The People Who Sabotage Your Kid’s Chinese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) Unsupportive spouse and parents/family members.

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

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

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

3) Dismissive and/or judgmental people.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remove the toxic people from your life. Ignore them.

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

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

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

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

Surround yourself with your “tribe.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, and chemistry. Chemistry is important.

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

Keep what is good and helpful. Toss the rest.

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

 

How to Sabotage Your Kid’s Chinese

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is just basic common sense.

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

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

Do you want your child to:

a) Understand only (and to what extent)

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

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

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

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

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

2) Fail to understand how language acquisition works. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not so with Chinese.

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

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

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

4) Speak English to your children.

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

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

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

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

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

What is most important is your enthusiasm and encouragement.

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

What do I mean by hype?

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

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

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

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

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

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

6) Have inappropriate expectations.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find and encourage speaking and conversational opportunities.

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

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

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

Thanks for reading! And Happy Friday!

How to Get Your Kid to Speak 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

I confess: this is a somewhat misleading title since truthfully, you really can’t force your child to speak Chinese if they really don’t want to – at least not without some major relational and communication costs.

Also: this article may be less useful to folks who are in non-heritage and/or non-speaking families. Mostly because if you don’t speak Chinese, your opportunities for your child to speak Chinese are limited and you have to get creative with your methods since it’s not as if you can verify that they are indeed speaking Chinese, let alone correctly.

Plus, it’s possible your child might be more excited to either “show off” their Chinese since the response to their speaking Chinese (especially if they are white or not ethnically Chinese) will likely be amazement and praise due to the novelty and not actual ability whereas if your child does have Chinese heritage, the expectation (however unfair) will be that they should speak Chinese anyway so unless they are fluent or native level, there really isn’t anything marvelous about it (even though it really is) and quite frankly, why isn’t their Chinese better than it is – don’t they care about their heritage at all?

Furthermore, many ethnically Chinese kids often do not want to speak Chinese because everyone else speaks English and why should they be compelled to speak a language that is not their native tongue? And besides, everything is in English anyway because we’re in America and it’s really hard and seriously, no one speaks Chinese and please just stop making them try and communicate in a language in which they are hamstrung by their lack of vocabulary and comprehension and ability.

Incidentally, this is not a bitter rehash of White Sense of Fluency (WSOF) or if you prefer, American Sense of Fluency (ASOF). Just a statement of fact in how our world works right now. Also, I readily concede that just because your child is not ethnically Chinese and also learning Mandarin does NOT guarantee that they will be excited about speaking Mandarin. In fact, they might experience similar objections their ethnically Chinese counterparts experience. Really, it just depends on your kid.

So, tl;dr: You can’t force your kid to speak Chinese – at least not without major consequences and fractures in your relationship. Personally, I don’t think that is worth causing major damage in the parent/child relationship.

However, with that said, I often think that parents (especially Chinese speaking parents) give in too early and too easily with their kids. This is not to judge you if you are one of the parents who have given up. After all, it’s hard to be constantly waging a never-ending battle to get your kid to speak Chinese. It’s hard to consistently speak Chinese (especially if you’re not all that great at it in the first place – or used to speaking Chinese) and require them to speak it back.

Truthfully, I’m not you or your kid. It might only seem as if it was too early or too easily from my outsider’s perspective. I have no idea. And honestly, I have no idea if any of my suggestions will work for you (or for non-Chinese speaking parents, for that matter).

So really, this is all just a lengthy caveat and YMMV (although if you’re a long time reader, you’ll note that this is also one of my briefer disclaimers). Also also: these suggestions might work better when the kids are younger. Anyhow, here then, are some of my suggestions for how to get your kid to speak Chinese:

1) Decide if you even want your kid to speak Chinese. 

No, seriously.

It seems like such a bullshit answer but really, is this what you really want? Because remember: Chinese fluency requires intention.

So, do you want your kid to speak Chinese? And if so, how fluently? And if fluently, the more fluently you want them to speak, the more work you will have to do. How much effort is too much? And at what point will you say, “This isn’t worth it?”

My two cents? (Alright, with the amount of words I’m outputting, it’s more like two dollars.) If it is to the point where you and your child are fighting all the time, your kid doesn’t even want to speak or communicate with you, or your child doesn’t even want to touch anything Chinese with a ten foot pole, maybe it is time to either pull back on the Chinese speaking thing or reconsider your tactics.

Healthy relationships with your children trumps Chinese fluency any day of the week.

Also, if you decide after reading this post that you don’t particularly want to put in the effort of having your kids speak Chinese, that’s okay. They will still go on to have perfectly good, complete, and happy lives. Plus, their Chinese journey isn’t necessarily over. There is always college or after college. I mean, seriously. As long as they’re alive, there is still a chance.

dumb and dumber

2) Do not respond to your children unless they speak Chinese. 

Obviously, please use common sense. If your child is injured and calling for help in English, that perhaps isn’t the best time to insist on them asking for help in Chinese.

When I was little, I didn’t realize my parents could even speak English (they are Taiwanese immigrants). As a result, I had little choice but to speak to them in Chinese because otherwise, how would they understand me?

As I got older, my parents refused to respond to me unless I spoke to them in Chinese. I quickly got the picture that if I wanted anything at all from my parents, I would have to ask for it in Chinese. When I got into my teens, I have no idea what language we communicated in. It was likely a motley of Chinese and English and sometimes, Chinglish.

There are variations of this method, of course.

Until recently, I told my children in Chinese that I didn’t understand them. A blatant lie since I obviously speak and understand English just fine. However, four year old Gamera now calls me out on this because of course. She tells me that I understand English because I can speak it. I’m just grateful she humored me as long as she did.

Six year old Cookie Monster is much kinder and has never commented on my obvious falsehood. He just switches to Chinese and repeats what he just said (although he does sometimes require a few reminders before he switches).

Now, I have started to either ask them to tell me in Chinese and if I get push back, I say that I want them to practice their Chinese because it’s really easy to forget and lose their Chinese if they don’t. It helps that I have first hand experience with losing Chinese language skills so I use myself as an example. And since Gamera enjoys being superior to me, she likes to remind me how I used the Chinese word for “sticker” when I should have used “tape.” This tact has been successful thus far.

When they get to the point where they don’t care about losing their Chinese, I may go to my parent’s method of ignoring them until they do speak Chinese.

3) Create a Chinese Language Ecosystem (CLE) as much as possible. 

It is difficult to speak Chinese if you do not have the vocabulary to support what you want to say or the comprehension to understand what someone is saying to you. The only way to boost vocabulary and comprehension is to increase Chinese exposure.

To that end, your best bet is to create as comprehensive CLE as possible. Many of the remaining suggestions expand upon things you can use when creating your CLE. (Protip: maximize your car time with the kids. You have a captive audience. I constantly have Chinese songs and stories playing in the car. If you have a DVD player in the car, you can have them watch movies or shows in Chinese.)

How do you create a CLE? In short, as much as possible:

– Speak to your kids in Chinese

– Have them consume Chinese media (either original works or Chinese translations) by watching Chinese YouTube videos/DVDs/movies; listen to Chinese songs/stories; read Chinese books (I often translate simple children’s board books regardless of the book’s written language); use apps in Chinese; etc.

– Tell stories in Chinese

– Attend Chinese playdates/playgroups/classes/extracurricular classes/cultural programs

– If you need childcare, hire a Chinese speaking au pair/nanny/day care

– Travel/Extended stays overseas in Chinese speaking countries

For more in-depth explanation on what a CLE is and entails, I highly recommend Oliver Tu’s excellent post about the CLE and its applications. Shoot, in general, just go to his blog and read everything he has written. His daughters are nine and twelve so he is much further along on this Chinese language journey – not to mention, incredibly successful. I pretty much just copy whatever he does or recommends.

4) Bribery.

In general, I would refrain from punishing your kids when they do NOT speak Chinese since that will cause a negative association with speaking Chinese. (I do, however, break this rule when my children start speaking predominantly English. I tell them if they do not speak in Chinese it is because they are watching too much English YouTube/media and I start pulling back their English media time and amp up their Chinese media time.)

I’m pretty sure bribery is self-explanatory.

Reward the behavior you want. In our house, I do not enforce our screen time limits if they are watching anything Chinese or are using Chinese apps.

5) Hire help.

If your Chinese isn’t up to snuff (or you just want more support), hire tutors/conversation partners/mother’s helpers/nannies/conversation only Chinese classes. Remember, the focus here is in speaking and conversational skills – not necessarily reading and writing skills.

Additionally, your children might respond in Chinese more willingly to people who they ONLY associate with Chinese speaking. Plus, children can often be evil and listen to or speak in Chinese with anyone except you, their parent.

6) Find Chinese speaking peers.

This one is a little more difficult because most kids will resort to speaking in English to each other since that’s the norm. Also, if your kids are really proficient in Chinese, the older your children get, the more difficult it will be to find peers with comparable Chinese levels unless they are recent immigrants. That, of course, brings about a different set of difficulties in terms of relatability, and the recent immigrant’s parents likely wanting their child’s English to improve more so than practicing their Chinese. Perhaps a bargain can be made.

7) Tell older siblings you need their help to teach their younger siblings Chinese. 

In multi-child families, the eldest child usually has the best Chinese skills. (Not always, but usually. Also, sorry to my baby brother for ruining your Chinese.) Mostly, this is due to the fact that once the older child learns English, they will most likely speak to their siblings in English because it is easier for them, and as a result, their siblings will a) have far earlier English exposure and b) have far more English exposure in the household.

Some variations on this include: telling your older children that their younger sibling only understands Chinese or enlisting their help in preventing their younger sibling from losing their Chinese.

Whatever helps you promote speaking Chinese between your children. Personally, I think this is easier when the kids are small versus when they’re older and will require more sophisticated words.

8) Go overseas for camps, classes, or extended trips.

If financially feasible (because tickets, food, lodging, and tuition are not cheap and add up), consider going overseas. The focus at these camps will be to promote Chinese speaking – however you still run into the same problem of kids speaking mostly in English if the camp is catered to overseas Chinese. Another option would be to enroll your children in camps for local kids (but just know that there will likely be a huge communication barrier even if your child is really good at Chinese).

9) Encourage your kids to create performance art in Chinese. 

Does your kid love Minecraft? My Little Pony? Singing? Acting? Writing? Whatever it is, encourage your kid to make videos/songs/music videos/fan vids/short stories/whatever in Chinese. This combines bribery (play all the Minecraft you want as long as it’s in Chinese), relevance (stuff they’re interested in), and narcissism (seeing their work shared on YouTube or amongst friends).

Plus, I’m sure there’s all sorts of educational theory on how this synthesizes language into different parts of their brain or something sciencey.

10) Use the time-honored tradition of Chinglish.

Allow your child to speak as much Chinese as possible and to sub in English if they do not know the words in Chinese.

Now, some folks object to this route entirely because they feel it either dilutes their efforts or gives their children a way to slack off and cheat. However, I am of the opinion that any Chinese is better than no Chinese and that many children (myself included) would rather be silent and not risk looking foolish than to try something in Chinese only to stall, grope around desperately for the right word, and then fail miserably.

Instead, allow your child to say in English the parts they don’t know in Chinese. Then, show them how to say the phrase or word in Chinese and have them repeat it. It now becomes a teachable moment and your child will have a better shot of remembering the new vocabulary because they needed the word versus some random word they have to memorize as part of a lesson.

Chinglish allows your kid to attempt to speak Chinese without losing too much face or the expectation of perfection. It can be freeing.

11) Have realistic expectations.

I wrote a long post about having realistic expectations for learning Chinese in general. This will likely be more along the same lines.

– Be reasonable.

– Learning new skills (especially a language as complicated as Chinese) requires time.

– If your child has limited exposure to Chinese, it isn’t really fair for you to expect that their spoken Chinese will be fluent.

– Even if your child can understand Chinese, if you do not encourage them reply to you in Chinese, they will never learn to speak Chinese with confidence or proficiency.

– If you try to make your child speak to you in Chinese but do not equip them with the appropriate vocabulary, they will still be unable to communicate with you to the level and nuance they would be able to in English.

My friend, Irish Twins, has a great analogy. Imagine that your children have two toolboxes, one Chinese and one English. You want your kids to build a house with only one of the toolboxes and you want them to use the Chinese toolbox. Unfortunately, the Chinese toolbox is tiny and only consists of a hammer, some nails, and a phillips head screwdriver. There is no way your kid can build a house of the same magnitude as they could with the fully equipped English toolbox.

– Unless you can predict the future, do not be too pleased with your child’s Chinese before they start any type of English school full time (be it daycare, preschool, Kindergarten, etc.). This is not to discount your hard work up until that point, but that is totally counting your chickens before they’ve hatched. For sure, the better your child’s Chinese is at this stage, the more set up for success you will be – but by no means is anything guaranteed.

Until your child starts English schooling, their English exposure will be limited and Chinese will have no competition. But once English schooling begins, that’s when the appeal, allure, and relevancy of English will encroach on their Chinese. (Not to mention social pressure to conform and be liked by their peers.)

Trust me. Unless you have an intentional plan of action, your child’s fluent Chinese will disappear faster than a blink of an eye.

Well, now that I’ve thoroughly depressed and overwhelmed us all, hopefully, I have mentioned a few things that can help in our long road to Chinese speaking fluency. I would love to hear your thoughts on what has or hasn’t worked for your family. Let me know in the comments.