The Mandarin Miracle

When we heard our 6 year old daughter was going to learn Mandarin at her new school, BASIS Independent in Brooklyn, I didn’t think it would lead to much. Sure, it sounded impressive. But I took Spanish for years and can barely read the ads in the subway. Mandarin, with its characters and different tones, would be even more difficult.

How much could she possibly learn at school?

Me in Mandarin

Our first surprise 

In her first week, our daughter came home singing a catchy song in Mandarin. That’s pretty cool, I thought. It certainly sounded like Chinese, and she was having fun. She was able to teach me the different tones and a few words.

Waiting for the bus one morning a few weeks later, I heard her having a conversation in Mandarin with a boy who also goes to BASIS. The boy’s mother and I looked at each other as if to say Is this normal? The kids clearly took pleasure in being able to speak a language we couldn't understand a word of.

“He even sings that song in the shower,” the boy’s mother said.

Why I still can’t speak a foreign language

When I met the Mandarin teacher, Na Fan, I finally understood why the children were learning so quickly - and why I never did.

The method I used to try and learn Spanish and Japanese relied on textbooks. I would memorize words and study grammar, but I almost never spoke. Even though I passed the tests, any knowledge I gained quickly evaporated from lack of using it.

Na Fan described a very different approach. “Traditionally,” she said, “learning vocabulary is emphasized: numbers, colors, vegetables, and fruits. But after acquiring all this, kids can’t construct sentences to describe an event or express their feelings.” Na wanted her students to speak from the very beginning.

She had tried various teaching methods, and the one that proved to be the most effective with kids of all ages is QTalk, a system that uses visual cues to help you speak the language immediately. QTalk introduces sentence structure in the first lesson - subjects, verbs, and objects - so you can build sentences and communicate right away.

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In class, Na shows images and pronounces the words, and the kids repeat them and construct simple sentences by putting the pictures and words together. From the first day, Na only speaks Mandarin in class, and the kids speak Mandarin too.

By the end of the first year, the kids that Na teaches are proficiently reading and speaking 250 characters. By the end of the second year, it’s up to 600.

The miracle

My 5 year old son just started kindergarten at BASIS a few weeks ago. One day I came home and found him sitting on the sofa, wearing headphones and staring intensely at a laptop screen. I was about to admonish him for playing a video game, until I heard him repeating words in Mandarin.

“It’s QTalk,” my wife said. “He’s been doing that for an hour.”

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The Mandarin Miracle is the same as the French Miracle or the Spanish Miracle. A modern immersive teaching method plus a caring, passionate teacher can help people of any age learn to speak and enjoy a new language.

Talking with Na Fan, you can feel her energy and commitment, her sense of mission. “Anyone can learn to speak a foreign language using this method.” She’s found something that works, and now she wants to share it with as many students as possible.

I heard QTalk is working on Japanese lessons. I’m looking forward to trying a different, better approach.

The smartest kids in the world

My youngest daughter was doing fine in first grade. She was fluent in two languages, played piano, and seemed to enjoy school. The teachers and staff we met at our public school were dedicated and kind. Then, last summer, I got an education about what goes into making a great school and smart kids.

3 signs that something was missing

It was towards the end of the school year when we heard the second-grade student-teacher ratio would be 33:1. That seemed high, and my wife and I wondered how any adult could maintain order in such a class, never mind teach all those children.

Some friends were looking at private schools, and my wife suggested we find out more. But I resisted. I loved the sense of community at our local school. Besides, I said, “It’s only second grade.” When our daughter  seemed to struggle with math, we figured “maybe she’s just not good at math” and took solace in knowing she was good at languages and music.

We talked about this over dinner with my cousin, who founded the Milestone School in Mt. Vernon, NY. Her young students put on Shakespeare plays, learn a foreign language, and play chess. Her curriculum seemed fundamentally more rigorous. She taught me that, although our daughter was only in second grade, the skills and learning habits she acquired now were crucial for when things get more difficult in later grades.

Then in July we went to Japan and stayed with my sister-in-law’s family. Their kids attended public school but they also went to after-school sessions and did extra homework. We saw how even the younger child was doing math far beyond what our daughter was doing. She was embarrassed. So she took some of their worksheets and practiced. With a little help, she caught up in a few weeks.

If the US is 36th in math, who’s better?

The Smartest Kids in the WorldI saw that I had, in effect, completely outsourced my children’s education to a school and that was irresponsible. My wife and I started doing more research, which included reading an excellent book, The Smartest Kids in the World. It’s a book I strongly encourage every parent to read.

It’s from that book I learned about PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment. It’s a test aimed at gauging critical thinking in a standardized way around the world. The results for many countries are shocking. The US ranks 36th in math, on par with Lithuania and the Slovak Republic. Countries that spend far less per student than the US, including Finland and Poland, ranked much higher. Why?

Common suggestions are that the US has more diversity, more immigrants, or more poverty. But none of these are the cause of our educational issues. What the PISA data show and The Smartest Kids in the World brings to life is that three factors make the biggest difference:

Great teachers. In the education superpowers, teaching is a respected, competitive, well-paid profession. “Getting into a teacher-training program [in Finland] is as prestigious as getting into medical school in the United States.”

Higher expectations and more effort. The school days are longer and the curriculum is more rigorous.

A culture of learning. Students, teachers, and families all take school seriously because it is serious. Your performance in school often dictates your access to a better career and a better quality of life.

In some countries, access to such an education wasn’t a privilege but a right. “In the twenty-first century, it was easier for a poor person to get a great education in Finland than in almost any country in the world including the United States.” As one UK politician put it, “If you want the American dream, go to Finland.”

The best school

After reading The Smartest Kids, my wife and I were determined to be more engaged  in our children’s education. She spent weeks investigating the complex web of public, charter, and private schools. We watched chilling documentaries like The Lottery. We attended information sessions and spoke with other parents. BASIS Independent Brooklyn

We finally decided on Basis Independent, which was mentioned in the book. “At BASIS public charter schools in Arizona and Washington, D.C., teachers train students for academic conquests the way most American high schools train fort players for Friday night games.”

They were opening up a a new school in Brooklyn, kindergarten through 12th grade. We were awed by their curriculum: Mandarin and Engineering from the beginning, Latin in 4th grade, Logic in middle school.

I was lucky to attend a high school that changed my life. It was led by smart, accomplished professionals who had high expectations for us and pushed us to meet those expectations. I loved that school. At BASIS, it seemed like my children could have that experience starting at a much younger age.

So far, after more than half a year, the academics have surpassed our expectations. We’re also seeing two things we didn’t expect. The first is that the teachers and administration are providing a caring, nurturing environment. There’s rigor, for sure, but it’s backed up by a support system that helps each child through their individual challenges.

The biggest surprise has been my daughter’s reaction. It used to be a struggle to get her out of bed at 8am to walk the 2 blocks to school. Now, she’s up and eager at 6:30am to catch the bus. She loves her teachers and they’ve instilled in her a love of learning.

The smartest kids in the world don’t get that way because they’re rich or gifted. They’re smart because they have great teachers and high expectations, because they put in more effort, and because they’re surrounded by people focused on learning.

Every kid deserves a chance to be a smart kid.