Seeking Chinese-Speaking Opportunities in China

Racing in the air with Finnair from Beijing to Helsinki, I just finished a 2.5-week trip to China. Among the many goals of seeing people and places, the top one was to seek opportunities for my daughter Mira* and her friend Lily* to speak Chinese in authentic communication situations. 

(*The names of the children mentioned in this article have been changed in consideration for their privacy.) 

Both girls are 12-years old and native English speakers. Mira can speak Mandarin fluently with some reading and writing skills. Since birth, she’s been speaking Mandarin with me. Since age four, she’s also been attending a community Chinese language program that I founded. Lily is from an English-speaking home, and has been taking Chinese classes for a year in her regular school.

Together with some American parents, I have been bringing American children to China for the purposes of cultural and language learning for several years. Each year we have experimented with a different approach, with the goal of maximizing our children’s Chinese speaking opportunities. This year, our trip had all the characteristics of a promising language learning design.

First, there were only two American children. Larger groups of American children tend to move about together and they easily avoid speaking Chinese. Second, Mira and Lily were surrounded by families and friends who are all local Chinese, and most can’t speak English at all. Third, our activities, though including some sightseeing, were mostly interacting with Chinese people in their natural habitats, such as hanging out with relatives in their homes, visiting friends’ work places, volunteering in a dog shelter and so on.

How did we do during these three weeks? Experiential cultural learning was rich and multi-faceted. As to language learning, there was a tremendous amount of Chinese listening. Speaking Chinese? We had to battle for it. Why? Chinese people’s English level has been rising too fast.

Crew Members in the Air

We flew between New York City and Beijing via Helsinki with Finnair. I sometimes choose this route because it gives us a nice rest by breaking down the 14-hour flight right in the middle.

The first opportunity to speak Chinese came when we boarded the flight from Helsinki to Beijing. The crew members were a mixture of Finnish and Chinese. I was well aware that the Chinese crew members were all at least Chinese-English bilingual (if not trilingual with some Finnish under their belt). As I predicted, the two crew members responsible for our area went straight to Mira and Lily with English. I had to pull them to the side and have a talk with them asking them to speak Chinese with these two girls when serving food and drinks. One remembered, and the other one didn’t.

For the rest of the trip, we flew within China a couple of times, and between China and Japan a couple of times (we made a detour to Tokyo), all boarding Chinese-operated aircrafts. All flight attendants could speak English, some with accent some without, but all were fluent and sufficient. The crew members on our trip to Tokyo were all trilingual, with Japanese added on top of Chinese and English. On these flights, all announcements were broadcasted once in Chinese, once in English, and then a third time in Japanese (on the flight to and from Tokyo) often by the same crew members.

When our flight from Shanghai to Chengdu landed, there came the last round of broadcasting in Chinese and then in English. I scanned the whole cabin and didn’t even see one non-Chinese person. Meanwhile, these people, young or old, were soaked in English, getting ready to get off the aircraft.

I couldn’t help searching through my memory of 21 years of flying between the U.S. and China. I don’t remember being on any of the U.S. operated aircrafts that I have ever run into a non-ethnic Chinese crew member who could speak Chinese. Note that, often on such flights that I have been on, more than half of the passengers are Chinese, and many of them can't compute in English. (Thus, I have heard many stories of Chinese passengers struggling to order the correct drink or food on these flights.) One may say that these flights are not accommodated enough, or that these non-English speaking passengers are lucky that they get to practice their English!

Venders and Merchants

In Beijing, we did some sightseeing because it was Lily’s first time in China, we wanted to share the Great Wall with her. On a cloudy but cool afternoon, we were walking up a hill toward the entrance to the Mu Tian Yu section of the Great Wall. We were immediately bombarded by vendors on both sides of the path. “Come and look at this! Fresh fruits. Only five yuan a pound.” They shouted about fruits, hats, drinks, toy-weapons, crafts, all in English. This type of vendors is not a new experience for me, however, this year this time, I was amused to hear that their accents got so much better, their sentences much longer, and the content of expressions more diverse (excuse my psycholinguist talk). But these vendors still looked the same – they looked like farmers from around the area (I recognize their looks because I grew up in the Chinese country side and still have farmer friends and relatives.)

On our way leaving the Great Wall, Lily and Mira settled down with a stone carving vendor. This middle-aged man was about to carve Lily’s name in both Chinese and English on a piece of rock the size of a thumb. He went straight to business speaking in English, asking Lily’s name and so on. I politely stopped him and asked him to back track, and say everything in Chinese. I told him, with great enthusiasm, that Lily could understand and speak some Chinese. I guided him to ask her several questions, one by one, about her name, age, grade, and where she came from. Vendors usually don’t take the initiative to speak Chinese in cases like these because they want to be quick and efficient with their business. But with my insistence, this vendor took his time.

My friends and relatives sometimes neglected to speak Chinese to Lily, but for a different reason. They assumed Lily didn’t know Chinese at all. So, throughout the trip, whenever I could, I would tell people that these two children could speak Chinese, and insisted that Chinese be spoken to them. While they were interacting with Lily and Mira in Chinese, I gave the speakers my full attention with a big approving and appreciative smile on my face. I wanted them to know that their efforts meant a lot to me and the two girls.

Of course there were times I couldn’t manage to do this. That was when I had to finalize where to pick up the train tickets, when and where to meet our hosts for the next stop, or when we were exhausted at the end of day. Those were the times the seemingly small efforts to speak Chinese became huge. I have observed this again and again among families I have accompanied to travel to China.

Although, there were times when the most efficient way to get what we wanted in China was to sacrifice the use of Chinese, such as getting a customized dress finished in 24 hours.

The day before we left Shanghai, we went to a gigantic fabric market filled with tailors who made custom-designed clothes. After strolling through many stalls and feeling dazzled by the hundreds of fabrics and designs, Mira and Lily chose a young female vendor to work with. The girls selected their fabrics, designs with the support from this vendor regarding information and suggestions. She then measured them, we bargained. Throughout the process, the vendor spoke mainly English, highly fluent, with an authentic accent. Her manners showed the smoothness that came from having interacted with Westerners often.  However, it was clear that she was a working girl from one of the rural small towns outside Shanghai. At the end, she gave me her name card - On it reads "Ceci Yang" in large English fonts.

A scene flashed in my mind – this Chinese girl running into her first Western customer, not knowing one sentence of English; she learned English bit by bit; she acquired the correct mannerism bit by bit; she asked someone to give her an English name; her business flourished.

I didn’t ask Ceci to pause and help the girls practice their Chinese, because the girls wanted to focus on the work of selecting everything by themselves. They beamed when they were being measured carefully by Ceci. They needed their dresses made within 24 hours and Ceci promised and delivered that promise. That was good enough for us.

U-Penn Psychology Professor Angela Duckworth has made a splash in academia and the public by singling out a human personality trait named “grit,” and demonstrated that it uniquely predicts human success above and beyond IQ, and sometimes is much more powerful than IQ. Grit is the ability to hold onto a goal and persevere. Thinking about Ceci and her English - what a show of the power of grit!


My heart would soar whenever I picture Mira hanging out with her Chinese cousins. They didn’t understand nor speak much English, so their interactions had always been in Chinese.

This time, the first in-depth interaction happened during the trip to the Great Wall. On our way to the Wall, my 14-year old nephew Daren was sitting next to me in the front, and Mira and Lily sat in the back. While the girls were speaking English, now and then Daren would ask me what an English word meant in their conversation. I was impressed by how much of the girls' conversation he could understand. As we got closer to the Great Wall, Daren, having warmed up a bit, started to try and speak to the girls in English. He spoke with a heavy but standard British accent, which made the girls laugh. While some children in China have the resources of being taught by American teachers in intensive English classes, Daren had only been taking poorly resourced and poorly structured English classes in his regular school. To supplement his English learning in an economical way, on his own initiative, he would watch a lots of shows, mostly British because he liked the content. This explains the roots of his British accent.

At the Great Wall, the girls were discussing how to treat a little bug on the ground. Mira said to Lily, “Don’t smoosh it!” Overhearing this, Daren immediately came to me to ask me what “smoosh” meant. Upon my explanation he said, “Shouldn’t it be ‘squash’?” I was amazed by how he managed to turn this quick occurrence into a mini language lesson.

My 16-year old niece, April, joined us while we were at my hometown Shandong. In the past, her inability understand English made her a rich source of Chinese language input for Mira. However, this time, to my surprise (what a mixed feeling), she could understand almost everything Mira and Lily were saying. After a short initial period of only listening, she started to speak English, in a fluent manner. She had only left her hometown a year ago, and had only one year of high school education in a bilingual school in Shanghai.

Daren and April are not exceptions. In Wuhan, while sitting around the table for an authentic local meal with friends’ families, the only other child at the table was a Chinese boy of 6th grade that could also understand and speak English. The “learning” opportunity I created at the meal table that day was to ask all the children to share their daily routines, so that they could learn how each other managed their times, compared their homework load and so on. Each child had a choice to use either English or Chinese to answer my questions, and the Chinese boy answered all my questions in English.

Soon I learned to ask the adults that are supervising the children, in a clear but polite manner, to put it as their top priority to ensure that Mira and Lily get to listen to and speak Chinese. The rule was simple: when things need to be communicated, to push them to speak in Chinese and the Chinese-speaking children could listen to the girls' English but should try not to use English with them too much. Instead, they were encouraged to use Chinese with the girls.

On this trip, my Chinese friends and relatives with children shared with me their summer plans. Trips and summer camps in the U.S., Canada and Europe are common. Those financially incapable of affording such camps would resort to having their children watch movies in English and reading books in English. Upon my departure from China back to the U.S., a mother from one of these families simply handed me 1,000 Yuan and casually asked me to “bring my child some English books” the next time I visit. I'm still holding on to that money.

I’m still pondering over one question: Why are Chinese children so keen on learning English? Believe me, it doesn’t seem to be a chore to them. The sparkles in their eyes and the eagerness on their faces tell it all. They enjoy; earning the language.

It’s hard not to find a Chinese parent in China who doesn’t lament on their Government-controlled education system. But to these parents, at least their children seem to be mastering another language. But what about the children? What gives them the sparkles and smiles when they use English?

Of course English is associated with many interesting things – movies, books, and people. I’m amazed by and proud of the creative power of the English-speaking world. However, even if there may not be much “profound” things associated with Chinese language (from the children’s perspective), I do want to see one thing happen. That is, I have seen how freely Chinese children enter and exit American children’s English-speaking world. I want the same type of freedom for the American children.

The Finnish Waitress who spoke Chinese

While having breakfast in the café of our hotel in Helsinki during the overlay, a blonde Finnish waitress approached and straightly speaking Mandarin to us.

As I would do to a Chinese person when we were in China, I told her that Mira and Lily can speak some Chinese, and detailed their learning experiences.

“Continue to work on it!” She told Mira, who was more experienced in learning the language between the two girls.       

Upon hearing Lily spoke of her school, how students have the choices of picking the Spanish or Chinese route. “You chose the harder one to learn,” she said to Lily, “It’s hard to learn, but not impossible. You’ll find Chinese very useful. Wherever I go in the world, I use my Chinese. I can always find local Chinese people there and they love to help me when they see I can speak Chinese. Some even closed their stores to bring me to the right places.”

"Moreover," she looked at Lily with a big smile, "For people like you and me, we don't look Chinese, and when Chinese people hear we can speak Chinese, they just treat us like we are so precious!"


The third day after we came back to NYC, Mira started her Chinese summer camp at the Children's Chinese Book Garden (CCBG). In the all-Chinese environment at CCBG, with many activities carefully tailored to children's interests, Mira spoke more Chinese in a week than her entire 3-week of trip in China! I found a similar conclusion in my previous writing comparing Mira's month-long stay in a school in Beijing with her Chinese camp at CCBG in NYC in the summer of 2010.

However, traveling in China gives children amazing opportunities to observe and directly participate in the culture life there. Knowing what we can and cannot get in both China and in the U.S. only make us appreciate more the opportunities presented by each context.