How to Jumpstart Your Kid’s Chinese

It’s been awhile since I posted about Chinese language acquisition. I try not to post about this subject unless I actually have something either new to say – or more likely, a new way to present classic truths.

And today is that day. Lucky you!

Since 2017 just started, I figure many of us are taking stock over our past year and planning for the new one. And perhaps, like many of us, your kid’s Chinese has started to backslide and you want to kick it back into gear.

Well, without further preamble, here is the absolute, top, most effective, number one thing you can do to help jumpstart your kid’s Chinese (waitforit):

Speak Chinese to your children. 

I know. Collective groans from both speakers and non-speakers alike.

I get it.

Unless you immigrated over relatively later in life, English is likely your dominant language (or at least, the dominant language you think in and communicate with your children).

The thought of communicating in Chinese with your children is likely exhausting (it certainly is for me), and requires constant upkeep and vigilance. The ease and speed at which I slip into English with my kids is something to behold – and really hard to correct course after awhile.

But it can be done.

And then, of course, if you don’t speak Chinese yourself, the possibility of communicating in Chinese with your children is improbable and implausible (though not impossible, I suppose). This article will have limited application for you, but all is not lost. You just have to be more creative and likely, have to pay for it.

Look, I am totally beating a dead horse and Captain Obviousing it here, but seriously: Speak Chinese to your children.

Your common sense likely confirms my brilliant advice.

How did your kids learn English? They heard you speak it. They heard everyone around them speak it. Everything they consumed speaks it.

Thus, the quickest and most efficient way for your kids to learn Chinese is to hear you speak it. The more Chinese they hear and eventually comprehend, the more likely they will speak it. (After all, how can you expect them to speak Chinese if they do not have the vocabulary to express themselves in it?)

I could spout all these language acquisition facts at you and they would most likely bore you to death.

Also? It probably won’t change your behavior because facts without a plan of action don’t really do anything.

So, how can you change your Chinese speaking (or lack thereof) habits?

Here then, are some of my tips:

1) Start small.

Perhaps start off by speaking to the kids for 15 minutes a day and then increasing by 15 minute increments each week. Any time increment will do.

Or maybe, speak only Chinese at meal times. (Although, if your kids are picky eaters and every meal is a battle, don’t add this additional stress to your life. It just isn’t worth it.)

Or maybe, read/tell Chinese stories before bedtime. (Again, if bedtime is normally a contentious time, don’t add more pain to the routine. Choose a different time.)

The point is to just start small, do that consistently, and when you start getting good at that, to increase your Chinese speaking time.

2) What if you can’t speak?

Hire a tutor to just TALK with your kids and play and read or discuss things or go out to eat. Hire someone to do “life”with your child except do life in Chinese.

Hire (or ask family members or friends or beg/borrow/steal) someone to do the activities I listed in the previous point with your children. This can be in person or via Skype or however you manage to do it.

Yes, this sucks that you will have to work harder that parents who speak Chinese don’t have to deal with. But hey, that’s life. We all have different advantages and disadvantages. But somehow, we make it work!

3) Speak Chinese.

I know. Captain Obviousing again.

But really, after you start small and scale up, there really is nothing more to it than the doing of it.

No amount of media, playdates, whatever, can replace you just speaking Chinese to your kid already.

You are the easiest and quickest source of Chinese for your children because you are in their lives and have to be with them.

Speak Chinese to your children.

Yes. I know. My tips suck today because really, other than the “Start Small” piece of advice, I don’t have anything else.

I have totally misled you.

Sorry. (Not really.)

But, Mandarin Mama, you say. My kid won’t speak back to me in Chinese! How will me speaking to them improve that?

Welp, its hard to speak a language and have a conversation if you don’t have the necessary vocabulary with which to speak. Many children aren’t willing to speak Chinglish and use Chinese for the words they know and subbing English for words they don’t.

In that case, just repeat what they said in English in Chinese. Offer them the vocabulary they need.

But what if my Chinese isn’t good enough?

Hey, I get that. And really, the only solution to that is to speak and get better. 

What? You have to expend effort?

I know.

This is how I feel about most parenting and adulting.

Sucks.

But the more you do it, the easier it will be.

But what if we talk about complicated stuff I simply don’t have the vocabulary for?

Hey, I get it. If I have to talk to my kids about the Birds and the Bees or even bullying, I likely will not be able to with any semblance of nuance or sophistication. 

I can choose one of three options:

a) Conduct the conversation in English. 

This is the easiest option and totally legit. After all, this is likely not a full time experience and will not affect your children’s overall Chinese fluency. 

b) Conduct the conversation in Chinglish. 

A little more difficult (and likely, what I end up doing) and subbing complicated vocabulary with English. At some point, it may become ridiculous. Then switch to English.

Again. Unless 80+% of your conversations are deep and complicated, I think you will be fine. 

c) Conduct the conversation in Chinese. 

Of course, this requires a lot more preparation and work. I am not a fan of this option but I am a lazy sort. 

If you are confident enough or want to take the time to do this, by all means! That’s great. 

But again, choose what works for you. 

Look. Speaking Chinese all the time (or as much as possible) is a lifestyle change. 

It will be uncomfortable and awkward. And then it will become easier. And then it will be normal. 

Before Cookie Monster (7) was born, I rarely spoke Chinese. I hadn’t really spoken Chinese on a daily and regular basis since I left for college at seventeen. That’s over a decade of not speaking or dealing with or thinking in Chinese.

So, when I had Cookie Monster, I figured I would just copy my parents and speak to him in Chinese and that’s how he would learn to speak and understand it.

I did not realize how difficult it would be.

First of all, I felt ridiculous speaking to my child at all since he was an infant.

Second, it was really hard to switch from over a decade of speaking and thinking predominantly in English to Chinese. It was really hard.

And who would blame me if I slipped up and stopped speaking in Chinese? It’s not like it was a cornerstone of good parenting. But it turns out that teaching Chinese to my kids is a super hardcore value of mine and eventually, it took over my whole life.

Now, I’m not saying you have to be like me and revolve your life around Chinese. But I am saying that it requires effort and intention and continual follow-through.

And now, seven years later, my Chinese vocabulary has expanded, my literacy has (mildly) improved, and speaking in Chinese to my children is like breathing.

To be honest, it is STILL hard. I am constantly looking up words and translations and yelling at my kids to speak in Chinese and to remind myself to speak Chinese during Chinese playdates with my mommy friends.

But overall, it is now a way of life. A conscious way of life, but completely doable and attainable.

It just takes time and consistency.

Speak to your kids in Chinese already. 

Why I Am So Insistent On Mandarin Immersion

As many of you know, I’m very gung-ho on raising my children bilingual in Mandarin and English. The English part is relatively easy since it’s the majority language of the Bay Area. (Although sometimes, you’d be rightly surprised!) Plus, it’s the language Hapa Papa speaks to the children, the language Hapa Papa and I speak to each other, and the language of the bulk of TV and media. English surrounds us.

As for Mandarin, for now, it is the main language in which I, my mother, and the kids’ teachers speak to my children. I have a ton of Mandarin DVDs, CDs, apps, and various books and media for my kids to consume as well. Both their preschools are in Mandarin, (one teaching traditional with zhuyin and the other teaching simplified).

I used to worry about the kids learning simplified Chinese characters because truthfully, I hate simplified Chinese. I feel it butchers and guts the rich history and meaning of the Chinese written language – a ploy by the Communist government to rip their citizens from any connection to the heart of being Chinese.

I know, it sounds so 1984 – but consider this: the traditional character for love is 愛. The simplified character is 爱. To the illiterate eye, it might not look any different at all, but for those of us who are literate (or in this case, semi-literate), the simplified character has literally ripped the heart out of love. For you see, the character for heart is 心 and it is no longer in the simplified word.

How can you have love with no heart?

At any rate, I am Taiwanese so of course, I am a bit biased. And now that Cookie Monster and Gamera have been in both schools for at least a year with no ill effects to their ability to recognize both traditional and simplified characters, I’ve decided that our children’s minds are incredibly agile and able to understand that the same character can have different physical representations. After all, aren’t most letters in the English alphabet like that anyway (albeit on a much simpler scale). There are upper case, lower case, different fonts, cursive, etc. Tons of ways to render the same letter totally different. And yet, no one bemoans that it is too difficult for our children to learn to read English!

I realize that was quite a tangent for something that most people couldn’t care less about, but to many of us Taiwanese Americans, it’s a pretty big fucking deal.

Either way, it’s good for my kids to learn to read Chinese – simplified or traditional. I just want them to be literate!

In fact, one of the main reasons I’m pushing so hard for homeschooling is Mandarin language retention. Through personal, anecdotal, and empirical data, once kids start regular school in English, you can pretty much count on their Mandarin to take a nosedive. It’s a sad but universally acknowledged truth. And the only way to combat that Mandarin attrition, is through a LOT of concerted effort.

Now, I know that officially, I have to homeschool my kids in English – but still. Their exposure to Chinese will be far more at home than at school. And also, at home, I can teach Chinese as well. This way, I don’t have to send my kids to additional Chinese schools either on Friday nights or Saturday mornings. Once all my kids are done with preschool, I can go back to Taiwan at any time and spend months there, too. (The only limiting factor would be time away from Hapa Papa.)

So, why do I want my kids to be not only fluent but also literate in Mandarin? I can give you a bunch of reasons such as the value of being bilingual/multilingual, communicating with my family in Taiwan, retaining cultural heritage, etc. But truthfully, one of the dominant reasons is because I know they will be judged and I want to remove one barrier in life to people questioning my children’s identities.

Growing up as an ABC (American Born Chinese), I often felt like a foreigner and like I didn’t fit in. Of course, I was smart and fluent in English and could converse with my peers, but that didn’t stop me from noticing that none of the “pretty” or “popular” girls looked like me. None of them ate what I ate. None of the media I consumed had people who looked like me. None of the fashion magazines gave advice on how to do makeup for Asian eyes or dress for our skin tones and figures (or lack thereof!).

I was invisible.

Then, on the few occasions I went back to Taiwan, I felt stupid because though I could speak the language, I couldn’t speak Taiwanese, and I couldn’t read or write at peer level. My family would always find it amazing that I could even speak Chinese at all. But then, occasionally tease us for cultural or pronunciation errors. I didn’t dress right, move right, or even communicate right and even awash in a sea of people who allegedly looked like me, I was picked out to be an ABC even before I opened my mouth.

I was dismissed.

Now, keep in mind that my spoken Chinese is actually very good – and people are often surprised that I am an ABC. However, as soon as I try to read something, it is evident that I am. (Although, with technology, my literacy has greatly improved to that of maybe a 2nd grader. Okokok… maybe a 1st grader.)

Since my kids are multi-ethnic, I can only imagine this “foreign feeling” to be even more heightened. To feel as if they are not really Taiwanese and not really white. (Forget anyone thinking they’re also Japanese. That pretty much never comes up.)

Of course, to my eyes, I think my kids look Chinese, but I do realize that my eyes are lying. Plus, since I’m used to seeing so many multi-ethnic kids, I think my sample size is a bit skewed. One thing for sure, whenever we head back to Taiwan, EVERYONE can tell my kids are mixed. And immediately, the assumptions and presumptions come flying.

My children are dismissed as not really Chinese. (No one says it, but I can feel it. Being a minority helps a person attune to what the majority is thinking.) People are surprised that they can speak and read Chinese. (In a way that is unintentionally insulting. Like, “Oh, good for you! You can walk and talk and not wet yourself!”)

My children are a novelty.

So yes, being bilingual is a great thing in and of itself. But one of the primary reasons I am so adamant is because I see their fluency as armor. As a way to say, “Fuck you” in whichever language they want to any who would dare underestimate them.

They will NOT be ignored. They will NOT be invisible.

Judge them at your peril.