The Real Point of Learning Chinese


**You can find an updated version of this piece, along with exclusive new chapters, in the ebook, (affiliate link) So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese.

No matter how hard I try, every now and then, I have to remind myself that learning Chinese is not a competition.

This seems so obvious when it’s written out in black and white. (And also, I feel very foolish because it’s now one more piece of evidence that I am a petty, petty person. But I suppose that is no surprise to anyone who has ever read anything I have ever written. Or met me. I digress.)

One of the toughest things about parenting is resisting the urge to compare my children with other people’s children. And of course, when I add Chinese fluency/literacy to the mix, it is just one more thing in the parental jockeying portfolio to prove that I am a better parent than other parents (at least in Chinese acquisition).

After all, if my children understand/speak/read/write Chinese better than other people’s children, then that must validate whatever I’m doing to have my children be fluent/literate in Chinese. (Who cares that my kids are illiterate in English? That’s on purpose. And besides, English is easy.)

And if my kids are “better,” then I am validated as a parent and therefore, as a person. Which makes me better than other people. WHICH CLEARLY IS OF UTMOST IMPORTANCE.

Here’s the thing though: Other children’s Chinese fluency/literacy has absolutely no relevance to my children’s Chinese fluency/literacy.

It doesn’t matter if my kids know more or fewer characters than other kids. How much or little other kids can read has absolutely ZERO effect or influence on how much my kids can read.

It’s not as if Chinese is a pie wherein if your kid is more fluent, they have a bigger piece of pie and therefore my kid now has a smaller piece of pie.

There is no finite amount of Chinese in the world and if someone happens to be more literate, there are now fewer Chinese characters for you to learn to read.

That’s not how learning works.

That’s not how language works.

WE CAN ALL HAVE PIES.

(Yes, I suppose even your children.)

And here’s the other rub. The even pettier part of my dark, dark soul.

I don’t want other people to have pie.

Which is dumb because what does other people’s pie have to do with MY pie? (Or in this case, our children’s pies.)

Also, if other people’s kids don’t have “pie,” with whom will my children practice their Chinese?

Seems counterproductive.

Look. I get that many of us want to know how other people’s children are faring in Chinese because then we get a quick gauge on how well our kids are doing. After all, it can be useful to see if my kid is “at level” (whatever your metrics are) or not. That way, I can determine whether or not I need to do more work or just coast on my awesomeness.

(Coasting on good looks alone is difficult when it comes to fluency. Our kids’ stunning faces can only blind people’s eyes, not stop their ears.)

However, most of us fall victim to the trap of comparing our children and then making it a value judgment of our parenting or Chinese language brainwashing. That somehow, if our kids are “better” than other kids in Chinese, then they are better kids in general. And that if our kids are “worse” than other kids in Chinese, then they are worse kids in general.

Here’s the thing though: even when your kids are “better” than other kids in Chinese, that is completely meaningless.

Why?

Because just because your kids are “better” doesn’t mean that they are actually fluent (or literate).

After all, my children are BETTER than Hapa Papa in Chinese, but that is meaningless because Hapa Papa cannot speak ANY Chinese.

And sure, my children are BETTER than some of my friends’ children at reading Chinese, but they STILL ARE NOT LITERATE. They are just slightly LESS illiterate.

Better is a relative term. Useful for making ourselves feel superior to other people, but meaningless in terms of actual fluency or literacy.

So, before we get too uppity or bummed out about our children and their Chinese fluency and literacy, let’s remember what the REAL point of learning Chinese is.

The REAL point of learning Chinese is to be able to:

1) Understand when someone is speaking Chinese to you

2) Speak and be understood by others when speaking Chinese

3) Read and comprehend Chinese characters

4) Write Chinese in comprehensible Chinese sentences

In other words: to communicate.

I realize this might be a super Captain Obvious type of post, but I think it’s something that we as parents occasionally lose sight of.

All this effort we pour into our kids learning Chinese (and really, anything at all), is not to be better than other people at it, but to be able to use it in a way that is useful. And in the case of Chinese, it is so that our children can communicate effectively with people who speak Chinese.

Alright, perhaps this post was more for myself than for any of you, dear readers. Have a great weekend!

How to Turn Your Car into a Mobile Chinese Learning Center

**You can find an updated version of this piece, along with exclusive new chapters, in the ebook, (affiliate link) So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese.

If you are anything like me, you likely spend 87% of your time in the car shuttling your kids to and from school, activities, and errands. That adds up to a lot of time that could be used to passively (and also actively) cram Chinese into your children’s brains.

So, if you’re not currently using your “dead” time in the car, you are missing out on some great opportunities to support your children’s Chinese language learning.

Here then, are some ideas of how you can turn your car into a Mobile Chinese Learning Center.

1) Listen to Chinese audio resources.

There are so many possibilities here, it’s a veritable goldmine. Think of what you can listen to in a car and there is a Chinese version. For a great resource on where to find and what to find, check out Guavarama’s awesome post.

– children’s songs
– children’s stories (I bought several CD sets full of Chinese stories)
– audio books fiction or non-fiction (either on ximalaya, podcasts, CDs from Chinese books, etc.)

2) Watch Chinese shows/DVDs, etc.

If you have one of those fancy cars with DVD players, you can easily put in a movie or show and have kids watch in Chinese. Or you can preload tablets with Chinese shows.

I don’t have a fancy car nor do I allow screen time in the car (because quite frankly, they get enough screen time at home) so I don’t use this option. But plenty of my friends do!

3) Read.

Have stacks of Chinese books in the car available for your kids to read. This only works if they are literate enough to NOT need you next to them – or YOU have to be literate enough that when they describe the character, you can actually know what character they are talking about. (This ALSO requires your children to know how to describe the character – knowing what the strokes are called, what the radicals are called, and what the parts of the characters look like and how to describe them.)

Also, this requires your children not to get car sick while reading.

My kids are not at this level of expertise yet so I do not use this. Also, I am terrified of my kids losing a book in the great black hole of our vehicle so I am not likely to utilize this option. (Not to mention, my Chinese literacy is NOT at all up to par. My kids can describe a character – I am just not equipped to envision their accurate descriptions.)

Of course, if your children can read zhuyin, the problem of character recognition is remedied and not as big of a deal. (There might still be then occasional hiccup while they’re improving their zhuyin, but by and large, much easier than reading without it.)

4) Talk

This is a little silly and Captain Obviousy, but you could just have a conversation with your kids in Chinese. (Of course, if you can’t speak Chinese, this is a little more difficult.)

5) Word games

There are so many fun word games you can play in the car (or anywhere, really). Here are a few examples:

a) I Spy

Just like how you would play in English, players take turns choosing something they “Spy,” describing it, and everyone else guesses what they have “spied.”

b) 接龍 (jie long2/Build up a sequence – although literally, Connect the dragon)

You can play this in so many ways, but the basic idea is that you connect the last word in an entry to the first word in the next.

So, if I use numbers as an example, let’s say you start with “123.” The next person has to start a number with “3.” And so on, and so on.

Some possible variations:

Chinese Idioms/成語 – This game has an actual name called 成語接龍 (cheng2 yu3 jie long2) and is basically where the last word of an idiom is the first word of the next.

– Chinese sentences/phrases/compound words – Where again, the last word of the sentence/phrase/compound word is the first word of the next sentence/phrase/compound word

Really, if your or your kids knowledge of Chinese is vast, you could play with any topic. (eg: song titles, book titles, movies, shows, etc.)

c) How many can you name?

Choose any category (eg: fruits, vegetables, animals, occupations, colors, flowers, trees, insects, etc.) and take turns naming them. Whoever repeats an item first loses.

My kids usually start off with some variation of: 水果園有什麼? (shui3 guo3 yuan2 you3 shen2 me?/What does a fruit garden have?)

Incidentally, I learned this game from overhearing them play in the back of the van. They learned how to play from watching Taiwanese game shows on YouTube. (Who says YouTube is a barren wasteland?)

d) Guess that word.

Again, this game only works if the participants have the appropriate terminology to describe character components. (see above re: reading in the car).

In short, you describe a character until the other person guesses it based on your descriptions.

This sounds abominably hard to me but my kids have actually played this in the car. They have also gotten it right (although sometimes, just randomly guessing until they hit the right word).

Again, I don’t know where they learned this game. Likely YouTube – but maybe they were just bored one day and started playing. Or maybe their Chinese tutor taught it to them.

I don’t know. Do I look like I keep good tabs on what my kids do?

A variation of this game is when they start to write a character a stroke at a time on a magnetic drawing board (affiliate link) (or use their feet on the back of chairs or fingers in the air) and the other person tries to guess the word before they finish writing.

6) Sing songs or tell stories.

Similar to having a conversation or listening to Chinese audio, this is just your kids singing or telling stories or jokes in Chinese. Of course, this requires that they know at least one song/story/joke. And if you use this in conjunction with listening to Chinese CDs, your kids will eventually start singing the songs they know.

I am amazed at how many songs my children know and can sing or recite from what they’ve learned listening to Chinese CDs alone. (They also know a ton from their Chinese tutors.) This doesn’t even include all the stuff they consume from YouTube.

Anyhow, these ideas aren’t original or even that difficult to think of. I’m sure off the top of your head, you can think of stuff I didn’t mention. (If that is the case, please let me know in the comments! The more ideas the better!)

These are just some examples of how you can maximize your traveling time. And since your kids are stuck in the car anyway, you might as well unleash your inner Tiger Mom and get the kids working on their Chinese already.

Good luck! And let me know how your kids end up liking these games if you try them at home (or on the road, as the case may be).

How to Jumpstart Your Kid’s Chinese

**You can find an updated version of this piece, along with exclusive new chapters, in the ebook, (affiliate link) So You Want Your Kid to Learn 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. 

Chinese Reading Challenge

Chinese Reading ChallengeIt’s a universally accepted fact that the best way to increase literacy is to have your kids read, read often, and read widely. So, if you want your kids to learn Chinese and also have them literate, that holds equally true for Chinese literacy. It is especially true if the books are non-translated, “indigenous” books.

Reading (in any language, but we are focusing on Chinese here) helps your children internalize Chinese grammar without resorting to dull worksheets or drills, gives them cultural references, and helps them see how idioms apply in every day conversation. If the books are non-translated books (ie: not originally English books translated into Chinese), it has the added benefit of being written specifically for the Chinese/Taiwanese child. Definitely a bonus in terms of language fluidity, rhyming, and playful words being used.

This is even more helpful when your child reads aloud since it also captures the rhythm and musicality of Chinese. Reading aloud helps your kids get used to the flow of speaking Chinese and increase the likelihood of them speaking Chinese with fluidity in every day conversation. Reading the same texts repeatedly will also build confidence and decrease stumbling.

All of these aspects will help your child as they learn Chinese – even if it’s just the speaking part you want to emphasize. (The literacy would just be a bonus.)

Anyhow, even knowing all this stuff about reading and literacy, I still find it hard to read to my children. Mostly because I find it so boring. (I know, I know. I’m a terrible parent. Especially since poor, neglected Glow Worm clearly never gets read to because when someone finally does pay attention to him long enough to read to him, he goes apeshit about books. Like, beyond excited.)

But now that Cookie Monster knows 800-1000 characters and Gamera is probably around 500-600 characters and they are getting better at zhuyin, it’s now easier for me to make them read to me. (I’m totally ballparking their character knowledge here because I am so lazy that the thought of actually quizzing them and having them go through that many character flashcards makes me stabby and want to die.)

However, since I tend to be a little lax lately about their Chinese reading recently, I was so pleased to hear that Cookie Monster finally wants something BIG. He wants to get Minecraft on the PC (thus far, he’s been playing on the xbox) and I guess the PC version has more mods that he sees and covets on YouTube. So, he’s been begging us to get him a computer and the game.

Cookie Monster is six. I know this is just a preview of what is to come. sigh

When I told Cookie Monster I heard he wanted to get a computer to play Minecraft, he was so excited. SO EXCITED. I could tell because he was jumping up and down (and for some reason, shirtless), barely containing his glee, saying, “YEAH YEAH YEAH!”

“Wait a minute, Cookie Monster.” I said. “I haven’t said I would get it for you yet. I need you to do something first before I get it for you.”

“Ok! Ok! I’ll do it! Tell me what it is!”

“Before I buy Minecraft for you, and before you can play it, you will need to earn it,” I explained, totally proud of myself in this awesome, teachable parenting moment.

“What does that mean? What does ‘earn it’ mean? I want to earn it! I don’t understand what you’re saying! Help me!”

There went my proud feelings.

Clearly, we are doing a bang up job as parents.

Also, it was so sad and hilarious I really wish I had the foresight to video the whole thing.

Since I’m never one to waste a chance to weaponize my children’s loves and desires, I am taking advantage of Cookie Monster finally expressing a real BIG desire for something and using it to ramp up him reading Chinese books. He has to read a certain number of Chinese books before I will buy the game for him and then, he will have to read a certain number of chapters/books in order to actually play the game.

And, because I’m loathe to do anything in life without turning it into a blog post for my own benefit, I’m making it a communal thing.

Today’s post officially kicks off the Read 100 Chinese Books Challenge (閱讀100本書).

For the tl;dr crowd, the Read 100 Chinese Books Challenge is a non-competitive way for us parents to support each other and our children on their way to Chinese literacy. Basically, we “pledge” to have our kids read 100 Chinese books of any length or level. We can post updates, check in and encourage each other, recommend books, have bribes prizes, etc.

Oh, and I’m serious about the non-competitive part.

There are no forms, no worksheets, no book reports you have to fill out. (I provide them for you because some folks really like them, but I personally think nothing ruins the joy of reading like pointless busywork.)

There is no verification service.

No grand prize for reading more than 100 books.

In fact, the prize for reading 100 books is, to quote my snarky friend, Not Another DB MBA, “Another 100 books!”

If this is of interest to you, join us on our 閱讀100本書/Read 100 Chinese Books Facebook Group. We’d love to have you. You MUST PM the admin your reason for joining the group. No PM? No admission.

In case a hundred books seems like a lot (and I won’t lie, it is) and you’re not sure you can find one hundred English books, let alone one hundred Chinese books, GuavaRama has a fantastic series of posts all on Chinese books including what kinds of books to buy (categorized at different levels), where to buy them, how to choose books, and where to find them in libraries. Seriously, it’s some quality information. Use it.

Alright, friends and fellow Chinese enthusiasts! For more info, I recommend you head over to our Facebook Group. (FYI: again, please PM the admin your reasons for joining.)

Hope to see you there.

 

The Case for Zhuyin (Bopomofo)

**This piece was originally part of a series of posts. You can find the updated version, along with exclusive new chapters, in the ebook, (affiliate link) So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese

Before I go any further, I want to point out what this post is NOT. This is not a post pitting pinyin against zhuyin.

I am not interested in some dogmatic discussion about how zhuyin or pinyin is superior to the other. That is boring and stupid because it assumes that there can only be one thing that helps kids and adults learn Chinese. Life isn’t The Voice or American Idol. It is quite possible to have multiple good things simultaneously existing without resorting to which is “best.” Best for what, anyway?

What I actually want to do with this post is to make the case for why, if you want your kids to learn Chinese, in addition to having them learn pinyin, to also learn zhuyin. 

Also, this post pre-supposes you want your child to be literate in Chinese (be it Traditional or Simplified). And by literate, I mean actual literacy – not just recognize a few words here and there like 大小上下. For our purposes, by literate I mean that your child should be able to read a newspaper with ease and recognize about 2,000-4,000 characters (at approximately Chinese 3rd or 4th grade level and Taiwanese 6th grade level). That is what both Mainland China as well as Taiwan consider “literate” and able to function in their societies. (I, personally, do not qualify as literate in this case. I am, on my best best best day, at about 800-1,000 characters.)

Incidentally, I could write a post focusing on a lower standard of literacy, but really, what would be the point? How would that even be remotely useful? (Sorry, this is totally a pet peeve of mine when people complain about my posts having standards that are too high. I digress.)

Anyhow, I actually think it is impractical not to know pinyin since it uses the romantic alphabet with which most English speakers are familiar. Also, it is especially useful for typing in Chinese since we are already used to typing using the American keyboard. I am much faster typing Chinese via my pinyin keyboard versus my zhuyin or handwriting keyboard.

For adults and children who already know how to read English, they don’t have to learn a new “alphabet” and can almost immediately begin to try “reading” Chinese (albeit without comprehension) as long as there is pinyin next to Chinese characters. There is definitely a huge benefit to that!

Of course, this does prove problematic when it comes to proper pronunciation because if you already know how to read English (or any other language that uses the romantic alphabet), you are already used to another way of pronouncing those phonics. It is hard to get rid of that initial learning. Personally, I think the only reason I can pronounce things correctly with pinyin is because I already knew zhuyin.

But first, before I continue, for those who have zero knowledge: What the heck are pinyin and zhuyin anyway? Lucky for you, I link to stuff on Wikipedia with abandon!

Pinyin – A standardized form of phonetics for transcribing Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters into the romantic alphabet. Used in Mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore. Introduced in the 1950s. Replaced the old Wade-Giles Romanization.

Zhuyin (Bopomofo) – A standardized form of phonetic notation/symbols for transcribing Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese characters. Introduced in the 1910s in China and Taiwan although pinyin replaced zhuyin in China whereas Taiwan still considers Zhuyin its official form of phonetic notation.

The history of zhuyin is fascinating (and all the symbols are derived from “regularized” forms of ancient Chinese characters) and I highly recommend you read the Wikipedia article.

Okay, you might be thinking. That’s great that there is another phonetic notation out there to help kids read Chinese, but why would they need to learn an entirely different phonetic system if they already know pinyin? Isn’t that just redundant and adding an extra layer of unnecessary difficulty for your kids?

That’s a totally legitimate question and before I get to it, I want to point out a few things first.

One of the best ways to learn how to read and comprehend what you’re reading is to actually read. And to read a lot. (I know. It seems so obvious and unnecessary to point out, but nevertheless, I did.) So, for most children, their English reading (as well as Chinese reading) improves and gets better the more often and varied materials they read. It is especially helpful when kids find subjects and stories they love because then reading is fun, engaging, and interesting.

For English readers, this is not really a problem because once children learn phonics, they can pretty much read anything as long as they can blend the sounds. The limiting factor for children reading in English (whether native speaker or not) is then a matter of comprehension.

However, Chinese is NOT a phonetic language. Written Chinese is logosyllabic (ie: each syllable is represented by a character) and there are upwards of 20,000-40,000 unique characters – of which you require about 2,000-4,000 to be considered functionally literate. A word can be either a single character (eg: 大 /big) or a combination of characters (eg: 眼睛/eye).

Here’s the sad truth: If your child understands more Chinese than they can read, the limiting factor for them reading Chinese books is character recognition. 

Furthermore, if your child is not a native speaker and doesn’t have much additional language support, they will be severely limited by both comprehension as well as character recognition.

Chinese literacy will be difficult. I cannot overstate that fact.

Consider also, the fact that millions of American Born Chinese (as well as Brought Over By Airplane) people can speak and understand Chinese and yet, even for them, they can perhaps barely read a menu. (And only because food is an incredible motivating factor.)

Here are some more sobering facts for you:

Chinese Character/Word Recognition by Grade Level, Taiwan

Grade LevelReading (characters / words)Writing (characters / words)
1400 / 600300 / 400
2800 / 1200600 / 800
31200 / 1800900 / 1200
41600 / 24001200 / 1600
52000 / 30001500 / 2400
62400 / 36001800 / 3000
Chart excerpted from GuavaRama's excellent post on Chinese Characters by Grade Level.

 

Chinese Character/Word Recognition by Grade Level, China

Grade LevelReading (characters / words)Writing (characters / words)
1-21600800
3-425002000
5-630002500
7-935003000
Chart uses data from Stackexchange's forum that references the original source at Baidu.

 

Chinese Character/Word Recognition by Grade Level, Mandarin Immersion in US

Grade LevelReading (characters / words)Writing (characters / words)
150-10050-100
2130-250130-250
3230-400230-400
4330-550330-550
5430-700430-700
Chart uses data pulled from the few Mandarin Immersion schools that posted Character guides for each grade level. Also included some other data from anecdotal sources. Jinshan Mandarin Education Council, Woodstock School, MIP

 

Unfortunately, if your child already knows how to read English, it is highly improbable that their Chinese recognition is advanced enough for them to read at the same level (in subject matter, depth, and difficulty) as they can already read in English. (Incidentally, because they already understand and have applied the concepts of phonics and blending, they should pick up zhuyin really easily.)

From 我要吃小孩 (I Want to Eat a Child) by Sylviane Donnio, children's book

Zhuyin Sample 1: From 我要吃小孩 (I Want to Eat a Child) by Sylviane Donnio, children’s book

Consider Zhuyin Sample 1, an excerpt from a children’s book (click to embiggen). My almost six year old son, Cookie Monster, can read about 400-500 characters but still can’t read ALL of these characters on this page. He can read most of them – but definitely not ALL. So, even though he knows about 15% of the High Frequency Words, he still cannot read a children’s book.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that Cookie Monster is at about the 3rd-5th grade level in US Mandarin Immersion schools. If you think a 3rd-5th grader will find this book interesting beyond possibly five minutes (if even that), I would daresay you should reconsider.

Now, Cookie Monster is turning six in a few weeks and cannot read English (something I have chosen to do purposefully). But if he could read English, likely he would be able to read a comparable children’s story in English with great ease. And if he were used to that level of reading and comprehension, the fact that he could not read all the words in this “baby” book would be incredibly frustrating.

I have many friends whose kids, at six and a half, are already reading chapter books in English. There is NO WAY they could read chapter books in Chinese (and these are kids in 90/10 Mandarin Immersion schools).

As a result, the Chinese books they can read are too “babyish” for them and they lose interest either due to dull subject matter or because the stuff they would actually be interested in reading is too hard so they give up.

Zhuyin Sample 2: The explanation of a Tang classical poem, 靜夜思(A Quiet Night Thought) by 李白 (Li Bai)

Zhuyin offers your child a way to read the materials they want at the level they want without character recognition being a hurdle.

Because zhuyin is phonetic, it is a fantastic tool for “leveling” the reading field, as it were. As you can see from the pictures (click to embiggen), zhuyin is usually placed to the right of Chinese characters so children can read the characters they know and if they happen upon a character they don’t know, they can just look at the zhuyin to read the phonetic notation and they will be able to continue through the story with no problem. The only limit, again, being their understanding/comprehension (as it would be in English).

Zhuyin Sample 2 is an excerpt from a Chinese Tang poetry book I owned when I was a child. This particular page is explaining the meaning of the classical poem, 靜夜思(A Quiet Night Thought) by 李白 (Li Bai). Now, even though I can read perhaps at best, 800-1,000 characters, I can read every single word in this sample because of the zhuyin. Now, whether I comprehend these words is a different story, but I am not hindered from reading and learning from the text by my limited vocabulary.

Thus, a child, if they were interested in Chinese Tang poetry, could read and potentially understand this subject matter. (Truthfully, I think that if it were the same type of text explaining a Shakespearean sonnet in English, the comprehension level would likely be about the same).

Now, I don’t know too many kids interested in classical Chinese poetry – but surely, you can extrapolate and come up with some books a 3rd, 4th, or 5th grader might be interested in reading – and THOSE could be in zhuyin.

My point is that now, the primary obstacle (character recognition) to your child reading in Chinese has now been removed. English and Chinese reading are both now on a more “level” playing field. Of course, if your child is not a native speaker of Chinese, (and even if they are), most likely, because we live in an English speaking country, your child’s English comprehension will still surpass their Chinese comprehension.

But as I mentioned earlier, the more your child reads (in both quantity and variety), the more your child will understand.

Well, I can hear you thinking. Why not just get books in both pinyin and Chinese? And what about kids in China? Don’t they use pinyin and their pronunciation is just fine?

Great questions.

To the first, in China, my understanding is that only textbooks use pinyin with Chinese characters – and even then, only for young children. There is a reason children in Mainland China learn Chinese characters at a higher rate than kids in Taiwan. They need to amp up their character recognition in order to read the books at their intersecting comprehension and interest levels.

In Taiwan, zhuyin is only phased out at the 3rd-4th grade level so children can afford to learn Chinese characters at a slower rate than their Mainland Chinese counterparts. As a result, the majority of children’s literature will also have zhuyin so kids can enjoy many types of books without being limited by their lesser character recognition.

For kids in English speaking countries, there is a reason Immersion schools delay the teaching of pinyin until their students have already mastered reading in English. Otherwise, it is too easy for kids to confuse the “different” sounds each letter symbolizes in English and pinyin. When they finally do learn pinyin, their pronunciation of Chinese often suffers because it is much easier to “slip” into the English instead of the Chinese letter pronunciation.

As for why kids in China aren’t affected by pinyin pronunciations, I should think it’s obvious: they’re Chinese. They live in China. Where the official language is Mandarin Chinese. They already speak and understand Chinese (just like an American kid already speaks and understands English). I think it would be a little ridiculous to expect the Chinese people to have trouble pronouncing their own language.

When kids in China use pinyin, they are literally using it in the same manner kids in Taiwan are using zhuyin. But since they learn so many more characters at a lower grade level, there is less of a need to have books with pinyin in them. (Plus, there is a little problematic matter of formatting. Fitting Chinese characters to pinyin makes for very awkward formatting issues in books. Can you imagine how bulky a chapter book would be?)

However, since Taiwanese kids are still using zhuyin up to about 3rd or 4th grade, there are lots and lots of books (both chapter and non, fiction or non-fiction) with zhuyin. (I recall that in 5th grade, I read Little Women in Chinese first – and all due to the presence of zhuyin. So to this day, I still think of the four women’s character names in Chinese first.)

As a side benefit, because the books have more complicated characters with zhuyin, it also helps children with literacy and recognizing harder characters. They have already encountered them in their books and subject matter so when they finally learn the actual character without zhuyin, the kids have already been exposed enough so that it is relatively easier to remember.

Plus, now it doesn’t matter as much whether the characters are in Traditional or Simplified because regardless, as long as there is zhuyin, the kids can read the characters. In full disclosure, this is a bit of a false benefit since zhuyin is pretty much only used with Traditional characters since it is used primarily in Taiwan. So, it doesn’t really help kids who only know Traditional characters with Simplified.

However, it does open up a huge section of books to kids who only know Simplified (and honestly, Traditional, too) because as I mentioned, as long as they can read the zhuyin, character recognition is no longer the problem. (I wouldn’t be surprised then if kids also picked up Traditional characters, too. Another win!)

Another ancillary benefit of learning zhuyin is that since zhuyin was created from ancient forms of Chinese characters, lots of them show up as components in the actual Chinese characters (as well as look like the sound they make). This helps children recognize and remember the parts and components of more complicated characters. (My post last week discusses a little more in depth how characters are formed, as well as Traditional and Simplified characters.)

I know that Cookie Monster and Gamera, as well as Guava Rama’s son, Astroboy, all point out the different zhuyin, smaller characters, and radicals they see as components in a word. These visual cues definitely help the children remember what a character looks like, sounds like, and means. (My guess is that this may prove more useful with Traditional characters since many Simplified characters might have elided these components.)

For example (for clarity, I’m only including the components that look like zhuyin):

– An ㄠ and ㄏ in 麼
– 3 ㄑin 輕
– An ㄦ in 兒
– A ㄙ in 台

Now, obviously, kids can find other visual cues without knowing zhuyin – so by no means is it conferring a benefit the kids wouldn’t otherwise have. However, it is just an extra tool (actually, an extra 37 tools) the kids can use to help with recognizing Chinese characters – and as we have already established, Chinese is a difficult language to read and our kids need all the help they can get.

So, in summary, here are the main reasons why I think you should consider teaching your kids zhuyin in addition to pinyin:

1) Removes the considerable barrier of character recognition from reading age/interest appropriate materials. This leaves only the problem of Chinese comprehension which can easily be ameliorated by more reading practice (as well as listening and conversation which usually are well ahead of reading comprehension in English as well).

2) Opens up a vast selection of age/interest appropriate materials from Taiwan because character recognition is no longer an issue. This way, even if your child has only learned Simplified characters thus far, if they know zhuyin, they can also read (and perhaps learn) Traditional.

3) Improves pronunciation and tones because the symbols more accurately reflect those sounds. (Again, I realize that though the symbols may convert to roman letters, we as native English speakers, have a harder time “switching” pronunciation and can either slip or get lazy. Whatever the reason, the temptation to “read” the pinyin with English pronunciations is high.)

4) Increases character recognition of more complex characters due to exposure.

5) Adds an additional visual cue for children to help remember more complex and compounded characters.

6) If your child can already read English and understands the concept of blending and phonics, they will learn zhuyin quickly and easily. If they cannot already read English, this will introduce these concepts and make learning to read English easier.

7) Adds more tools in your children’s Chinese Toolkit in the sense that zhuyin is an alternate way to type on keyboards, look up words in dictionaries (sometimes, I just cannot figure out the pinyin of a word for the life of me and I just end up resorting to zhuyin and I find it in second), and substitute for unknown characters when writing (although I suppose technically, they can do that with pinyin, too).

8) Adds a “sound” cue for children. (h/t Guava Rama)

– ㄦ(er) in 兒 (er):  sounds like the zhuyin
– ㄅ(be) in 包 (bao): starts with the ㄅ zhuyin sound

Alright folks. As always, I am incapable of writing anything in brief. Thanks for sticking it through.

I sincerely hope you consider adding zhuyin to your children’s Chinese Toolkit. Most Mandarin Immersion elementary schools expect their kids to graduate at 5th grade with about 600-800 characters. That is only 20-27% of the High Frequency Words your children will need in order to be actually literate.

If that is fine with you, wonderful!

I am at approximately that level and except for when I’m in Taiwan or China, that has rarely ever prevented me from living a full and wonderful life in the US. (And even when I have been in Taiwan or China, the pain was relatively minor. Mostly my ego and being illiterate in a country where I look like the people there and the shame I feel – well, that’s a temporary and small thing.)

However, if you would like to increase your child’s Chinese literacy to be functional in Chinese/Taiwanese society, zhuyin will help you reach that goal with greater facility.

Thanks so much for reading! Have a great weekend.

Other resources:

1) Zhuyin Table – a complete listing of all Zhuyin/Bopomofo syllables used in Standard Chinese

2) A great Zhuyin/Pinyin conversion chart from Little Dynasty. (I don’t know how printable it is, but it’s the prettiest table I found.)

3) Miss Panda also has a great printable Zhuyin/Pinyin Conversion Table.