Nihao mom? A Mandarin approach to child-rearingYes, Korean parents are eagerly making their kids learn English. But many parents are piling on another goal for their offspring: mastering Chinese as well.
Many adult Koreans have seen first-hand how advantageous learning Chinese can be in the job market, given China’s rapid economic growth. Not wanting their children to be left behind, they push their kids to study Chinese as much as they do English ― the goal being to create the ultimate little trilingual achiever.
Some parents have even enrolled toddlers in kindergartens where songs are sung in Chinese.
The rising trend in Mandarin-language education can be seen in the growing number of high schools that offer it in classes, which went from 523 in 2003 to 751 two years later, a 44-percent leap, according the Ministry of Education and Human Resources.
One mother who sends her younger son to a Chinese-language elementary school explained her choice this way: “Because all the classes are taught in Chinese, my son’s Chinese gets better much faster than it would if I had sent him a language institute.” She said her oldest son goes to a regular Korean school, but ― of course ― studies Chinese at a language institute and has drill books regularly delivered to their home.
Only four years ago, it would have been hard to find any native Korean enrolled in one of the country’s 27 overseas Chinese elementary schools. These days, Koreans are the majority at some schools. In a Chinese elementary school in Wonju, Gangwon province, only one student of the 14 new students who enrolled last August actually came from China; 70 percent of the student body is Korean. Ironically, the school came close to closing a few years ago due to a lack of students.
According to the Education Ministry, only children with at least one foreign parent or who lived abroad for over five years can enroll in a Chinese school here. In fact, most of the Korean students are enrolled unofficially ― they must take an entrance exam before enrolling in a Korean middle school, as if they had no elementary education at all.
Tsou Chi Liang, principal of Daejeon Overseas Chinese Elementary School, agreed with the Korean mother that students learn Chinese much faster in a school than in a language institute.
Currently, the school accepts kindergarten-age students only for the autumn semester, just before they would enter a Korean elementary school (which starts in March), and then only if there are empty seats.
The school teaches in Mandarin but uses a Taiwanese curriculum. Ms. Tsou said that because the Taiwanese government offers textbooks for free to the schools in Korea, the curriculum here is almost the same as a regular school in Taiwan. The books are also better than mainland Chinese ones, she said.
Hong Jin-hee, a Chinese-language teacher, said that the demand for Chinese classes even at kindergartens is high in southern Seoul and the Bundang area, which are considered the best places for education in the Seoul metropolitan area. She teaches Chinese at several kindergartens, one or two hours a week for each. “Kids are following the language better than I expected,” Ms. Hong said. “I heard that some students also have private tutors for Chinese.”
Her students are ages three to seven, a fact she was uncomfortable with. “I think it’s too early for three-or-four-year-old kids to learn not only Chinese but any foreign language.” She said the children can be confused trying to communicate in two languages, and rarely seem to know what she’s talking about.
A few branches of Bewegung, a franchised kindergarten, teach students basic Chinese. A teacher at the Songpa branch in southern Seoul said the school began teaching Chinese at the request of parents. The class is 30 minutes of studying Chinese characters and another 30 practicing spoken Chinese.
Bewegung’s Bundang branch in Gyeonggi province started its Chinese class in January. Kim Ji-hyeon, the head of the branch, said she decided to do so in deference to the trend toward Chinese-language education. “The mothers are pleased that we offer a Chinese class,” Ms. Kim said. The students at the kindergarten are aged from three to six, and learn the language through songs, dances and fairy tales, which Ms. Kim said is a non-stressful approach to the language.
But is it really alright to teach foreign languages to kids at a very young age?
“Korea has one of the highest ratios of children who suffer from speech disorders, because parents are so eager to have their children be bilingual or trilingual,” said Park Jeong-eun at the Seoul Speech Language Center.
Jung Jae-suk, a child psychiatrist at Haesue Child Psychiatric Clinic, agrees that there is a link: “Teaching foreign languages to kids younger than 10 years old, an age in which people normally master their native language, could hamper one’s development of [his or her] native language,” he said, adding that it does not matter which language is being taught. Dr. Jung said that if their native language is not developed properly, children can have problems making friends and will tend to communicate with actions rather than words.
Jeong Myeong-sook, 34, is currently studying for a doctorate at Korea University. She graduated from an overseas Chinese kindergarten, elementary and middle school in Korea, and said parents should be resolved to give greater care for their kids if they really want to send them to Chinese schools in Korea. She said some kids become mentally unstable because the environments in and out of the school are so different. “Some kids have problems understanding the Korean language or culture.”
by Park Sung-ha, Han Ae-ran
Reporting by Park Keun-young