Blog EntriesCross-cultural

Language and Culture Learning—in Kindergarten


Education is a major issue for cross-cultural workers who serve overseas with their families. Most families choose to put their kids in an international school, a local school, or to homeschool full-time at home. All of these have their pros and cons.

Last year we decided to put our daughter in a local Chinese school. Here are some of the benefits we see in this choice.

Families we respect who were living in other cities and had put their children in Chinese schools for a while talked highly about it. They told us that sending kids to the local school would help them learn the language quickly and to make many local friends. When our daughter was born, we planned to do the same.

For the past year our daughter has been attending a nearby Chinese kindergarten. She started going to the kindergarten shortly after her third birthday. Though most of the other kids, beginning at age three, go to school all day, we wanted our daughter to go only for half-days.

Our daughter’s overall experience in the Chinese school has been great. She absolutely loved the school at first, but after about a month the school started calling us to come pick her up and bring her home. This lasted for a few weeks, but when her teacher told us that she’d been throwing temper tantrums at school we disciplined her at home. She soon stopped throwing temper tantrums at school and started enjoying it again. Now going to school is one of her favorite things to do.

Because she’s so young, she’s been able to pick up Chinese rather quickly—even though she’s only at her school in the mornings and has been going for less than a year. Before she started kindergarten, I’d try to speak to her in Chinese at home. While she could understand a bit, she would hardly use Chinese to respond to me or to others. Now that she’s been at the Chinese kindergarten for almost a year—communicating only in Chinese with her teachers and classmates—she’s able to converse easily with people in Chinese.

In the Chinese culture, it’s important for children to show respect to the elderly by saying “hello grandma” or “hello grandpa” to them when walking by. Our daughter has seen this modeled at her school, so it’s now very natural for her to greet elderly people while walking down the street. Sometimes she will have lengthy conversations in Chinese with people of many ages who live in our neighborhood.

Our daughter has made many friends at her school. Her teacher said that she was able to learn all of her classmates’ names, even though all of them are Chinese names and our daughter was only at school in the mornings. As I look with her at a picture of her whole class, she can tell me all the kids’ names with minimal difficulty. Every day when we pick her up or are at home with her, she tells us stories about what happened to her classmates at school that day. With some of the kids she has built a particularly tight bond.

When our daughter interacts well with the people in our neighborhood, it opens up many doors for us to more easily gain the trust of the people in our community. And our daughter is happy as she walks around chatting with neighborhood kids, parents, and grandparents. Everyone is excited to see her acting like one of the neighborhood girls. Indeed, the reason our daughter feels so comfortable interacting with our neighbors is because she has been going to the local Chinese school. If she weren’t going every day to the kindergarten, I think it quite unlikely that she’d feel so at home with the people around us.

We are blessed because our daughter has done well at the Chinese school. However, all thanks must go to God for helping her daily to do well. The glory goes to him, not to us. And because of our daughter, we have been able to walk through doors opened more widely into our community to serve. When she interacts well within the local culture, people notice. As a result, they are more interested in our family, our parenting, and what is important for us. We can share with them about how God is the anchor and center in our lives.

Image credit: Kindergarten by kattebelletje via Flickr.

Tabor Laughlin

Tabor Laughlin (pseudonym) is a PhD student in Intercultural Studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He received his MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Missions and his bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from Oklahoma State University. He has been serving in China for ten years, and is president of a... View Full Bio