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How to teach a child to read Chinese (when you can’t speak it yourself)

Teaching a child to read Chinese as a parent who cannot

Teaching a child to read Chinese is not an impossible to task, but it requires concerted effort, and if don’t speak the language (which I don’t) then you’ll need to leverage lots of external resources to aid the journey. This post is to offer suggestions, and things which I wish someone had shared earlier with us. I am not a trained language teacher – only a parent trying hard – so it’s not exhaustive by any means, and there are many great ways for teaching a child to read Chinese. They key thing is that you give it a try if you need to!

Reading is SO SO very important on the journey to becoming bilingual in Chinese, even if your ultimate aim for your child is only to speak the language fluently. I have another post about ho2 extensive reading has been key to learning Chinese.

My eldest child was able to read ~1200 characters at about ~8 years of age, which is nothing impressive for a Chinese heritage family, but to me was quite a milestone, as we started on the reading journey quite late, and achieved most of this within about a 2.5 year period since starting school, most of which the school wad closed due to COVID. It was quite a effort on all fronts at home. After this experience with my eldest, I started much earlier to teach my young children to read in Chinese (when they were aged 2 and 4 respectively), and in fact, Chinese was the first language which they could read. A year later, it is still their strongest language to read in. 

As parents, we can neither speak nor read Chinese, so this post it to encourage you and say it is possible to actively help your children despite your situation. Obviously all children are different, with different interests and aptitudes. Mine are great readers, which helps.  By systematically and deliberately putting small doses of Chinese reading into our daily routines, we’ve made the language acquisition happen little-by-little. It’s certainly a marathon not a sprint, and involves some journey pre-planning too.

I saw an Instagram tag #mandarinagainstallodds by one my favourite bookstores in Singapore, and I thought, yep that’s us.  It could be you too.   Even though as parents we cannot speak Chinese, we realised that to go to primary school in Singapore, it would be essential for our children to learn the language, and it’s a good life skill to have. So we made it happen.  And yes, we are absolutely proud of the achievement. 

That’s partially why I started this blog, as a resource to show it is possible (note, I didn’t say easy) to raise happy, bilingual children as monolingual parents.  More importantly, I wanted to support others in their magnanimous language journeys.  There are surprisingly lots of parents doing similar things to us, and it can be your story too. Our family isn’t amazing; far from it. But there are amazing resources out there to help you.

Our family situation

Parents: English speaking; relocated to Singapore as adults

Both my husband and I grew up in countries where learning a second language is not emphasised, and our parents only spoke English to us.  My husband is an avid foodie, and impressively as an adult he has managed to self-learn French and conversational Bahasa, but Chinese has alluded him.  My husband, being ethnically Chinese, has coped with so many “Ah, how come you don’t speak Mandarin, mah?” questions that he’s totally avoided entering Chinatown for the last decade.  In Singapore, where all ethnically Chinese people must learn their mother tongue at school without exception, it’s somewhat of an absurd novelty, especially to the older generation, that a Chinese person may exist who cannot understand even a teeny-weeny bit of the language (although usually his next move is to respond to them in Bahasa and watch their eyes bulge! It work especially well at the hawker centre, as usually the Malay stall owners next door have a huge belly laugh too).

When we moved to Singapore, in hindsight I wish I’d gotten my act together and started to learn one of the official languages here: 15 years later and I still don’t even know enough to confidently share a greeting or nicety. It’s not without trying though – I once tried wishing Happy New Year a to a highly auspicious auntie, and got my  “Gōng Xǐ Fā Cái” mixed up with my and “Gung Hei Fatt Choy” and it rolled off my tongue fluently as something like “Gung Hei Xi Fatt” ….. which was wishing the the dear old lady a prosperous time in the bathroom over the coming year. She didn’t see the funny side, alas.

I remember applying to MBA school, and feeling frustrated that the particular school I was most interested in required applicants to speak not only a second language, but a third as well!  I promised myself that I would try to give my children this opportunity to properly learn a language if we could.  With three children born in Asia, at least something was on our side!

The initial pipe dream that I had for the children was to employ a Chinese nanny ….. seven years later I still have no clue how to go about that, but I want to show you that just because you don’t speak the language nor have any other Chinese speaker available in the house, it shouldn’t stop you from supporting bilingual language learning, especially if you’re living in a country which is conducive to it.

Child One:  the wake-up call

Child Two : essentially bilingual from the start

Child Three: only reads in Chinese

How I helped the children to read in Chinese without knowing the language

I’m not a tiger mum, and we’re not a tiger family. My kids have simple (and what I hope are happy) lifestyles – they play outdoors, they get messy, they laugh.  This in itself appears to be a rarity in Singapore.  Many kids join tuition centres for multiple subjects between ages 3 – 4, and by primary school, mums and maids often have a full-time programme chauffeuring their kids between 2 to 3 enrichment classes each evening, and perhaps 5 classes on a weekend…… nope, that’s not us.  Gosh it’s exhausting just to type about it.  I have a push bike with three kids’ seats attached to it – we ride it to school, we ride it to the park and the library.  They kids are in their pajamas before 8pm, which is about the time their friends are often starting up a tuition class!  Alas, I diverge.

My kids aren’t geniuses either.  Their Chinese language skills are nothing extraordinary, relative to other children.  However, they do love the language, and all three are able to keep up with local Singaporean peers, which for me, is extraordinary enough.

I see a lot of chatter in the primary school class Whatsapp groups (from Chinese mother-tongue families)  commenting “tingxie (spelling list) this week is too hard” etc.  Well, I wouldn’t know because I have nothing to compare it to myself – but I do know my elder child has never mentioned it being a challenge, which I’m glad about, because I don’t want language learning to become a chore. She knows she needs to put in effort, and she sees that I’m right beside her putting in effort too (entering the spelling lists into Skritter app, chopping up homemade flash cards, using Google translate to work out how to order books from Taobao, listening to audio stories on Luka, etc). Together we make progress and celebrate. I would make an observation that rote learning characters is dead boring – it’s much better to teach a child to read Chinese using real literature.

Luka is excellent for assisting a child to read Chinese by themselves

The “Intervention” to really teach my child to read Chinese

In the middle of my daughter’s first year of primary school (P1), I realised that we needed to change the way she was learning Chinese.  It couldn’t just be confined to one passive hour a day in the classroom.

I knew her marks in Chinese had never been great, and I’d turned a blind eye to it, thinking “as long as she’s happy and learning something, then I’m happy”.  But the epiphany came when, I found some of her old Chinese worksheets from her kindergarten days, and asked her to read it.  She couldn’t – and we were both dumbfounded.  I resolved to change this.  You can read my earlier post here on the background of why this occurred.  Let’s just say, the local primary school environment in Singapore has great curriculum and book learning, but an hour a day of Chinese means the learning cannot be left only for the school classroom. So unless both speaking and reading (and ultimately writing too) is reinforced outside of the classroom, it’s a tough battle.

The main change which followed was my mindset. I needed to go from being a backseat passenger, to being highly embedded and engaged in the language journey.  I realised I needed to be more than just my daughter’s support crew and cheerleader, but to be actively mapping the lay of the land, and reinforcing her understanding of what we were seeing, and where we were going. We need to bring Chinese into our home lives too. And that’s when I really started teaching all my children to read in Chinese.

Everyone is at a different place, with different needs.  For us, as a non-Chinese speaking family, the way this played out was that we decided to:

  1. ensure that with each child, we spent at least 10 minutes daily with the child reading to an adult an appropriate levelled  Chinese readers/book. I’ve made a list of our favourite Chinese levelled readers.
  2. add in at least one Chinese bedtime story into the evening mix (usually about 10 minutes too). If you cannot tell the stories yourself, then check out Luka Reading Robot. Or if you can read a little, try an AI Dictionary scanning pen to support you.
  3. allow some iPad screen time, and let the children play two Chinese literacy app games each weekend, and for my eldest, to complete at least 5 minutes of character writing practice each day in another app with words aligned to her school studies.
  4. If budget allows, rope in the assistance of online conversations with Chinese speakers once or twice a week (plenty of fun and low cost options to enable short 15 – 25 minutes chats). LingoAce is great for MOE syllabus, and GoEast is awesome for something tailored. We did a review and comparison of many online Chinese classes we’ve tried here. If you don’t want to overload on straight Chinese classes, you can try a fun CCA class taught in Chinese. We’ve tried to a few.

Small changes; big difference.  Think about it, by doing the first three activities, you sneak in an extra 20+ minutes of (fun & free) Chinese each day, and across a week that’s well over 2 hours of additional Chinese exposure.   

It’s also changed the way the kids think – we’ve shown them now that we’re making consistent and deliberate time for Chinese, and space on our bookshelves for it too.  This demonstrates to them we’re serious about it, and it’s one of our priorities.  We’ve been really regular at having this feature in our evening routine – we sometimes forget to use our points chart, and have been known to forget bedtime prayers, but I don’t think in the past year that we’ve ever forgotten to do our Chinese reading! 

Le Le Chinese readers are a perfect start to reach a child to read in Chinese

But how did you teach your child to read Chinese without speaking the language?

First thing to note, before teaching your child to read Chinese, your child must really grasp basic spoken Mandarin. Is this isn’t your family, check out a different post about how monolingual families can start the language journey. If your children they do already understand basic spoken Chinese instructions and are ready to read, there are some really great tools out there.   There are also some great communities too. The one thing I wouldn’t bother doing is attempting to speak/learn Chinese myself, as that wouldn’t be conducive learning.

My logic has always been that as I cannot speak the language, I need to leverage on the best tools which exist.  I have spent (and continue to spend!) a lot of time researching how and what to buy, and I’m very confident that what we have landed with are an excellent collection, which provide a systematic approach to learning characters, supporting the school syllabus, and embedding a love of the language through literacy.  Although, learning and innovation never stops, so I’m always keen to hear new suggestions if you have any!

I’ve mentioned these above, but I’ll expand here. The Chinese literacy games like iHuman and Wukong Literacy (both reviewed here) are perfect for a child who understand Chinese, even if ther parent doesn’t not – what’s more, they’re super fun. The character writing is Skritter (my review is here) and whilst it’s not fun, it is a way that a parent can upload all the tingxie words for a child to learn independently. I have no affiliation to any of these apps or companies, and no referral / discounts either, but I’m sharing because they really are excellent for families in our situation. That said, for Skritter, there is generally a massive group buy for families in Singapore annually, where price is reduced from US$12/month, to US$12 per YEAR. If interested in this, join the FB group Ni Hao SG Primary School Learning, and join the conversations.

The Luka Reading Companion (reviewed here) is what we use to read the Chinese picture books, and the books we’ve found most useful to start out with the children are Sage 500 Books (reviewed here) and Le Le Chinese Reading System (reviewed here).  Again, no affiliation, but I can say that for Luka, Sage and Le Le there are amazing online communities of other parents using these resources, and sharing how they use them (mainly through FB groups), and for that, I’m forever grateful.  Also, each of the distributors of these products have good support for their customers, including free printables, crafts and other online resources to aid families.

If your child has graduated beyond simple Chinese readers, then Chinese bridging books combined with an optical reading pen make is possible for a child to read independently. The Youdao Dictionary pen (reviewed here) or the very similar iFlytek Alpha Egg (reviewed here) have been other great tools for my eldest daughter to translate harder Chinese characters in the novels she now reads, and lets her confidently understand a book, despite perhaps only knowing 85% of the characters contained.

I have actually written some other blog posts which might be helpful if you’re reading this as a parent who cannot speak the language and wondering what might work for you:

  1. Should I opt for Chinese as my child’s mother tongue at primary school?
  2. Is your child achieving fluency a realistic goal for a non-Chinese speaking family?
  3. Reading Pens and Robots to aid in Chinese learning
  4. Surviving P1 Chinese for the clueless parent
  5. Best Chinese levelled readers for learning with your child
  6. Building a Chinese home library for children

Things to consider when thinking about how your child is acquiring the Chinese language

I’ve learnt a lot through supportive online communities like the Face Book Group Ni Hao Sg Primary School Learning, and other bloggers like GrowingHearts123 and Guavarama Finally, there are tonnes of interesting bilingual Instagramming families to live vicariously through if you’re on Instagram (if you’re looking for starting points try @blackgoldfish, @dailymusingofj, @thedreamwhale, @jaslearningwithkids or @ourjoyoflearning, or even my own humble account @lahlahbanana).

I would love to hear how what is working (or not working) for your family too, as life is always easier when it’s shared with like-minded folk. Please drop a comment or reach out if you have further questions or things to teach me!

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