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“Let it go”in 26 Chinese dialects

October 17, 2016


We all know that Mandarin isn’t the only language spoken in China. And even Mandarin is composed of multiple dialects. Here’s a fun version of Let It Go done in 26 of them. The translation is … interesting … at times, not sure it’s the official version. But fascinating to hear.

Beth Weise speaking near DC Oct. 8

October 4, 2016

If anyone in the DC or Maryland area wants to come, I’ll be talking at an event at the University of Maryland-College Park on Oct. 8th.

The event is free and open to all. However the parent-specific portion will begin around 2:30.

If you’re a parent and you can come, please come up afterwards and say hi. Don’t be shy. I love hearing about other programs from parents whose children actually attend them.

I’ll also have books to sell there, if anyone still needs a copy🙂






Sending the kids to China

September 29, 2016


Sometime last winter I conceived of a passion to send my kids to China for the summer.

Okay, not the whole summer. We didn’t want to be rid of them. we just wanted to find some kind of a summer program where they’d spend a few weeks speaking only Chinese.

The primary motivation was our oldest, whose new high school didn’t offer Chinese at her level. As many high school parents know, high schools seldom have Chinese classes that are appropriate for kids coming out of immersion. Even her school’s top Chinese class would have been too easy, had freshman even been allowed to take it. She’d been doing an online course but it was more a placeholder and didn’t really push her.

(Note that she didn’t go to either of the high schools where San Francisco’s public and private Mandarin immersion programs feed, Lincoln and International respectively. Had she done so, she would have had Chinese at an appropriate level.)

It turns out that finding a place for immersion kids to study in China isn’t the easiest thing in the world. At least if you wanted it to fit our criteria:

  • High enough level of Mandarin instruction (i.e. not beginners)
  • Someplace with not too much pollution
  • A Mandarin-speaking area
  • Not too expensive
  • Fits our summer schedule.

My search first turned out several American study-abroad programs in Beijing and Shanghai. School Year Abroad especially seemed like an excellent program. These would have offered a high enough level, but had two problems. First, they were in Beijing and Shanghai, where the air was pretty bad. And they were remarkably expensive. $6,000 for a three week course was beyond our means.

[Many such programs listed here.]

Next I looked at U.S.-based programs.

The Granddaddy of them all is Concordia Language Villages. This intense camp requires students to sign a pledge that they’ll only speak Chinese while there. It’s about $2,000 for two weeks, and $4,000 for four weeks. Of course, that 4 weeks equals an entire year of high school Chinese, so it’s well worth it. But it didn’t fit into our family schedule.

Stanford University also has a summer high school language program. But it interfered with a family vacation. And was a tad pricey.

Next I turned my thoughts towards Taiwan. There are lots of options there, though finding out about them isn’t always easy. The Mandarin Training Center at National Taiwan Normal University had several camps meant for kids, and they also offered accommodations in a nearby hotel. The coordinator,  Maya Chang, was most helpful.

You can find them here: The coordinator:

However the timing wasn’t ideal and it was all in traditional characters, whereas our kids had been studying simplified their entire lives. It seemed like an unnecessary hurdle to ask them to go through.

At this point I was starting to doubt we’d be able to work anything out. Then I remembered Robert Fried (pronounced “freed”). He had come through San Francisco and met with me in February of 2015. He and his brother had both travelled to China in college, fallen in love with the language and stayed on to learn it. They’d then gone on to found a Chinese language school in Guilin called CLI, for the Chinese Language Institute. It taught intenstive one-on-one Chinese to college students and professionals and offered dorm-room like accommodations.

At the time, Fried wanted to talk about the possibility of creating a Chinese immersion summer camp for elementary and middle school aged children, something I’d written about (and railed about the non-existence of) on my blog. What impressed me about Fried was that as I went through the degree of oversight American parents would expect for their children, he was very honest and said he didn’t think CLI was able to create the level of control and security that younger children required. The fact that he clearly saw a market and yet also realized he couldn’t adequately meet the needs of parents made me respect him and the school a great deal.

So I looked CLI up online ( and suddenly thought it might be a possibility now that I had a high schooler.


The thing was, all the people featured in its videos and website were college students and working professionals and I was contemplating sending a 13- and 15-year-old. So I called the school’s U.S. number and got a woman on the phone who turned out to be the Fried brothers’ mom, Nancy. She was most helpful and gave me the name of four families who had sent high schoolers to CLI on their own. I called each family in turn and all had excellent things to say about their kids’ experience there. They’d gotten intensive Chinese, used it a lot and all enjoyed the experience. And more importantly, all of them stayed at the school on their own.

After a fair amount of discussion and some more back and forth with the school and those parents, we decided to sign our girls up. Then their cousin, who’s in a Saturday Chinese school, decided he wanted to come as well. So we had a group of three, 13, 14 and 15.

I booked them two rooms, our girls in two and their cousin across the hall. Then I went about getting them there. [Note, CLI can also arrange home stays with families who live nearby, which is also a nice option.]

Originally we’d thought about having them fly alone, but with the 13-year-old along and given the logistics, we ended up deciding that I’d fly them to Guilin and one of their dads would fly back two weeks later and bring them all home.

There are no direct flights to Guilin from San Francisco, it turns out. And the only way to get there is with  a longish layover once in Asia. In the end we decided to use this to our advantage. We were able to fly from San Francisco to Tianjin (a big city near Beijing) and then have a 12-hour layover there. We left San Francisco at 11:00 am and flew to Seoul Korea where we had a two-hour layover. Then we flew from Seoul to Tiajnjin.

I’d booked us a room at a Holiday Inn Express very close to the airport. We landed, went through customs and hopped in a cab that took us to the hotel, where we ate in the restaurant and then all went to sleep. It wasn’t a fancy hotel by any means but it was cheap ($85 for two rooms) and more importantly we woke up refreshed and not exhausted the next morning. The hotel had an OK breakfast buffet and then we took the hotel shuttle back to the airport and caught our 11:15 am flight to Guilin, landing at 2:00.

Once we arrived in Guilin things were very easy. A driver holding up a sign that read CLI was waiting as we walked out customs. He didn’t speak much English but we didn’t really need any, though the kids talked to him in Chinese. It’s about a 45-minute drive from the airport to the school, but the Guilin area is gorgeous, so it was actually a lovely ride.


A word about Guilin. CLI likes to quote the proverb: “Guilin’s scenery is the most beautiful under heaven. 桂林山水甲天下” You might think that’s overblown, but it’s not. All those Chinese scrolls you see, with the craggy mountains sticking straight up out of rice paddies? The ones that look like a whole lot of artistic license? They’re not. That’s actually the scenery in Guilin. They’re called karst formations and they are amazing. It’s like walking through a picture postcard.

It’s also the southern end of the Mandarin dialect zone in China. So they speak Mandarin there, though with a distinctly ‘southern’ accent. Friends in China say that it’s good to be comfortable with understanding it easily because there are a lot of Mandarin-speaking people who don’t live in Beijing. CLI is careful to make sure that teachers have a variety of accents, so students get used to hearing the multiple ways that Mandarin is spoken in China.

In the van to the school, the driver handed each kid a plastic envelop with CLI’s school handbook and a local phone and charger. They’re “dumb phones,” and can just make calls in China. But it came with a card with phone numbers for the school, the teachers and emergency staff numbers to call any time day or night if something happened.


An intern welcoming us.

CLI’s in a small side street. When we arrived a gaggle of teaching interns came out to meet us and carry everyone’s luggage inside.  The school is  a few blocks from Guangxi Normal University, the provincial teachers college, and is one of its teaching sites. That’s great because it means there’s always several young, eager teachers around to do things with, chat with and generally hang out with.


The school itself feels a lot like a college dorm/teaching building. It’s five stories tall. There are classrooms on the first and second floors, a kitchen and dining room, game room, offices for the staff and then rooms on the top floors, with a laundry on the roof.


They showed us to the rooms, which were large, airy and had their own air conditioning. There’s WiFi throughout the building.



Game room.


The laundry room on the 5th floor. What better way to practice your Chinese then figuring out how to use a Chinese washing machine?

I stayed at a guest house that’s on the same block and was just $25 a day and perfectly nice. The interns insisted on walking me down even though you could see one building from the other. I think a fair number of the older professional students stayed there. my-hotel


The room at the hotel.

We arrived on Saturday, but classes don’t start until Monday. We were welcomed by a staffer, everything sorted out and settled in and then the interns offered to walk us out to the main street nearby and show us where to buy fruit, dinner and anything else we needed.


The best fruit stand, about two blocks away.

We went to an excellent little noodle stand and had some wonderful spicy pork noodles that cost about 75 cents each. We brought it back to the CLI dining room and ate there.


Several of the other student staying at the school came in to say hi, including a high school girl from Miami and college boy from Kuwait. After dinner the kids settled into their rooms, I went to my guest house and we all slept.


In the morning I walked down and then we all walked out to get breakfast, eventually finding a great cubbyhole restaurant that specializes in baozi (steamed buns) and sweet soy milk, which is a pretty wonderful breakfast. The dining room has a Mandarin-only table and a speak-anything-you-like table.


We went back and ate and then the interns took us by bus to a nearby mall to do some shopping. Another student, a pilot from the U.K., accompanied us as his luggage had been lost on the flight from London and he needed to buy all new clothes.  That afternoon some other interns took us on a walk to an open air market that specializes in Chinese traditional medicines, which was about 15 minutes away down a winding lane.


There was also an outdoor performance of traditional Guilin opera which we stopped and watched.


CLI’s instruction runs in one-week increments, so there are always a number of new students starting on Monday. Sunday night all the students went out to a nearby restaurant to get acquainted and meet the teachers. I was told I was welcome to come but decided to stay home and let the kids negotiate it themselves.

That night each kid got their schedule for the coming week. They got two, two-hour individualized teaching sessions each day for a total of four hours instruction. One was more traditional language training with reading and writing, the other was focused on speaking. Some of the classes are at CLI and some were at the University, which was three blocks away.


A classroom.

CLI has a kitchen and every day several cooks make what looked to me to be a mouth-watering lunch, which was 20 yuan (about $3) per day. Students sign up in the morning to say they’ll be there for lunch so the cooks know how many they’re cooking for. Breakfast and dinner are on your own.


The head teacher, Sunny, was very open to talking about what we were hoping the kids to accomplish while we were there. She was also calmed to me on Monday, when just as I was about to leave for the airport one of the students came in to announce that there was a typhoon on the way. I was all ready to cancel my flight but she explained to me that they were so far inland that things never got beyond heavy rains and that the students would all be fine. Aside from some wet feet, they did fine.

CLI’s driver took me to the airport (all included in the fee) and I headed off for home Monday afternoon. I went through Xi’an on the way home, which in many ways was better because the hotel I stayed in, the Regal Airport Hotel ($85 for an extremely fancy room) was actually attached to the airport. I had a good night’s sleep, then got up and flew home. If I had to do again I’d go through Xi’an both ways, even though the layover is shorter by a few hours than Tianjin, because it’s so easy to just walk to the hotel.


Regal inside.JPG

All three kids said they learned a lot during their two weeks there. CLI staff were very open to individualizing the teaching. My nephew was starting pretty much as zero and so he spent a lot of time focused on speaking. Our oldest wanted to brush up reading and writing. Our youngest (the least eager of the three about being there) did all her summer Mandarin homework in a massive two-week sprint, working with the teachers at CLI. They originally had started giving her CLI homework too, but I explained that she just wanted to work on speaking and listening, so for most of the time she and her teachers just hung out, chatting and watching videos and talking about them. One of the teachers also took them out to buy groceries and then they made a meal together, all in Mandarin.


All in all, it was well worth the money and the time (though mind you I used miles for all the plane tickets, so I wasn’t thinking of the travel costs.) The kids got a good bump to their Chinese and two out of three are interesting in going back next year, for three weeks this time.

So, should you send your kids?

If you’re going to send them alone, it’s really a question of how responsible they are and how much you trust them. This is not a program where someone else is taking charge of your children and guaranteeing that they will be overseen at all times. Students are free to come and go as they please and most of the students are college aged and older. No one’s going to make sure they’re in their bed at a certain hour or that they return from going out to get breakfast.

That said, a group of responsible kids can do very well. We were comfortable with it, though we set down pretty strict rules. The WiFi at the school was quite robust, and each kid had an iPhone or an iPad. Each of them had a WeChat account, which pretty much everyone in China uses. That allowed us to do video or voice calls with them whenever we were all up at the same time. We checked in once a day by phone, and also sent texts and email.

In addition, they had to send us a text each time they left the school building (except when they were just going to classes at the University) and then again when they returned. They weren’t allowed to go out alone but always had to go in twos or threes.

It did occurred to me that a group of students could go over with one parent who’d stay nearby and be the adult in charge for them, taking on the parental role that the school does not. But again, you’d have to know and trust the other kids in the group. It’s not a legal relationship, you’d just be sending your kid to China with a friend.

The other way to do it is for an adult to go with them and stay. There were several families who brought their kids to the school and then stayed in town. One dad I know from San Francisco went in June with two of his sons. They stayed in a nearby hotel and the kids went to school during the day while he worked from the hotel. His boys had a great time.

Another family I ran into at the school lives in Holland but the mom’s originally from China. Every summer they come to Guilin to visit family and she enrolls her kids in classes at CLI for two or three weeks.

If you have a flexible work schedule it wouldn’t be hard to work from a local hotel, though the time difference means you wouldn’t be working U.S. hours. Or you could just go to Guilin and spend your time in town while your kids are in school. It’s a lovely place and there are all sorts of really nice hotels downtown that aren’t very expensive.

On the weekends, the school organizes trips to nearby sights. Our kids went on a hike up to a temple one day then trips to the countryside and around town.



All of which is to say that it’s a good way to get some serious Chinese time in if you’ve got the wherewithal to get your kids to Guilin and the time to either ferry them there or stay there while they’re in school. I think three weeks would have been better than two. But two weeks was still a nice strong memory and speaking jolt. If we can work it out I think we’ll go back next year.










How is immersion defined?

September 19, 2016


UPDATE: I’ve gotten a lot of emails from parents at schools that offer Mandarin instruction around the country, asking about the distinction between immersion and Mandarin classes.

First off, these are called FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School) in education jargon, in case you run into the term.

There are a couple of requirement for a school to be considered true immersion. They include:

  • 50% of the instructional day taught in Mandarin
  • Actual subjects taught in Mandarin, as opposed to simply learning Mandarin
  • (Generally) academic subjects taught in Chinese as opposed to more soft subjects such as art and music.

The confusion seems to come in because today languages are taught very differently from how they were the most of us were in high school. Teachers don’t speak English in class, they only speak the “target” language (Spanish, French, Chinese, etc.) and do a lot of acting out and emphasis to get ideas across.

Several parents said their school told them their kids were getting immersion because the “teachers never speak English in class.”

But that’s actually just how all language should be taught today, and how they are taught in schools with strong language instruction.

Immersion involves being taught IN Chinese. So learning math in Chinese, or social studies or science IN Chinese.

There are several schools around the country that teach a couple of classes in Chinese, or some blend of Chinese and English, equalling about 30 to 40% of the school day. However I don’t include them on my list as I’m sticking to the 50% rule.  Which isn’t a dig at those schools, I’m sure they’re excellent. It’s just that I write about immersion and that’s the level most academics agree to.

I’ve got a call in to the head of the New York International School to find out more about their program.


I keep a sharp eye out for new Mandarin immersion schools to add to my list of Mandarin immersion programs here.

I found one today I thought was new to the list, but I’m in a quandary about it. It’s called the New York International School. The website calls it an immersion school, but says that students “spend approximately 60% of their time learning in English, and 40% in the second language of their choice. Parents will be able to choose between Spanish or Mandarin Chinese.”

By all academic definitions, an immersion program in the elementary years is 50% or more of the academic day spent in the “target language,” which in our case means Mandarin.

Currently 66% of Mandarin immersion schools in the United States are 50/50, while the rest offer more than 60% – with the vast majority of those beginning with 80% or even 90% of the day in Mandarin in Kindergarten and 1st grade, then tapering down to 50/50 by 5th grade.

So 40% is not immersion. The school also says students can come in with any Chinese ability because they’re placed in “leveled language classes according to their proficiency, enabling new students with differing knowledge of Spanish or Chinese to enroll in any grade.”

You can’t be teaching a 4th grader math in Chinese if they don’t speak Chinese. Well, actually, you can. We do it to immigrant kids all the time in U.S. schools. But I can’t imagine private school parents being thrilled with the outcome.

The school’s workaround appears to be that it doesn’t teach academic subjects in Chinese. From its website, actual academic subjects are taught in English, but music, art and technology are taught in Chinese. It also has a Spanish track which offers those subjects in Spanish.

Again, the definition of immersion is that you don’t just teach Chinese, you teach in Chinese. So you teach math, but the teacher speaks only Chinese in the classroom, or you teach science and the teacher only uses Chinese. It’s not clear to me that music and art count.

I’ve kept other schools off the list because they don’t offer 50% of the day in Chinese.

Does anyone know about this school? I’ll try to give them a call and find out what they offer. I also can’t tell when they were founded or whether they teach traditional or simplified characters.

Granted, I’m a stickler for this stuff, but hey, it’s a Mandarin immersion blog so where else are you going to find that level of focus? And I’m worried that “immersion” is becoming a popular education buzz word and is being applied to schools that aren’t actually immersion.

Happy Moon Festival!

September 16, 2016


Parents with kids in Mandarin immersion programs probably noticed that this week involved a lot of talk about the Moon Festival, moon cakes and probably some poetry.

For folks who didn’t grow up in families that celebrated what’s properly called the Mid-Autumn Festival, here’s a little background on what your little darlings have been up to.

The Moon Festival is a traditional celebration held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month in the Chinese calendar, when the moon is at its fullest and brightest of the year.

Here are some notes from my friend Jeff Bissell, the head of the Chinese American International School in San Francisco:

The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, like American Thanksgiving, is held in part to celebrate the harvest. There are different variations of the story behind this festival, most of which involve the mythical archer Houyi后羿visiting his beautiful wife Chang’e嫦娥, the Goddess of the Moon once a year on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is full. As with Thanksgiving, families try to reunite on this day, and there is much symbolism surrounding the full moon. The moon is round, and the circle it forms is symbolic of the family uniting together for a meal called tuán yuán fàn 团圆饭or “reunion dinner.” The three Chinese characters literally mean “round circular meal,” evoking the image of the moon. Families sit around round tables and eat moon cakes, which are also round (although nowadays you can find square ones, and ones made of ice cream). If the circle is incomplete (i.e., if a family member is away) then families say that they can at least look at the same round moon and think of their distant family members, who are looking at the same moon-and then the circle is completed.

Nowadays, Chinese exchange billions (literally) of lyrical text messages on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, all expressing wishes that they could be together with their distant friends and family. I’ve received hundreds of such messages from friends, all displaying clever uses of Chinese characters expressing “circle,” “round,” and “completion.”

The other part of the Moon Festival is the giving and eating of moon cakes. These are hockey puck-sized treats that consist of a thin pastry coating over a disk of (generally) sweet red bean paste or lotus seed paste. Lotus seed paste is very sweet and something like the Chinese equivalent of marzipan. Inside most moon cake is a single, hard-cooked, salted yolk from a duck egg. The saltiness of the yolk contrasts nicely with the sweetness of the filling, or at least it does for me. Some moon cakes feature two yolks, which seems like too much for me but your taste may vary. But perhaps more importantly in a culture enamored of symbolism in food, the egg yolk is thought to look like the full, round moon. Moon cakes are cut into thin wedges and typically served with tea.


You can watch a nice video about them being made by hand on Slate, here.

and here are some fun videos of machine-made moon cakes



Moon cakes have become an important present to give during the weeks around the Moon Festival. Go into any Asian supermarket and you’ll find the front of the store piled high with stacks of different types and price points, depending on the quality and how fancy the packaging is. While sweet red bean paste and lotus seed paste are the most common, you’ll also find nut-filled, pineapple and melon (these are vile, I’m just warning you.) There are also smaller silver dollar-sized moon cakes that are more single serving.

Sometimes instead of handing out boxes of moon cakes people will give gift certificates for a box out instead. Last year when we were having work done on our house by a Chinese contractor he gave us these, the first time I’d run into it but I’m now told it’s pretty common.

The Moon Festival has been celebrated at least as far back as the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD). In a culture that still reveres poetry and the ability to memorize and recite it, one of the best-known poems of all is a poem about just that. At some point in your child’s Chinese career they will memorize some Tang Dynasty poems (a high point for poetry) and one or more of them will be by the famous poet Li Bai 李白 (701-762). In fact maybe they already have learned this one, ask!

“Thoughts on a Quiet Night” (Jìng yè sī 静夜思)







Jìng yè sī

Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,

Yí shì dì shàng shuāng

Jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè

Dĭ tóu sī gù xiāng


Thoughts on a Quiet Night

Before my bed the moon shines brightly,

I suspect there is frost on the ground,

I raise my head and gaze at the moon,

I lower my head and think longingly of my home.


Here’s another bit of poetry from Jeff Bissell:

When family members cannot return home for the feast, it is common to say that no matter how far away they are, they can look at the same moon and remember one another. One of the most well-known and eloquent expression of this sentiment is in a poem written by the Song Dynasty scholar Su Shi 苏轼 (1037-1101 CE). Su wrote the poem to express how much he missed his brother on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The last lines of the poem read:



Dàn yuàn rén cháng jiŭ

Qiān lĭ gong chán juān

I hope we are blessed with longevity

And although thousands of miles apart, we may still share the moon’s beauty

In 2016 the fullest moon fell on September 15. But people will be celebrating all weekend as they gather with family and friends to sip tea and eat moon cakes. Join them in this more than thousand year old tradition and celebrate with your family.

A sad story from Charlotte

September 13, 2016

Normally I post positive stories about Mandarin immersion. But this is so heartbreaking. A young Mandarin immersion teacher in North Carolina was shot in during a robbery. The community is rallying to help bring her family from China to say good-bye to her before she’s taken off life support. My prayers go out to the family and the community at Kensington Elementary.

Elementary school teacher shot during attempted robbery

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has confirmed a mandarin-language immersion teacher at Kensington Elementary school was shot by a robber Friday night.

Police say the shooting took place on the 100 block of East Park Avenue in Charlotte’s busy SouthEnd neighborhood at 11:33 p.m. Friday after the victim was getting into a vehicle.

Upon arrival, officers located Ruijuan Guo, suffering from a gunshot wound. Guo was transported to Carolinas Medical Center with life-threatening injuries.

The police report states Guo, her boyfriend and friend were preparing to get into their car when they were approached by the suspect. The suspect pulled a gun on them and asked for the boyfriend’s wallet. The police report stated he could not get his wallet out of his pocket fast enough so the suspect shot his girlfriend in the head and then ran off.

The police reports states the robber got away with the man’s wallet, which contained his driver’s license, social security card and $900 in mixed bills.

The Kensington Elementary School posted Sunday on their Facebook page saying, “As many of you may have heard, one of our Mandarin teachers, Miss Guo has been hospitalized since Friday night with life-threatening injuries. As a show of love and support, we are encouraging all of our students and staff to wear purple this week, which is Miss Guo’s favorite color, and bring in sunflowers, her favorite flower.

“I mean the dads out in the line today, they were all in purple, teachers in purple, kids in purple. It’s just a great community and were just showing support,” said Hope Morris, whose daughter attends Kensington Elementary.

Please read more here.

Here’s a Go Fund Me link for the family.

Here’s how NOT to run an immersion program

September 10, 2016

Hint: Don’t have a theoretical “first come, first served” enrollment process but really let the principal pick and choose who gets to attend, resulting in almost entirely white classes while Black and Hispanic families mysteriously never get in.

Selection process at Forest Hills saw lack of minorities in popular school program

WILMINGTON, Delaware  — Anna Lee was not surprised when she walked into a meeting for Forest Hills Elementary’s Spanish Immersion Program and found the room filled with white faces.

“I had it on my radar already that the program was relatively segregated because I know people who have older kids there,” Lee said. “It wasn’t exactly a revelation.”

She counted three Hispanic parents –- including her husband -– and two black parents among the roughly 45 people in the school’s auditorium.

During that meeting, Lee recalled, Forest Hill’s principal, Deborah Greenwood, was asked how students would be chosen. The principal told attendees she wasn’t sure yet.

Please read more here.