Note: The above video physically shows you some main points I listed below. I didn’t go over everything in the video but I think it’s the ideas that needed a video. Also, I’m not a professional blogger and this is written for my own records only as well as to share with friends and family. It’s not meant to be politically correct and there will be typos!
This page is dedicated to my experiences in teaching my children Chinese even though they were raised in the states. While they worked for me, they may not work for you. Given that, here we go…
It’s hard to apply a set example or experience to any one family in teaching Chinese in any country that doesn’t use Chinese as the primary language. Everyone is from a different background. Given that, I have used to the best of my abilities to try and give my children the right environment to learn Chinese here in the states. I am only one of the parents who has taught their children Chinese and my method isn’t the ONLY method. Every family is different! There are a TON of methods out there. I’m just putting this out there and sharing what we did and doesn’t mean it’s the right method or the only method. Some may find it too extreme, some may say it’s not good enough. It’s what worked for us as a family. This will be the longest article I’ve ever written since I’m usually a one paragraph sort of person. I’m going to try and elaborate on this one. Here’s what I find important:
The Entire Learning Environment and Your Relationship with Your Child
It doesn’t matter what language you want to teach. Maybe you only want to teach English,etc. However, is your home set up to provide a learning environment? I’ll say this here in bold letters but cannot emphasize how important it is for children before the age of five:
- Our children did not watch TV before three years old.
- Our children do not watch TV that they don’t understand.
- Our children do not watch cartoons.
- Our children do not play games on the iPad or phone even if it is a learning game.
I list the reasons why in Infants should NEVER watch TV. Educational videos slows down your child’s brain.
So let’s say you’re a family that doesn’t watch TV, how often do you encourage your children to read or spend some reading time with you? Family culture plays a lot into learning anything. I don’t force the kids to read Chinese but what I implement is a reading time when they were little to get them used to reading anything. To let them know how important reading is. As a little background, my children also reads English. My five year old was tested at a 3rd grade reading level while my three year old at a first grade level (I’ll write more on how I taught English later). The way I taught them to read anything is “constant” effort. This means pointing out words as we’re out and about and at home. Reading the menu with them, reading road signs, reading the elevator numbers, reading instructions, reading anything and everything they saw really.
I was the “crazy” mom you stared at when you went into an elevator and saw me “talking to” my “3 month old” baby with stuff like:
- These are the numbers that tell you which floor we live on.
- See these numbers? This is 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
- When you press the numbers, it lights up!
- You would ONLY press the number that you want to go to. You shouldn’t press all the numbers or you’ll end up going to every floor which would slow everyone down.
- So forth.
I frequently get the WTF looks from other adults like I’m crazy for talking to a three month old. I’ve gone nuts or I’m super tiger mom. Maybe. Here’s the thing.
IF YOU BELIEVE YOUR CHILD CAN UNDERSTAND AND DO CERTAIN THINGS,
THEY WILL MEET YOUR EXPECTATIONS
BECAUSE THEY’LL THINK IT’S NORMAL AND NO BIG DEAL.
I don’t make a big deal about their achievements even though I know they’re ahead. I don’t say you’re the smartest kid or you’re ahead by so much. Ahead means you’re comparing to other kids and I don’t like them comparing themselves to anyone but themselves. My point is always asking them: what is your goal and did you achieve your own goal.
So with Chinese and English and everything else, if there’s something that I can teach them while we’re out or when we’re at home at the table, I do! We incorporate it into our everyday life. At first, this was super hard for me because yes, I also thought it was very unnatural to talk to a baby and have them drool and stare back at you with blank eyes. However, at month 8 when my kids can point to words I ask them to on flashcards, I know I’ve made it. Several months of hard work and it’s starting to show. At age one, my children had more than a few hundred words they recognize, at age two, we’ve effectively used phonics for them to read easy English readers and we are able to recognize simple Chinese words (without phonics), at age three, they were able to have at least 500 words under their belt in Chinese, then learn phonics, all by just immersing language in everyday life.
As a parent, you have to work hard. It just means you must have communication with your child. You must have them trust you as their educator. So this is where many parents will kind of disagree with me by saying, I don’t know the language myself, I don’t know English or I don’t know Chinese, I am not home, I am not an educator.
You are their role model, you are their only support in life (at least at this moment), you direct them to where they need to be in life. What do you mean you’re not an educator?
The way you teach them to think to gather themselves, to be responsible, to be curious. That’s ALL you! I grew up in a Chinese household where my parents understood ZERO English. It didn’t mean they didn’t set up the right environment for me to want to learn. I remember long talks with my father about life, about school, about friends, etc. I remember trusting my parents guidance and so when you have a mutual trust, your child will follow what you suggest.
This is paramount to their success even in learning language. Many parents tell me their children don’t listen to them. They need to outsource teaching, they have to outsource everything because their children only listens to someone outside. My advice: get them to listen. There’s something OFF at home if they’re not listening to you! Normal children and teen stuff is okay but for them not trusting you to teach them stuff means there’s a miscommunication between you and your child. You may slam me and say I have no clue what your child is like followed by many complaints about how your child is different but we all have to ask ourselves, if we don’t know or CAN’T PUT IN THE TIME TO FIGURE OUT why our child is not listening (70% of the time), then maybe it’s time to change that. My kids are kids. They will be defiant and they will argue and they’re not robots that listen to me 100% of the time. That’s normal. However, generally, they will listen 70% of the time and that’s acceptable to me. The other 30% of the time, I’m pulling my hairs out, getting angry and losing my temper. I count that as normal.
One more thing, sending them to Chinese school won’t give them native speaking abilities. Miracles don’t happen. You’ll have to live with that. I’ve taken Spanish and Japanese before. Forgot all of it because it was acquired “as a foreign language.” This post is about getting native, so I’m focusing on that. Chinese school ONLY by itself will not teach your child to be native.
Ok, now that we’ve gotten rid of the two most important background items of TV and relationship, I can go into methods.
For Babies of Native Families
COMMUNICATE: Use the concepts I have above and talk to your children in Chinese ALL THE TIME. Talk to them about the weather, about colors, about yourself. Talk to them while you’re doing housework.
- I am washing the dishes right now. See how dirty they are? We’re going to use water and soap to wash them.
- I am folding clothes right now.
- We are getting in a car now to buy some groceries and pick up your brother from school. I have to strap you in with seat belts to make sure you don’t fly out of your seat.
You get the point. Start this ever since birth. Get them prepared in listening to the language. This also applies to English speaking families. It’s generally good for the child.
LABEL YOUR HOME: Start labeling your house with Chinese labels. Get the child used to learning the words to their everyday life items. I’ve done these since they were babies and now they do them by themselves. I show what they look like here Teaching Your Children to Read Fast with Sticker Labels. It doesn’t need to be so formal. You can just write them on a post it even and then stick them around the house of items you’d like them to read. Then every time you guys take a bath, you can show them the word “tub” or “soap” or whatever. After 365 days of bathing time, I refuse to believe your child will not know what that word is.
READ DAILY AND BUY BOOKS, LOTS OF BOOKS: Read a book a day on anything and every topic. Make sure you start your journey on preparing to spend a “lot of money” on building a library for your child. Our entire Facebook Group is about recommending books for Chinese. The reason being without books, there’s really no better way to immerse them in the language. Set at least 30 minutes a day (cut the time up in small chunks for babies) for reading. If they don’t have a high attention span, do a minute a time then build up. For me, when my children were only three months old, they had zero choice so they had to look at the book and listen to me read, lol. However, I always stopped when they looked away or didn’t seem like they wanted to look anymore. Always know the signal for your own child. If they are losing interest, switch to something else.
FLASHCARDS: Use flashcards with your babies. Yes, you heard me. Use it! Here’s the important part. Put only words on one side (no pictures) and pictures on the other side or no pictures at ALL. Many parents like to buy very beautifully illustrated cards and I get confused myself. Am I looking at pictures or am I looking a the words? Make sure your point is clear. They are babies. If you put something on the card, they will look at everything. Simple is better. My posts always show my cards. Parents say it’s boring. YES, IT WAS INTENTIONAL and my kids understand word is word, picture is picture and the word meanings stick to that word or phrase and they’re not distracted by cartoons or pictures. Make sure if you have pictures on the back, it’s of REAL people and REAL things. Do not use illustrations or abstract pictures. Be clear. Babies don’t understand implications yet.
ONLY TALK TO THEM IN MANDARIN AT HOME: This is confusing to most parents because they’ll say and remember that I taught my child how to read in English concurrently so how can you only talk in mandarin at home. Simple. I only taught how to read English while it’s our English time. Then switch right back to Chinese so it’s 90% Chinese at home. You have to realize, it’s English the moment you walk outside your DOOR! We live in America!!! I take them to baby music classes and other baby classes and it’s all taught in English! They then continued with English preschool, etc. I am confident that their English will be “FINE”….
My children then really had mandarin as their first language. They grew up (before school) talking to me only in Chinese and expressing themselves in Chinese to me. Now with school, Chinglish is popping up and I would repeat back to them what they should have said.
“Mommy, 我今天在學校 did a lot of hard work.” I would follow up with a correction.
“你說你今天在學校很用功做了很多高難度的工作嗎？” They attend a Montessori so everything is “work” and they even refer to it as “工作” in Chinese Montessori as well.
For Babies of Non Native Families
For them to learn Chinese, start taking them to places where they can listen to some Chinese. Enroll in Chinese playgroups, Chinese music classes for babies, hire a Chinese nanny! You must have the child listen to accurately toned Chinese. First time they learn, they must hear hear the right accent for them to speak like a native later.
Teaching children when you’re not native requires spending more time and money and making some drastic changes if you really want them to be native speakers. Many spend their first 3-4 years in Asia. That’s drastic but it will for sure, “work.” I have friends (who are White) with Chinese native speaking children. I’m always awed by them and respect them immensely for the efforts they’ve put in.
You can buy some Chinese story CDs and play them throughout the day or easy Chinese songs. Note that your child may not always need age appropriate music. If you want to listen to some Chinese Rock songs that you like, that’s fine too. Just check prior with someone Chinese to make sure there’s no profanity.
The main point is, if you want them to be native, you need daily exposure somehow. Either hire a Chinese speaking nanny or send them to Chinese immersion school or move to Asia for a few years. Otherwise, their Chinese will be as good as our Spanish when we took them as a second language in high school. The following sections can be applied by non-native families if you ask your nanny or Chinese teacher to implement it. I highly suggest going on play dates with immigrant families and spending like a summer in Asia and registering them in learning Chinese.
In regards to TV, if your child is older (over 4), you can show them some TV shows with real people (and not cartoons) like singing shows or like kids shows that show real people and make sure the people talk in a slow pace and normal pace. I have suggested videos in our Facebook Group posted.
Age 2 -3 Requires Some More Concrete Work
When my children hit two, it’s a Chinese learning milestone. By that time, they can identify maybe 200-300 characters (judging from my flashcards) and here’s where it gets fun. This is the time when you should really work with your Chinese library!
- Buy FUN children’s books
- Buy FUN children’s books
- BUY FUN CHILDREN’S BOOKS!!!!!!!!!!
You should have at least 50 different Chinese children’s books by now. That’s a minimum. If you have a library near you with Chinese children’s books, GREAT!!! I didn’t have that luxury but if you do, you’ll save a ton of money! However, if you’re like me and live in an area with low access to good quality Chinese children’s books, start buying! I’ve written a piece on where to buy books here: How to Buy on 博客來 (Books.com.tw) or where else can I get books in the states?
I’ve also listed many books on my Book Reviews Section.
We’re in the states which means, teachers at school won’t be applying the discipline for the children to learn Chinese! In Taiwan and China, if you don’t learn, you’ll get punished at school and get poor grades, etc. Here in the states, you need to induce your children to learn for “fun” or trick them into thinking so. This requires buying books in their interest. Whether it’ll be poop books, fart books, or anything you deep too “stupid for my kid”… if it induces them to be interested to read on their own, BUY IT.
I have I would say thousands of books at home (English and Chinese). You don’t need this much and you can accumulate them through time. Given that, I think a minimum of at least 100 books varying in variety and topics by age three is a requirement.
“COOPERATIVE READING” STARTS: So I didn’t use any formal textbook because I looked and I couldn’t bare to read them myself. They were…boring. I can’t possibly sell something to my children if I myself fall asleep while teaching it. I won’t be enthusiastic about it and they would just zone out. So what did I do at this point in reading?
At 2 years old, your child can comprehend you about 90% if you use their language and even if they can’t talk nicely with full sentences yet, they CAN FULLY UNDERSTAND YOU!!! Please don’t think your child only understands what they themselves say. They can understand way more than what they can say themselves.
At this point, I start “cooperative reading.” So at this point, I know my children can recognize 200+ characters. When we read, I stop every five sentences or so at a word and have them “read” that word. Then as they get used to it, I stop every sentence, then every few words. You build up their patience and confidence as they learn new words this way. Most parents would find this totally ad hoc. Yes, well, when you’ve read one book a day for 365 days, how many times can you read the same word? A LOT.
FLASHCARD CONTINUES: Continue with flashcards with words you’ve read that week and review it during dinners for like 2-3 minutes. That’s it. Even if they can’t remember right away, who cares. Tell them what it is and move on. Don’t make it a big deal. Review again next dinner or even whip one up in the morning and ask before they change their clothes. Just have flashcards floating around and words enveloping your life.
Age 3 Starts the Age of Phonics
I didn’t start teaching zhuyin (注音) until age 3. Why? Because it absolutely made no sense to them. They don’t have a meaning for each sound!!! Age 3 they are mature enough to piece together the sounds (especially when we’ve already finished phonics and reading for English). The concept for piecing together sounds make so much more sense at this age. Do it. They must need some form of phonics. Many do not agree with this but it has HELPED ME IMMENSELY to their self learning abilities!!!!!! I’ve taught phonics with easy flashcards (yes again) and now when reading, pointing out how the “zhuyin” works next to the words we’ve been reading in the books.
“Cooperative Reading” gets more intense at this age. Now they can finally sound out EVERY WORD IN THE BOOK. I feel like my life has changed. Now they can read by themselves and just ask me about terms they don’t understand! Whew!!!!! 3 Years OF SUPER HARD WORK!!!! Here they are reading bridging books in Chinese. My three year old is working really hard to be like her sister so they actually can read the same books which is amusing to me:
READING TIME CONTINUES: Regardless of how much they can read on their own, they still need help and really enjoy the time you guys have together reading so I still read with them. I may read an entire book to them or have them read it to me and we discuss. Once a week I would whip out a book at least ONE grade level above and read it to them and discuss every single concept they don’t understand. How else will they improve comprehension if they keep reading at the same level right? I’ve purchased a bunch of books which introduces new terms and this is use reading together and discussing topics they don’t know.
I always have them then again repeat to me the main point of the book and tell me what they’ve learned and it’s become a habit:
Get your children involved in answering questions in the book after they they hit age 3.
WRITING STARTS: I don’t ask my three year old to write perfectly in Chinese but I start her on stroke order. I wrote an article about that here. There’s No Other Way Around Knowing How to Write Chinese!
Other fun stuff we do beyond age 3:
- Get Your Child to Teach You Something Using a Whiteboard!
- Doing Arts with Watercolor Pencils & Book Review: 十二生肖的故事 Story of the 12 Zodiac Animals
- Fast Way to Acquire Language? Karaoke for Kids
- Learning Chinese Characters With Stickers
- Learning Chinese Characters With Stickers
- There’s a lot more on our Facebook Group. I’m always amazed and amused at the creativity in my facebook group and moms who are so much more hardworking than I am! Their activities blow me away. I encourage you to view some on our group.
ALWAYS MAKE SURE BOOKS ARE AT THEIR MATURITY LEVEL: Let me ask you this. If I told you you have to read a book that says “I love dogs, dogs are cute, etc.” would you be interested as an adult? No. Apply the same concept with your child. If it’s not interesting to them because they are so advanced in English, then your best bet is to read to them at this point books that they find interesting rather than have them read EASY things that are BORING to them. You’ll get nowhere with this method. They’ll resist! I can’t blame them! I will too!!!! This is why cooperative reading is what I incorporated. This way we can read stuff they easily understand when I read but yet be poked with new words daily. I had my three year old read a book she loves and took the phonics support off and this is the piece I did on her: Why Using Textbooks To Teach Chinese May Not Be the Most Efficient Way To Teach Reading
One last note is in any language:
COMPREHENSION COMES FIRST.
Without comprehension, you can know 3000 words and still be illiterate. This is why reading together and talking to them daily is so important. Comprehension will breed into interest will breed into reading with ease and being interested in the topic and utilize Chinese as a tool for them to acquire information and not use it as a “class” or something they have to “learn.” In other words, make them use it like they use English. I didn’t use a formal system so when I bought Sagebooks this year, I found my three year old already knows 95% of the words in there (and she resisted with a passion so we ended up just asking her the words she knows in there with their table of contents and not put her through something she really doesn’t want to read). I posted something on that here: Using Sage Books As a Native Chinese Speaking Family
When I bought Greenfield, my three year old knows about 60% and we’re adding in more words to recognize and my older one knows about 85% of the words in Greenfield. However, what they enjoy more are the other bridge books and picture books with wonderful stories and I do not dictate what they read at home except for that once a week “harder” material that I read with them. However, even that “harder” material seems quite fun but just harder to understand.
Other parents had much success using other methods and I’ve interviewed them here: Interviews With Parents Who Have Successfully Taught Their Children Chinese