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Is reaching Chinese fluency a realistic goal for non-native children?

There’s often this debate in the circles which I’m in:  Is reaching fluency in Mandarin a realistic outcome?  Then specifically, in Singapore, is a local school better than an international school with bilingual immersion, for learning Chinese? What can we be doing outside of school to support the learning?

Let me break this down into few aspects:

  1. Expectations on what is realistically achievable
  2. Emphasis on being bilingual or biliterate, or both?
  3. How does Singapore schooling system compare versus mainland China?
  4. What can assist a child to learn Chinese beyond the classroom?
  5. Simplified Chinese book list of bridging books to encourage literacy

Expectations on what is achievable in learning Chinese as a non-native family

Every child and family situation is different.  That’s a motherhood statement I know.  But please read this from the perspective of what is best for your child and family.  There is not a one-size fits all prescription (and that’s true of most good things in life).

I do think if you expect that your child will become effectively bilingual from only on hour of exposure a day, you are fooling yourself.  That’s a simple reality.   Most research suggests between 2~5 hours of consistent daily exposure is what is required to learn a language to fluency, and Chinese is at the harder end of this spectrum.  An excellent website called Raising Bilingual and Biliterate Children in Chinese and English suggests 4 hours of learning each day to get to a basic working proficiency. 

In a Singapore context, some bilingual international schools in Singapore would get up to this recommended minimum 4 hours daily dose of exposure (such as HWA, CIS, Eton House Broadrick), but no Singapore MOE local government school can possibly achieve this. However in addition to quantity, then there is also the quality of what the learner is being exposed to. For example, watching Chinese cartoons for 4 hours surely is less beneficial than 1 hour of full-on interaction and engagement.   

From first-hand experience, the standard of the short 1-hour daily Chinese classes at local primary schools is really high – mainly focussed around writing composition and reading comprehension (since class sizes of 40 aren’t great for encouraging individual speaking!). The language is taught as a mother-tongue level, so there is an inherent assumption that the child is already speaking/listening a lot in their family situation outside of school.   For us, as a family who doesn’t speak Chinese, this approach is poison chocolate cake – a great curriculum (arguably better/beyond the level of bilingual international school syllabus), but hard to stomach without an antidote to take outside of the classroom also. 

So which school is best? Well, we’ve known people who have deliberately transferred from international schools into local schools because they feel the standard is higher (which it probably is versus most International Schools); we’ve also seen vice-versa (as, yes, there are specific International schools which are designed for native Chinese speakers and full Chinese immersion). Whether you go the path of a bilingual immersion or a local school in Singapore, the reality is that this is not mainland China, and majority of other aspects of life and learning will need to be in English.  So, to focus more on Chinese can come at a cost (time and money!) to other areas which are also necessary and joyful for a child. Yes a child can receive an excellent grounding in the Chinese language by learning it in Singapore, but I doubt they’ll ever rival proficiency a native mainland Chinese speaker, unless there’s significant exposure beyond the school environment.

Learning Chinese at school is only one piece of the puzzle

Emphasis on being bilingual, biliterate or both?

A lot of non-native Chinese families and expats which we’ve encountered in Singapore say their emphasis is for the child to speak and hold conversations, not to read or write.   This was my initial view too.  To me, simply learning a second language to a certain level of fluency was enough, and it was far beyond anything I can do myself.

However, I’ve learnt now (thanks to the generous sharing from other parents who are bilingual) that literacy and language are really intertwined.  Unless a child has large amounts (maybe >70%) of Chinese spoken exposure throughout the WHOLE day, I feel they’ll never become effectively bilingual without also being able to read.  This is different from an adult beginning to learning, where I would recommend focus should be simply on listening/speaking.

Heeding the advice of a grandmaster of bilingual parenting Oliver Tu’s example (explained in detail on his excellent blog), Oliver divides his goals for his (now teenage) children into Listening; Speaking;  Reading and Writing.   I have summarised, but he states these as:

I really like the above goals from Oliver Tu.  I think it helps for a parent to make it tangible, and frame what they want to get out of the learning.   This is important because along the journey, you’ll hear many different opinions and get tempted to invest in many different forms of tuition / overseas immersion tours / books/ learning gadgets etc.  Be sure of what you want to achieve for your family, and keep it in perspective, so you don’t go down the wrong rabbit-hole for your situation.

For a child in the Singapore local school system, I caution that it’s really not realistic to focus only on speaking/listening comprehension.  Most of the school learning will come from textbooks and writing.  Without basic literacy, the child really will struggle to get any benefit from that type of classroom environment.  Conversely, if the child can get to reading >1000 characters, they would be able to read simple books (see below for suggestions) in Chinese for enjoyment, which will continue to keep their interest up.

Learning characters has great importance in Singapore local schools, and is tested with weekly tingxie


How Singapore Chinese schooling system compares to mainland China

I caveat this by saying this is all based on conversations with families who have moved here from mainland China.  There’s no first-hand experience from me personally of the mainland Chinese system.

Curriculum for learning Chinese at Singapore MOE Schools

The Singapore Mother Tongue Chinese curriculum was last revised in 2015, and can be found at this link (it’s all in Chinese – which reinforces that the syllabus is designed for children who come from Chinese speaking families). Whilst the Singapore syllabus starts out simple (it doesn’t assume any reading or writing ability), it ramps up fast because of the underlying premise that the child already speaks good Mandarin from day one of Primary One.

Loosely summarised and translated from the above Ministry of Education document, the Singapore Chinese Primary school curriculum aims to:

Chinese is one of the subjects in the day, taught alongside Mathematics, Science, PE, Music, etc all of which are taught in English.  In contrast, obviously in mainland China, all subjects would be taught in Chinese.

The chart below shows the number of hours per week in which Chinese is scheduled into the Singapore local curriculum by year level.  You’re looking at 4~6 hours a week for most local students, whereas some International bilingual immersion school have >15 hours, and schools in Mainland Chinese would be 30 hours a week taught in Mandarin!

Standard Chinese664.544.54.5
Higher Chinese775.555.55.5
Foundation Chinese n/an/a n/a n/a 2.52.5
Number of hours of Chinese teaching/classes per week at school in Singapore

Character recognition

The Singapore standard Chinese curriculum aims for recognition of 1,600 ~ 1,700 Chinese characters by the end of P6, with 60% of these also able to be written.  It’s slightly higher for Higher Chinese (up to 1900 characters), and it’s lower for Foundation Chinese (<1300 characters).  There’s a full character list here from the MOE of what is expected at each year level.

Number of characters required to be recognised by year level in Singapore Primary schools

In contrast, the Mainland Chinese Primary (or Elementary) curriculum explicitly requires 2570 written characters by Primary 6, and infinitely more to be recognised.  The Singapore expectation of 1600~1700 characters in P6, equates to about Grade 2 in Mainland China.

After I drafted my post, I saw an interesting post by Guavarama comparing characters learnt by grade in Taiwan schools by grade. With the expectation for 2400 recognised characters and 1800 written characters by the end of primary school in Taiwan, it’s less than mainland China yet, still well beyond the Singapore system.

What do the numbers mean in reality?

Comparison of amount of characters needed to be effectively literate in Chinese

What can help a child to become more literate in Chinese?

I feel that encouraging a child to become literate in Chinese is highly important in the bilingual journey.

It’s not just about the numbers of characters which a child can recognise.  But if you’re reading this and wondering how to catch up on the character recognition, my suggestion is that instead of focussing on number of characters learnt, focus on number of books to read each week or number of minutes to spend each day reading.  It’s a more tangible unit to measure. And through good literature, the literacy will come.

For younger children (pre-primary)  “Graded Readers”

There are a few great beginning systems out there which track numbers of characters taught and systematically introduce new high frequency characters.  I would encourage anyone with preschool children / P1 to give this a good shot:

All of the series mentioned above are sets of levelled readers, with large sized texts and great pictorial prompts for words.  They get progressively harder through the series.

For older children (P1 to P3) “Bridging Books”

The difficulty for us has been finding interesting literature for an older child, especially when their English reading is so far ahead of their Chinese level.  The ‘beginner’ books are just boring, with limited storyline, and can make reading more of a chore than anything else.

We started with Le Le series / Disney (which was vaguely more interesting for a P1/P2 child), and then put a lot of effort into finding engaging ‘bridging’ readers – short books that introduce new characters (maybe 10-15% of the characters in a book are new to the child), but with interesting storylines. 

“Bridging books” is a term coined for books which span the space between learning to read, and reading to learn (or literature for literacy, versus literature for leisure).   These types of in-between books aren’t exactly easy to find on the shelves of the local library (especially the simplest books), unfortunately, as the appeal is a very niche one – since for children from fluent Chinese families, most of these books would be too simple.

I’ve followed advice of a few passionate bilingual overseas bloggers (especially Motherly Notes, and Hands-On Chinese Fun) who have trodden this path ahead of me, and I essentially replicated their Chinese book collections.  Some of these books have been winners, and some my kids have been less enamoured by. Others still, they’re too difficult and we’ll try them out again in a few months.  I’ve put the links to these at the bottom of this blog.

For the ones they love, I have bought the whole series. For the ones they’re less interested with, I at least encourage them to finish the book if the reading level is appropriate.  We’ve generally bought a single book /  borrowed it from the library first to make sure if it’s a winner or not.  The trick it to understand what your child likes.    Across my three children, there are very different reading interests.

List of Simplified Chinese Bridging Books for Children

Sharing below are the series of ‘bridging’ books which we have tried – most of these have no pinyin (or else only have pinyin for the hardest words), so that the focus is on character reading. 

I’ve attempted to sort them from easiest to hardest. The characters required is just my best guess – no I haven’t gone in detail and compared all the book text with characters lists!  It’s something I’d love to do though 😊  In many cases, I find it’s not just the complexity of characters, but also the length of the text also, and how appealing the graphics are. We use our Youdao pen to fill in the gaps for new characters, since as an illiterate parent, I’m not much help.

Another good tip it to find Chinese versions of English series which your child may have enjoyed and read a few years earlier. They can relive it again in a new language!

For the books with names in blue, these are ones we could find at the Singapore local NLB library. I’ve also highlighted which sets Luka reads, because this is a helpful aspect for non-native parents.

Book NameCommentCharacters needed by child to read?
Little Bear series 小熊看世界15 books. They are really aimed at toddlers, but they are easy/cheap to source and could be a good start to a home library.  Luka will read them too. 500 ~ 700
Little Mouse Series 可爱的鼠小弟22 books, only several lines per page.  Easy-to-read storylines and beautifully hand-drawn illustrations.  Only drawback is font is quite small. 600 ~ 700
Magic school bus bridge books 魔法校車第二輯  (桥梁版).  There are lots of Magic School bus sets.  These 24 are the simplest.  Luka will read them too.600 ~ 800
Elephant and Piggie set 开心小猪和大象哥哥27 Books.  Lots of repetition and fun!  These aren’t technically bridging books, but they are winners for kids.  Most can be read by Luka.  There are occasionally some tough characters, so you may need a dictionary-pen on hand.600 ~ 800
Little Fox series 小狐狸的故事5 books.  Simple story with nice pictures.800 ~ 1000
The Angry Prince 生气王子Comes in a set of 3 others by author, Lai Ma.  This is a picture book not a bridging book.  But the language is good for independent reading800 ~ 1000
Love Reading Bridge Books 爱之阅读桥梁书20 books.  Long stories (30 pages, and lots of words, but not yet a chapter book).  Story is interesting enough for child to want to keep reading.    800 ~ 1000
Wilma the Elephant 大象小不点5 books.  A little harder, but it is Luka compatible for audio.  Also, worthwhile for a child to read the English version first.800 ~ 1000
Marching penguins 企鹅机动队套书11 books.  Beautiful illustrations.1000 ~ 1200
Dumpling Series 爱悦读: 小豆包系列 (简体桥梁书)10 books with a fun storyline about food.1000 ~ 1200
Frog & Toad 青蛙和蟾蜍4 books.  Same as the classic English series, but in Chinese.  Essentially these are early chapter books – so less pictures, more text.  Luka will read them though.1000 ~ 1200
Little Monsters series 小妖怪系列書4 books, intricate pictures.  Not long, but concepts/phrases are more complex than other picture books1000 ~ 1200
Silly Wolf Series 笨狼的故事 (簡體,简体书)10 books.  These have pinyin.  The characters are printed in larger size than most books printed in China.1000 ~ 1200
Laura’s Star Series 劳拉的星星12 books.  These books are long (~6000 characters) but the vocabulary isn’t too hard, and the pictures are lovely. Luka reads it.1100 ~ 1300
Mi Xiao Quan School Dairies 米小圈上学记12 book.  These are really nice set – fun storyline about a boy who goes to school in China.  The first couple of sets have pinyin, and then it stops.  Luka reads a few of these books.1000 ~ 1500
Les P’tites Poules 不一样的卡梅拉40 books.  Illustrations are really witty, and have great appeal for older children.  Luka will read some of these books.1100 ~ 1300
The Martine Series 玛蒂娜故事书系列60 books.  There is an abridged set of ten books (~2 lines of text), and then the full 60 detailed set (5 – 7 lines of text).  Admittedly the pictures are beautiful (from 1950s) but the story is more boring.  Luka reads this.Abridged books:  800 ~ 100 characters

Original books: 1100~1300
Princess Black Series 公主出任務5 books.  Same as the classic English series, but in Chinese.  Essentially these are early chapter books.1100 ~ 1300
Butt Detective 屁屁偵探绘本7 books. These are picture books (not the official bridging book set – which is only in Traditional Chinese). These have some harder terms, but kids will find it hilarious.  The name is off putting, but thankfully the rest is quite clean. Luka will read this! The pictures have exquisite detail – very Japanese. We devour these.1200 ~ 1400
Nate the Great 消失的画8 books.  Same as the classic English series, but in Chinese.  Essentially these are early chapter books.  The set we ordered has English version at the back, and Chinese version at the front, so both stories in one.1200 ~ 1400
Chinese Bridging Books for Children

For more detail of books in the above table, including photographs, please see my more detailed more here on Chinese Bridging books for children.

There are also some seriously great reference sites on building your own home library of Chinese books. Here are the blogs where I found most of our book ideas from, and I’m grateful for their generous sharing:

Note these bloggers are overseas, so not everything they mention is as readily available in Singapore.  But these are certainly my go-to sites and where most of the inspiration behind our own home library has come from.

Enjoy the journey

I hope this has helped you to put Mandarin into perspective. Most importantly is that your create a family and schooling situation where the child loves the language and wants to learn it! I hope that you can achieve that in your family. For us, it’s been a joyful experience.

I would love to hear what’s been helpful on your journey, or if there are specific books or tips which you would recommend too.

If you have reached the end of this, and still wanting to read more, some other posts of mine which you may find relevant include:

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