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

**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!