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. 

How Teaching My Kids Chinese Completely Derailed My Life

teaching 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

If you told me seven years ago that I would be a Chinese homeschooling mom of three, that all our activities would be evaluated on the basis of whether or not it promoted Chinese fluency (and if it didn’t, whether it was worth it or not), that I would be spending ridiculous amounts of money on Chinese books that I don’t know if I can even read, and that 90% of all my friends and interactions would be with people of similar mind, I wouldn’t have believed you.

I would have thought you were crazy.

I mean, come on. Chinese is important. I get it. But to revolve our lives around it? To become a homeschooling mom? To spend that much of my time, energy, and resources on it?

That seemed a bit excessive.

I don’t know what I thought, exactly, other than I wanted my kids to be at least as bilingual in Chinese as I am. I just assumed I would speak to my kids in Chinese (like my parents did to me), have my kids go to Chinese school (like I had to), and then call it a day. Maybe throw in a few trips to Taiwan if I was feeling fancy.

I wasn’t going to go out of my way too much. I didn’t expect to go to a Chinese speaking church (like I did) or have only Chinese speaking friends (like my parents did). I thought about it, but it wasn’t that interesting to me.

I don’t know that I thought too deeply about the mechanics of learning Chinese or the inherent difficulties therein. All I knew was that I wanted my kids to be able to speak Chinese and I would probably try to find a Chinese preschool or something since all things Chinese were popping up in my area and getting a little more mainstream.

It wasn’t until I started seeing that other people were like me, and were expecting their kids to be literate as well, and that I joined the Raising Bilingual Kids in Chinese/English Facebook Group that I even saw that maybe, my children’s Chinese could surpass mine that I kicked it into high gear.

And now? Now, I find myself somewhat unrecognizable.

Here then, are some ways teaching my kids Chinese has completely derailed my life:

1) I am homeschooling. In Chinese.

2) Any classes and activities the kids can take, I always look for a Chinese option first.

3) Even though I believe fully in using the library and do NOT believe in buying books, I have spent thousands of dollars on Chinese books, DVDs, CDs, and classes. THOUSANDS. (Mostly because I am too lazy to go all over the Bay Area and borrow books from multiple libraries.)

4) My free time is spent hanging out with people who love Chinese and brainstorming and thinking about Chinese language acquisition. And that is all I ever talk about.

5) My social circle has narrowed down to families who have Chinese speaking children because I want my kids to play with other kids in Chinese (although usually, it is at best, half/half).

6) I listen to endless loops of Chinese stories and songs in the car.

7) I have been roped into creating and/or admin-ing several Facebook groups.

8) I hate traveling and dealing with people (especially in different languages and cultures), but now I take my children to Taiwan for weeks at a time, enroll them in local schools, and deal with a foreign language and culture and caring for my children by myself.

I know I seem super intense to some of you who are also wanting your kids to learn Chinese. Perhaps even crazy intense – even to fellow ABC/Ts.

I get it.

I know my path is not for everyone. Nor do I think that it is necessary for everyone. (After all, it depends on your goals and even if our goals are the same, there are many ways to get to where we’re going.)

So I thought that I would start a series on other families that are doing the Chinese thing with their kids. Once a month or so, I will feature a family and delve into why their kids are learning Chinese, to what levels, and what they are doing to achieve their goals.

It is my hope that from these varying families and goals and abilities, we can each glean ideas we can use for ourselves. (Or be forewarned about stuff we should look out for.)

While I do believe that kids who successfully master Chinese have parents who employed common methods, I don’t necessarily think that there is only way to be fluent. Again, success is dependent on each individual family’s goals and what they have in mind.

Also, many of us are at the beginning stages of our journeys. Guavarama mentioned to me how so many blogs about parents teaching their kids Chinese peter out and end. It makes sense because as kids get older, Chinese retention gets harder. Hopefully, I will find more families with older children and farther along this Chinese journey.

Anyhow, short post today. I will likely start the series with myself as a reference point (and because it is easier than interviewing someone). Happy Friday!

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 People Who Sabotage Your Kid’s Chinese

Sabotage Chinese**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.

Last week, we talked about how you can undermine your kid’s best efforts at learning Chinese. This week, we talk about OTHER people who do the same. (Or as Hapa Papa calls it: cockblocking Chinese acquisition.)

Now, whether or not these people sabotage your kid’s Chinese learning on purpose because they are grade-A assholes, or because they are clueless and well-meaning, that is open to interpretation. (I want to say that most people are the latter and not the former. If they are the former, it would behoove us to extricate ourselves from their influence.)

Regardless, here are the types of people who will hurt your child’s journey to Chinese fluency. Special thanks to GuavaRama for helping me brainstorm.

1) Parents/Family Members/Friends who insist on speaking English (and oftentimes, poorly) to your children even though their Chinese is native-level.

Usually, it is because our parents and family are so used to operating in English – this being an English world (at least in the US). Our friends and family simply forget because they are un-used to speaking in Chinese. This certainly was the case for myself when I first had Cookie Monster. It felt strange and odd to be speaking Chinese when I had spent at least a decade or more NOT speaking or thinking in Chinese.

Even now, when we have our Mandarin playdates, it is hard and takes conscious effort and will to speak to the other moms in Chinese versus resort to English because it is easier. I wish I could say that I’m a really good enforcer about speaking Chinese, but I want to say I’m speaking Chinese only 40% of the time to my friends. To the children, I speak Chinese 90% of the time – but the whole point of a Mandarin playdate is to model and speak Chinese around the kids. After all, they can’t learn Chinese in a vacuum.

2) Unsupportive spouse and parents/family members.

Similar to the first point, this is a less benign situation. I’m talking about spouses and family who are actively unsupportive and campaign against you through:

– Snide remarks such as, “Why bother? English is more important!”
– Arguments about time, money, and resources being “better spent” in other areas
– Purposely speaking English when they know you want to emphasize Chinese
– Putting all the burden on you because you’re the one who wants the kids to learn Chinese
– Sabotage efforts to implement OPOL (One Parent, One Language) or other language learning methods

Of course, we would all ideally love to be related to (and married to) people who agree with everything we want and actively support us by learning Chinese to fluency. Short of that, however, I have no real advice to give other than if your spouse or family are actively not caring for you and are dismissive of you, that is a huge red flag of other issues in your relationships. (And totally out of the scope of this post. I digress.)

3) Dismissive and/or judgmental people.

Similar to point 2, this is for folks outside your family to whom you may turn to for advice or help.

These are the people who, when you ask a question about sending your kids to Taiwan for the summer or trying a Saturday Chinese School, respond with statements like:

“I could never send my children away for so long…”

“Why bother? We’re in the US so they should learn English.”

“Chinese school is such a huge waste of time. I spent twelve years in Chinese school and didn’t learn anything at all.”

“I only expect my children to speak. Learning to read is too hard.”

“I don’t want my kids to spend all their time doing chinese and nothing else. I want them to learn other things.”

Again, it’s not so much the statements that are bad, per se. After all, these are valid opinions the speakers hold. However, it’s the tone that I find most troubling. I mean, when someone has already made a decision to do something, is it really helpful to make disparaging remarks instead of giving them discrete and helpful advice?

4) People who misrepresent either the time or effort their children expend on learning Chinese.

Whether this is because of wanting to humble brag or make it seem like their kids are “gifted” when it really is just sweat equity, I don’t know. I doubt it’s because they’re actively trying to sabotage you and your child’s efforts.

However, to my mind, these types of people do more to harm your child’s Chinese language journey than anyone else (except perhaps Mandarin Immersion adminstrators who sell an implausible dream of Mandarin fluency – but more on that in the next point).

In fact, anyone who actively contributes to unrealistic or implausible expectations of Chinese acquisition and fluency is doing a huge disservice to everybody.

At best, other parents feel like failures since their kids take a lot of work to be fluent and literate in Chinese. At worst, parents erroneously believe that learning and maintaining Chinese in an English-speaking country is a cake walk and as a result, under-prepare their children – with less than spectacular results.

So, let me set the record straight. If you want your child to be fluent and literate in Chinese, it takes a fuckload of time and effort. Fluency is not magic. It is hard work. Odds are, your child is not a language savant. Sorry.

5) Mandarin Immersion or Chinese School administrators/school officials/teachers/board members who sell you an implausible fiction of native grade-level fluency via 50/50 (or even 90/10) model. 

I know I discussed this last week but it bears repeating.

That is utterly ridiculous. Kids in China and Taiwan are achieving that status with 100% immersion, 24/7/365. The administrators say you will get that from 50/50 immersion 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, 9 months a year?

Keep in mind that minimum Chinese literacy is 2,000 characters (Chinese 3rd or 4th grade level and Taiwanese 6th grade level). The average Mandarin Immersion school expects 430-700 characters/words at 5th grade. That is at best, 35% of the minimum literacy level. Can you imagine reading this post and only understanding 1 out of 3 words? That’s not reading (let alone comprehension) in even the loosest of interpretations.

6) Well-meaning people who have zero understanding of how language acquisition/fluency or Chinese work. 

As I mentioned last week, most people don’t understand the basics of bilingualism/multilingualism – let alone the best way to teach and learn spoken and written Chinese.

If you can figure out how to just nod politely and thank them for their words without seeming to ask for more “advice,” please let me know. I need all the help I can get on that front.

So, with all these types of people out there putting up roadblocks in the way of our children (or quite frankly, US), what can we do to prevent them from sabotaging our efforts?

Remove the toxic people from your life. Ignore them.

Obviously, if it’s your spouse or your family members, that will be a little more difficult. And I’m definitely not advocating divorce or estrangement just because of learning Chinese.

However, I do adjure you to examine your relationships with the toxic people in your life and determine if that is something you want in general. The conflict and the way people address that conflict is telling of the health of your relationships and can be a red flag.

But again, that is not the focus of this post (and really, none of my business or expertise anyway).

So, what can we do instead of just removing negative people from our circles?

Surround yourself with your “tribe.”

By “tribe,” I refer to people who have similar goals and aesthetics as yourself – be it having your kids learn Chinese or whatever else you want to pursue in your life.

Without a tribe, this long and sometimes difficult journey can feel really lonely and isolated.

For myself, I have three main groups of people who “get” me and my Chinese obsession. The main one being a group of women that I met through a Mandarin Playgroup when Cookie Monster was 15 months old. Through these women, I have found two amazing Chinese preschool teachers, various Chinese classes, Mandarin Immersion schools, Chinese libraries – you name it, they’ve found it. I just provide some comic relief.

Between us five, we have kids in regular public school with Chinese tutors and Chinese school; kids in Mandarin Immersion charter schools; kids in Mandarin Immersion private schools, and kids who are homeschooled in both Mandarin and English (that would be me). We have varying enrichment classes in Chinese, swap resources, gossip about schools and our families, and of course, supplement this all with copious amounts of delicious food – chief among them being boba and ramen.

My next huge sense of belonging was when I found the Raising Bilingual Children in Chinese & English Facebook group. It’s definitely a super intense “Tiger Mom” type of group – but it is filled with great resources, advice, and I love tapping into the hive mind. Plus, I found Oliver Tu, and since he’s a few years ahead of us in the child-rearing game, and has excellent results with his kids, I am super pleased.

Through this group, I have met a new group of friends, including the incomparable GuavaRama. It’s been good to see that there are other super intense people out there who have even higher standards than I do. What a revelation! And a comfort!

Lastly, I have the moms who have kids going to my kids’ Chinese preschools as well as the moms who homeschool their kids in both Chinese and English. This is a more casual group, but it’s a nice way to provide my kids with friends and socialization, while meeting my need to have friends who are all over the spectrum in terms of Tiger/Panda parenting.

So again, I exhort you. Surround yourself with your tribe. With the people who “get” you and your Chinese goals for your children. (And with the stuff you find important and love in general.)

In regards to the Chinese aspect, find people who have similar goals, aesthetics, and general level of intensity. The level of intensity is important. If you are only with people who are way more gung-ho than you are, you will feel discouraged and as if you’re constantly failing.

If you are only with people who are much less invested in Chinese, then you will be annoyed and frustrated because none of their suggestions will be helpful (or at least, much less so) and their experiences and standards will feel too elementary and not applicable.

I find it helpful to have a bunch of folks who are a lot like me, but not exactly. Not only because that is unlikely and impossible since (thankfully), there is only one of me, but also because it is helpful and useful to have friends who are just a smidge more intense as well as friends who are just a tiny bit less intense.

The super Tiger parents have a ton of great ideas and I get a glimpse of what my life could be like should I so choose it. Plus, it’s so awesome to see their children speak such excellent Chinese as well as be so literate! The Panda parents are there to remind me to chill out and that there are other things in life besides my kids learning Chinese. (Blasphemy!)

However, remember that too vast a philosophical divide can have you back at square one, where you feel isolated and alone; as if you are the only crazy person forcing your kids to learn Chinese.

Oh, and chemistry. Chemistry is important.

Incidentally, I include myself in this caveat. I know I can be way too intense for some folks and I realize that my methods (not to mention profane proclivities) are not for everybody. That’s okay with me. There are so many good resources out there that I am not arrogant enough to think that I have the last and final word on the subject.

Keep what is good and helpful. Toss the rest.

Alright, friends. I hope this post was helpful and that I’m not one of those “toxic people” for you. (But if I am, you know what to do.) Have a Happy Friday and I wish you best of luck in finding your tribe.

 

How to Sabotage Your Kid’s Chinese

How to Sabotage Your Kid's Chinese**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.

Has it only been a month and a half since my last post in the series? It seems much longer. Welp, I guess I haven’t been as derelict as I thought. Whooo! Bonus!

Since I’ve written so much about what to do, I thought I could write a post about what not to do. (Basically, I’m lazy and thought I would rehash the same topic with different words so it seems like I’m more prolific than I actually am. I see that you’re on to me. Oh, look! Shiny!)

So, without further ado, if you want to undercut your child’s efforts at learning Chinese, all you have to do are the following:

1) Don’t have a clearly defined goal or plan of action.

I know. You’re likely sick of me harping about this after months of this series – but it cannot be said enough. Chinese fluency requires intention.

This is just basic common sense.

Without a clearly defined goal, you have no idea what you’re working towards and if you’ve achieved it. Without a plan of action, you’re just engaging in wish fulfillment.

Solution: Clearly define your goal in regards to your child(ren)’s Chinese acquisition. Create a course of action and do it.

Do you want your child to:

a) Understand only (and to what extent)

b) Understand and speak (and to what degree of fluency, authenticity of tones, etc.)

c) Understand, speak, read (and again, to what degree)

d) Understand, speak, read, write (to what degree)

Once you determine what you want, then you can figure out what you need to do to get it. Plus, it saves you a lot of unnecessary angst.

For example, if you only want your kid to understand and speak Chinese on a basic level, you really don’t need to waste any time on reading and writing Chinese. Or, if you want your kid to also read and write, you know you need to invest resources to do so versus thinking they will somehow magically become literate.

2) Fail to understand how language acquisition works. 

To be fair, although there are a lot of theories, scientists aren’t really that sure, either. However, there are studies out there as well as a ton of articles on the internet (especially those focused on bilingualism/multilingualism). Read them to get a sense of how your child can learn another language – especially Mandarin.

For instance, many of us erroneously believe that all our children really need is exposure to a language. Thus, we play Chinese songs or stories on endless loop. However, according to NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children (affiliate link), unless your child already knows Chinese, your kids will tune out the language because in their mind, it’s gibberish.

A better way for your children to be exposed to Chinese is to have them watch shows – especially where you can see the mouths of the characters while speaking. That way, your children can see distinctly when and where the sound of a word begins or ends.

The other day, a woman on a homeschool forum I read asked local parents for recommendations for her 10 year old daughter. Her daughter wanted to learn Mandarin, but had no previous exposure to the language. This woman is convinced that all she needs is to find or create a two week camp that teaches art or music or whatever but ALL in Chinese and her child will magically learn Chinese in this manner.

After reading the post, I was beside myself with incredulity. Sorry, lady. That is both a complete failure to understand how language is learned – as well as having totally unrealistic expectations.

Solution: Avail yourself to reading a few articles on bilingualism/multilingualism – especially in children. Here’s a helpful article on some of the myths regarding early language learning. (It also lists sources that can be useful.)

I’m not talking so much about how bilingualism changes your brain scans or whatever – but more on the process of how to encourage fluency, or to teach a second language (or a third). Learn about OPOL (One Parent One Language) and other language methods.

3) Fail to learn or understand how Mandarin is different than English – as well as fail to understand how written Chinese works.

One of my readers pointed out to me that many non-speaking parents don’t realize just how different Chinese is from English. Most parents’ only frame of reference for learning a different language will likely be from learning Spanish or French (or some other romantic language) in high school. The romantic languages are not that different from English and a lot of the words and phrases can be guessed due to Latin roots and commonalities between the languages (such as a shared alphabet).

Not so with Chinese.

Not only is Chinese a tonal language, the grammar is quite different, too. (Although there are no verb tenses so that’s easier!)

Furthermore, the written language is so different and uses different parts of the brain that many parents don’t realize just how many characters one needs in order to be barely literate – let alone well-read. Parents simply have no frame of reference for how to learn characters in an efficient and effective manner.

Solution: Learn about the Chinese language – both the basic understanding of tones/tonal languages, as well as how the written language works. You don’t have to be an expert, but have a general understanding of the topic.

4) Speak English to your children.

Now obviously, if you do not speak Chinese (or do not speak it with high proficiency), how else are you supposed to communicate with your kid? Don’t worry, I’m referring to folks who can speak Chinese. (I’m also referring to folks who can speak little to no Chinese.)

Since we are raising our children in an English speaking country, the fact is that our children will not have much (if any) exposure to the sound and rhythm of Chinese. It is very hard to learn to speak a language in a vacuum.

Therefore, the easiest way to expose our kids to Chinese is to speak it to them. After all, that’s how people in Chinese speaking countries learn to speak and understand Chinese, right?

Solution: Whenever possible, speak Chinese. Even if you think it’s terrible or not up to snuff.

If you don’t speak Chinese, learn a few basic words and start using them. Have your kid teach them to you. Studies have shown that your bad accent really won’t hinder your children’s Chinese – especially if they are surrounded by people who do speak correctly.

What is most important is your enthusiasm and encouragement.

5) Believe the hype (especially if you and/or your child are not ethnically Chinese).

What do I mean by hype?

I’m talking about Mandarin Immersion school administrators overselling the efficacy of their programs, telling you that your non-speaking, non-heritage kid is going to be grade-level fluent/literate with kids in China and Taiwan in their 50/50 Immersion school.

That is utterly ridiculous. Kids in China and Taiwan are achieving that status with 100% immersion, 24/7/365. The administrators say you will get that from 50/50 immersion 6 hours a day, 5 days a week, 9 months a year? What delusional world is this?

I’m talking about the False Sense of Fluency (FSOF) folks get when Chinese people ooh and aah over your non-Chinese kid when they open their mouth and say, “Ni hao” as if they’re some prodigy. Due to American Mandarin Fluency Standards (AMFS), Chinese people have a super low-bar for Americans speaking Chinese. As a result, anything more than complete ignorance is given worthless acclaim.

I’m talking about when language teachers may prevaricate about your child’s actual ability due to fear, avarice, or even a misplaced sense of encouragement. (I’m reminded of tone-deaf American Idol contestants bragging that their voice teachers tell them they’re brilliant.)

I mean, your kid might be a language savant. (But probably not.)

Solution: Trust, but verify. Find out what actual metrics successful immersion models are using. What is the real word/character count of Chinese learning in native schools? Ask your administrators hard questions – and demand accountability.

6) Have inappropriate expectations.

Often because of FSOF, AMSF, not understanding how language works, bilingualism, education, limits of different immersion models, etc., we may have false expectations of our children and their progress with Chinese. Whether it is expecting kids to be “fluent” after a few weeks of class, or thinking that all you have to do is send your kids to class without any supplementing on your part, that will greatly hinder your child’s Chinese.

Solution: Acknowledge your expectations. Write them down. Be specific. (Often, these are very similar to our stated goals.)

Examine what you are currently doing and determine if what you are doing is enough to meet your expectations. Like with point 5, find out what metrics you can use to accurately measure your child’s progress and use them. Educate yourself. Speak to actual people who can speak Chinese and who will tell you the truth about your child’s abilities.

7) Emphasize literacy and writing over fluidity in speaking and understanding.

Personally, I’m a big fan of my children being literate in Chinese. However, in my list of priorities for them, speaking and understanding trump all. Mostly because it is possible to be good at reading and writing without ever being able to speak well. And truthfully, what we really want for our children to do is effectively communicate in Chinese – and without good speaking or listening ability, they cannot.

Take French or Spanish, for example. I took 4-5 years of French in junior high and high school. And while I can likely read some French and say some basic things, there is ZERO possibility of me understanding a conversation in French. Not unless the French person spoke so slowly as to be barely speaking at all.

As for Spanish, I can read some due to my exposure to French. But although I never took a single Spanish class, I can understand far more in Spanish than French simply because I used to live in LA and am used to hearing (as well as attempting to speak) Spanish.

Instinctively, we understand that someone who is learning English overseas is not going to be speaking at native-level English – even after many years of study. In fact, it is a common complaint (especially, if we want to stereotype), when we call customer service and are routed to folks who can speak English, but perhaps might not be easily understood.

This goes triply for speaking Chinese. Why are we so arrogant in assuming that a 50/50 Mandarin Immersion model (or even a 90/10) will replicate native level?

Keep in mind: being able to converse in limited contexts (eg: following a modeled conversation) is not actual fluency.

My friend’s kid attends a local Mandarin Immersion school and she was attempting to have a conversation with a first grader. The kid could not understand my friend’s basic questions because they were not within his context of school. He also kept insisting that 200 in Chinese was “two hundred” and didn’t understand that 兩百 (liang3 bai3/200) is the same as “two hundred.”

This is after a YEAR of Kindergarten Mandarin Immersion and part of first grade.

Solution: Focus more on watching TV or listening to audio. Don’t focus so much on reading in Kindergarten. (Especially if you are not native speakers.)

People in other countries get it. They know that they need to improve listening and speaking – and that’s why English learning starts younger and younger. My cousin in Taiwan has her son in English Immersion schools and is doing the complete opposite of what I’m trying. I think her son can read more English than my kids!

The closer your children are to native level speaking, the easier it will be for them to learn and read Chinese characters. After all, then it is just literally putting symbols to words they already speak. Otherwise, not only is learning to read an issue, comprehension will be as well.

Find and encourage speaking and conversational opportunities.

This will be especially difficult if you are not a native-speaker since some people might take advantage and feed you a line of BS. But thankfully, there are lots of ways around this particular difficulty.

Alright, I know today’s post is short on details and specifics (well, for me, anyway). That’s because I have covered most of the bullet points in great detail (some might say too great) and specificity in previous articles in this series.

If I am so inclined, I may go back and insert the appropriate posts as links. However, you can always find the rest of the series under the So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese tag or in the Main Menu.

Thanks for reading! And Happy Friday!

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.