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.

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.