Teaching your children a second language is always a challenge. For those who are native Chinese speakers this is obviously a lot easier, but for those of us who would like to teach our Children Chinese despite our own lack of Chinese fluency, this is a challenge.
There is no single correct approach to teaching your child a second language, only different approaches.
If you don’t already understand the basics of Chinese language, please look at my introduction here. I will assume in this article that you have an understanding of what the Chinese language is, even if you’ve never spoken or learned it.
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Why teach your child Chinese?
With one billion native speakers Chinese should be among the top contenders for second languages for all of us to learn, not just children. The sheer number of native speakers alone means Chinese will remain relevant for the long term. Add to this the rising influence of China, the Chinese language is a great tool with which to equip your child.
Approaches to teaching your child Chinese for native speakers
If you or your spouse alerady speak a foreign language, you are already ahead. There are generally a few approaches that parents use:
The rigid approach: One language per parent
A common approach is for each parent to speak to the child in a different language.So for example, Mum speaks to the children in Chinese and Dad speaks in English. This is what I would call the rigid approach. Ultimately this rigid approach helps the child to better understand which words belong to which language based on which parent is speaking to them. This does require some discipline as it is common for parents to fall in to the trap of speaking the language which is most common, for example English.
- Easier for the kids to distinguish between languages
- Difficulty for parents to matain discipline
- Only works where at least one parent is fluent in each language
- Doesn’t work for teaching children a third language
The flexible approach
The flexible approach can be used where at least one parent speaks multiple languages, allowing essentially any parent to speak in any language to the child at any time. In our case one of use speaks to our children in English, Cantonese and Mandarin, while the other speaks English and Mandarin. None of us speak perfect Mandarin, however one of us is a native Cantonese speaker and the other a native English speaker.
One of the results of this approach is that our children don’t really distinguish between different languages. They speak a mixture of all languages, although predominantly English. At the playground when our daughter was two she would call the other kids “jiějiě” (Chinese for older sister –
- Less discipline required by the parents
- Child learns the language
- Child can and does become confused as to what language belongs where
- It is common for the child to stick to the language they hear the most and not the second language. For this reason more effort is required to encourage your child to respond in Chinese rather than English.
As your child gets older and you find that English becomes their dominant language, it is okay to teach them these Chinese word and then say it in English so they understand. I similarly do this for sentences, so for example
“Dìdì qù nǎlǐ? Where did didi go?”
The result of our experience has been that daughter understands Cantonese Mandarin, however she generally responds only in English. We have had to become more strict in insisting that she speak in Chinese (be it Cantonese or Mandarin).
Look for ways to practise
There are many ways to practise a second language, especially Chinese as you should find native speakers in most countries. I’ve broken up my suggestions by age:
Chinese Practise: Pre-Kindergarten aged children
- “play dates” or meeting up with other parents. It doesn’t matter if the other parents English is poor – this is also an opportunity for you to learn Chinese. Meanwhile you will find that kids of completely different backgrounds, including language backgrounds, play together. I have seen five year olds who don’t even speak the same language playing together and developing their language skills extremely fast.
Chinese Practise: Kindergarten / Pre-school (approximately 0-5 years of age)
- Chinese language or “immersion” kindergartens. An immersion kindergarten is ideal where the kids are instructed only in Chinese. Unfortunately unless you live in a larger city with a reasonable Chinese population this may be an option. For government funded kindergartens, depending on the country, it may be required that the kindergartens use English as the language of instruction, however this isn’t always the case. Immersion kindergartens will get your child speaking Chinese quickly, especially if the other students are native Chinese speakers, however even if the students are not, coaching from the teachers will mean the kids start speaking, at first just by parroting, the Chinese language
- If immersion kindergarten is not available you can consider regular kindergartens where there are Chinese speaking teachers on staff. This is something I have looked at myself, whereby you ask the teacher if they can speak to your child in Chinese. Unfortunately, I have heard of instances where the kindergarten policy demands that the teachers speak only English to the kids.
- If you can’t find a kindergarten which provides immersion or at least a Chinese speaking staff member then look for kindergartens with other native Chinese children. Kindergarten presents a great opportunity for you and your child to meet other kids and parents and form friendships. I don’t look at this as “using” these other parents, if they speak little English themselves they may well appreciate the opportunity to improve, while if they are fluent English speakers they will likely want to encourage their child to speak Chinese and will appreciate like minded parents
Chinese Practise: Primary School (approximately 5-12 years of age)
- In some countries you can find immersion schools where Chinese is used as the language of instruction for children. I have also seen schools where half of the lessons are taught in Chinese. These are ideal schools to send your child to, however there are barriers to doing so, specifically
- School zoning may prevent your child from attending.
- Private schools that offer Chinese immersion or partial immersion programs can be very expensive, especially if you have more than one child who will be attending. We ourselves are in this category
- Chinese as a language subject at school. Some primary schools will offer students a second language, although in many cases I have found this is fixed and cannot be selected, so it’s worth looking at what your local school offers and if they don’t offer Chinese try and see if you can send your child to another school (out of zone, private or even semi-private)
- After school programs. These vary from country to country, some schools have after school care run at the school itself, however in most cases there will be programs that are separate to the school. Depending on where you live you will find that some of these offer Chinese language lessons, typically both cultural and language
- Weekend tuition classes. Again depending on where you live and the Chinese population, you should be able to find Chinese language classes that are run on weekends. I have found these to vary greatly in emphasis on language versus culture as well as duration. Some classes are short in duration, perhaps 1½ hours, while others run for an entire day.
Chinese Practise: High School (teenagers)
- In the west, or at least in many English speaking countries, second languages are introduced as a subject in high school. Personally I feel this is not ideal, languages should be introduced at primary school. The issue you may face here is that many high school language subjects are aimed at students with no prior knowledge, thus making this less suitable, that is far too easy, for students who have previously studied Chinese.
- Out of school tuition. As with primary school you should be able to find language classes outside of school, possibly as after school or weekend programs.
- Adult classes. This is an option for high school students of a certain maturity and will depend upon the class. Some adult classes will not allow high school students to join, while in other cases you will find many introductory classes, but typically far fewer intermediate and advanced classes.
As a whole I recommend enrolling your child in some form of Chinese language education as soon as is practical. Even if the language classes you find are too easy, or even too hard, it will encourage them to build, retain and use their Chinese language skills as well as open the door to meeting and building friendships with native speakers.
The underlying principle of learning Chinese for children is the same as it is for adults, that is it is important to focus you learning to be all-encompassing. This means exposure a wide variety of various types of media including, books, videos, etc. It is for this reason you should look for as many opportunities for exposure.
Do I need to be fluent in Chinese in order to teach my child?
You do not need to be fluent in Chinese in order to teach your child. No matter what the age of your child you can help to teach them a language, even if you know nothing yourself. If you intend on sending your child to language classes or school with a Chinese language component, you could get away without learning Chinese yourself, however I don’t recommend this approach.
You level of Chinese language proficiency is not as important as your commitment to their learning. If your Chinese language skills are low or non-existent, then you will be learning together. Look at this as an opportunity to spend time with your child and learn together. You don’t need to be an expert to teach them. What is important is to focus on immersion, this means making a deliberate effort to start using the Chinese words that you learn. Don’t call an apple an apple, start using Chinese
If your child is older or becomes more advanced in their Chinese language ability, it become more difficult to teach them if you yourself have a very liited knowledge. In this case it becomes more important than ever to look at language classes or tution. Keep in mind that you should do your best to reinforce their language development by exposing them to Chinese language as much as possible. An example of this is ensuring you have Chinese books, movies and other media available.
With our children we created a rule, essentially there was no TV unless it was in Chinese, the essence of this logic being that if they were going to watch TV, then they were going to learn something useful by doing so. As there is no Chinese television where we live, we setup a computer media server that randomly plays a selection of thousands of movies cartoons that we have downloaded from youtube and youku. This approach works until you child is old enough to become a big more demanding, at which point they will ultimately wrestle control, thus we’ve done our best to find the Chinese language version of her favourite shows, for example Paw Patrol (
Should you teach your child to write Chinese, if so when?
Start teaching your child to read and write in Chinese just as you would in English. As with English, your child will be able to recognise characters before they are able to write them. For example a three year old can recognise letters of the alphabet. When introducing Chinese, start with simple characters with low number of strokes; a good way to start is with numbers and basic words your child can identify with such as book (
Stroke order and constant repetition is essential for anybody who wishes to learn to write Chinese. You can take two approaches here, either do things the old fashioned way and buy a book designed for Chinese character learning or consider modern Apps such as Skitter which use SRS (Spaced Repetition System) to reinforce language. If you do use language Apps I still recommend having your child write with pen and paper as the language apps allow a degree of leeway in how characters are written.
If you are no proficient yourself I strongly recommend language classes for you child where the teacher can set homework and review their writing ability, including stroke order.
Commonly asked questions about teaching your child Chinese
When it comes to teaching your child Chinese, there are many questions; have tried to address the most common below.
Teaching a preschool child to write Chinese even if you don’t
While this is understandably intimidating for parents who don’t write Chinese themselves, it is easier than you think. There are many resources available such as flashcards and children’s books with simple characters. For parents with little Chinese knowledge it is much easier to teach your child basic Chinese characters than it is to continue to more advanced characters as once your child progresses you will either need to grow your own Chinese character knowledge or enrol them in a class.
Does it matter if my child mixes Chinese and English?
Don’t be stressed if your child begins to mix Chinese and English, this is a great sign as it shows that they are absorbing the language. Our daughter would say things like ‘fēijī (plane) in the sky”, which is perfectly fine. To try and guide her we started saying emphasising the Chinese by telling her other things in the sky, and repeating in English, for example:
- “Niǎo zài tiānshàng – the bird is in the sky” (
- “Fēijī zài tiānshàng – the plane is in the sky” (
- “Yuèliàng zài tiānshàng – the moon is in the sky” (
Ultimately it is normal for a young child to mix multiple languages, even if they their parents are native speakers of those other languages. You wil lfind that older children do not have this problem as they know what is English and what is not. If you are teaching multiple dialects however (we use Cantonese, Mandarin and English with our Children), you will find that even an adult can be confused with similar sounding words with different meanings.
Will teaching my Child Chinese negatively slow down my childs English development?
Research shows that learning a second language can delay your child’s English development, however this effect is not long lasting, with multi-lingual children catching up in English language development relatively quickly. Learning a second language is great for your child development and gives them improved mental agility and allows them to look at problems from different perspectives
Should I read to my child in Chinese exclusively?
There is no hard and fast rule for reading to your child. We read to our children in both English and Chinese, essentially alternating the books. For Chinese, as our daughter is not fluent, we read the Chinese and follow it up with the English. Research shows that young children learn best from books with large writing, so if your child is young try and use books which are limited to one line of text per page and has English, Chinese characters (Hanzi
What learning resources should I use to teach my child Chinese?
There are many resources available for learning Chinese, many of which are suitable for children. From books, to television programs, posts, online radio and Apps.
There is no single right way to teach your child Chinese, your approach will depend on you and whoever else lives in your household’s Chinese skills. Chinese books, TV, games and classes all help, however ultimately providing your child an environment to learn with other Chinese children is the best way to learn, as kids love to do and be like other kids.