Spanish vs. Mandarin Dual Language programs?

Hypatia Cade asks:

I’m curious about your thoughts (or your readers’ thoughts) – we will have the option to lottery in to 2 dual lang programs: Spanish or Mandarin. There are other pieces of these choices (school location, true public vs. charter, curriculum differences) that make it complex….But if the language of instruction were the only variable would you pick one language over the other? Why? (And to what extent would parental familiarity with a language enter into this?)

I would probably pick Mandarin over Spanish all else equal because it’s easier to pick up Spanish at older ages as an English speaker.  (My assumption would be Mandarin as a child and then Spanish as a third language in middle school and/or high school.)  Both Mandarin and Spanish are useful languages to know — I wouldn’t, for example, choose Dutch over Spanish even though Dutch has similar pronunciation problems to Mandarin for English-speakers, because Dutch isn’t that useful (in my experience, most Dutch speakers you come in contact with know English extremely well and will prefer to use it).  Note here, that I would expect Spanish learning in either scenario– that’s non-negotiable just like swimming lessons, it’s just a matter or whether or not there’s also fluency in Mandarin.

I am pretty fluent in Spanish, but sadly have Kindergarten-level Cantonese rather than Mandarin (of which I only remember how to count up to 999 and how to write the first few numbers and the word for “big” which is the same in Mandarin as it is in Cantonese).  (I also have first grade-level French and a smattering of Latin.  And I’ve picked up a bit of school-girl Japanese from Anime, which is pretty useless unless I need to tell someone to wait or that I like like them.  DH has high school-level German.)  I think I would just trust my kids to pick up the Mandarin in school and would get a tutor if there were learning difficulties along the way.  The dual-language material we have is very adamant that we don’t have to do anything special to get DC2 prepared for dual-language K and that it’s ok if the parents don’t speak Spanish.

Here are some replies from our regular readers:

becca:

given Mandarin or Spanish, I’d let my kiddo pick, which would probably result in Spanish. Dad took Spanish, Mom took Mandarin, so that’s not a huge factor. But my kiddo is SO into soccer, and Spanish means ze can translate when we go on dream Argentina trip ;-)

If I were factoring in efficacy of language training (i.e. how proficient they are likely to end up), I’d lean toward Spanish. Though for that I’d consider possible peers who might help hir practice too. Pronunciation on Mandarin is probably easiest to learn very young, but this wasn’t the trickiest part to me. The thing I think was really hard about Mandarin was the writing. Are they doing simplified characters, or traditional, and when do they bring in typing? It’s very challenging, and I wouldn’t suggest it for most kids until about age 11 or so.

crone:

One consideration might be which language is easiest to reinforce from home or environment. I have 5 year old grand child who has been Mandarin immersion from 2 pre-school years and just finishing K. Reads and writes and speaks in both English and Mandarin. Both parents speak Mandarin, my co-grandparents speak primarily Mandarin, so lots of reinforcement happened naturally from birth. Had a Spanish speaking nanny before preschool and both parent’s Spanish increased in fluency through those years. But for last two years, post nanny, it has been harder to reinforce and keep in use. Being able to reinforce and use the language outside of school makes a huge difference.

ChrisinNY:

My daughter has dysgraphia so found the Mandarin characters problematic. (She was exposed to both the characters and… pinyan?) In theory learning Mandarin sounds great, but living in the US Spanish may be more useful and enjoyable. My daughter ended up learning French and still keeps it up on her own as a young adult.

Cloud:

We had a choice between Mandarin and Spanish for language immersion programs, and chose Spanish based primarily on the fact that the school that does Spanish is in our neighborhood. We had low probability of getting into either, but got very lucky (a literal lottery win!) and got into the Spanish school in our neighborhood and have loved it. Also, it starts at 9 (with before care provided by the YMCA for a fee) and the Mandarin school starts at 7:45, which even for our early rising kids would have been a struggle and a PITA for the entire family.

We pay for very low key private Mandarin lessons, mostly because my oldest kid really excels at language so we want to let her push on that. But it also means that both kids will have learned the tones at an age when they can really learn them and that should make it easier for them to become fluent in Mandarin later if they want to. Bonus: the Mandarin teacher picks the kids up from the after care program one day per week, giving us extra schedule flexibility on that day. Win-win.

FWIW, we have noticed no real problems with learning two languages at once. I don’t know if that would be true if we were really pushing on the Mandarin, but with our immersion Spanish and low key Mandarin, it seems fine. We have noticed that our younger kid, who was not reading fluently in English before starting the Spanish program, tends to spell English words with Spanish phonics, which is hilariously cute. (Eg, miles is spelled “mayols”) We assume that will sort itself out by about grade 3, when her school starts working on English spelling. She is now reading fluently in English, which should help.

What would you choose, Grumpy Nation?

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