When I first came to China, I knew all of two words, “nǐ hǎo” (你好, “hello”), and “xièxie” (谢谢, “thanks”). It took me over three years to get from there to a level of proficiency where I was confident enough to put “advanced” on my resume, where in my case, “advanced” means “enough to hold most normal conversations but gets lost as soon as complex words and ideas come in.”
Many say that learning Chinese as an adult takes about 10 years. However, I agree with others who say that it only takes just a few years to learn the basics, but after that, the learning never stops. It takes a lifetime. I plan to continue studying Chinese and keep growing my skills, but I believe the challenges I have faced as an adult is common among second language learners.
While some might find that with intense study, a couple of years of learning a language like French or Spanish—if English is your native language, that is—is sufficient to become fluent, with Chinese, it’s a different matter altogether. Chinese may not seem as complex, but in essence, it still has no similarities to western languages. It is the language equivalent of jumping into the deep end of the pool, if you will, with no understanding at all of how to swim. This is why I would recommend to others to start learning a second language, especially Chinese, from an early age.
Growing up in the U.S. with a white family that honestly didn’t think much about second language education, I never was given the chance to learn anything other than English during the formative years of my life. I will always feel this to be a huge missed opportunity. Children’s acquisition and understanding of a second language is vastly superior to that of an adult. According to Wilder Penfield’s “critical period hypothesis”, it is easiest for a child to learn a second language as their neurons are still forming. However, at around age 12, there is a sharp cut off in their ability to grasp a language as quickly and effectively as before (Source: http://wp.me/p8K1ST-20). A child who is able to learn Chinese from 5 years old or even younger, will be much more fluent at around the same length of time it took me to reach my current level.
A good example of these kinds of kids would be the American Born Chinese (the so-called A.B.C.’s) who learn Chinese as they grow up through their parents and other relatives. These kids have the benefit of learning two mother tongues.
Sometimes, they only learn one to a limited extent, such as Chinese, because the parents don’t invest as much time into their education. This, I believe, is quite a shame, as it wastes this critical learning period. However, in the end, these children who have even just a partial level of Chinese language exposure from a young age, will always show a better grasp and understanding of the language than those like myself who had to learn from scratch later in life. This is because the exposure not just to formal learning, but also to the use of language in everyday situations (even if they are just passively listening), helps ingrain the basic language rules into the child’s mind. I have several friends who grew up in the U.S. and the U.K. and who are Chinese by heritage, but who only partially learned the language growing up. However, they now speak more fluently than myself even after all my time studying, even if I might have more skill in certain technical areas or in writing, aspects which are often ignored by A.B.C. families.
Kids like these are good case studies in how even with a limited second language education at an early age, the skill level and capability to understand, even as an adult, will be vastly increased. On top of that, it will give the child a strong foundation in language learning that they can rely on later in life, if they so desire to relearn that language. Because of the inherent benefits of language learning at a young age, I would recommend to anyone with children to learn a second language from an early age. While it’s certainly possible to learn later in life as an adult—and I’m a good example of one—learning while you’re young is an opportunity you can never get back.