My bilingual parenting mistakes, and resolutions for 2021

(above graphic is modified list from Bilingual Kidspot)

As the year draws to an end, it marks my one-year anniversary of blogging about Chinese home learning.  In an otherwise-really-bizarre-year for the whole planet, it’s been a haven to be able to write and learn together with so many amazing parents trying to do the Chinese-English bilingual parenting gig, including many monolingual parents like me. 

This post has some reflections on our language journey so far, and some resolutions for the year to come.

Reflections: my bilingual parenting mistakes

Over the past eight years, I’ve come to understand my strengths as a mother. My weaknesses, too. Bilingualism is one of those weaknesses. It’s something I wanted so badly for my kids to have, since neither my husband or I had it growing up. I was feeling my way in the dark, and yes, many mistakes were made. Not that they’re bad mistakes – I’m genuinely proud of what I did because it was hard work: whilst I didn’t know what I was doing, I believed it would be worth it. And it has been.

Here’s sharing my reflections on some mistakes I’ve inadvertently made (and many parents do …. ). Just before Christmas, before writing this piece, I connected with Chontelle from Bilingual Kidspot and saw on her blog an excellent article from 2016 about these very same mistakes which I was making too… wishing I had seen it much earlier! So these are the things I would do differently if I was giving advice to another newbie parent:

  • Believing it would just happen: When I started on the bilingual parenting journey (eight years before I started blogging!), I had totally no idea. I just knew as a monolingual parent, that I wanted to give my kids the amazing opportunity to be bilingual.  So, I started out passively with attending bilingual nursery, hoping that osmosis would magically create a bilingual kid. Nope.
  • Relying on TV: To make the most of screen time, I only allowed it in Mandarin. Good start, but passive bilingualism I now know won’t create a fluent speaker either. The Chinese exposure needs to be more interactive, and yes it is possible to increase Chinese exposure at home even with non-Chinese speaking parents, beyond simply TV.
  • Buying expensive things: Yes, we then went through the guilty phase of trying to buy famous Chinese book sets to make learning interactive. Good idea – but how the heck does this work as a non-Chinese speaking parent?  You can read more in my earlier post about how we attempted Sage 500 books.  A valiant attempted, but somewhat misguided! It’s easy to get sucked into a black hole of wanting to buy every resource that’s out there, but I’ve learnt that they aren’t all necessary firstly, and every family situation and child is different.  So just because a blogger raves about it, doesn’t mean your child will be raving (in a good way, at least). We have some great (expensive) resources, we also have equally effective and fun lower priced options.
  • Not being consistent: We had good days and bad days, just like any normal family. Sometimes we’d do bed time reading, and other times we’d skip. Sometimes I’d have the television in Chinese, and other times I was an exhausted mess and simply too tired to really care what was on the tube. I learnt pretty quickly that the adage “out of sight, out of mind” is true. Unless there’s a regular rhythm of Mandarin exposure and learning, it was all too easy to let it slip completely.

  • Letting other people’s opinions get to me: Other parents told me I was crazy to have a goal of raising effectively bilingual children when we didn’t speak it at home.  The well-meaning school teachers suggested I lower my expectations, since we weren’t ethnically Chinese so the kids didn’t really need the language after all. Sure, but does anyone actually need the language these days outside of Mainland China?
  • Thinking it’s too late: When primary school started, we had the option to exempt our child from learning Chinese. It sounded appealing. After all, we knew that it was going to be many more years of time and resources spent on this pursuit, and that she probably would be at best an average student. My worst fear was for my daughter to feel like it was a burden or lose self-esteem. I also knew we were starting well behind the 8 ball.
  • Forgetting why we started: I’m so glad that I actually did remember why we started and never gave up. We had done our research. We knew the benefits of learning a second language – increased empathy, improved cognitive skills, boosted creativity etc. We decided not to give up on our dream, nor on our child’s ability. Three years into primary school, it’s all worth it! And we have a resilient, happy, confident child whose favourite subject is Chinese.  And, I’m blogging about it!

It’s easy to count all your failures and mistakes sometimes in regards to parenting ….. but my bet is there are even more ways to count all the good progress, and that’s probably what your child will be remembering the most.   No one is perfect, not even that amazing blogger or Insta account that you really love.    One of the most fail-safe things I’ve learnt about parenting is that it’s a constant process of letting go, moving on, and embracing the next opportunity. This includes letting go of pre-set expectations, letting go of perfection, and gently inching forwards towards the goals you’re secretly dreaming of. The only person who can be a better parent to your child is a better version of you.

If you’re reading this thinking I’ve jumped into your body because you’re also going through these “mistakes” , it is helpful to find a good community of like-minded parents – online or offline – & keep encouraging each other.  It shouldn’t be a solo journey. As the African proverb says, if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. Bilingual parenting, especially as as a non-native speaker, is a long journey.    I know these “mistakes” are not unique to me either…… Chontelle from Bilingual Kidspot had written essentially the same list years ago (wish I’d discovered her blog years ago too!), which is what opened my eyes and made me realise how real and true my mistakes were! Parents keep going down the same path and saying the same thing over, and over again! But we all keep doing it!

If you need to hear more encouraging words on the bilingual front (believe me, I’m not the encouraging drop of sunshine… I’m the pragmatic and predictable parent whose usually errs on the side of pessimism) I highly recommend Sunny from Spot of Sunshine, who is an amazing Chinese-English bilingual blogger.  Just like her name suggests, she’s a real encouragement sharing her journey of ups and downs, and inspiring generations of bilingual parents. Another uplifting blog for Singaporean families is GrowingHeARTS123 with Angie, whose son has just completed PSLE! Kudos to them, and thanks for sharing their tips focussed on how to promote bilingual play and learning with little cost and yet achieve a creative and thinking mind!

Resolutions:  making a better rhythm for bilingualism and Chinese home learning

The new 2021 academic year is about to begin – my mailbox (both physical and virtual) is overflowing with ads for enrichment centres and assessment books.  This might just be an Asian country thing – but as a non-Asian parent, I’m like

“AGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH.  Why do parents do this to themselves and their kids?”. 

It’s a rat race, where the main winners are the centre owners, collecting everyone’s hard-earned $$.  As a family, we are still staying resolute in not spending our hours outside of school doing more tuition.  But, that doesn’t mean we’re not putting a focus on Chinese.  Far from it!

Here’s a rough outline of what we’ll be attempting for consistency in 2021 – remembering why we started, what we’re passionate about, and not spending outrageous amounts on new gadgets, classes or tools!

  1. One-on-one extensive Chinese reading every evening with each child (20 minutes daily)
  2. Intensive literary (fun) Chinese iPad apps which focus on character recognition (15 minutes daily)
  3. Composition / journal writing together (aim to complete one short piece each week)
  4. Mandarin television with real human content, not animations (on weekends!)
Chinese home learning approach for the new year

Here’s the logic:

20 minutes one-on-one extensive Chinese reading every evening with each child

This is continuing our current approach.   Doing this for 3 children, means a solid hour of reading for the parent.  Whilst one child is reading with a parent, the others can be reading with their sibling or separately, using either Luka or our Youdao pen to assist with the unknown words. 

People often ask me what we read, and how I choose books with align with the school syllabus etc.  The simple answer: I don’t. I know some parents focus on how many characters a child learns, or need so to know, and then use the textbook as a guide, and do revision work / wider reading related to the textbook such as Zhi Shi Hua Bao and Hao Peng You magazines, etc.  For me, our evening reading is about loving literature, not learning literacy.  Loving literature.

I try to choose interesting stories which generally have nothing to do with schoolwork (although sometimes they do coincide as sometimes I like to choose themes related to what’s happening in the world, like Chinese New Year, or Christmas etc)!  The concept behind our reading choices is extensive reading, not intensive reading. That said, I’ve tried to choose books which are part of bigger sets (for repetition and continuity), have clear and well-sized text, and aligned with my child’s reading interests. Previously I’ve written that I had set my goal as choosing books with a reading level where ~90% of characters were known to my child, and 10% were new.  That is to say, if she reads a 10 character sentence, she only needs to use our Youdao pen to recognise one unknown word, if any.  Some ideas of books we have read are contained here.

There’s an interesting article which a fellow mother shared with me recently from Hacking Chinese about the benefits of extensive reading.  It has some facts around how difficult the text should be for incidental learning – it puts by 90/10 rule into question. Hacking Chinese says this has been researched a lot, and that knowing 98% of the words is the best.  You might think the difference between 90% and 98% is not a lot, but the article linked above demonstrates it perfectly. Technically, the 98% figure refers to “unaided reading”, where “you really need to understand almost everything to be able to figure out and learn the few words you didn’t already know”.  So, given that we’re doing this with the Youdao pen and a parent (i.e not totally unaided), I still think 90% isn’t too bad. The real take away from the article is that the more widely you read, the better reading and comprehension ability you will have, versus cramming words or textbook learning. 

15 minutes of intensive literary Chinese iPad apps which focus on character recognition

Again, this is continuing something we started in 2020. Wukong Literacy, and Skritter for my eldest; iHuman Shizi and iHuman Pinyin for the middle, and Maomi Stars for the youngest. They are all such brilliant apps – designed for literacy, but will a gamification element (exception being Skritter, which is so not fun, but it is necessary).  We have been beta testing Maomi, and I’m so looking forward to real Maomi app being launched early in 2021, as it will have a few new interesting features. 

Whilst this is clearly screen time, it does systematically go through the first ~1200 Chinese characters, so I find this more appealing than the old fashioned tingxie approach writing page by page in small blue square boxes!  Chinese characters really are something which need to be learnt systematically and memorised to some extent. Which is exactly why my eldest daughter also must do 10 minutes of Skritter daily (30~40 characters), using the school word lists.

Daily composition / journal writing together, with the aim to complete one short story each week

This is *new for 2021*. It’s something I’ve baulked at doing previously, as I won’t be able to read or correct this.  However, I realise it’s something I need to support the children in more.  I was chatting with the massively energetic bilingual teacher blogger and mother of 5 boys, Miss Claudia Lee Kimura recently about this idea. She shared Singapore American School’s approach to bilingual programme where they teach Chinese the same way English is taught. It’s a lot of writer’s workshops, journal writing, word walls, word books, word clouds and webs, etc. Apparently, it’s having great results in encouraging non-native kids to write and express their Chinese.  All children must attempt writing journals in class in Chinese, and are encouraged to use pictures if they cannot write the character, and some sight words here and there, etc.  This is so progressive and like wow!  It’s an inspiring way to see the language being taught, with an emphasis on writing and expressing, not the neatness, grammar or filling in the blanks.  So, I’m going to try this approach too, outside of school!

For P3 local schools, I think a child needs to be quite fast at putting together a composition piece, so I thought practicing creative writing together will be a nice way to improve in this area. To make it relevant, and given my lack of any language ability, I’m planning to leverage Singapore MOE’s amazing 欢乐伙伴 Xue Le website to guide this activity.  The aim is to set aside 15 minutes a day on the computer for my daughter to do self-guided online learning with these free online lessons which follow the school syllabus.  Then, after reviewing Xue Le, she’ll write a short piece related to these topics, or a response to what they have seen.  We’ll try to keep a word bank of new words too.

Mandarin television with real human content, not animations (on weekends)

I just said above that a mistake was relying on television. But, it is a handy resource, just not in isolation, and obviously in moderation. We’ve always had Sunday as a Mandarin-only television morning, prior to church.  Previously this precious television time has been filled with cartoons (our favourites being喜羊羊与灰太狼 Pleasant Goat and Big Grey Wolf and 魔法俏佳人 Winx Club, etc). 

However, this coming year I’m aiming to steer the content towards more humans, so 小玲玩具 Xiaoling’s Toys is top on my list for my eldest, 米小圈 Mi Xiao Quan for my middle, and 巧虎  Qiahu for my youngest.  Some variety shows are also on my list.

There’s a really nice list of non-animated Chinese shows for children on Mama Baby Mandarin, with links to Youtube, which I plan to go through slowly too.

So that’s the 2021 home learning plan for us. What about you?

A wholehearted thank you for being parting of my blogging journey this past year, and for the encouragement and ideas which so many readers give to me. That’s exactly why I blog.

If you’re inspired to come up with your own home learning plan, I’d highly recommend also checking out blog posts by Craig Watts, an American father, has put a great amount of detail on how he’s getting through home-based learning with his three children at Chinese Speaking Kids.   He’s put up schedules from morning to evening of what they’re doing as a family, as it’s given me great fodder for what we are planning for 2021. His page contains links to the television shows, songs, and textbooks they’ve been following, and a crazy amount of detail.  Whilst I don’t think we can be as focussed or disciplined as Craig has been, my plan it to really make the home learning as effective as it can be, whilst being achievable on a consistent basis.

Here’s to a better 2021 for everyone, especially our planet!

A quote from the picture book I Wonder (我想知道) which we reviewed earlier this year

4 thoughts on “My bilingual parenting mistakes, and resolutions for 2021

  1. Oh I recall how my kids used to love laughing at 喜洋洋series! Those were the days of fun times learning Chinese! Thanks for the mention, I am greatly encouraged. Your new year tips and growing from your mistakes are wonderful reminders on how it is indeed a marathon, a learning journey not a sprint for the rat race. Congrats to your One year old blog! Time really flies. May God bless your family with much joy in your family endeavours in whatever you learn. Blessed New year to your family!

    1. Thank you dear Angie! It’s a shared journey, and there have been many great blogs who have contributed and inspired me. I’m so glad you’re one of them. Actually THIS wordpress blog technically is barely 7 months old ….. that’s why the time has flown! I first started blogging through our local Community Club’s Young Parents FB Group, and it was a very special way to start the journey; some other bloggers encouraged me to take it bigger and branch out to wordpress. I’m so glad I did.

  2. Thank you so much for this website, I have been feeling a lot of anxiety as my daughter will start P1 next year and I feel she is so unprepared for Mandarin! Thanks to your website and others like Chalk Academy, I feel I have a much better idea on how to gradually prepare her to read and enjoy Chinese more. Thank you!!!

    1. Hi Elaine,

      Awww, that’s so sweet of your to write! I’m flattered to be mentioned in the same sentence as Chalk Academy. There are some really amazing bilingual parents out there generously sharing their resources. I hope you and your daughter really enjoy the mother tongue learning journey, and have an excellent start to P1. Little by little, a lot can be achieved. I truly believe the heart is more powerful than the brain, so if the passion and love for learning is there, the rest will hopefully follow. Take care!

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