This article uses affiliate links and was originally part of a series of posts that became my book, So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese. Updated February 7, 2020.
I’ve been on this bilingual journey with my kids for at least ten years and actively pursuing bi-literacy for about seven. In that time period, I have written thousands of words on what to do. But sometimes, it’s helpful to have a “What Not to Do” kind of article. In my past decade of experience, I certainly have my share of those tips, too.
What not to do if you want to teach your kid Chinese
Considering all the time, money, and thought we put towards making our kids fluent, we definitely do not mean to sabotage our children’s Chinese learning on purpose. But, if you are doing some or all of the following, you just might be undercutting your child’s efforts.
1) Don’t have a clearly defined goal or plan of action.
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. It’s merely working backwards from your goal to your current situation. 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, scientists also aren’t really sure despite a lot of theories. 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 by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, 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 list of articles on some of the myths regarding early language learning.
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 One Parent One Language (OPOL) 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.