hinder Assimilation
"And can they speak Chinese?" is the inevitable question when we introduce our children to Chinese acquaintances. The answer is: no, not really, but not for want of trying on the part of their parents. And in that there is a small lesson for America.
The children under discussion are Nellie, age 7½, and Ollie, age 5. They are precisely one-half each English and Chinese. I am English, from a small country town in the very center of England, and of entirely English ancestry for as far back as I know. My wife is Chinese; from north-east China, but her ancestors come from Shandong, part of the ancient heartland (Confucius was from Shandong). She is as thoroughly Chinese as I am thoroughly English.
I can speak Chinese, but not well — certainly not fluently. My wife's English is excellent. By some sort of nonlinear principle, we therefore speak English practically all the time. When we were first married I determined to take the opportunity for some full-immersion Chinese lessons. To this end, we established the rule that on Tuesdays we would speak only Chinese. Alas, the system soon broke down. There was always something urgent my wife wanted to tell me, without wanting to repeat it three times at different speeds, or wait while I parsed it; or conversely, there was something I wanted to say that I couldn't be bothered to first put into her language, dragging the topic to the front of the sentence and hanging the comment off it (instead of "I don't like artichokes," a Chinese person would much prefer to say: "Artichokes — I don't like them"), tossing out my Indo-European tense categories (past, present, future) in favor of her Sinitic aspect categories (completed, ongoing, habitual), measuring out every noun like a greengrocer (a fan of door, two sheets of table, three grains of star). Within a year or so we were essentially a monolingual household.
Then Nellie showed up. My wife was clear that she wanted the child to know Chinese. There was nothing especially ethnocentric about this; my wife just reasoned that it is good to know a second language, especially one spoken by a billion people armed with ICBMs; and that having a native-speaking parent, the child would have a head start. In matters of life planning, the Chinese are eminently practical. There were lesser factors, too; taking the child back to China, it would be nice if she could converse with her cousins. Probably my wife was also motivated by some element of natural attachment to the culture of her ancestors.
And so, the same year Nellie started kindergarten, we enrolled her for Friday-evening sessions at the local Chinese school. This is held in the buildings of a town middle school, let out on Friday evenings to a group of Chinese from our district who have organized for this purpose. Lessons last three hours, with recesses of course. When Ollie began kindergarten last month, we enrolled him, too. At the same time we resolved to keep up some spoken Chinese around the house. At the very least, I now respond to a question in Chinese with an answer in Chinese; and if my wife starts a conversation in that language, I keep it going until my brain begins to vibrate in my skull.
On the evidence so far, it is all a waste of time. Now in her third year of Chinese school, Nellie speaks Chinese only under severe duress, responds to questions in Chinese with answers in English, and has a speaking vocabulary of less than 100 words. Ollie has only just started, so it's hard to tell how it will go with him; but when we address him in the simplest Chinese — phrases he has heard from us, or must surely have heard from the teachers by now — he stares back at us blankly.
My wife is a very dogged person. She learned to swim, in her mid-twenties, without any lessons, by … swimming — until she got it right. She's not going to quit; but she is sometimes despondent. "How are we ever going to get these kids talking Chinese?" she wonders.
We have, of course, discussed this extensively with friends, both Chinese and American. A pattern has emerged. Here is the pattern, illustrated by Nellie and Ollie as above, and two different cases among our friends.
- Peter. Peter's grandparents are Russian. They escaped during the Revolution along with many others, and came to — "took over," you might almost say — the small Long Island town of Seacliff. The Russian community in Seacliff is large and close. Peter's parents spoke Russian around the house and attended the town's Russian Orthodox church. Aunts, uncles and cousins were in and out of the house all the time, talking Russian. Peter speaks fluent Russian, and sings in a choir at the church.
- Anna. Anna is Nellie's playmate, 7 years old. Her parents are mainland-Chinese, in the U.S. about six years. They have no relatives here, and live in an apartment in Huntington, Long Island — a town with few Chinese. Anna's parents speak almost exclusively Chinese at home, and she attends Chinese school with Nellie. She can understand Chinese perfectly, but does not often speak it. She very frequently responds to questions phrased in Chinese with answers in English.
If language is a good marker for culture — and it is hard to think of a better one — the moral of the story is as follows. To slow down the assimilation of immigrants as much as possible, first make sure there are sufficient numbers coming in that solid ethnic communities can form. Then, institute policies of family reunification, so that children can be surrounded by relatives speaking the old-country language.
Which pretty much sums up current U.S. immigration policy.