This is a post for anyone about to embark on the journey of raising a bilingual child. If you have a pre-schooler and are thinking about whether it’s possible to teach them a language which you don’t speak (or don’t speak fluently), then I am writing this post for you.
This post lists out my top three recommendations for books, apps and learning resources to help you and your child on the journey of learning Chinese together (ideally led by your child being in a Chinese learning environment in school!). It’s a post I wish I’d read when we started out on the journey of sending our children to local school in Singapore.
This was planned to be a short post.
It was going to be a post simply listing my top recommended resources for non-Chinese speaking parents who are raising Chinese-speaking children. If you want the short version, see immediately below. If you want the longer story, keep on reading:
Best Books for early literacy and Character learning
Best Apps for Learning Chinese
Best Supporting Materials for a language-rich home environment
- Luka Reading Companion
- Chinese language default on your television
- Non-academic class using Chinese
- Join a great FB group to connect with parents in the same situation
Best Bloggers for non-Chinese speaking parents to follow
The more I reflected on this post, the longer it became – I felt my recommendations needed some explanations. If I could have seen today, back in 2014, our bilingual journey would have been a very different one. I love sharing the resources that have helped our family to learn Chinese, despite neither parent knowing the language; I sincerely hope this might help you too.
I want you to know that even if you’re a monolingual parent/family, you play an important role in enabling a prepared, bilingual/multilingual learning environment for your children. And, it shouldn’t break the budget or your child’s spirit!
Looking back, with my first child, I wish I’d read a success story of another monolingual English-speaking family who had successfully reared bilingual children. And, I wish someone had pointed out that I could make a big difference, and that there were tools out there which can help lighten the load.
Some people consciously start journeys and can remember when it happened – like when you depart on an aeroplane, with a ticket in hand and destination known, after careful planning and thought. Others unconsciously start journeys, sitting on a passenger train, crossing many country borders without knowing, and ending up in some place far from where they started. The latter was us with our Mandarin journey. I don’t quite know where it all started; we didn’t have big goals in mind; and we didn’t have any guide-book to help us on the adventure.
I vividly remember the first time I bought a Chinese book for my first daughter. She’d been attending a bilingual preschool in Singapore for a few months, when the laoshi suggested that I should buy some reading books. Next day, I walked into a Chinese bookstore and as inconspicuously as possible purchased what looked like a simple picture book about dogs. A year later, I bought a set of popular Chinese graded readers from the same shop – unsurprisingly, she couldn’t read any of them, and neither could I. And then I decided not to waste more money. I reasoned that I didn’t speak Chinese, and therefore couldn’t help out. It took another four years before I intentionally thought about my role in her Chinese learning again.
Fast forward. With my third child now, it’s a totally different story. She’s had constant exposure to Chinese language in the house since birth, plenty of age-appropriate literature, and without wanting to brag to everyone under the sun, at age two she could read short Chinese books all by herself. When she started Nursery school, her teachers were most surprised to learn that no-one in the house spoke Mandarin. I gave a wry smile to them – oh, did robots or slightly older siblings count?.
So, after a few years of doing it wrongly, and a couple of now doing it much better, here is my hitlist of what I’d recommend for consciously beginning the Mandarin journey, with my “best three” in each category.
Best books for early Chinese literacy
I believe that one of the best ways for kids to learn anything is to model the behaviour you expect from them. I read a lot. We read a lot. It had been primarily English books with my first daughter – but I’ve learnt now how to bring Chinese into the mix, and found several great book sets / graded readers for introducing a love of Chinese literacy to young children,
1. Habbi Habbi Chinese Reading Wand
For a total beginner / baby, learning to speak
Habbi Habbi: There’s very few highly durable toddler-proof bilingual materials. These hardcover, board books with a well designed audio pen clearly designed to be durable for heavy use and play. It’s great for young children to great exposure to simple Chinese and English, without any screen time. The books are highly interactive, and the illustrations show diverse characters, with very intentionally chosen content. There are books about working mothers with breast pumps, and blended families – all phrases are positive and inclusive. My toddler sometimes sleeps with her Habbi Habbi reading wand (she just loves it), so I’m glad it’s such a fun way to expose her to bilingual learning and early literacy. These make great gifts too!
2. Sage 500 Chinese Books
For a preschool bilingual speaking child learning to read – character by character
Sage Books: This is a great set for a bilingual child learning to read, but it does require to be taught initially by someone who can speak a little Chinese or read pinyin (5 minutes a day…..). Perhaps an elder sibling, neighbour or a tutor could do this, so that the child gets the right pronunciation. Alternatively, the book also have an audio file which can be used. The books are carefully written with spaced repetition and consistency, to teach 500 characters, by a Montessori teacher. It’s worth the high price tag, if you can find a way to teach it. The books have pinyin and English translation, so reasonably approachable for a non-Chinese speaking parent. I credit this series for how my two youngest daughters became Chinese literate before they become English literate.
3. Le Le Chinese Books
For a kinergarten / school-age bilingual speaking child learning to read through stories
Lele Chinese: This is a highly approachable set of beginning reading materials for families where parents don’t speak Chinese. It’s a set of 300 graded readers, which have been cleverly researched and put together, to focus on the most common 1300 characters in Chinese literature. The set comes with a reading pen to recognise individual characters, so it’s not necessary for the adult to be able to speak/read the language at all. There’s no pinyin or English in the books themselves – this is deliberate, so as to get the child focussed on reading Chinese characters without the distraction or reliance on prompts. However, for parents, there is a separate English translation of all the stories. I credit this series for how my elder daughter learnt 1300+ characters within a space of 12 months.
4. Odonata Levelled Readers
For a kinergarten / school-age bilingual speaking child learning to read through stories
Odonata: Odonata Graded readers are a well written series for learning 1200 Chinese characters. The books are a nice quality, with clear layout, large font, and no HYPY. This is a set of books which progressively go from 100 words to 1200 characters, and builds vocabulary through stories. The first 24 books in the series revolve around two children – Ming Ming and Li Li -and their adventures, which each book containing a small set of Simplified Chinese characters, used in various contexts. It’s equivalent to something like the English Peter & Jane series to start out with in Sets 1 & 2, but then becomes rapidly more complex, into more like an “I Can Read” or “Read It Yourself” simple story for Sets 3 and beyond. Importantly, these books will not break the bank (unlike some other famous levelled readers, which are quite an investment).
Side note on costs:
I’ll use another tangential parenting analogy here – don’t dismiss the Bugaboo because of the pricetag. I don’t quite know what happens to the female brain before we have kids. I should speak for myself, maybe I am the only one (?), but as soon as the motherhood adventure began, so did the research. I knew we needed a pram for walking, ideally with a capsule that could connect to a carseat, and something which could fold up small and fast, yet also something which might extend if our family were to grow.
Everyone told me as a new mum just to bite the bullet, spend the money, and get the Bugaboo (a ridiculously expensive pram) as it would fulfil every need I’d ever want. Me – trying to be responsible and not spend that much money on a stroller – didn’t buy it, and researched heaps of other options. Eventually we ended up with four different sub-optimal strollers/prams (one for bus travel, one for taxi travel, one for park runs, and one for two kids). The Bugaboo would have been a better first choice! Likewise, with these Mandarin recommendations above, don’t be put off by the initial hefty price tag of Sage and Le Le. There’s a good reason for that – they are great investments (and they’ll be cheaper than tutors, and probably retain a resale value too). But if cost is an issue, then Odonata is a better choice 🙂
Best Apps for Learning Chinese characters
A quick google search of “Best Free Chinese Apps for Kids” or something similar will give you lots of choices. Some might be good; some might install random things on your phone; some will partially work and then ask you for money. We’ve been there, done that. I realise that the best ones do cost money. It’s not a lot, but you’ll see the difference.
Here are my top five app recommendations – and yes, they still are incredibly cheap given their scope and breadth.
1. Wukong Literacy
Wukong Literacy (悟空数学): a Chinese literacy app, advertised for children from 3-8 years old. It really brings characters and words to life. The course covers 1300 words, focusing on character recognition through game play, and it includes test reading, writing and comprehension activities. The animation is most impressive, and kids won’t know they’re learning as they go on a quest with the Monkey King.
2. iHuman Shizi & iHuman Pinyin
iHuman Shizi 洪恩识字, by Hong En Literacy: This app is also well designed, focussing on teaching 1300 Chinese characters level-by-level. It too is gamified learning at its best, in a highly polished format, which including reading, writing and listening. Each level is divided into 4 units, covering each of these topics, with lots of repetition. The app is a bit simpler to follow than Wukong Literacy, which could be a pro or con, depending on how you child likes to learn and their language competency.
Skritter: This isn’t a “fun” app. It’s not a game. It’s a necessity for formal learning. Skritter app has been a great revelation on how we practice tingxie 听写 (Chinese spelling) each week to support her formal studies. It’s truly enabled my daughter to practice character writing and recognition by herself and develop confidence in character learning, when previously there was none.
4. Maomi stars
This app is very similar to iHuman in its layout, but a little less gamey. It’s still incredibly cute. The great think about Maomi Stars is that it has pre-existing word lists from many of the levelled readers that I mentioned above, such as Odonata and Sage, which is a nice way to reinforce the book learning.
5. Dim Sum Warriors
This is more about loving languages than learning literacy. That’s the key difference from the previous 4 apps. It’s a cleverly designed Singapoean app integrating ebooks, games, and abelites to record your own stories into one app. It’s hilarious, and bilingual in both English and Chinese (SC and TC). They’re providing six months FREE access, no strings attached which is exciting too. I interviewed the Dim Sum Warriors founder here to understand more about what drives them.
Best supporting materials for language-rich home learning
I’m going to be honest here, and say that your child does need to learn from a native speaker, for at least a little bit of regular, formal exposure. Without a native speaker (or language teacher) somewhere in the mix, you’re kidding yourself. That could be through school, or it could be a relative or personal tutor. But beyond that, you (as a non-Chinese speaker) can reinforce it at home with some simple tools.
Learning a second language can be expensive enough. So the supporting things you do at home don’t have to be costly. Make it real. Make it practical. Think about how to make learning at home as fun as possible – not a chore – to complement their formal language learning Perhaps consider things like a simple excursion to Chinatown or an Asian wet market. Or do some craft together using recycled objects, or things you already have in the house like lego, magnetic blocks, etc. Some of the best things we have done are:
- Lots and lots of reading, with Luka – this AI robot will read 70,000+ picture books page-by-page in Chinese (and also translate many into English). Get to a library, borrow some books, and Luka will read them to your children. Countless research shows the importance of reading with your child everyday – so if you’re unable to read in the desired language, let Luka help you. Remember to choose books on topics and themes which interest your child. If you’re unsure, I’d recommend a bookstore like My Story Treasury who can curate a booklist for your child.
- Chinese language default on your television (be it Starhub / Netflix / Unblock Tech TV box): screen time is a reality in today’s world. A lot can be learnt from television, so magnify the learning and put it into a language which you want your child to learn.
- Do a non-academic class using Chinese: this could be a fun language class or a non-academic class in Chinese. There are lots of highly immersive and well-structured curriculum available online, if the local options for your are unattractive or unaffordable. There are plenty of extra curricular activities taught online in Chinese like piano, Chinese calligraphy, water painting, dance, etc. Whatever it is that your child likes doing, try to integrate it with a language element.
- Join an FB Group with parents in the same situation: there are so many groups, and it really depends on where you live, the age of your children, and also your own level of Chinese as a parent. For someone like me, with no spoken Chinese, some of the groups I would recommend are:
Ni Hao SG Primary School Learning and Used Chinese books
SG Preschool Chinese Learning
Chinese for Everyone
Side note on costs of tuition and enrichment:
At least in the country where we live, exorbitantly priced “tutors” and enrichment centres have proliferated, and terrified parents – even those who do speak Mandarin fluently, and whose kids are in full day Chinese-based daycare centres – are still waiting to sign-up their diaper wearing babies into classes on weekends to teach them more Chinese. Many parents eagerly open their ears and wallets to find a solution, any solution! And by the time they reach primary school, with countless hours of tuition and additional Chinese homework, the kids and parents are frustrated of the drudgery. I’ve not bought into this.
Here is one lie: A Chinese tutor will cost upwards of $70/hour, and a good one upward of $100/hour. (Okay, it’s actually true, that’s the tuition market in Singapore, but it shouldn’t be your only option …. the secret here would be to choose someone else to teach the language who is not in the tuition industry – be it an online tutor from China, or perhaps a local university student looking for pocket money, or a Chinese-speaking babysitter).
And another lie: Doing hours of homework creates a better result in Chinese (…. This might be true for primary school exams. But, I’ve seen first hand that a child can become bilingual and develop a love of the language, without the baggage or boredom of rote learning. There’s better ways to exposure your child to language than assessment books, at least in the beginning). Make it fun, please! Don’t turn learning Chinese into a chore. See my selection of DIY recycled craft activities for children, related to Chinese literacy.
Best bloggers to support non-Chinese speaking parents
It’s helpful to connect with others on the same shared journey – whether it’s in person, or through one of the excellent online communities. Be sure to share your successes and burdens, and the load will become lighter.
As a starting point, some bloggers I really respect and have learnt a lot from are:
- Motherly Notes – plenty of great book and toy reviews on here, with emphasis on Chinese learning, including lots of detail and pictures
- Guavarama – again, plenty of great book reviews along with helpful free printables (like flash cards, games, etc) which match many book sets, all mixed with a good ounce of humour.
- Mama Baby Mandarin – tonnes of free fun activities, worksheets and resources designed to help kids learn to read, write and enjoy Chinese language
- Chinese Speaking Kids – this one is a new blog in 2020, but oh it’s looking so promising! The content isn’t too extensive at the moment, but the blog posts are insanely helpful and jam packed with detailed. There’s a really great post on “Daily 3-hour Chinese learning schedule”.
- Mandarin Home School – this is another newish blog, by a multilingual homeschooling mum in Australia. She has a great teaching philosophy, and also does really in depth reviews on products they enjoy (many of which we also have enjoyed, so I like Jean’s suggestions!). Best bit is that there are amazing resources (flash cards, posters, etc) to download to help out your own home learning!
Final note – you can do it!
Do you want to give your child the gift of being bilingual? Go for it – teach your child a new language, and you’ll be gifting yourselves, the kids, and the world.
Yes, you can help teach your child a language, even if you don’t speak it, but it needs to be a conscious decision, and the more you’re involved, the more likely your child will make a success of it. Make it fun and interactive – build family memories over the shared language learning experience.
I’ve only suggested three or four items in each category. This is just a starting place to show you what exists out there, and how you can use it. I’m sure you’ve also got other great suggestions, afterall, Singapore is blessed with many amazing choices. There is no one magic set of expensive tools which you can buy and it will teach everything, completely, and painlessly. I think multiple overlapping systems of learning can help – and every child is different.
It’s possible. This is your glimpse. I am doing it with my three kids. And you will, too. You can, too.
I’d love to hear how you’re doing it, or what you’re struggling with too. Please add your comments below to keep the conversation going, or message me. Truly it’s only through support and sharing with other wonderful parents, that our family has been able to succeed and find out about many of these excellent “hidden gem” resources available.