Member Post: How My Child and I Both Learned Chinese (Melissa C.)

Intro: Melissa is one of our creative moms on our Facebook Group Motherly Notes. Her dedication to her children, her dedication to herself, and the crafts they do at home always BLOW MY MIND away!!!! I have forever grateful that she’s willing to share her experience with us. I love her experience and it always reminds me of how hard great moms work! Feel free to join our Facebook group to meet her and our other great moms! 

Melissa’s husband doesn’t speak Chinese and she was able to teach her daughters Chinese at a super fast pace. Her oldest knows more than 500 characters and became an independent reader before the age of 5! The most amazing part is Melissa is herself learning Chinese as well! For all those mommies out there afraid that they don’t have two native parents at home or even one, Melissa proves that all you really need are the the right resources and “hard work.” 


From Melissa:

Hi everyone,

Thanks for letting me guest write here.  I find teaching Chinese to be such a struggle sometimes.  My Chinese is terrible, and I am certainly not a perfect Chinese teacher, but perhaps some of you can identify with my struggles and know that you don’t have to be perfect in order to do well.

I have two daughters, ages 2 and 4.5.  My challenges are: (1) my kids go to English-only day care full time; (2) I work full time, and so does my husband; (3) my Chinese is terrible, like really terrible; (4) I am the only Chinese speaker in the house, as husband is Caucasian and had zero exposure to Chinese prior to meeting me (he tried Rosetta Stone after we got engaged, but no program or app is a silver bullet, and learning Chinese is hard); (5) I have no family nearby; (6) because my Chinese is terrible, I don’t have Chinese-speaking friends or any type of Chinese community where I live; (7) we don’t live in Southern California or another area where there are many Chinese speakers.

Nevertheless, teaching Chinese to my children is super important to me.  Like super super super important.  Despite our challenges, we’ve made it work.  Both my kids can speak English and Chinese, and my older daughter can now read easy story books and blend zhu yin.  She probably knows over 100 songs in Chinese and knows Chinese nursery rhymes and Tang poems in Chinese.  And she has no accent.  How is this possible?  Because children are smart and amazing and because I am relentless with Chinese, and I make it fun and interesting.  My children will never have the perfect Chinese teacher in me, but that’s ok.  Doing anything is still better than doing nothing.  So everyday, I do something.


I am relaxed about a lot of stuff. I tolerate mess and chaos pretty well.  I let my kids do dangerous, messy things. I let them jump on the couch. I let them jump on the bed.  I let them play with my real jewelry and my makeup.  I let them scatter colored rice all over our deck for sensory play.  If they want 10 extra minutes before bedtime, fine.  If they want to wear mismatched ugly clothes, fine.  If they want an extra snack, fine.  But I am absolutely inflexible when it comes to Chinese.  I speak Chinese to them, they speak Chinese to me.  Period.  Since we started teaching my older daughter to read at age 4 years 2 mos, my older daughter reads Chinese every single day.  Weekdays, weekends, holidays, travelling, sick days, every day.  I never force; I entice.  I make our Chinese time fun; I buy books I think she will enjoy; I give her rewards for every 12 characters learned (mostly cheap, adorable erasers); for larger milestones, I give her larger rewards (usually, things I already wanted to buy her, but keep in a storage closet to give as an incentive); and when all else fails, reading is the key to her TV watching.  If we don’t read Chinese, she can’t watch her 30 minutes.  If she whines about it, then tomorrow’s TV watching gets cut too.  Sometimes I prepare an extra art or craft project, and if she writes one character once, she gets to do that extra art activity.  It’s a loose blend of carrots and sticks.


Is it ok if you don’t want to teach your kids Chinese?  Absolutely.  Is it ok if you don’t wish to teach your kids to read Chinese?  Definitely.  This is not mean to shame anyone, or change what you want for your family.  Every family has different goals, different lifestyles, different preferences.  What I did may not be desirable for you. It may not work for your children or for your family.  This is not meant to be a manual.  The only advice I give is in the very last paragraph of this post, and it’s more of an exhortation than advice.  This is simply an accounting of what I did with my family, and how I evolved my teaching and learning methods.  And to let people know that you don’t have to homeschool, or be a native-speaker, or even be that great at Chinese to start teaching your kids.



Here is a little background on me do give you a sense of my daily challenges.  My parents grew up in Taiwan, went to college in Taiwan, then immigrated to the U.S. to attend graduate school.  My sister and I were born and raised in the U.S.  Although we spoke predominantly Mandarin at home, and attended a Taiwanese church, our parents reverted to English when speaking about economics, politics, science, anything vaguely technical or difficult.  We visited Taiwan only once every four years, for two weeks at a time.  That meant that my Chinese was never able to progress beyond toddler level.IMG_2409

I went to Chinese school for several years and learned simple words like middle, small, big, more, less, etc.  I tried learning in college but the Chinese for Mandarin speakers was so boring—most of it still concentrated on conversational fluency and I was already conversationally fluent.  Instead, I spent my time studying French and Latin (and a little German and Ancient Greek too), and worked in France for a summer while living with a host family.  In law school, I took another Chinese class, this time at the intermediate level, and it was challenging and interesting, but then the demands of law school and life got in the way. I made the calculation that it would take me hundreds and hundreds of hours to be able to read Chinese, and determined that it wasn’t worth it.  It made me sad that, for example, I couldn’t ever work in Taiwan because of my illiteracy, but the converse of that—studying enough to make me literate—just didn’t seem feasible or worthwhile, since I was planning to be a lawyer and my Chinese could never be good enough to allow me to practice law in Chinese.

AGE 0-1

This all changed when I had my first daughter 4.5 years ago.  I wanted her to know Chinese and make it easy and natural for her. So when she was born, I spoke only in Chinese to her, even though my husband is Caucasian and doesn’t understand a single word.  When I started speaking, it had been years since I had a fully Mandarin conversation. I was surprised I could remember some words for things like diaper and blanket—which I probably hadn’t heard in decades.  We didn’t have any Chinese books, but I translated English books into Chinese as best as I could. IMG_2408

The more I spoke, the more I realized I had huge gaps of knowledge.    I thought I had the conversational skills of a six year old, but quickly learned that in fact, my vocabulary was only the level of a 1.5-2 year old.  The first year and a half of her life, I spent a lot of time looking up words.  Pacifier, crib, stroller, giraffe, hippo, lion, zebra, hamster, dress, shirt, sink, bathtub, etc etc forever.  I used online dictionaries, but my 30+ year old brain had to look up the name for opossum so many damn times.  Sometimes I just had to make it up.  Like mouse, instead of hamster.  Mouse instead of opossum.  In a pinch, I would say “this animal” or sometimes “I don’t know.” If I really didn’t know and couldn’t figure it out easily, I just said things with a Chinese accent, like Macaroni, or Minnie (Mouse).  It was abysmal, but I didn’t give up.


From birth, I was committed to speaking 100% Chinese to her.  When I mean 100%, I mean 100%.  When daddy was home, that meant he didn’t understand what we were saying.  When we were at playdates, it meant her friends didn’t know what I was saying.  In the first two years of her life, I maybe said a handful of sentences to my daughter in English.  Everything else was 100% Chinese. IMG_2400

If she said something interesting, I would translate into English for daddy.  Obviously, I also spoke to daddy in English.  Probably the most English at our house is at dinner when daddy comes home and he and I catch up on each other and talk about current events.  At playdates, if a child asks me a question, I answer in English, and of course I speak to her friends’ parents in English.  But anything said directly to my child is in Chinese, unless she directly asks me for the English equivalent of a Chinese word.  Why? Because that’s how she learns.  If I only spoke to her in Chinese for fun stuff but scolded her in English, then she would never learn how to be disciplined in Chinese.  If I switched to English for harder words, as my parents did, then she would never learn more advanced vocabulary.  If I didn’t know the word, I would just describe it using words I did know and look up the word there, or another time.

At the time, I didn’t know a single Chinese kids song, so I just made them up.  Changing her diaper, I would sing a song that just repeated “change your diaper” in Chinese to a tune I made up, and clapped my hands faster and faster.  My daughter loved that song so much.  When it was time for bed, I would start clapping my hands and sing “睡覺時間到了” (shui jiao shi jian dao le) to the tune of Camptown Races.  I would sing the same song except for bath, when it was time for bath.  Whenever she heard me sing, she would start walking up the stairs to get ready.  I made up a “回家” (hui jia) song to sing at the park when it was almost time to go.  I made songs for waking up, eating, taking a bath, brushing teeth, changing diapers, washing hands, going home, going to sleep, whatever we were doing.  At this age, kids love songs, even if they’re terrible.

AGE 1-2

Because I work full time, kiddo only had Chinese in the mornings before school, evenings, and weekends.  But there’s a reason it’s called the mother tongue: kids want to communicate with their mother.  Until age 2, despite being in English only daycare, Chinese was still her dominant language.  In the car, we had Chinese songs playing.  I was still translating English books to Chinese.  I worked from home on Fridays, but as she grew, that became problematic because she wanted more of my attention, and I couldn’t actually get my work done.  I also knew I needed help with the Chinese.

So when my child was 16ish months, I hired two Chinese babysitters: one for 8am to 11am (the pre-nap sitter) and one for 3pm to 5pm (the post-nap sitter).  I hired local college students to basically play with her in Chinese.  I didn’t have any guidance or rules for them: only that they had to speak in Chinese in the presence of my daughter.  As part of the interview, I watched them play with my daughter and only hired ones that were fun and that genuinely engaged her.  They mostly played, sang songs, sometimes read books. I bought some Chinese books for them to read.  Kiddo would ask me to read those same books to her when they weren’t around, but I couldn’t read so I just made up stories in Chinese. img_2399.jpg

Finally, I recorded my babysitters reading the books and memorized the stories so I could recite the books from memory. Otherwise, we were still just using English childrens’ books and I was translating them into Chinese.  I also played Chinese songs any free moment I had to myself.  Cooking, cleaning, brushing teeth–I was listening to songs on repeat, learning them.  By this time, I learned maybe 30 Chinese kids’ songs.  Aside from CD sets, Beva and BabyBus on youtube has awesome Chinese songs.  A couple songs took me a few weeks to learn, but it was worth it.  I have two brushing teeth songs, and four specifically bedtime songs that my kids love.  Additionally, until age 2, we did very little screen time.  Whenever my daughter was awake and with us, no one was allowed to turn on the TV.  When my babysitters introduced me to Beva, I let her watch one or two 2-3 minute music videos.  Otherwise, it was just old fashioned learning—talking, pointing, singing, reading, playing with blocks, playing with water, etc.

AGE 2-3

From age 1.5 to 2.5 we always spoke in Chinese, but I started loosely teaching her English letters and numbers.  I intended to teach pinyin because I didn’t know zhu yin, and it sounded easy.  I drew flash cards with things like B for Ban ma, D for Da xiang.  She wasn’t that interested and it kind of fell by the way side.

I started researching more on zhu yin and decided that it was really worth it to invest the time and energy into learning it.  As English speakers, the zhu yin symbols simply cannot be confused with English sounds.  So things like xi and ci, chi, qi, can all be confusing in pin yin, but with zhu yin it is crystal clear which sounds are associated with which marks.  Also, Chinese books go to a much higher level with zhu yin than with pin yin, and afterall, our heritage and extended family is in Taiwan and I wanted her to function well in Taiwan if we ever visited.

Around age 2, when she recognized most of the English alphabet (through lots of craft activities), I decided there was no reason she couldn’t also learn zhu yin, so we started loosely introducing her to zhu yin letters and sounds.  I adapted my crafts from English alphabet to zhu yin symbols.  My babysitters from China figured out some of the zhu yin marks, but mostly I just learned the zhu yin symbols on my own and relied on them to help me with the tonal marks.  Around age 2.5, I started sounding out zhu yin from books. It was super slow and super super painful, for both me and my daughter.  She sometimes got bored and just left if I took too long to read a story from zhu yin.  So I tried to practice reading after bedtime, so I could read it more smoothly.  Within a month, I could read it slowly but smoothly.  By this time, my zhu yin was good enough that my child wouldn’t walk out on me.  J Every day we read together, my zhu yin improved and she was introduced to new vocabulary.  I was also learning new words every day: palm of the hand, back of the hand, arm, leg, heel, ankle, hallway, ceiling… it was exhausting and I didn’t even know how much I didn’t know until it came up and I didn’t have the words for it.  But I didn’t give up.

AGE 3-4

When my daughter was 2.5, we welcomed a second child, and we decided to hire an au pair from China to take care of my youngest full time.  Older daughter still attended English-only preschool from 8:30 to 5, but was home for about every other Friday when I worked from home.  My youngest child, despite being very gifted in gross motor activities, experienced a significant speech delay.  We hired a speech therapist through the county, but the therapist wasn’t very effective and I felt that she really needed to be in a group care environment to push her to speak more.  Since daycare in our area is insanely expensive, we couldn’t afford to keep the au pair and pay two daycare tuitions.  So we didn’t renew with the au pair and the youngest started full-day English only daycare at age 1.75.   She did very well there and her speech indeed improved much faster than it would have if she had stayed at home.  Throughout this time, I did not stop speaking Chinese.  I was confident that her English AND her Chinese would come around, and I knew I needed to continue Chinese for both my kids. img_2407.jpg

AGE 4-4.5 (present)

When my older daughter was 4, I was inspired by Betty’s post in the Facebook group, Raising Bilingual Children in Chinese and English, and so I ordered Sagebooks and started teaching my daughter, and myself, Chinese characters.  I know now that when I began this journey, I knew less than 100 characters and 10 of those were numbers.  After six months, I learned about 400 and my daughter could recognize around 300-400.  Not bad for a mom who works a demanding full time job, whose Chinese sucks, has a non-Chinese speaking husband, and who doesn’t have access to an immersion school.

What I do varies week to week, but there is somewhat of a pattern.  When my oldest child wakes up, we have 3-8 minutes of Chinese reading.  While we were doing Sagebooks, this meant reading 3-4 lessons.  Now that we are doing Greenbooks, she reads 3 books on most days, unless we are in a rush.  Then, while both parents get ready for work, my 4.5 year old watches Chinese cartoons for up to 30 minutes (less or none if we’re running late).  I vastly prefer qiao hu because it is extremely educational and enriching, and it isn’t so fast-paced with the flashing images.  Qiao hu has a choreographed song at the beginning and at the end, and no matter what I’m doing, I drop everything so I can dance this song with my daughters.  They LOVE this dancing time.  It’s important to create rituals and happy memories.  Chinese shouldn’t be dreadful.  In fact, most things I teach my children I try not to make dreadful.   Then we eat a quick breakfast (or bring breakfast to go) and I take both kids to daycare (where a little later, they also get a light breakfast).IMG_2402

When I pick them up at night, I give them a snack I’ve already prepared for them to eat in the car.  On my oldest daughter’s bento box, I write one or two chinese sentences and scrawl a matching drawing on a post-it note.  I try to incorporate words I know she has a hard time remembering, or I make it topical to something we are doing or the snack they are about to eat.  When my younger daughter reached 2 years 2 mos, I started drawing an animal and one Chinese character on her box.  My daughter just loves these notes and will read them without me asking.  Sometimes she reads and re-reads them.  It’s a little time consuming because if I didn’t have time earlier, this means that I will delay pick up by 5 minutes (and after a long day, sometimes you just want to leave your office the second you can), but this is such a prime learning opportunity and she enjoys it so much, I really try my best to do a note if I can.  If I just can’t muster the energy, or if work runs too late, they get yesterday’s note, or no note at all.

When we go home, we do another 5-8 minutes of Chinese reading.  When it was Sagebooks, it was 2+ lessons—we stopped when she was tired.  Sometimes that meant 4 lessons, sometimes that meant 10 lessons.  Now that we are on Greenbooks, it’s 3 books in the afternoons.  Why 3? Because she wants to do 1 or 2.  I can convince her to do a little bit more than she wants, but I can’t push too hard or else she will be miserable. img_2398.jpg

For a few months, when she got tired of reviewing Sagebooks, we switched over to zhu yin practice and reading, mostly through kang xuan zhu yin books.  Then she watches 30 minutes of Chinese cartoons while I cook dinner and entertain the 2 year old.  Daddy comes home, helps me set the table, we eat dinner together, and then we play until bedtime.  Sometimes after dinner we do crafts.  I always have old hand written Chinese and Bopomofo worksheets, math sheets, kumon books, and coloring books that she can choose if she wants.  She’s not usually interested in old worksheets, but if I make her a new worksheet she always attacks it with gusto.  I know my child, so anything I make for her is going to be 20 times more interesting to her than something I buy.  It’s exhausting, but it’s important to instill a love of learning, and to make learning seem intuitive and natural.

At bedtime, daughter chooses an English book for daddy to read and Chinese books for me to read.  Daddy gets bored and values his alone time, so after he reads in English, the kids kiss him goodnight and he goes downstairs (where he can finally watch TV), so the rest of bedtime is 100% Chinese because it’s just me.  Now that my older daughter knows so many characters, I read 50% or more of the book slowly, pointing to each letter.  Sometimes I will ask her to read a sentence every other page.  I try to make it fun and easy.  If I sense her getting tired, I’ll just read the remainder of the story.  If I can tell she’s really tired, I’ll read at a faster (more normal pace) and maybe not even point to words as I’m reading.  If she’s sick, I don’t make her read at bedtime. I just read whatever books she wants me to read.   Some days, we sing a goodnight song or two together after the lights are out.  Sometimes we are silly and play games in bed in the dark together…always in Chinese.  The love it when I pretend to be a fruit (they call out the fruit, then I act it out), or we do shadow puppets, or we do hand games.  The kids want me to lie with them until they fall asleep, and it’s such a fun time to snuggle, so I always oblige.  They won’t want me forever.

After the kids are asleep, I do Chinese on most days, and tidy up the house.  After these tasks are done, I get about 30-60 minutes of relaxation time with daddy, usually watching TV.  Sometimes I’ll still be looking up vocabulary during this time, or making worksheets.  If I’m exhausted, I’m just watching TV.  Some days are just too long and I go straight to bed when my kids do.

Weekends are not much different, except it’s more leisurely.  We still do 3-7 minutes of Chinese in the morning, and again around 4 or 5pm.  Once a week, I pick out a slightly harder book, and I will only make kiddo read half of it.  She will read a page, then I will read a page.  Reading a harder book together means I can explain more advanced vocabulary and phrases and idioms.  These books are significantly longer than our 3 Greenbooks.  Usually we can must through them but sometimes I can tell she gets tired, and definitely if she asks me to stop and we’ve already done a few minutes, I stop and save the page for next time.  Both kids go to gymnastics together on Saturday afternoons.  During this time I do Chinese or clean the house.  Saturday and Sunday mornings are currently reserved family time.  We play together at home, do housework, or run errands.  Once or twice a month, we’ll do an outing, like go to the museum, or the zoo if it’s nice, or a play date.  The last two months, older daughter has been going to Chinese school on Sunday afternoons.  They learn only 1 character a week and classtime is about half Chinese and half English.  But daughter really enjoys being around other Chinese-heritage kids, and I think it’s important that she has community to identify with.  It’s a very long drive for us, but she always comes home more excited than ever to read Chinese.

We also do Chinese when we’re travelling.  Maybe less, but we never ever go 2 entire days with zero Chinese reading.  Even if it’s reading 3 pages, ANYTHING IS BETTER THAN NOTHING.  We won’t make any progress with new characters or new vocabulary on vacations, especially since the exposure to English is so heavy when we visit my husband’s relatives (100% English speakers), but ensuring that they have some Chinese everyday, and some reading everyday, means they won’t backslide too much.

At first, his family thought it was weird that I spoke Chinese to my kids in front of them.  But they either got used to it or stopped complaining to me.  I will translate for them if they ask me to.  After the first couple times, they realize it’s just banal kids stuff and stop bothering asking me to translate.  And translating is actually quite boring.  Anyway, they can directly ask my daughter for a translation, which she will happily do because she loves to talk.


              Characters 0-500

Sagebooks worked well for us because it has pinyin so I didn’t have to prepare in advance, if I didn’t have time.  At first, I would review old Sagebook lessons on my own, 2-4 times a week.   Once or twice a week (though sometimes not at all), I also prepared a craft or lesson for the oldest.  She hates writing, so anything I could do to get her to interact with the character, look at it longer, analyze it would be great.  Unfortunately, she hated when I tried to describe radicals or say “look, that’s like three dots of water.”  Even the simplest explanations she hated.   So I did a lot of worksheets like find and fix, glue pieces of paper on outlines of the character, glue beans or dried pasta on the character, old maid, pretty much anything she would agree to do.

For someone like me, whose Chinese is so bad, Chinese learning and teaching is very exhausting.  If I can take 30-45 minutes on the weekend to prepare 1-3 crafts or activities for the week, then I won’t have to worry about it.  When I was super busy at work (preparing for a trial for a month and a half), that means zero planned activities for that time period.  Learning was so much slower that month, because my kiddo was often bored.  But we still kept at it.  On the worst days, she would just read one sage lesson and I would read one sage lesson to her, twice a day.  (Putting aside bedtime story time, when I would just read stories to her).  No matter how little we did or how boring it got, I made sure we did SOMEthing.

After 8 months of learning, my daughter can recognize between 500 and 600 characters.  We don’t test so I don’t know for sure, but I think she can recognize 80-85% of the Sagebooks 500 characters, plus all the other characters I’ve introduced since then, as well as characters she just picks up from reading.

Characters 500-700

Now that we are on Greenbooks, I study the books she is going to read, trying to memorize the characters.  Twice a week, I also get a brand new book and look up all the vocabulary.  Now that her Chinese is pretty good, it’s really a race to increase vocabulary—hers and mine.  During most weekdays, I pick two or three phrases each day that I have never heard before, and write them several times and try to remember them.  I listen to every sentence example on Pleco and repeat it out loud.  If I am uncertain about usage, I will also check TrainChinese.  If I still don’t know, I will ask Julie or my babysitter.  I also try to incorporate that word or phrase into my conversation with kiddo that week.img_2401.jpg

Every other week, we put up 12 new words on the wall.  Huge, 200 point font, with handwritten zhu yin on the side.  We play this game where we start at the front door, one of us calls out a word, and the first person to run over and find that word and hit it wins.   You have to choose a new word every time, until all the words are chosen then we can start over.  We probably play this game 5 times a week.  Once she knows all the words (maybe 1.5-2 weeks), I take down all the words, cover up the zhu yin, and ask her if she remembers them.  If she can recite them all, she gets to choose an eraser.

Everyone has a different parenting philosophy, but I am firmly against giving rewards for anything I expect the children to do on a daily basis.  I once met a 5 year old whose psychologist mother gave her rewards for everything.  That meant she wouldn’t eat dinner without negotiating a reward in advance.  She wouldn’t clean up her toys unless she would get a reward.  She wouldn’t go to sleep without a reward.  I thought she was a monster.  That happened over twenty years ago before I had kids, but it stuck with me all these years.  So I don’t do rewards for daily activities.  Once every week or every two weeks seems to be working out well for us now.  Once in a blue moon my older daughter will ask if she can get an eraser if she remembers just half the characters on the wall.  And I say in the nicest, sweetest, most loving voice: no.  And then I make a joke and she laughs and we go back to our Chinese practice.

Once every other week, I take 30-40 minutes and literally copy as many characters from a single text that I can, skipping easy, repeated words like I, you, of, etc.  My theory is that, once my child is very comfortable with zhu yin and has around 900-1000 words, she can learn the rest of the characters on her own.  But she will constantly need new vocabulary not just from progressively harder books, but also from me.  If I want to continue having meaningful conversations with her in Chinese only, I have to expand my Chinese vocabulary.  So after focusing on learning characters while my daughter was first learning to read Chinese, now my main focus is to learn new Chinese words and phrases.  The bi-weekly character practice means I will still learn some characters over time, and not forget the ones I’ve already learned.

As I mentioned before, learning is relentless.  If you stop practicing, you will forget.  When  I worked in France, I reached near-native fluency.  When I moved back to the states, I even dated a French guy, and spoke exclusively in French. Then I moved back to LA, and stopped practicing.  Two years later when I went to Montreal and started listening to French news podcasts, I had a hard time remembering and understanding.  I picked some of it back up after listening to French every day for a few months, but I learned: if I don’t use it, I will forget.  Even the few Chinese characters I learned in law school I already forgot by the time I had my first daughter.

Our Chinese speaking babysitter still comes to our house about 3-4 times a month for 4-5 hours at a time, to play with the kids while I work from home or do chores (if on a Saturday).  If she comes on a Friday afternoon, I will take the kids to daycare in the morning and work at my office, then take them home at noon and either work from home or take vacation time.  Sometimes they will read together, but not a ton.  The kids and I genuinely enjoy seeing her and spending time with her.  The babysitter isn’t so much about teaching formal learning, so much as just providing an additional Chinese speaking person for the children, and also giving me a little break to do work or housework.  It also gives me a chance to ask questions about phrases I’ve heard that I don’t understand, or whatever.


As a child, I absolutely cherished the crafts I made.  When I was four, I made a Christmas stocking with felt letters of my name, and decorated with beads, sequins, and glitter.  That stocking hung above my bed for 20+ years and I loved looking at it every day.  I saved every Christmas ornament I made, every felt fruit I sewed, etc.  I wanted my kids to have the same feeling of accomplishment, self-expression, and fun.  So I give them lots of arts and crafts opportunities.  And you can adapt almost any art or crafting activity into a Chinese character practice.  And if you can’t, that’s ok too. I believe art is great for so many things and not just Chinese, including fine motor skills and pre-writing practice.


Here are some super easy crafts/activities/worksheets to do (pictures are scattered throughout the article above):

What’s wrong? (or Find and Fix)—one correct Chinese character followed by 3 incorrectly written characters.  The child fixes the incorrect ones.

Fill the missing stroke—most strokes written in, with a few strokes just written as dotted lines.  They trace the dotted lines.

Outline characters—they color, trace, glue sequins, glue beads, glue cut pieces of paper, glue macaroni, fill with stickers, etc.  So easy.  They can also use different media to color, like paint, pastel, etc.  Or ask them to cut strips of paper and glue them to make that character (suitable for easier characters with fewer and boxier strokes).

-Flashcards—we all love/hate them.  You can get creative though.  Mix them up and ask them to find a specific word.  Or just cycle through them while you recite each word, and then ask them to pick out all the words they remember.  Or scatter five on the ground and ask them to find the one you call out.

-Hammer time!—you write a very very large Chinese character on some construction paper.  Put it on top of Styrofoam, and let your child hammer the character with a golf tee or a pencil or a chopstick.  This is good for toddlers too.  My two year old just pokes indiscriminately, and my 4 year old will diligently trace the letter.

-Fortune teller charades—you write different words (great especially for verbs) on the inside of those paper finger fortune things, your child picks a number, then they have to act out that word until you guess it.  Then switch.

Blow up books—pick a book your child loves and cover the words with cut paper.  Copy.  Then type up one sentence per page.  Your child matches the sentence with the appropriate storybook page.

Most of the activities we do don’t take hardly any preparation and can be done without a lot of supervision (yay! Mommy can rest and catch up on Facebook!) It’s really about having a Chinese frame of mind.  When I’m in the shower and the kids come up because they’re bored, I’ll write the Chinese character of the day in the steam on the glass, and a happy face.  In fact, when we first started learning Chinese, writing in steam condensation was the first time my daughter wrote 高. If we’re outside playing with sidewalk chalk, I’ll write a short Chinese phrase, or draw some animals and label them with Chinese characters.  These activities are meant to be fast, easy, and ephemeral.

I do have larger projects that are meant to be a little more permanent.  Over the course of a few months, I put together a Chinese play market for my kids.  I researched play markets for over a year before settling on a plan that was easy to execute (You can see the play market on top of the article).  My husband and I spent a weekend putting the base together and getting the parts, then I spent 20-40 minutes each evening working on the rest—the awning, the stripes for the side poles, the food cans, etc.  We also have a world poster and a zhu yin poster in our playroom.  I purchased the zhuyin poster but you can make your own and have it printed at FedEx Kinkos or a local print shop.  At some point, I will also create some larger posters of cartoon animals with Chinese poems or songs or mottoes on them.  There are always projects on my horizon… it’s ok for me to do just a little at a time.


I’m always posting the craft activities that my kids love on the Facebook Group Motherly Notes, so if you want to see more crafts, check out the group.  Unless you’re a crazy mean person.  We don’t like mean people.

Lastly, if you haven’t gleaned this from my novel-length post, teaching Chinese is super super hard, and even harder if you’re also learning it yourself.  Give yourself manageable goals or parameters.   Make sure you listen to the people who support you and don’t be too hard on yourself.  If people say it can’t be done, don’t believe them.  My family thought I was crazy for teaching Chinese (what’s the point of teaching animals? They don’t need to know that), or teaching reading (she’s too young, and you can’t read either. How can you teach her to read if you can’t read?).  I pay them no mind, because I want my child to be awesome at Chinese.  Awesome in a way that I never was.  And you know what?  She is.  Anything can be done.



7 responses to “Member Post: How My Child and I Both Learned Chinese (Melissa C.)”

  1. Wow! This is the most inspiring post I’ve read in a long time. I’m so impressed by your dedication and creativity. I have been getting discouraged with the Chinese journey with my kids lately so reading this has definitely reinforced it’s not impossible after all. Thank you!!!


  2. Thank you so much for sharing your teaching/learning journey in detail!! Very inspiring and very encouraging! I started teaching my son a month ago when quarantine started and was thinking will I be able to continue this effort when he goes back to school and I also have to work! Reading your post gives me hope!! Thank you so much!!! :))))


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