This post was sponsored by Sagebooks. All opinions are mine and mine alone. This post also contains affiliate links.
It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything about my older two children’s Chinese progress because quite frankly, I feel as if there’s nothing much to say. Not because we’ve stopped the Chinese thing with them. In fact, they’re doing really well. Cookie Monster (~9) and Gamera (7) are very close to being literate and their main obstacle is comprehending what they’re reading at a higher, more sophisticated level.
If you had told me this would be the case 2-3 years ago, I would not have believed you. But now that I’m here, I really am hard put to explain what we are doing to get our results. Mostly because I’m not doing much of anything with them at all except sending them to a Chinese tutor once a week for 2.5 hours, having them read Chinese books on a daily basis, and attempting to continue speaking to them in Chinese.
I know. I sound like an asshole for which I apologize profusely.
But honestly, this should be a hopeful thing because what I really want to tell you is this: trust the process.
In case you’re new to my site and my process, here’s my process and philosophy for teaching kids Chinese in a nutshell:
- Front load as much Chinese comprehension/speaking/reading/writing as possible.
- Delay English comprehension/speaking/reading/writing as much as possible (and stomachable).
- Teach zhuyin in order to maximize Chinese reading opportunities with their interests until their Chinese character recognition is high enough to read without assistance.
- Prioritize comprehension because that is the foundation for speaking, reading, and writing.
- Focus on reading Chinese in as many styles, subjects, stories, fiction, and non-fiction in order to increase comprehension and character recognition as well as to further solidify a base for writing.
- In general, the hierarchy of comprehension > speaking > reading > writing (both actual writing of the character and writing coherent thoughts and arguments).
If you’re interested in me expounding on these topics at length, I will direct you to my book, So You Want Your Kid to Learn Chinese.
Now, of course we won’t really know if I’m right until my children reach and maintain their fluency and literacy, but I have seen enough examples from the people ahead of me on this journey (eg: the incomparable Oliver Tu, Guavarama, and a few of my other friends in real life) to feel confident that most likely, unless I drastically change what I’m doing, my older two children (at the very least) will get to where I would like them to be in Chinese.
Oh, and before you go on and list all the exceptions for my situation – the primary objection being that we homeschool in Chinese – I’d like to point out that my children speak English 99% of the time to each other, their friends, their father, and their mother (ahem – that would be me). The classes and media my kids consume (and they consume a LOT of media) are only marginally less English in the sense that it’s perhaps 97% English and 1% Korean (thanks, BTS!!).
So, really, my children function in a mostly English world and environment and prefer English to Chinese 99.9% of the time (to my simultaneous despair and relief). And while I will not lie to your face and say my situation is identical to yours (especially if you send your child to a traditional schooling environment), I will say it’s not as different as you may think.
Truthfully, I will tell you that the hardest parts of this Chinese thing is mental.
What do I mean?
Ultimately, it’s a matter of choices and what you are willing to trade-off for Chinese fluency and literacy because you will not be able to have everything you want at the same time (or accelerated timeline) that you want because you and your children are finite beings with finite resources, abilities, and desires.
Front loading Chinese is both easy and difficult.
It’s easy because when your children are preschool or even pre-K, if you speak Chinese to them all the time and make their environment 99% Chinese, it’s really natural for your children to be fluent. However, if Chinese is not your dominant language, this part will also be hard because hey, SOMETIMES YOU JUST CAN’T CHINESE ANYMORE.
When your children get older though, front loading Chinese becomes an exercise in trust and being comfortable with the fact that your children’s English will temporarily lag behind other children their age. If you are uncomfortable with the thought of your kids being below grade or peer level in their English speaking/comprehension/reading/writing, this will be very difficult to maintain.
As someone who cannot remember learning to read (either English, zhuyin, or music), it was initially very frustrating to see my children be so behind their peers. I was constantly making excuses and comforting myself with the knowledge that at least my kids’ Chinese literacy was ahead of their peers. But that was small consolation when my mother and husband and some well-meaning friends expressed concern that my eldest child was almost 8 and really, shouldn’t he know how to read English already?
In addition to the mental fortitude of doing something that seems counter-intuitive to academic success in this (needlessly) competitive scholastic world with which we’ve thrust upon our children, there is also the effort and will-power necessary to build up their Chinese reading and comprehension to the point where they can do so independently.
For Cookie Monster and Gamera, this required about 3-4 years of active preparation where I sent them to Chinese pre-schools, private classes, went through Sagebooks, taught them zhuyin via tutors, sent them to Taiwanese summer camps, bought thousands of dollars of books and then forced them to read the books, sat with them to practice reading out loud in Chinese to practice zhuyin and help with comprehension, and the years of speaking and consuming only Chinese things.
Now that I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, I am focused on making sure they do not lose what we have won at such high cost. Thus, the bulk of the work is now forcing my children to read, read, read in Chinese. Mainly because just like in English, the only way to get better at reading Chinese is to read more Chinese.
To think that I have to repeat the process for Glow Worm (5) and Sasquatch (2) makes me want to weep in exhaustion. Hmmmm. Perhaps only two of my children need to be fluent and literate in Chinese.
I’m just saying.
If you’re curious about my older two kids’ Chinese levels and word counts, I cannot tell you. I have not given them a test or flashed cards at them to see how many words they know. Mostly because, in case you have not yet gathered, I am lazy and don’t care.
However, I can tell you what they’re reading.
Currently, Cookie Monster is reading chapter books with zhuyin for about 45 minutes at a time (of which I require him to read at least twice a day). He is cycling through Magic Treehouse, Zorori, and the Roald Dahl books depending on his interest and need for completion. He is also zipping through the Plants vs. Zombies comic books (no zhuyin) that teach idioms, history, science, and whatever other subjects I bought. I honestly have no idea.
Gamera is reading similar books but at a slower clip because she is two years younger, less patient, and only got dragged up a level because Cookie Monster talked about these books and convinced her to read them, too. In addition to reading twice daily to satisfy me, they also read Plants vs. Zombies before bed because they find the books hilarious and I have caught Cookie Monster reading books when he’s bored though he is loath to admit it.
Because I’m a giver, here are a bunch of pictures of the insides of books they’re reading.
Other than forcing my children to read Chinese books, I send them to a private Chinese class for 2.5 hours a week. Not that I care about these things, but they consistently out-perform the other children in the class.
The other moms have asked their teacher to find out from me what I’ve been doing to get these results. Am I making my kids do flash cards or additional cramming or some other magic? While I am flattered that they think I am an involved enough parent to care and prep, I do nothing other than make my kids read.
Truly, I believe that has made all the difference.
So, what was the point of this unexpectedly long post other than to brag about my older two children?
Trust the process.
There is a huge lead-in time and it is tempting (and understandable) to stop before you get to whatever maintenance level makes you happy.
However, if you put in the work (and it is work), your children will eventually hit a self-perpetuating level of Chinese that with the right encouragement, will lead to functional literacy and fluency.
I’m definitely finding that part of the mental load it’s having to confront my own negative feelings about the level my own Chinese is at. There are so many daily easy vocab that I don’t know, that talking to a toddler in Chinese isn’t smoother.
I totally understand! If it gives you hope, I used to not be able to yell at my kids in Chinese. Now, I have improved to the point where I can yell at them almost equally comfortably in either language. 😉 I have had a lot of practice. 😀