Harvard Study: Kids Learn English and Chinese the Same Way

The idea that children should learn Chinese has firmly taken hold in the United States. There are nearly 50,000 students now studying Mandarin in elementary and secondary schools in the US, according to published figures. How hard is it, you ask, for kids to learn Chinese? Recent research has found that toddlers may learn Chinese, or any other second language, by utilizing the same building blocks—and developmental process—that babies use when first learning to speak. However, toddlers enjoy a much faster acquisition rate for new languages. They’re much quicker than babies, and, in many ways, more adept than big folks, too!

Children follow the same developmental path to learn Chinese and to learn English

Seeking to discover how children naturally acquire a second language, Harvard developmental psychologist Jesse Snedeker recently studied a group of preschool-aged children who were adopted from China. These children, who learn Chinese in their native country, often face an abrupt transition to an all-English environment. Snedeker found that, within 3 to 18 months after their arrival in the US, the adopted children had followed the same language-learning patterns we associate with infants.

Around their first birthday, most children start speaking in single-word utterances. This timeline holds true for children all over the world: it doesn’t matter if they first learn Chinese or English or Swahili. Then, after several more months, they begin to combine multiple words into phrases, gradually expressing more complex ideas, with greater consistency. For example, an 18-month-old child raised in an English-language household might ask, “Cookie eat?,” while a 2-year-old raised to learn Chinese would greet the now-opened cookie jar with a grateful “Xie xie!” (Thank you!) Initial vocabularies are predominately nouns, and, at first, children keep their utterances short and direct.

Toddlers are quick to adopt a second language

Snedeker found that preschoolers and infants follow the same steps when acquiring language, but at a disproportionate rate. On average, the adopted preschoolers learned as many words during their first three months in the US as an infant would learn between 12-24 months of age. In other words, the preschoolers were at least four times faster overall. This suggests that many of these young children will eventually catch up with their English-speaking peers, and become fluent speakers of their new language.

Though Snedeker’s study pertains to children who learn English as a second language, rather than English-speaking children who learn Chinese, the implications extend across all languages. “Are the early stages reflections of cognitive immaturity, or do they represent necessary steps in decoding the target language?” asks Snedeker, in a recent issue of Psychological Science. “Our results strongly suggest that these features of early language production are due to the nature of the learning problem rather than the limitations of infant learners.” Moreover, the study affirms the incredible flexibility and resilience of young children’s linguistic abilities.

Programs for kids to learn Chinese

The adopted children in Snedeker’s study primarily attained their language skills through direct contact with peers, in a full-immersion environment. Most second language learners—including the thousands of American children who learn Chinese—also enjoy the benefit of bilingual teachers and language programs.

Some students attend language-immersion schools, like the Chinese American International School in San Francisco, which runs from preschool to eighth grade. “In the early days, probably up until 10 years ago—we were considered experimental, kind of ‘out there,'” said the school’s finance director, Betty Shon, in a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times. “I’d get questions like, ‘What kind of parents want their kids to learn Chinese?'”

“Now,” she says, with satisfaction, “there’s just no question.” The value of learning Chinese has become self-evident, and enrollment in top language programs is highly coveted. In fact, Shon reports that families have actually relocated their entire household to the Bay Area—”just so their kids can go to the school.” Who are these ambitious language-learners? Less than half of the student body comes from families with Chinese ancestry, and only a few are native speakers.

Many advantages for kids who learn Chinese

Indeed, the desire to learn Chinese has spread far and wide, moving beyond cultural boundaries. “It really is almost unprecedented,” agrees Marty Abbott, director of education at the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. “I think we would have to characterize what’s happening with the expansion of Chinese programs right now as an explosion,” he added, in a conversation with the Los Angeles Times.

China plays an increasingly important role in our interconnected world, and its growing global influence can be seen across the political, cultural and economic spectrum. Savvy parents recognize that students who learn Chinese today may discover new and exciting ways to succeed tomorrow. Beyond the value of someday doing business in China, there await tremendous opportunities in world travel, the possibility of forming international friendships, and a chance for young students to broaden their horizons.

“Certainly, having an understanding of Chinese language and culture is an advantage,” concludes Marty Abbott. Parents of children who learn Chinese will undoubtedly agree.