Thursday, June 19, 2014

Our strategy to teach our kids Chinese

We’ve never really written before about our comprehensive strategy to teach our kids Chinese. My wife originally started this blog to share the Chinese worksheets she was creating. Since then, we’ve started to put together a respectable amount of resources for parents that live outside of China who want to teach their kids Chinese. What we haven’t done yet, though, is talk in detail about how we go about the entire process of teaching our kids Chinese. Below is a somewhat comprehensive view of the overall, long term strategy that we are taking. It's a long process, we are trying our best, and it happens one day at a time!


Learning to Speak Chinese

Speak Chinese to your kids

The first and most important thing we have ever done is commit to speak Chinese in the home. This has been difficult, especially because I am American. My Chinese is not perfect, and my wife’s English will always be better than my Chinese. Sometimes there is a communication gap. Sometimes it's easier for everyone if we speak English. I consider myself to be a relatively disciplined person, and it has taken a lot of effort for us to maintain the rule where we speak Chinese at home. It’s even difficult for my wife, since she’s been in America for years now and sometimes comes to English words easier than Chinese words. Lots of our books and other media are in English as well, and sometimes it’s hard to switch back to Chinese afterwards. So, I can understand how kids with Chinese parents grow up in America speaking English at home. It's a shame, but I can see how it happens. If the parent’s speak good English, it’s simply the easiest thing to do. Speaking Chinese when you are not in China takes effort, even for adults. However, as we’ve been consistent with this rule, our kids comply. They know they are supposed to speak Chinese. We constantly reminded them and even went through a phase where they would get sent to time out if they spoke English. Now, for the most part, it’s not an issue. I’m guessing it will be get harder as the kids start school and get even more immersed in English, but for now our 4 year old and 2 year old speak Chinese at home.

Because we’ve been so strict about this rule, our kids speak Chinese. I have a friend who took a year of Chinese in college, and my 2 year old speaks way better Chinese than he does. My four year old doesn’t speak like a four year old native, but he speaks pretty darn good. He can communicate basically anything he wants to, as good as a four year old can reasonably be expected to communicate.  

We started speaking to them when they were babies, and they often picked up Chinese words before they picked up English words. Of course, we didn’t want them to not learn English. That would make their social development awkward when they went to church or played with friends. So whenever they learned a new word, we would teach them both the English and the Chinese. In a way, this made teaching new words easier. To explain what the new word meant, we could use both English and Chinese to explain it. I think that a lot of times it made it easier for them to grasp the meaning, having the extra explanation if it wasn’t clear in one language.

In social situations, it’s OK for them to speak English. We say that if friends are over or we’re outside and talking to someone else, than speak English. However, if we’re outside running errands and just talking with our family, our rule is that we still speak Chinese. Otherwise, as soon as we leave the house the kids would speak English and never learn much Chinese. Hanging out at home, there’s really a limited vocabulary that you need to get by every day. It’s when you’re out and about outside that you see new things and really need to learn new words and how to say new things. Enforcing the rule to speak Chinese outside has been very important.

I’ve heard that if kids can keep speaking another language until they are about 7 years old, then it becomes somewhat permanent. It’s amazing how fast they can forget. Once when our oldest was almost three, we spent a month at my parents house. We spoke English the entire time. When we got home, we realized that he had forgotten A LOT of his Chinese. Even basic things like colors didn’t come back to him right away. Hopefully if we keep it up Chinese will be a permanent part of his brain some day.

Send them to China

One good thing that we might do some day is send our kids to China for a while. We’ve visited my wife’s family several times and spent a month at a time in China. Unfortunately, my wife’s family lives in a small town and speaks a dialect similar but more complicated than Shan Dong Hua. Native Chinese speakers think it’s easy to understand, but it’s difficult for me. This means they don’t really have full immersion of mandarin when they go there, and it’s probably hard for them to understand everything. Nonetheless, it’s surely beneficial for them anyway.

Let them watch Chinese TV

We’ve written several posts about letting our kids watch Chinese cartoons. Our kids used to watch 1 or 2 episodes of English cartoons or children’s shows on most days of the week. We don’t have cable or even an antenna, but we do have Amazon prime and there’s no shortage of kids shows for them to watch. For the past 2 months, however, they almost never watch English TV shows. We’ve used our Roku to show them Chinese kids shows we find on youtube. There’s tons of kids TV shows on youtube for them to watch. We have written about two of them, Qiao Hu and Lao Hu Huan Xiang. I feel no guilt when they watch TV. Not only are they having fun and being entertained, but they are learning Chinese. I don’t feel like their brains are rotting away in front of the TV set. To the contrary, they are learning more about Chinese culture and getting immersed in the language.

Sing to them in Chinese

If you grew up in China, chances are you know some Chinese nursery rhymes. Sing them to your kids! If you don't know them, learn them. There are many on youtube you can find.

Listen to Chinese Music

This is one that we haven't really tried yet... our kids are starting to really appreciate American Music, and we bias them with our eclectic taste of indie rock and folk rock. I am thinking we should listen to more Chinese music, but both my wife and I don't have nearly as much Chinese music on hand.

Read Chinese books to them

We have 100+ English kids books. There’s so many books out there it’s hard to be a parent in America without accumulating lots of them. And that’s a good thing. We have a much smaller supply of Chinese books, but we always jump at the chance to read Chinese books with them. Every Chinese book teaches them new words. You might be surprised how many Chinese books your local library has. If they don’t have some at your local branch, most cities still might have some that you can request be sent to your library. Eventually, we hope that Amazon starts carrying more Chinese books. It's so easy to buy from Amazon that I know we and others would buy more if they carried them.


Learning to Read and Write Chinese

Our 4 year old has gotten to the point where he can probably read about 150 – 200 characters. He can probably write from memory about 80. This has been a combination of us giving him worksheets to do, us reading him books, and probably mainly him playing with the iPad.
The blog has a page on different Chinese worksheets, and there’s lots of resources out there for free. There’s also worksheets you can buy. Keep in mind that these are more time intensive. For your kid to get anything out of a worksheet, you are going to need to coach them through it. You can’t just expect them to do it by themselves and learn something.

iPad apps, on the other hand, pretty much do all the teaching for you. We’ve found about 4 apps that we really like, that are affordable, and that do a great job teaching our kids Chinese characters.
One of them is called Chinese Writer, where for $10 you can have access to 5000 characters. The app lets you practice writing the characters on the iPad, you can create different practice packs for your child, and there’s a little game which is surprisingly fun and great practice for both kids and adults. I think it’s very effective. We have a little Chinese book that we read with my oldest, and I’ve put all the new characters from the book into a practice pack on the app. After several episodes of playing with the app, my son is almost able to read the book by himself now. We made a small practice pack with the numbers 1-10, and our two year old was able to learn the numbers quite easily.

The other apps are basically fancy versions of flash cards or animated stories that teach you characters along the way and have little quizzes and games as you progress through the story. They are fun, my kids love them, and they actually learn stuff as they play. It’s way better than them wasting their brain on the iPad playing things like fruit ninja or plants vs zombies.

We don’t have a lot of experience yet teaching our kids to read and write, but we are encouraged with the results. We really hope we can get to the point where they learn enough characters to be able to read recreationally when they are a few years older. I was raised in a family of readers, and I remember reading books for fun as early as second grade. If we can get our kids to this level, they will be set for life, since they will continue to read for fun and improve their language skills.

That’s our goal!


EDIT:
Check out how we're doing: a video of our son reading Chinese.


Any other tips or suggestions?


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