The beauty of Chinese calligraphy is something to be experienced first-hand. Chen Yi-shu (left) of the Rhein-Taipei Chinese School teaches calligraphy and Chinese ink painting. The works pictured are by the author's sons, Wei-hsin and Wei-jen. (courtesy of Cheng Yi-wen)
Living in Germany, we wondered how our children could continue learning Chinese. We found the answer--send them to Chinese school!
Two years ago, we ran across a website for a Dusseldorf Chinese School. Last year, however, when we came back to Germany I couldn't find it again. I was asking around about it when we happened to receive an e-mail newsletter from the Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission that included a class schedule for the Rhein-Taipei Chinese School. We called immediately, and though we learned that it was a 50-minute car ride away, we decided to go sit in on a class.
After having sat in on two classes, we realized we were in luck. This Chinese school, which is in Neuss, has classes for kids from pre-school to fourth-grade age as well as adult classes. In all, it has more than 50 students--quite large for a school of its kind. Also, many of the students are the children of Taiwanese expats, so the expectations of the Chinese language classes are high.
This was good news to me, first of all because I wanted my kids' Chinese class to be stable--many schools end up closing classes because of low enrollment. Secondly, I hoped that they could continue to advance through the class levels at one place and not have to spend time getting accustomed to yet another new school. It was good news that the school had the different grade levels and adult classes. Thirdly, since we live in Germany and there are few chances to encounter the Chinese language, I hoped that the class would be somewhat demanding. Otherwise, how would the kids be able to learn?
I remember when we first returned to Germany, my twins still spoke Chinese to each other for the first two months. They stuck together at kindergarten, and it was hard for the local kids to enter their little world. Even though their father spoke German to them in Taiwan, it was still a Chinese environment they were living in. Though they understood German, they were more comfortable using Chinese. Their spoken German was halting.
We decided to get them used to the German language. Their grandmother would read them stories, and I started speaking German with them. After just three months, the kids began conversing in German. They even began calling each other "doof," German for "stupid," rather than the Chinese "ben dan"--that was fast!
One day, the kids came home from kindergarten and said to me, "Mom, we don't want to speak Chinese anymore."
I asked why, and the elder twin, Wei-jen, said, "Because nobody here speaks Chinese. Speaking German is enough. The teacher also said we have to speak more German."
I was taken aback. I knew I had to think of something to entice them, and quickly. I said, "That's right--people here only speak German, but you can speak Chinese as well. That means that you are smarter than the German kids!"
That sent them thinking for a minute. Then they nodded and said, "That's right. We'll keep speaking Chinese. That means we're smart because we can speak German, Chinese, and even some English. That's three languages!"
Luckily, my little plan worked, and these two little devils "decided" to keep learning Chinese.
One day about six months later, one of the kids came out with "Mom, let's lunch eat." I realized that their Chinese sentence was following German word order, with the verb at the end, and they were trying to say, "Mom, let's eat lunch." I was shocked to hear that their Chinese had gotten so rusty!
At that instant, I made a 180o turn. I started speaking only Chinese to them and only allowing them to speak Chinese to me. At least that should keep their basic level up, I thought! A few days later, a teacher said to me that some Chinese mothers spoke German rather than their native language with their kids, but their pronunciation and grammar was flawed and their kids ended up with poor Chinese and German skills. The best thing to do would be for the mother to speak her native Chinese at home and let the kids learn standard German at school--that way they wouldn't end up in such a bad predicament.
We could hold simple, everyday conversations in Chinese all we wanted, but I knew they'd have to have formal classes from a teacher in order to really learn it properly. Mencius said a gentleman cannot teach his own sons--how true that is! I tried it but just ended up so frustrated I'd lose my temper and shout at them. I thought I'd better leave this job to the professionals.