Should Your Child Learn Traditional or Simplified Characters?

traditional or simplified**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.  Special thanks to Mind Mannered for many of the references re: Traditional Chinese. I would not have been able to write much of this post without her diligent work and research. Thank you!

ETA: Also, I particularly want to apologize to Mind Mannered. I am very sorry if my laziness and lack of due diligence caused her harm in any way. My original post used her Tables without her permission. I didn’t realize she had done all the hard work of making the charts and tables in the references into a comprehensible format. I have removed her proprietary work and included the original charts instead. The original Table 1, I no longer included because the abstract is behind a pay-wall. However, I have now gone through and added links to the original references when possible. 

**A/N2: Also, this is a highly sensitive topic for some so please be respectful. I will employ my commenting policy with a tyrannical hand both here and on my Facebook pages. I presume the admins will monitor the threads on the pages I do not “own.” Don’t be a dick. Also? I get to decide who’s being a dick. You’ve been warned. Behave. 

I’ve taken a few weeks off from the series because my brain broke while writing it. Who knew I had so much to say and required so many words with which to say it? Furthermore, some of these topics require a lot of background research and reading and although I would love to spend all my time doing that, my family actually requires attention. (I know, I know. RUDE.)

Anyhow, I thought I’d get back into the swing of things by launching myself head first into a somewhat contentious and heated debate on Traditional and Simplified Chinese Characters. (What can I say? I’m a giver.)

For those of you without a personal stake in the matter, the issue may seem a bit silly and perhaps, unnecessarily muddies the water in Mandarin Immersion schools and curriculum discussions. However, it is a rather important thing to consider and decide because even though they are both the written language for Chinese, they are different enough that someone who only reads Simplified may have difficulty reading Traditional (and vice versa).

So, what is the difference?

Traditional Characters are Chinese characters that do not contain the newly created characters or character substitutions performed after 1946 by the People’s Republic of China (PRC). These characters are used primarily in the Republic of China (ROC aka Taiwan), Hong Kong, Macau, and overseas Chinese in South Asia.

Simplified Characters are the standardized Chinese characters in use in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). In the 1950s, the PRC drastically simplified many Chinese characters on average by about half their strokes in order to promote literacy. (See, even Chinese people thought Chinese was hard to learn!)

Okokok. Those are pretty dry definitions and actually do little to help folks completely unfamiliar with Chinese characters which to be fair, likely all look the same to the illiterate.

After all, how does a person who has little to no first hand experience with Chinese characters decide what their kid should learn?

For those of you who see the rather intimidating block of text below, here’s the tl;dr:

If you do not have a particular preference, choose whatever will be more easily supported by your time, interest, resources, and abilities.

If you have just a little bit more time, I refer you to my Fancy Flowchart™ (aka: Mandarin Mama’s Guide to Deciding Whether Your Child Should Learn Traditional or Simplified Chinese Characters) that should help 80% of you out there. As for the remaining 20%, let’s be real. No flowchart, no matter how amazing, would suffice. But fear not! There’s more info after the Fancy Flowchart™.

(As a side note, I am inordinately pleased with myself for creating this flow chart. It’s a sad but real thing that it took me HOURS to create. But I will forgive myself because most of that time was spent trying and discarding different free flow chart software both online and off. Now, if I can figure out how to make it Pinnable, I will win the internets for today.)

Traditional or Simplified Characters Flowchart

For those of you who do not know, there is a raging debate within the Chinese community about whether Traditional or Simplified characters are better and why. Some of it is due to political ideology, some based on preference, and some based on practicality. If you are really curious, may I suggest to you this link.

It will be no surprise to many of you that I preferred Traditional Characters – and staunchly. However, as much as I personally prefer Traditional characters, that doesn’t necessarily follow that I think your child should learn Traditional. (Of course, it would benefit me if more folks chose Traditional because then there would be more materials easily available in the US, but that is an entirely different topic and not altogether germane to this particular discussion.)

In true fact, my opinion on what people should choose has changed greatly. I find that the further along I am on this journey of teaching my kids to be literate in Chinese, the more nuanced and pragmatic my opinion becomes.

When I was younger, I was told Mao butchered the Chinese language in order to pass along a Communist agenda. After all, why else would you take the “heart” out of “love” and truncate characters associated with goodness and virtue but leave whole all the characters associated with evil and disobedience?

(Incidentally, whether this is true or not, I’ll leave up to you to decide. But also know that many of the Simplified characters were changed to older or cursive forms of the characters, so it’s not as if Simplified characters were just made up out of whole cloth. There are rhymes and reasons to the simplification.)

In fact, I was so against Simplified due to this “Communist agenda” that I had at first, refused to allow Cookie Monster to go to one of his current Chinese teachers because she only taught Simplified. I didn’t want him learning to read and write Simplified Chinese. It seemed contrary to all that I had been taught and believed about the beauty of the Chinese language. Plus, I was worried that he would be confused learning both Simplified and Traditional characters – as well as prefer Simplified because it would seem easier.

And yet now, I can’t imagine Cookie Monster not attending class with this teacher. She is wonderful, kind, and fantastic. (I had initially been intimidated because she seemed super Tiger Mom and I was really worried Cookie Monster’s spirit would be crushed. I was so, so wrong.)

Cookie Monster has no problem recognizing the same Chinese character in both Traditional and Simplified. He just accepts that there are different ways to write the same word and rolls with it. I think that is a good way to go.

Here’s the thing: Language isn’t static – no matter how we may wish it.

After all, American English evolved from British English – which itself has evolved from Old and Middle English (which is nigh incomprehensible to us modern folks). Yes, the different spellings, phrases, and terminology isn’t as drastic as the differences between Simplified and Traditional, but you get the idea. My point is that they all still manage to be English and neither are Old English.

There will always be people who lament change to language. (Confer “literally” now also meaning “figuratively” and joining the dubious ranks of “cleave” being both itself and its antonym. Boggles the mind.) I am often one of those lamenters. But I also recognize that language is a living, breathing organism, constantly changing and morphing, depending less on official definition and more so common use. So, if the common person is woefully ignorant, so thus changes the language.

And say you object to Simplified characters on an ideological basis (ie: Communism is bad, etc.). I get it. I do. However, you speak English, right? Americans, the English, and other English speaking countries have totally edited their history and language to erase the past and their colonial and genocidal tendencies. That has not led to my boycotting English.

Or perhaps you speak Spanish? Or Japanese? Or German? Or Russian? Or Arabic?  I mean, seriously. If we’re going to argue against a written language based on bad shit that people speaking/reading/writing the language did (eg: mass genocide; fascism; you name it, a country’s done it), then quite frankly, we should just all start speaking Esperanto.

But I digress.

Anyhow, for the rest of this article (and really, any other articles about Traditional and Simplified characters), you will need a basic understanding of how a Chinese character is formed. I promise it’s relatively painless and quick. (I also blatantly copy/pasted from Wikipedia because: laziness.)

Ok. Here are the basic types of Chinese characters and what they mean. If you want actual examples of characters, click through to their respective links.

If you are a language nerd like I am, you can find out more here (The last three are links to GuavaRama because quite frankly, she’s awesome and breaks things down in very simple terms. She is, after all, teaching her young children.):

1) How a Chinese character is formed.

2) Chinese character structure

3) Chinese character shapes

4) How to write beautiful Chinese characters

Alright, enough preamble. (Good Lord, I babble.) Here then, are some more of my abbreviated thoughts on Traditional/Simplified characters. I am using bullet points because quite frankly, I’m tired and it’s far more concise and easier to visualize.

(A/N3: Much of this information would not be possible without the fruit of Mind Mannered and her careful research, summary, and references. Seriously, without them, my post would be mostly opinion, conjecture, and wikipedia links. All of the academic references and a good portion of what follows comes from Mind Mannered’s summary as indicated in the references, but I also include many of my own points.)


1) Strengthens parsing semantic and phonetic information due to the way Traditional characters are structured and formed (see above). (1)

a) Provides more visual cues to support reading and helps facilitate learning and character recognition. (1)

i) Researchers have explained how this often helps young children recognize Traditional characters more easily than Simplified characters. (2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

b) Focuses more attention on the general principles of the written language, particularly how phonetics and semantic radicals are combined to make characters. (1)

i) Children perceive characters as being more similar based on how they sound vs how they look (3)

ii) Allows children to guess words based on context and combined phonetics/radicals.

iii) Follows more regular patterns (7)

iv) Research on language learning emphasizes how explicit, systematic instruction in the structure of the language is more helpful than incidental exposure and rote memorization (7)

2) Easier transition to reading Simplified even without prior instruction (Table 1)

3) Harder to write

4) Even within the Traditional script, there have been adoptions of Simplified characters.

a) 台灣 (tai2 wan) instead of 臺灣 (irony: the “Tai” in Taiwan)
b) 画 (hua4) instead of 畫
c) 什 (she2) instead of 甚

5) Fewer resources in the US and harder to access materials unless you buy/ship from Taiwan/Hong Kong

a) No textbooks/curriculum adhering to Common Core

i) I can understand that unless a Mandarin Immersion school was formed specifically with the Traditional characters in mind, most MI schools may choose Simplified for this reason alone.


1) Strengthens visual and spatial relationship skills due to the way Simplified characters are structured and formed (see above). (1)

a) Provides fewer visual cues so requires more attention to detail when learning characters via rote memorization. (1)

i) Even with fewer visual cues, 1 billion Chinese people still manage to learn and be literate.

b) When controlled for reading ability, results showed that children learning Simplified characters demonstrated superior visual skills. (Table 2)

c) Children perceive characters as being more similar based on how they look vs how they sound (2)

2) Easier to write

3) Approximately 1 billion people use it

4) Lots of resources in the US due to the Chinese government, in conjunction with the Obama administration, actively encouraging US students to learn the language.

a) Common Core textbooks/curriculum are developed (although untested and many are in their first editions)

5) Harder time reading Traditional without prior instruction (Table 1)

a) However, I know plenty of people who have figured it out with great facility so I doubt it’s much of a hurdle.

6) Same character represents multiple words.

a) Context helps and I refer you again to 1 billion people who have figured it out. Plus, English has many homonyms and English speakers figure it out without much problem so even though I find it weird that Simplified Chinese has made many separate characters with the same pronunciation into the same character, I am confident that people can figure it out from context.

I know that this is far from all-encompassing, however, short of becoming a PhD in the subject (and I emphatically am not), I think this should suffice for most folks who have no preference (or clue) regarding Traditional or Simplified characters. And if not, well, Google is your friend. Also, the library.

And so, after this ridiculously long post, (and come on, when have my posts in this series been short?), I refer you again to what I said at the very start:

If you do not have a particular preference, choose whatever will be more easily supported by your time, interest, resources, and abilities.  

(See? I told you all you needed to do was read my Fancy Flowchart™.)

Thanks for sticking it through. If you’re still wanting more, I have included tables and references below. Many thanks, again, to Mind Mannered for her research and hard work. Your summaries cut down my research time significantly. Plus, your documents were so well executed!

Have a great weekend, everyone!

ETA: Again, my extreme and humble apologies to Mind Mannered. I would be furious and hurt if I were in her shoes. I was super lazy and and an idiot and didn’t check your references to ensure that I wasn’t stealing proprietary work. I am very sorry for any and all distress I may have caused. Also, thanks to Mind Mannered, we have a lovely list of references to check out. 


  1. Mind Mannered (2015). Research Highlights on Learning to Read and Write Chineseprivate paper
  2. Seybolt, P. J., and Chiang, G.K.-K. (1979). Introduction. In P. J Seybolt & G. K.-K. Chiang (Eds.), Language reform in China: Documents and commentary (pp. 1–10). NY: M.E. Sharpe.
  3. Chen, M. J. and Yuen, C.-K. (1991). Effect of pinyin and script type on verbal processing: Comparisons of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong experience. International Journal of Behavioural Development, 14(4), 429-448.
  4. Hannas , W. C. (1997). Asia’s Orthographic Dilemma. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
  5. Ingulsrud , J. E. and Allen , K. (1999). Learning to Read in China: Sociolinguistic Perspectives on the Acquisition of Literacy. Lewiston, NY : E. Mellen.
  6. McBride-Chang, C., Chow, B. W.-Y., Zhong, Y., Burgess, S., and Hayward, W. G. (2005). Chinese character acquisition and visual skills in two Chinese scripts. Reading and Writing, 18(9), 99-128.
  7. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH Publication No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
  8. Liu, T.Y., and Hsiao, J. (2012). The perception of simplified and traditional Chinese characters in the eye of simplified and traditional Chinese readers. In N. Miyake , D. Peebles, and R. P. Cooper (Eds.), Proceedings of the 34th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 689-694). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.

Additional References:

  1. Lin, D., and McBride-Chang, C. (2010). Maternal mediation of writing and kindergartners’ literacy: A comparison between Hong Kong and Beijing. In Research in Reading Chinese (RRC) Conference.
  2. Lin, D., McBride-Chang, C., Aram, D., Levin, I., Cheung, R.Y.M., Chow, Y.Y.Y., and Tolchinsky, L. (2009). Maternal mediation of writing in Chinese children. Language and Cognitive Processes, 24(7-8), 1286-1311.


Table 2: Compares the skills of college-attending adults’ in reading and writing Chinese in their less familiar script (excerpted from Liu & Hsiao, 2012, Table 1).(8)

Table 1: Compares the skills of college-attending adults’ in reading and writing Chinese in their less familiar script (taken from Liu & Hsiao, 2012, Table 1).(7)


Table 2: Compares the reading and visual skills of kindergarteners at two different time points (taken from McBride-Chang, et al., 2005, Table 1).(5)


How to Gauge Chinese Fluency

**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 continue, I recommend you read my post about setting realistic expectations to get the most out of this week’s article. This is not because I want to whore out my previous posts (ok, that, too), but more to properly frame this week’s post about gauging Chinese fluency in your children. (You know, so you can have realistic expectations about what I’m about to write.)

Also, I just want to say upfront that many people will likely take umbrage at my remarks. I totally understand. I might be skewering one of your sacred cows. No one likes their cows skewered unless they are the ones skewering – and even then, only if they also get to eat the skewers. So, I get it. But that doesn’t mean the cows weren’t in need of a good skewering in the first place.

Anyhow, enough with the belabored metaphors and on with the post. Whooo!

So, tl;dr version of my Realistic Expectations post (because I know you didn’t go read it): Chinese fluency requires intention. Your goals may differ from mine, but your kid isn’t going to be magically fluent just because that would be a nice thing to have. It takes work. And depending on your expectations and goals, more work than the minimum of showing up to Mandarin Immersion school every week day or a weekly three hour Chinese School session. (Of course, there is a lot more nuance to the post, but why would we care about that?)

Oh, your kid is from a non-speaking family and is fluent from going to a few years of MI?

Oh, your kid is from a non-speaking family and is “fluent” from going to a few years of MI school?

For the sake of this post, I’m going to assume you want something similar to what I want, which is for my kids to have a native level of speaking and understanding Mandarin as well as functional literacy. (If your idea of fluency is for your kid to know a few phrases and perhaps order some food or ask for the restroom, we need to have a discussion about the correct usage of the word “fluent.” Words have meaning and it behooves us to use them precisely.)

At the risk of being a clichéd college application essay, a quick Google of the word, “fluent,” brings up the following definitions:

  • (of a person) able to express oneself easily and articulately.
  • (of a person) able to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately.
  • (of a foreign language) spoken accurately and with facility.

Of course, I know that not everyone has the same expectations of their children as me – nor do I think that is necessary. In general, I think the above definitions will suffice for most people in terms of fluency; we want our children to be able to understand and express themselves in Chinese with ease, accuracy, and facility.

In our pursuit of this fluency, many of us enroll our children in Mandarin Immersion schools, weekly Chinese schools, after school programs, or tutors. We want to believe the claims of “complete fluency” or “native grade level fluency” from the principals and teachers. However, let’s be real: these folks have a slight conflict of interest and unless they have quantifiable results to back up their claims, what you’re really buying is hype.

And honestly, without additional supplementation, either from heritage parents speaking Chinese at home, or hiring additional tutors, native level fluency is most likely improbable from just being enrolled in an MI school or Chinese school.

Alright, I hear you saying. Where’s my proof? Where are my studies? Why am I such a snob?

I’m going to cheat and say, sorry. That’s not the type of post I’m writing today. (Or ever, actually.) I fully admit that I’m just a regular person with no fancy degrees in Mandarin Immersion or secondary language acquisition. However, I really would offer you as proof the millions of ABCs (American Born Chinese) and BOBAs (Brought Over By Airplane) who have come before you with varying levels of success in Chinese fluency. If it were really that easy, there would be far more fully fluent ABCs and BOBAs in existence and this topic wouldn’t be such a sore point for so many of us.

Anyway, even if you don’t believe me, given all the time, effort, and money you are investing in this pursuit, wouldn’t it be nice to know if your investment is giving you the appropriate returns? In short, how do you know your kid is as fluent in Chinese as you think they are?

As I am wont to do, I will split the families up into two categories: Speaking and Non-Speaking Families.

1) Speaking Families (Wherein at least one of the parents speaks, understands, reads, or writes Chinese. Depending on the degree of fluency, however, you may also need to refer to the Non-Speaking Families section.)

Clearly, the higher degree of fluency, the easier it will be for you to determine how fluent your own children are in Chinese. Just like a native English speaker doesn’t need much help with figuring out if their kid is fluent in English, you will have that same ability.

In cases of mixed-fluency/ability, I will refer you to the next section. In my own particular case, I am pretty fluent in speaking and understanding so I have no problem ascertaining how fluent my children are at speaking and understanding. However, my reading and writing are sorely lacking. I can read perhaps about 500 characters if we are being considerably generous – but if there is pinyin or zhuyin, I can read everything and comprehend most of it. In the case of reading and writing, I will obviously be less able to judge accurately.

2) Non-Speaking Families (Neither parent speaks, understands, reads, or writes Chinese.)

Now, as a non-speaking family, you don’t have the built-in advantage of being a native speaker to determine how fluent your children are in Chinese. You can only hope that the people to whom you’ve entrusted your children’s Chinese education will be honest and ethical in their assessments and not just tell you what you want to hear.

In other words: Trust, but verify.

This is where adhering to certain standards and testing becomes useful.

Now, I’m not a huge proponent of standardized testing, (I am, after all, homeschooling), but I’m not opposed to them, either. I understand the need to have a way to semi-objectively measure what children are learning in school and to make sure that they enter college with a base standard of knowledge.

What I don’t like about all the standardized testing is our children’s education being reduced to how well they do on these tests, and that if they don’t “pass” them with a sufficient margin, that they are somehow failures.

At any rate, I think it is totally legitimate for parents (both from speaking and non-speaking families) to demand accountability in the form of standardized testing from their Mandarin Immersion and Chinese School administrators. However, it is also important to understand what the tests measure and what they do NOT. Please do not equate passing a test with being fluent.

At any rate, the tests are still useful for what they do measure. Some of the possible Chinese assessment tests are:

a) SOPA/ELLOPA – Interactive, listening and speaking assessments designed for children who are learning a foreign language in a school setting. They include hands-on activities and are conducted entirely in the foreign language. Students are assessed in pairs by two trained test administrators and, during the activities or tasks, are encouraged to interact with each other as well as with the interviewers. The focus of the interview is to determine what the students can do with the language. (PreK-8)

b) Linguafolio – A three-fold portfolio assessment that takes into account the child’s language/cultural background; samples of the child’s work over time; and formal qualifications, certificates or diplomas, achievements, and self-assessments.

c) STAMP – Web-based, computer-adaptive assessments that measure proficiency in reading, writing, listening and speaking for middle school through university students.

d) HSK – China’s only standardized test of Standard Chinese language proficiency for non-native speakers such as foreign students and overseas Chinese.

e) AP Chinese Test – The exam assesses students’ interpersonal, interpretive, and presentational communication skills in Mandarin Chinese, as well as knowledge of Chinese culture. The exam is administered on a computer. The student reads on the screen, listens through headphones, types using the keyboard, and speaks into a microphone. Students may choose between traditional or simplified Chinese characters for reading and writing in Chinese.

Beyond these tests, there really is no better way to check fluency than to speak with native speakers. Of course, you are also depending on the kindness of friends and strangers and their willingness to be completely honest with you for fear of hurting your feelings or their being amazed at your child’s novelty.

Sometimes, that really is the best you can do.

Here then, is the official end to my post.

However, I do have a few things that are related to gauging Chinese fluency that I wanted to speak to. Of course, I don’t speak for all Chinese/Taiwanese Americans, but I can say that I am not alone in my opinions.

So before I continue, I want to give fair warning that some of you will find much of what I say next offensive and perhaps unnecessarily harsh. I would apologize but quite frankly, I don’t care.

I want to address a few common pitfalls when it comes to gauging Chinese fluency that occur most often in non-speaking families: False Sense of Fluency (FSOF) and White Mandarin Fluency Standards (WMFS) (terms courtesy of Fleur).

False Sense of Fluency is pretty self-explanatory. Often, non-speakers with children in Mandarin Immersion are under the misunderstanding (often due to purposeful misrepresentation or unrealistic hype from teachers and administrators) that their children are more fluent in Chinese than they actually are. There’s no way you, as a non-speaker, would know because obviously, you trust what the teachers tell you!

White Mandarin Fluency Standards, however, is another beast entirely. This refers to the extremely low standards Chinese people have for white people to be considered “fluent” in Mandarin/Chinese – in essence, because they are white. Because there is literally little to no expectation that white people (specifically in the US) would ever learn another language – let alone Chinese, when they (and their children) speak any Chinese at all, no matter how poorly intonated or basic, they get fluency points just for trying. (Thereby leading to FSOF. It is all interconnected.)

If an ABC spoke the same poorly intonated/basic Chinese, they would be excoriated mercilessly. Furthermore, if a Chinese person spoke the English equivalent of this poor Chinese, the response would often be vicious and cruel with comments of “You’re in America, speak American!” or “Go back to your country!” There would be no WMFS equivalent. The contempt would be palpable.

I know, I know. I sound like a really shitty person when I talk about this stuff. But you know what? That’s because I am done coddling white fragility. You might think that we’re only supposed to be talking about Chinese fluency but there is all this subtext that you’re missing.

Here’s the thing: Chinese is not a “white” language and is integrally tied to a specific ethnic people. An ethnic people who, I might add, have had a long and complicated history with the US and white people. (What ethnic minority hasn’t? Also, I am aware that the US is not to be conflated with white people.)

And due to this long and complicated (and by complicated, I mean racist) history, many Chinese folks (who were mocked for their accents or “Ching Chang Chonged” in school) are rightfully annoyed and suspicious when white folks all of a sudden decide that Chinese is now the latest cool thing to acquire for their children. (And yes, of course, there are many legitimate reasons to learn Chinese, and of course, not only white people are wanting their kids to learn Chinese, and yes, of course, not all white people ad nauseam, – people, please! Stay on task here.)

willy wonka chinese

Furthermore, there are few things as aggravating as non-native speakers popping in on forums (or in real life) and loudly exclaiming how their darling child, after X number of years in a Mandarin Immersion school is now totally fluent in reading and writing Chinese and aren’t they fantastic?

I find these types of comments well-meaning but laughable.

To quote Irish Twins, “That must be one amazing school if they never speak [Chinese] at home and [their child] is magically fluent.”

Look. Someone has to tell you the truth.

That’s like my friend, Not Another DB MBA, saying, “My kid took math for 8 years. Sure, they know calculus!” Or me telling you that just because I can run a mile, I can now run a marathon.

Chinese is one of the hardest languages to learn. Not only is it a tonal language (which is notoriously difficult for non-native speakers to even distinguish), it also has over 20,000 characters – of which, only 10,000 are currently in common use. The Chinese government considers a person to be functionally literate (can read a newspaper) if you recognize around 2,000 characters. If you recognize 4-6,000 characters, they consider you highly educated.

Did you catch that?

The Chinese government expects its own people, people who already know how to speak Chinese and are literally immersed in Chinese culture, to be functionally literate if they can recognize 10% of Chinese characters. How can a person possibly think that their child, when only “immersed” in school for on average 6.6 hours a day, without any additional supplementation or support from a Chinese speaking household, be “completely fluent”?

And yes, I am overly petty when I snipe to my friends (I have never claimed to be anything other than petty and prickish). After all, what’s it to me if non-heritage and/or non-speaking families want their kids to learn Chinese? And what’s it to me if they are completely deluded in thinking their children are fluent? Who are they to me? And who am I to correct them?

This is where things get tricky.

It’s TOTALLY TRUE that it’s none of my business and certainly doesn’t merit reading the riot act on my part. Additionally, I concede that truly, your child really could be fluent. (And if so, I do find that to be incredible and wonderful.) HOWEVER, I consider this type of behavior just one of a legion of microaggressions that I, and minorities in general, have to deal with. It is merely one more reminder of the near constant cultural appropriation that happens to us.

I don’t want to retread my older posts, so if you’re interested in what I’ve written previously, I do go into more detail herehere, here, and here. (I will say that if you do not read these posts and then comment and complain about something I addressed there, I will respond with only a link. You have been warned.)

Look. I know no one chooses to be born white or Chinese or whatever. That is just a cosmic crapshoot. I don’t blame white folks and I don’t think being white automatically makes a person have a FSOF or WMFS. I really am pleased that so many people want to learn Chinese because I love the Chinese language and if only for purely selfish reasons, this helps me get more resources for my own children.

So, why did I have to go and ruin a perfectly civil and hopefully useful post by dragging it into the morass that is race and its incumbent squick factor?

As I said in a previous post, “Because it’s true and it happens and it’s real.  If you can’t handle that and don’t really want to navigate the murky and occasionally choppy waters of race and identity and whiteness or ‘otherness,’ perhaps Chinese is not the best language to choose.”

All I ask is that white folks be cognizant of the subtext and all the underlying issues something as seemingly innocuous as learning Chinese can bring up. Nothing exists in a vacuum. And if one of the reasons you want your children to learn Chinese is to become global citizens, it behooves everyone to not only have a deeper understanding of Chinese/Taiwanese culture and history, but Chinese/Taiwanese American culture and history as well.

Thank you for taking the time to read this never-ending post. I know it likely made many folks uncomfortable so I thank you for wading through the discomfort. Have a wonderful weekend.

How to Lower the Cost of Learning 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, I wrote about The Costs of Learning Chinese and how depending on your personal goals for your children’s Chinese fluency, your costs may either scale up or down. Obviously, the more fluent you want your kids, the more you have to sacrifice for them to get there.

Just like being great at a sport or an instrument or really, anything in life, if you want your kids to be great at Chinese, you (and your kids) have to put in the work. To expect otherwise is to defy reality.

Anyhow, this article presupposes you read the post before it so if you haven’t quite yet, hop on over there first.  As a quick refresher, the main types of costs I will refer to today are:

  1. Monetary
  2. Opportunity
  3. Relational/Social
  4. Cultural

And, we’re off!

1) Monetary Costs

As I’ve mentioned previously, learning Chinese for very little money can be done, but that also requires a lot more effort. So, what you might offset in terms of monetary price will show up in terms of effort and work. However, just because it can be very expensive to learn Chinese doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to significantly lower your costs.

Here then are some ideas:

– Sharing DVDs/CDs with your friends and family
– Finding local Chinese libraries (or friends who are willing to act as libraries)
– Chinese books at your local library
– YouTube (just type in whatever show you want and add “Mandarin” or “in Chinese” to the search)
– Online learning sites (these may be for a monthly fee, but that is still lower cost than a private tutor)
– Combining costs (such as childcare with language or Mandarin Mommy & Me)
– Nanny sharing or tutor sharing
– Making your own materials (such as flashcards, games, writing sheets, etc)
– Buy used
– Stay with friends and family when traveling overseas
– Host foreign exchange students
– Find Chinese-speaking college students willing to work as “Mother’s Helpers”
– Teach/speak Chinese to your children yourself
– LeTV and other apps that stream Chinese entertainment

In addition to the above ideas, you can also peruse my site for more Chinese language resources. (Look under different tags and or categories for specific things you’re looking for.) If you go back a ways, you can find posts on free Facebook groups, free online web resources, etc. I haven’t updated these in awhile, but the Facebook groups will often have a lot of resources, too. My favorite is Raising Bilingual Children in Chinese & English.

2) Opportunity costs

Opportunity cost refers to the loss of potential gain from other alternatives and activities when you choose instead to focus on Chinese language learning. A lot of it is a scheduling thing or just the availability of so many activities for our children. So, the main thing I can think of to minimize your opportunity costs is to combine Chinese with an activity you want your kids to learn anyway. So, whenever possible (and feasible), do things you would normally do – but in Chinese.

Depending on availability, you can attend a Chinese church, take art, dance, martial arts, basketball, ping pong, WHATEVER YOU WANT in Chinese. You can also lower your monetary costs this way, too.

In the same vein, you can listen to Chinese music CDs, Chinese stories on CD, or watch Chinese DVDs while driving in your car. I mean, you have a captive audience, right? Might as well force them to learn.

Last week, I mentioned that one of the main reasons I choose to homeschool my Kindergartener is to minimize opportunity costs in terms of overscheduling and never seeing my kid. If you choose to homeschool, you have a lot more freedom over your day and how to schedule it. Furthermore, you can even homeschool in Chinese – thereby exposing your kids to even MORE Chinese.

And lastly, to cut down on some of your research time, find people who you trust and piggyback off of their research and efforts. For example, if GuavaRama makes or recommends something, I usually save myself the trouble of digging deeper and just throw my money in her general direction.

I also trust my friend, Hotelier, who is the person who got me started in Chinese homeschooling as well as introduced me to bilingual Facebook groups and then moved to Atlanta and abandoned me. She is the reason I fell down the rabbit hole in the first place!

And finally, Oliver Tu, the founder of the Raising Bilingual Children in Chinese & English Facebook group. He has brought to my attention so many sites and resources that I just can’t imagine doing any of this without his generous support.

3) Relational/Social

Relational/Social cost refers to the conflict or awkward situations you may encounter with your family, friends, and children in your pursuit of Chinese fluency for your kids. I expound on these more in my post about setting realistic expectations, but truthfully, I actually don’t have much advice on this front except to say that in the end, it’s really up to you how you want to raise your kids.

However, I will say that should these difficulties arise for you, I have found the Raising Multilingual/Bilingual Children Facebook group to be supremely helpful in terms of giving advice.

4) Cultural

As children – and to a great extent, adults, too – our cultural fluency is often synonymous with social currency. And oftentimes, we as parents may worry that if we emphasize too much Chinese stuff, our kids will be the odd ones out. Add into that fears of not being able to integrate or assimilate with classmates and the next thing you know, Chinese is something that we might throw out, too.

Thankfully, in the age of the internet, anything that is popular in America will most likely be found translated into Chinese. This applies to YA novels, books, comics, cartoons, movies, etc. You name it and there is bound to be a Mandarin version on YouTube. As for books and comics, it might be a little more difficult to get the translated books (let alone have the vocabulary with which to read them), but in general, you can feed into your kids’ legitimate desires to fit in and watch the things their friends watch while also supporting their Chinese acquisition.

Ok. For once, I have written a short post (not to mention that I’m really exhausted). Hope it was somewhat helpful and sparked some ideas. Let me know in the comments if I missed any additional ways you can cut costs. Happy Labor Day Weekend!

The Costs of Learning 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

Previously in this series, I wrote about clarifying your goals and setting realistic expectations. Well, now that you’ve done that, you then need to count the costs. (Seriously, I really am sounding like a B Grade business plan – but like all worthy endeavors, it is best to go in with eyes wide open on both the costs and benefits.)

The main types of costs I will refer to today are:

  1. Monetary
  2. Opportunity
  3. Relational/Social
  4. Cultural

I’m sure there are many more costs to be delineated, but these are the ones that stuck out in my own mind. Feel free to add any I missed in the comments!

Alright, here we go!

1) Monetary Costs

One of the most obvious costs, of course, relates to money. Actual dollars and cents. And believe you me, learning Chinese is not cheap. Here are some of the things you might spend money on (but by no means is this all inclusive):

– Books, CDs, DVDs, flashcards, apps, additional educational materials
– Tutors, Mandarin Mommy and Me, Chinese School, Chinese Immersion schools, US based Chinese camps, Overseas Immersion camps/schools
– Chinese speaking Au pair/nanny/daycare
– Travel/Extended stays overseas
– Cultural programs (eg: Chinese dance, martial arts, museums, cooking classes)

Now admittedly, I might be a bit on the extreme side because my stated goals for my children are for them to be near native fluent in both speaking and understanding, and functionally fluent in reading and writing. However, here is a rough estimate of my cost breakdown for 2014:

– Books/CDs/DVDs/materials: $2,000
– Chinese Preschools:
$9,000 (half day programs for 5 days/wk, 1 child from Jan – Jun, 2 children from Sep – Dec)
– Chinese Mommy and Me:
$1,350 (2 children in class – one ending in summer 2014)
– Overseas Preschool:
$2,000 (2 children in 4 week class)
– Travel/Room/Board:
$7,500 (includes 4 international tickets, splitting an Airbnb apartment with a friend for four weeks, and food)

That’s a total of approximately $21,850.

**A/N2: Keep in mind that I only recently added martial arts – and that yearly cost was close to $1200/child. I included martial arts because the class is taught in half Chinese and half English. One could argue that many of these items only need to be purchased once – but remember that kids grow and their interests will grow and change as well. Also, the schooling reflects the combined tuition of my older two, as well as some activities for my youngest.

Whew. After seeing the money laid out in such a stark way, I have to hope that Hapa Papa doesn’t read my blogs very often.

Don’t get me wrong. Learning Chinese for very little money can be done, but that also requires a lot more effort. So, what you might offset in terms of monetary price will show up in terms of effort and work.

For instance, if you come from a 1st Generation Heritage Family (both are heritage parents and native level speakers who immigrated to an English speaking country at a later age), you might not need to hire tutors or speaking partners for your children since you and your partners are both native level speakers. However, you will then need to be vigilant about speaking to your children in Chinese (at least 90-95% of the time) as well as asking that your children reply to you in Chinese (another source of pain altogether).

As I repeatedly state in the last post, Chinese fluency requires intention.

In future posts, I will talk about how you can offset some of your costs both monetarily and otherwise.

2) Opportunity Costs

Opportunity cost refers to the loss of potential gain from other alternatives and activities when you choose instead to focus on Chinese language learning. In other words: FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).

You and your child only have limited hours during the day from which to parcel out your time. The time you spend on supporting Chinese will have to come from other things which your child may also enjoy.

This is basic time management and a bane to overscheduled parents and children everywhere, so I don’t really feel like I need to belabor this issue. However, I will say this: most parents don’t realize just how much time supporting Chinese really takes.

For example, let’s say you’re the typical parent and send your kid to a weekly Chinese school (usually Friday night or Saturday morning). Depending on the age of your kids, Friday nights can be a big social event such as school dances, dates, Church youth groups, movies, hanging out with friends, sleepovers, etc. Saturday mornings are for cartoons (I am still bitter about this as an adult!!), sleeping in, sports meets and tournaments, recitals, family time, etc.

Are you prepared to have your kids give those things up? (I can guarantee you that your kid won’t enjoy that!) And if you are not and more than willing to let your kids skip a few classes here and there, I guarantee you it’s a slippery slope and before you know, you’ve lost out on most of the school year and because Chinese is cumulative and your exposure is limited, your child will be very behind.

This, of course, doesn’t even touch upon homework!

In fact, this is one of the MAIN reasons I have for homeschooling my children. I haven’t even officially started my homeschool school year for my Kindergartener (Cookie Monster) and I already have a feeling he is overscheduled. There are so many fun classes I want him to take (we signed up for a Lego building class that deals with the physics of marbles) and if I didn’t also homeschool him in Chinese, I would never see him. Furthermore, his Chinese exposure would be cut in at least half due to attending regular school.

If you consider that I have two other children and include their activities (both present and future), I might as well live in my minivan.

ETA: Someone brought up on Facebook the opportunity costs related to all the time spent on researching – whether it be for Chinese-speaking nannies, books, CDs, schools, forums, etc. I know I have personally spent countless hours researching this stuff – and I even “cheat” by having trusted people who are ahead of me on the Chinese Learning Train and blatantly stealing all their recommendations. I trust these folks so much that if they like something, I rarely dig much deeper and just starting handing over my money. 

Again, opportunity cost is something all parents are already aware of, so I don’t need to go on more than necessary. Just keep in mind what your goals for your kids are regarding Chinese language learning. The more fluent you want them to be, the more opportunity costs you will have to be willing to make.

3) Relational/Social Costs

As I may have mentioned before in previous posts, there may also be relational costs in your relationships with your own parents, your in-laws, your children, your spouse, and even your friends. This will be especially true if these folks are not down with the Chinese Language Train for many reasons such as worrying about English fluency, wanting the kids to learn another family language, and sometimes even perceived judgment on their parenting choices.

Furthermore, your own children might be the main ones against this Chinese thing. No matter how much you try to shove Chinese down your kids throats, sometimes they just don’t care and don’t want to have anything to do with Chinese. Is it worth damaging your relationship with them just so they can be fluent and curse you in Chinese? (Personally, I don’t think it’s worth it at all.)

You know your kid better than anyone else. Do what you think is best.

There will be social costs, too. You may not have a lot of Chinese speaking families in your area (or if you do, they might not be your natural affinity group). You may have to choose to drive farther, or hang out with people you normally don’t hang out with, in order for your kids to be around other Chinese speaking kids.

Alternately, if your kids are stronger in Chinese than English, they might have a hard time with their peers who are only English speakers. It may be very hard for you as a parent to see your child struggle socially, so you may be tempted to beef up their English. Trust me when I say you have no need to worry about their English at all. Your kids are sponges and you’ll blink and BAM! Now, they’re fluent.

Since I send my children to Chinese preschools and pretty much only attend Mandarin playdates, my social circle is pretty much limited to Chinese people (and often, their white spouses). This is not diverse by any stretch of the imagination. But since I am most concerned about Chinese language fluency at the moment, I am making this sacrifice.

As a result, my children think everyone should speak either Chinese or English. Only recently have they come to understand that their are other people in the world who speak other languages. (I suppose this is not exclusive to my kids but just something children need to learn in general.)

In the future, since I do care about diversity, I will have to seek out opportunities for the kids to play with folks who are different than my typical Chinese/white mixed families.

4) Cultural Costs

We all know that life as a kid is more than just academics and extra-curriculars. It is also cultural fluency, which is often turned into a social currency. If you happen to focus on Chinese language, there may be things in American (or whatever English speaking country in which you reside) culture that your kids will miss entirely.

I will address more of this in next week’s post, but some of this “cost” can be ameliorated by how much American culture you expose your kids to. My kids watch a lot of English shows in Chinese, as well as watch a LOT of YouTube so they know a ton of stuff about American culture and toys and etc. without me even trying. (I took Gamera to Target the other day and because of her obsession with the YouTube Channel, DCTC, she knew every single toy and brand that we ran into in the toy department. She only asked for half of them.)

Of course, this also depends on what generation you are (I’m 2nd generation so I do have cultural fluency), whether or not you are a heritage parent, and all sorts of other factors. But do keep in mind that even if you were as “American” as they come, there will still be choices that you make that limit your kids’ exposure. (For instance, you could be very religious and choose to opt out of popular music altogether!)

Don’t worry too much about this. I didn’t listen to the radio until 1989 and I somehow still know all the music prior to that time. It was a little isolating in junior high and high school, but I more than made up for it by consuming more than my fair share of pop culture in my latter years.

Just like with my last post on setting realistic expectations, ultimately, it depends on how vital and important learning Chinese is to you (and your kids). Chinese is only one of the millions of awesome things out there for your kids to learn and acquire.

It will not be the end of the world if you take a look at the costs and decide that it is not for you. There is no bell you have to ring to announce your “quitting” like they do at the Navy Seals. There is no one docking points from how “authentic” or how “Chinese” your kids are. (Which is totally ridiculous and arbitrary anyway.)

Plus, remember that your stories are not yet at an end. If your kids don’t like Chinese now, that doesn’t mean they will hate Chinese forever. I have friends who didn’t learn Chinese until college and are fluent and their kids are fluent. I have friends who are white and spent three years learning Chinese and darn it all if their Chinese isn’t amazing. I have friends who have “terrible” accents and yet their kids still have fantastic Chinese. I have friends who don’t speak a lick of Chinese and yet, have created material for their children (and for others) to learn and practice Chinese.

There are many roads to Chinese fluency – as well as many timelines.

Ok. That’s it for this week because quite frankly, the post is nearing gargantuan proportions again. Next week: how to lower some of these costs.

Realistic Expectations for Learning 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, I started off my So You Want Your Kid To Learn Chinese Series by saying you need to clarify your goals. After all, there really is no point in forcing your kids to learn a bunch of Chinese characters if you really only want them to understand the language and/or speak it. Likewise, if you want your kid to be functionally literate, you can’t expect them to get there just by being in a heritage family.

This week, I want to discuss some of the unrealistic expectations families (including sometimes, the children themselves) have for learning Chinese in an English speaking country. If I happen to skewer something you personally hold dear or believe, let’s just pretend I’m trying to be helpful and not a superior prat.

I am no expert – merely a regular person who has lived through the situation myself (along with many of my ABC and BOBA friends). Other than my own personal experience, language acquisition (especially Mandarin Immersion) is a passion of mine and I participate in a variety of forums and groups, read a ton of articles, papers, and blogs. All this to say that your mileage may vary. But forewarned is forearmed.

Again, for more of my Chinese language background, my current family’s background, and for terms, etc., I refer you to my previous post.

Anyhow, here are some common pitfalls arranged by family types (but of course, they can cross pollinate). Also, keep in mind that many families might fit one or more categories:

1) First Generation Heritage Families (both are heritage parents and native level speakers who immigrated to an English speaking country at a later age)

You might assume that just because both parents are native level Chinese speakers that their kids will just somehow magically become fluent (at least in speaking and understanding). If that were true, 100% of my ABC friends (and even the early BOBA (Brought Over By Airplane) friends) would be fluent. My friends run the gamut from being only English speakers to completely bilingual in both English and Chinese to a mishmash of somewhere in between.

Chinese fluency requires intention.

Yes, the fact that you are a heritage and native speaker definitely puts your kids at an advantage for learning Chinese, but you have to actually speak Chinese. And not just speak a little. A LOT. You pretty much have to predominantly speak Chinese in order for your kids to understand it at a fluent level.

Not only that, if you want your kids to respond in Chinese, you have to require them to do so.

This is easier said than done (and not a problem endemic only to heritage families).

In future posts, I will talk about how we can encourage our kids to speak and use Chinese. Ultimately, it depends on the child. Often, the more you force a kid to do something, the more they rebel and the last thing you want is for your kid to instinctively hate everything Chinese.

In addition, many heritage families worry about their children acquiring English and for totally legit reasons, are very concerned about achieving native level proficiency in English. After all, the US is not exactly known for its admiration of immigrants and children (not to mention people of all ages) are often mocked for not speaking “right.” And so, due to their fears of their children not assimilating and being accepted by their peers, many heritage families focus primarily on learning English and because of limited time/energies/resources, Chinese will fall by the wayside.

It’s a recurring story that one need only to look at America to see is true. Short of the First Nations in the US, everyone else’s ancestors started off as immigrants (not all of them voluntarily) – and not all of them came from English speaking countries. And yet, even one generation later, folks were assimilated into American culture and people lost their “mother” tongues.

This is not a judgment on these peoples for assimilating. There are many legitimate social pressures and considerations that cause kids and families to “lose” their original languages. I personally find it sad, but many people don’t think so and we can both be right. 

Again, I cannot overemphasize: Chinese fluency requires intention.

The First Generation Heritage Family type is my family of origin. My parents immigrated from Taiwan for their MBAs and from the start, they decided they would only speak to my brother and I in Chinese. In fact, for most of my early life, I didn’t even know my parents could speak English.

My parents used to tell a story of how after I started Kindergarten (where I learned English), my father was talking to a plumber in English and I just stared at my father and asked incredulously, “Daddy, you speak English?!?”

Funny enough, sometimes, as a first generation parent, you are thwarted by your own well-meaning parents and friends who have never raised children in a different country. You will be told to make your kids focus on English out of the same fears I listed above. And then, you will be chastised for your kids not having sufficient Chinese to communicate with your family back at home.

Honestly, you don’t have to worry about your kids not learning English at a native level. If they grow up in America, all social, educational, extra-curricular, and cultural activities will be in English (unless you actively seek out opportunities that are not). There is NO WAY your kids won’t be amazing at English. It is the majority language and the lingua franca of our country and the world. Their English will be supported and nurtured and will thrive.

However, their Chinese will not be thus supported and likely, your children’s only exposure will be your nuclear family, perhaps a weekly Chinese school, and if you happen to go to a Chinese church. Trust me when I say that your kids’ Chinese will suffer as soon as they start school.

The only reasons why my Chinese is even as good as it is (which is not really), is because in addition to my parents forcing me to speak Chinese at home, I went to a weekly Chinese school (mostly worthless, though. Let’s be real.), our social circles were 99% Taiwanese, and we attended a Chinese church.

In regards to weekly Chinese school, I wouldn’t say that it doesn’t work. (I should be more careful with my flippant remarks.) Merely to have appropriate expectations. I do know that my Chinese wouldn’t be as good as it is without the weekly Chinese school until I graduated high school.

My main critique is that weekly Chinese school is not enough to gain functional Chinese literacy. For myself, it was frustrating and annoying to be reading Chinese at barely first grade level when I was reading college level English literature. We may have been better served learning how to read and order from menus. Who knows? ( I will address how to make Chinese relevant in future posts.)

However, the one benefit of a weekly Chinese school is its consistency and if you don’t have the discipline or ability to replicate that at home, it is a good alternative. But again, you have to have appropriate expectations.

Another thing to look out for (and this again goes for all families, but it is likely to crop up most often among 1st Generation families), is overestimating your child’s actual Chinese ability. Now, to be clear, if your goal is just to have your kids speak and understand Chinese, this may not be a problem. It is more when you also want to have your kids read and write that the overestimating happens. Usually, it is when your kid’s speaking and understanding Chinese is fluent and masks the lack of reading and writing ability.

Also, this is not to discount your child’s awesome Mandarin at age two, but that is not enough. My children are currently fluent at almost 4 and almost 6 – but I know better than to gloat or be too pleased. (Don’t get me wrong: I am plenty pleased. I just know that it’s not going to last if I leave it up to chance.)

If they are still fluent in third grade, or 7th grade, or at the end of high school – then I will brag. Because honestly? It’s easy to be fluent before the social pressures to be pop-culture savvy and whatever else the brutal school society demands our children to sacrifice at the altar of fitting in.

Plus, you have to remember that many kids immigrate from Chinese speaking countries at later ages and still lose their Chinese due to these same social pressures.

There are no guarantees.

2) 2nd+ Generation Heritage Families 

Depending on speaking ability, these families might be in the same boat as Non-Heritage families. If that is the case, I refer you to that category. However, for the sake of this post, let’s pretend that both parents are Chinese speakers (but perhaps with varying levels of fluency). (If only one parent is a Chinese speaker, I’ll refer you to the Mixed Heritage Families category.)

I cannot overstate this stark fact: Chinese fluency requires intention.

Just like with the previous category, your children will not learn Chinese through diffusion. You will have to work. You will have to dust off your (perhaps) rusty Chinese and not only speak it to your children, but to each other. (That, I find, is usually the most difficult because though you know Chinese, it is likely not your habit to speak it with other people – including your spouse.)

You may also feel as if your Chinese isn’t good enough to speak or pass along to your children. (Kind of similar to 1st Generation parents worrying their kids won’t speak English well enough.) However, my personal belief is that any Chinese is better than none – and if your children are small and very young, you still know more Chinese than they do, anyway!

Even though I lived in LA for nine years, I rarely used Chinese for that decade unless it related to food. Then, when I moved back up to the Bay Area, unless I was speaking to my mother (with whom I lived), I didn’t use Chinese either. Then, I had Cookie Monster and I found myself speaking Chinese all the time. It was weird. It was awkward. And though I knew a lot of words, I certainly didn’t know all the more random animals, dinosaurs, trucks, etc. that my little boy required. (Many of these my mother didn’t even know!)

However, my Chinese has improved – and improved a lot! Thanks to technology, Chinese dictionaries are at our swipey fingertips. Plus, I am constantly going online, taking my kids to Chinese classes and activities, and surrounding myself with Chinese speaking people. As a result, my Chinese has grown along with my children’s.

At some point, I expect (and hope) my kids to surpass my abilities (especially in the literacy department). But that’s due to my personal expectations and goals for my children. I am planning on learning with my children as they are learning. Depending on your own abilities and hopes, this may or may not be a problem!

Of all households, likely yours and the Mixed Families will have the best idea of what your kids’ future will look like (having gone through it yourself). Learn from your own experiences and from those of your peers.

As with the 1st Generation families, you may also experience push back (and outright non-compliance) from your parents. Sometimes, it is the same concern (in terms of fearing for your children’s English). But sometimes, your parents can see it as a repudiation of how they raised you – especially if your Chinese isn’t as good as you’d like. (As if your wanting your kids to be fluent in Chinese is somehow judging them for your lack of Chinese skills.)

3) Mixed Heritage Families

This type of family is the kind that my current family is: one parent who is fluent in Chinese and one who is not. In some instances, I have found that often, because of the obvious reality, there can be more intentional Chinese learning in these families because the one parent who does speak Chinese is very aware of being the primary Chinese speaker in the home. As a result, the Chinese speaking parent might be a little more conscious of speaking Chinese to their child vs just “letting it happen.”

Just as with the previous families, your children will not all of a sudden learn Chinese. Depending on who is the Chinese speaker (and to what level) as well as who is the primary caregiver, your children’s Chinese exposure may vary from a lot to a little. If you are working outside of the home and your partner is the one at home but doesn’t speak Chinese, you cannot expect your kids to have as much Chinese under their belts as someone’s kids who stay at home with a parent who does speak Chinese. That isn’t fair to you, your spouse, or your children.

Furthermore, if there is little to no Chinese support, whether from Chinese family members, other family and friends, schools, your child’s exposure to Chinese will just not be enough. If you want the additional expectations of your kids being literate, unless you are going to be putting your kids in Chinese school or have tutors (perhaps even during the limited time you have with them after work), that is completely unrealistic.

Another factor to consider is if your partner is fluent in a language other than English or Chinese and would also like to pass their language down to your children. This is totally doable – but again, requires a lot of work and careful planning. I don’t think your kids’ Chinese will suffer as a result, but again, there is limited time and resources, so you either have to adjust your expectations, or put in the necessary work.

As with all the other families, you may get a variety of pushback. Add into that mix your in-laws who may not share your same cultural background and you may have many more areas of conflict about language, respect, communication,, inclusiveness, etc.

In our family, since I am a SAHM and also the Chinese speaker, my children are exposed to a lot of Chinese. My mother is also in the area, we are surrounded with families (most of whom are also in mixed families) who are on the Chinese Language Train, my MIL is supremely supportive, and Hapa Papa is very supportive as well. He’s even learned a few Chinese words and tries to use them whenever he can.

However, there are weeks and months when the children only want to speak English and that is frustrating (and to be expected). Cookie Monster is currently going through an English phase right now (he did last year around this time, too) and I’m having to constantly remind him to speak to me in Chinese. I should focus on the fact that we had at least six months of him speaking almost non-stop in Chinese and be grateful for that!

In future posts, I will include some ways we can encourage our children to choose Chinese even when English is more attractive and easy. Of course, our children will do what they want, and there is only so much we can “force” a language upon them if they don’t want it. YMMV and ultimately, it is far better to have a good relationship with your children than it is to have reluctantly bilingual children who hate you.

4) Non-Heritage Families (both parents are non-ethnically Chinese and non-speakers)

I don’t want to be Debbie Downer here, but I have to say it. If you’re a non-heritage family and cannot speak Chinese, and you’re expecting your kid to be fluent just because they go to a Mandarin Immersion school, you will be mightily disappointed.

To quote my dear friend, Fleur, “Non-heritage, non-speaking parents who think their kids are amazing in Mandarin Immersion school are delusional. There’s no way they would know if they themselves don’t understand Mandarin. Especially if they are non-Asian. Folks will blow smoke up their ass and say their kid is amazing. Like a novelty.” [emphasis mine]

Look. It’s totally possible that your kid really doesn’t have an accent. But from what I’ve seen of YouTube and newspaper article videos, even the “best” Mandarin Immersion schools in America (those from the Minnesota Mandarin Immersion Collaborative), if the kids are not from a heritage/speaker family, the Chinese is not that great.

Ok, let me re-state that. It’s not that the kids aren’t impressive in the sense of, “Hey! Non-Chinese kids speaking Chinese! Awesome!” And to be fair, I could understand what they were saying – which is the REAL goal of Mandarin Immersion – and they seemed to effectively communicate in Chinese. But native level Mandarin? Not a chance.

In addition, your family might get some pushback from heritage families (I addressed some of those concerns in a previous post) and depending on the demographics of your Mandarin Immersion school (tutor/Chinese school/etc.), your child may be in the minority and not have the social life you thought they would.

Some of the cold shoulder you receive from heritage families can be due to the feeling of a “safe space” being invaded and you are the invader/interloper who doesn’t belong. I won’t get into it all here, but suffice to say, that feeling you’re feeling is what heritage families and minority folks experience DAILY. Like while going to the supermarket. Though I am not an advocate of people getting hurt or excluded, know that there really won’t be much sympathy from other parents – especially if your family is white.

Is that fair? Is that right? No, but unless you have been in the heritage families’ shoes, you really don’t know what they have gone through, either. And quite frankly, you have the privilege to side step any of your discomfort and just leave the school. Minorities don’t really have that option. They can’t just quit life. And before you come at me with “They can just leave America then!” – I would just ask that you examine that statement and unpack it carefully before you continue down that vein. Think of all that you are assuming and figure it out in your own space.

Why all the comments about race? Well, because it’s true and it happens and it’s real. Chinese is not a “white” language so of course, the language is integrally a part of the ethnic people. If you can’t handle that and don’t really want to navigate the murky and occasionally choppy waters of race and identity and whiteness or “otherness,” perhaps this is not the best language to choose.

Oh good gracious. Clearly I can’t write a short post on this subject to save my life. Also, looks like the post inadvertently morphed into one about the types of families as well. Bonus!

What did you think? Did I miss any wildly optimistic expectations? (I’m sure I must have.) Did I totally misrepresent your family? (Totally possible!) Have I completely offended you or discouraged you? (Again, totally possible.) Let me know in the comments.

So You Want Your Kid To Learn Chinese

*This piece was originally the first in 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

After spending the last five years obsessing over my kids’ Chinese acquisition and surrounding myself 95% of the time with fellow Mandarin mamas, I have observed several types of parents and approaches with varying levels of success. So, after having almost the exact same conversation with many different friends who are trying to teach their kids Chinese, I thought, perhaps I could write a post (or a series of posts) about the subject.

Keep in mind, of course, that I’m coming from my own experience and that your mileage may vary. (Also, my advice isn’t exclusive to Chinese acquisition and can apply to any type of language, but since my focus is Mandarin, that’s what I’ll use.)

Before I begin, you should know a little bit about our family situation (most of this is in my About Me section, but hey, I’m a giver). I am a second generation Taiwanese/Chinese American. Born and raised in California, my first language was Mandarin and I didn’t learn English until I started Kindergarten. My parents forced us to speak Chinese at home and though they could speak Taiwanese as well, never taught it to my brother and I (to my disappointment). I went to a Chinese church, twelve years of Chinese Saturday school, and retained enough to somehow half-assedlly pass out of a year’s worth of college Chinese at UCLA. I am unclear as to how much I can actually read (I am certainly much better when it comes to menus!), but I can’t read a newspaper but am improving. I can read anything if it has pinyin (which I only learned recently) or zhuyin (which I don’t remember not knowing). I consider myself fluent as long as the conversation isn’t overly technical (eg: business, medicine, technology, etc.).

Hapa Papa is half German and half Japanese American and only speaks English.

In our home, I speak Chinese to the kids 95% of the time, Hapa Papa speaks English (although he knows a few Chinese words which he does use), and he and I speak English to each other. My mother is also very involved in our lives and speaks Chinese 95% of the time to my children.

My older two children (5.5 and 3.5) go to two different Chinese preschools for half a day. Three times a week, they go to a play-based preschool where they learn Traditional characters and zhuyin. Twice a week, they go to a very strict, typical Chinese type preschool with homework, memorization, etc. and learn Simplified characters. Cookie Monster (5.5) can read about 250 characters and knows all his zhuyin but can’t “spell” them yet. Gamera (3.5) can read about 200 characters and knows zhuyin but can’t spell them either.

This fall, I am homeschooling Kindergarten Cookie Monster and plan to do the majority of that homeschooling in Mandarin.

Ok. That’s enough background for the moment. Today’s post is mostly informational and seeks to have you think about what you, as a parent, ultimately want in your child’s Chinese education. I am not going to discuss the pros/cons of pinyin vs. zhuyin, Traditional vs. Simplified, Mandarin vs. Cantonese/Taiwanese/Toisan/Fujian, etc.

Also, before I continue, let’s hammer down some terms that I will be using in these posts (these are just my personal identifiers – nothing official):

1) Heritage family/parent: Assumes Chinese/Taiwanese descent

2) Non-heritage family/parent: Anyone else (yes, even other Asians because crazy enough, other Asians perhaps have their own Asian languages! We are not the same!)

3) Native speaker: Someone who learned the language as a child (most likely because they grew up in a Chinese speaking country) and can speak/understand fluently; also includes folks who grew up in non-Chinese speaking countries but are fluent; most likely ethnically Chinese/Taiwanese, but not necessarily so.

4) Non-native speaker: Someone who learned the language either through classes, immersion school, moving to a Chinese speaking country, etc. but not necessarily in their family; can be any ethnicity – even of Chinese/Taiwanese descent (because hey, just because someone is ethnically Chinese/Taiwanese doesn’t mean they learn the language upon birth).

5) Non-speaker: Someone who doesn’t speak/understand Chinese; can be any ethnicity – even of Chinese/Taiwanese descent (because hey, I just wrote about this).

Whew! That is quite a long prologue (and some of it might have even been necessary). In fact, I think it really would be better to think of this entire post as an introduction to a series – that way, you won’t be quite as disappointed if it’s not as meaty as you had hoped. Thank you for making it thus far.

First, before you even go through the arduous (and expensive!) journey of Chinese Immersion for your children, you need to decide for yourself what your ultimate goal is.

I find that many people tend to have high expectations of full Chinese fluency but when real life hits, Chinese learning falls to the wayside and folks feel a lot of unnecessary guilt. So, like all major undertakings, it is helpful to be clear on what you want and then make a plan of action. Then, do everything you can to follow through on the plan, re-evaluating when you hit snags. (Gracious, I sound like a generic business/weight-loss coach.)

Also, there is no shame in adjusting your goals to a lower, less “fluent” option. This is not a contest. There is no quiz at the end. And even if you do everything “right,” your kid still might not be fluent in Chinese to the degree that you prefer. And that’s ok! Because truthfully, learning to speak Chinese is not the only thing in the world, nor even close to the most important thing in the world. It’s just a nice bonus.

So, what is your ultimate goal?

1) Understand only

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

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

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

Depending on your end goal, you may or may not have to work as hard. After all, if all you want is your kids to understand Chinese only, then that’s a lot less investment of time and energy than having them be literate in Chinese!

Once you know what you want, the whole prospect of Chinese acquisition becomes less overwhelming and easier to maintain and pursue. (And by “easy,” I don’t really mean, “easy.” Chinese acquisition and retention is some hard ass work. I just mean “easy” in the sense of a clarity of purpose and resource allocation.)

So, on a scale of 1-5 with 5 being native level and 1 being a dilettante who knows a few phrases and can perhaps order food and ask for the restroom, my hope for my own children is thus:

1) Listening/Understanding: Fluent (4-5) except for specialized words in business, science, medicine, etc. But I would even hope for some of that!

2) Speaking: Fluent (4-5) except for specialized words in business, science, medicine, etc.

3) Literacy: Functional (3-4); ideally, they can read a newspaper, follow basic directions, navigate in Chinese, and can function in society

4) Writing: Basic functionality (2-3); with technology, I am assuming my children will rarely be called upon to hand write characters. As long as they can type or text the words and function in society, I will be pleased.

Next week, I will expound on some hard truths about learning Chinese that you may not want to hear. But as my mother always tells me, only the people who truly love you will tell you the things you don’t want to hear like “You’re fat” or “Your haircut is terrible” or “You have a pimple on your nose.”

In future posts, I will also address more of the nitty gritty details such as how to get your kids to the level you want; available resources; zhuyin; how to make Chinese fun; hard truths about learning Chinese, etc. (I swear, the more I write this post, the more I feel as if I’m writing a sales letter or an infomercial.)

I know this has been a super long post (some of it boring), but hopefully, it is helpful and edifying in your pursuit of your kids’ learning and retaining Chinese. I would love to hear more about you and your experiences in the comments. What are your goals/hopes, what are you doing to achieve them, and how has it been going? Is it what you thought it would be? Harder? Easier? Let me know in the comments.