Schools: Stop undervaluing Mandarin Chinese bilingualism

It’s recruiting season. Schools are filling their rosters for the fall semester and padding their summer programs with as many students as possible.

For our soon-to-be three-year-old, it’s time to make School rounds and find him the perfect preschool. We’ve been scheduling and visiting schools all Spring.

As I have experience in the education industry, and I’ve even done my homework on recent trends in education, I go prepared. I tell the administrators about how our primary concern is the development of social skills and other basics like alphabets, numbers, counting and I suppose even reading and writing.

To be honest, kids have it tough these days and I’d be happy if our son could just play with kids, make friends, play some soccer, and recognize the rest of the numbers and letters.

But hold up, I don’t want him to just recognize numbers in English. I want him to recognize numbers in English AND Mandarin Chinese. This is not an unreasonable expectation given he’s already bilingual and plenty of kindergartens, elementary schools, and private high schools have adopted bilingual Mandarin programs in the US.

“…[One] of the hottest trends in public schooling is what’s often called dual-language or two-way immersion programs” – <a href=”” target=”_blank”>NPR, “6 Potential Brain Benefits of Bilingual Education”</a>

So why is it whenever I ask, “I noticed you don’t have any Asian teachers, so you have anyone who speaks Mandarin? My son is bilingual.” The response I get is often a reassuring, “Oh, your son will pick up English very quickly once he starts with us. We’ve had kids who only speak their native language learn English in just a week.”

Do you see what they did there?

Not only did they assume bilingualism means English incompetence, but they assumed that I’m not a native English speaker (because I look Asian?) Therefore my son is not a native English speaker. Why? Because he’s bilingual in Mandarin Chinese.

I wonder if Spanish bilinguals have this problem.

“Through his studies, Cornish said students from communities where Spanish is valued possess a positive self-image of themselves as Spanish speakers and the Spanish communities they come from. Conversely, the opposite is true in school districts ignoring bilingual education and Hispanic heritage.” – Huffington Post, <a href=”″
target=”_blank”>Bilingual Education Holds Cognitive, Social And Health Benefits”</a>

A misunderstanding
Just to clarify, no, I’m not worried about my son’s language abilities. He already speaks more complex languages than you do–and he’s not even three yet.

I’m concerned that your school is monolingual and thereby not challenging the children enough. I’m concerned that my bilingual child can only learn one language at your school, and will need to learn the rest of the languages we speak at home in other schools.

I’m concerned of the effects of my child being in school all day without a single teacher who looks like him (or his peers!)

I’m concerned that you will treat him differently because he is not monolingual, because he’ll pepper his speech with Mandarin, occasionally use the wrong language, or only know the words in one language but not the other. I’m concerned you’ll judge him as “less than” because of his bilingualism.

Just like you’re treating me differently at the school tour–and I was born here.

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It’s not the N-word–Stop glaring at my son!

When NEIGE doesn’t mean NIGGA or *****

Nei-ge!” My son often yells in the store, at the restaurant, and even while waiting in line for something important.

Nei-ge! nei-ge! Neiiiiii-geeeee!!!” Everyone at the store has turned to stare at us at least once by now.

My husband’s angry. He’s self-conscious.

“Stop saying nei-ge!”

My son decides to ignore his dad. Baba is obviously in a bad mood.

“Mama! Nei-ge!” He points to something on the floor.

Nai-ge?” I ask in response. I have no idea what he’s yelling about.




People are giving us quizzical looks.


Nei-geeee!!” Exasperated by my apparent dullness, my son crouches down low and points at the metallic purple star-shaped decoration.

“Ahh! It’s a star! You found a star!”

So what is he saying?
…Did you guess what “nei-ge” means yet?

In Mandarin Chinese, “nei ge” means “that” or in this case, “that one”, to which I would ask my son “which one?”

Misplaced Anger
My son is only two and a half, but he gets dirty looks, even glares, whenever we go out in the States. He doesn’t know why people are treating him poorly, he doesn’t know why his father gets frustrated and won’t let him say the new word he learned a few months ago, or why he should refrain from speaking his second language in public at all.

An example of the plushie he saw

Once we were at TJ Maxx, reading a picture book near the cashiers. The picture book had animals in it. My son pointed at every single animal and said their name to me. Some animals he doesn’t know the name of, or he can’t say their name, so he says “nei-ge!” (That one!) By doing so, he elicits the name from me and learns.

On this particular trip, we were waiting for his daddy to pay for our purchases, so we remained in place while others passed us by.

Even I could feel daggers on my back when he pointed to a gorilla in the book and yelled, “Nei-ge!”

Not only does he not often see gorillas, but he was especially excited because there was a gorilla plushie on the shelf right above us.

Nei-ge! Nei-ge! Nei-ge!” he pointed to the the big black gorilla soft toy.

I saw an angry-looking African-American woman walk past us. She glared at both us, and even I told him to keep it down.

Then don’t teach it
Some have suggested we just don’t teach him this word, since he is bilingual and there is an English equivalent. There are two problems to this: one, we shouldn’t have to teach him to not say “that” when it’s just his toddler pronunciation and local racial sensitivities that make a Chinese word sound like a racial slur. Two, we didn’t actually teach him the word.

Nei-ge is also often used as a filler word, similar to “ummm” or “uhhh” in English. We use it habitually, not even noticing it until recently when we’ve tried to reduce its usage. Although we use it in conversation all the time, I haven’t noticed people glaring at us, so I think it’s just my son’s accent.

Daniel Tiger and friends

Less judgement
Unless we were Spanish speakers, I’m not sure why people would think we would teach a two-year-old to say n****. On second thought, if we were Spanish speakers, I’d be equally irritated with how sensitive Americans are in regard to race and racism.

Kids “call it what it is”. When my son watches Daniel Tiger, he points to the dark-skinned girl (Miss Elena) and describes her as “hei hei” (blackie, in Mandarin). That’s an observation. Would you rather he be color-blind? Please. Children before the age of four do not have the malice to other anyone and call them names.

Have you had a similar experience? Did you ever wonder about How “racist” Chinese kids are? How did you handle it?

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