Teaching kids Chinese in a monolingual home – how to start?

One of the most common questions people ask me is how my kids learnt to speak Chinese, including their CCTV accent. Most don’t believe that neither I nor my husband can speak the language.

This is a post to affirm that yes it’s possible to raise your child bilingually, even if you or your partner don’t speak another language. Moreover, it’s also possible to do this without being in an immersion programme at school or a country where the target language is spoken (although both of these things would obviously help). 

Aside from the abundant research showing that parents who don’t speak two languages can raise bilingual children who are fully proficient in both languages, I also know from personal firsthand experience.   I have three kids who speak and read Chinese at near fluent levels, and now we’re working on becoming conversational in Spanish.  No one in our immediate family (including grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc) speaks these languages, nor are my children in immersion schools.   We have several friends who have also achieved the same thing in even more languages, so I assure you that my kids are not in any way unique or exceptionally gifted in languages.  This probably wasn’t possible ten year or more ago, which explains the fate of many migrant families who lost speaking their mother tongues despite valiant efforts. However now, with all the benefits of technology and the internet (and COVID), more and more families are deliberately choosing to become bilingual.

Raising a multilingual child is not impossible for monolingual parents, but nor is it easy.   Unlike bilingual families, monolingual parents will need to be more dependent on outside sources, such as community resources, schools or online tutors, to provide second language exposure and instruction.    If you’re lucky enough to live in a place like Singapore or parts of Europe, at least the odds are more in your favour as a diversity of languages are commonly heard and celebrated.  However, for monolingual parents regardless of where they live, many are not sure how to support their child on the journey.

This post has some practical hints about how we’ve made it a reality.  I believe mindset (followed closely by time and resources) are the main challenges in making it a reality, for most children.  With a bit of planning, for most children I think it would be entirely possible to create your own, sustainable route to bilingualism.

Considerations when deciding to learn a language like Chinese

Realise that language is a gift

I grew up in a totally monolingual family, in a monolingual English speaking country.  Acquiring a second language was never something seriously discussed or modelled.  Just like learning to play Mary Had a Little Lamb and Chopsticks on the piano, we learnt the obligatory counting from one-to-ten in a few languages, and that was it.  Languages aside from English were not taught consistently (or effectively) in schools, and they weren’t used in the playground.

It was only much later in life when trying to get into an acclaimed Business School that I first realised how important a language can be in opening doors.  Then later still, when working in a multinational with amazing colleagues and clients from culturally diverse backgrounds, I truly grasped how much I was missing out on in my understanding and appreciation of the world, including in my own language of English.  I made a promise to give my children the gift of languages, and to unlock more opportunities and more parts of their brains than I ever could.  What’s more, being bilingual has been linked as a preventative factor against Alzheimer’s Disease.

Some languages are easier than others (choose the language purposefully)

We chose Chinese as our first target language to learn.  As a mother, I am well aware that it’s among one of the hardest languages in the world (due to having a non-Roman alphabet and being tonal), but my kids don’t know that, and it hasn’t been any perceived hurdle to them.  

What my kids know is that Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world, and billions of people speak it with ease.  There’s no alphabet, which to a toddler makes it easier to grapple with pictures rather than Roman letters.  There’s less grammar than English (no verb conjugations) and there are no weird masculine/feminine words like in Spanish, which is appealing to my primary schooler who is now learning both these languages.

The real challenge in raising bilingual children in Chinese has been for me as a parent, supporting the children, because it’s impossible to read their textbooks or even attempt to pronounce a simple word like “ma” because there are four/five different tones it could be.   If we’d wanted an easier option, a language that uses phonetics or an alphabet that we’re already familiar with would be a logical choice, and I’ve noticed this now with our Spanish learning journey.    

Mindset makes a difference (if you’re not fully in, don’t start)

We have a vast array of friends where their parents speak a mother tongue language and yet the children just loath to speak it, or cannot speak it.   Maybe it’s an embarrassment, maybe it’s inclusion, maybe it’s a lack of love shared in the language, or maybe it’s because the parents don’t encourage it, or the language has no perceived relevance.  In any case, a child won’t learn if the passion and need isn’t ignited.

As parents there are SO many things we may naturally want our children to be good at – sport, music, drama, art, academia, etc.  There isn’t time in the day (nor $) to cram and excel on all fronts.  For us, we have prioritised languages.  This doesn’t mean we have abandoned everything else in this pursuit of being polyglots, but I’m making the point that I’m not expecting my children to also be music virtuosos nor Olympians.  We have a light-hearted approach to learning and playing, and I’ve always reiterated to my children that knowledge of a language is a good thing for our brains (scientifically proven) and a good thing for the world (we can be more affectionate and have more friends, which will spread world peace), and can helps us understand the heritage and culture of our ancestors (my children do actually have Chinese lineage to their ancestry).  

If you want a child to learn any language – be it first, second, or fifth – daily support and positive encouragement is necessary at home, even if it’s not spoken by the parents.   Enjoy the journey and remember the adage: the more you give, the more you get.

Plan to use the language (outside of the classroom or textbook)

You need to use the language and maximise exposure to it.  Science also shows that the sheer amount of time that a child hears (and interacts with) a language predicts their eventual success and fluency.  In fact, the most important aspect in learning a language is exposure to listening to it, which can be a struggle for many families.

If you (or your child) simply learn a language in a school classroom, I think it’s a tough ask to become truly bilingual.  Unless you study it VERY seriously, it will be hard to express oneself outside of the textbook.  Languages need to be actively used, and used 1-to-1.  Even 1 hour a day in a group class setting (I’m talking 20+ kids, which are typical school class sizes), the chances that you can effectively speak the language outside the classroom is very slim, unless you actively and actually give it a go!

Exposure is the way we each acquired our first language as a child, and indeed is the most effective way to learn a language.   Listen to popular music in the target language and do karaoke yourself; watch movies or visit a foreign film festival; go to a restaurant and try to order a meal.  Generate an intrinsic motivation to keep learning, and make the children see they possess a special skill!  Then, build a habit of learning – try to read books in the target language, or blogs.  Try to do everyday things in the new language.  Find a language partner and Zoom them once a week (or once a day).  If you go to church, is there a service conducted in your target language?  Research also shows children learn better from live interaction and conversation than passive media consumption.

As a parent, it’s helpful to get your skin in the game too.  I realised pretty early on that whilst there was no way I could expect to become even conversational in Chinese myself, I could still take some basic lessons about the tones and sentence structures, and also invest the time to listen to my children reading a book and ask them questions about it to reinforce their interest and understanding. 

I hate talking about scores, but there’s always a weird thing where parents don’t really know if their child is truly bilingual and they want some affirmation that the learning is working. Well, you can always take a proficiency test in whatever your selected language is.  For Mandarin Chinese, this is called the HSK and YCT (the test of Standard Chinese language proficiency of Mainland China for non-native speakers).  It’s similar to the TOEFL standard in English.   For me, I would rather look at the tangibles – could my child watch a news broadcast and explain to me what is happening?  Could they read and enjoy literature in the language?  Can they watch an entire movie and appreciate it?  If so, something is really working!

Follow the child’s passion – make it fun and practical

Don’t waste time with the wrong classes – rote learning from a book is not an ideal way to learn anything, let alone a learn a language.  In fact, a language is better being ‘acquired’ than ‘studied’.  Full immersion is a luxury not available to many of us, but I’ve seen the benefits of short, regular  1-to-1 fun immersive style classes with native-speaking teachers.  A punchy 25 minutes once or twice a week can be much better than an hour group class every day.  Make the learning engaging and effective, and engage the best teachers and resources to help you on this journey.

Start early and make it part of the regular routine

If you’re reading this and thinking it’s too late to help your children, it’s probably not.  Make the change today and don’t look back.

Science shows that only after 30 years of age, it’s likely too late to become effectively bilingual (in a language) for majority of people.  But prior to that, anything’s possible.  Moreover, the language acquisition from children under 10 is most amazing, in that they’ll likely speak the second language with a native accent, and will pick up the reading/writing much faster than a teenage leaner, as they’ll be broadly learning this in sync with learning their first language.

We have a daily routine for our languages.  The kids are in school during the weekday, so it’s a short window each evening we have.  Without fail, we’ll spend 30 minutes reading in the target language, and another 10 minutes playing a language app.  That’s just accepted as part of the regular evening routine.  There’s an inspiring father in the US teaching his kids Chinese who has put up a really detailed daily homeschool timetable of what works for his family, which I have learnt a lot from. There’s another fascinating home schooling mum of four at Fortune Cookie Mom, who has a helpful article about creating routines for learning Chinese.

Of course, I’m still on this journey too with my children.   Whether my kids will retain the language as teenagers and throughout their lives, I have no idea, nor do I know the effort it will take to continue at that pace.  But I know for now I have three kids who are passionate about languages, and for their ages, can effectively be called both bilingual and bi-literate, and aiming for trilingual. 

The fact that your child has the opportunity to acquire another language is fantastic! Regardless of their level of fluency, or how they compare to their peers, it’s great for the brain to have this early language exposure.   A language is a way to see another side to a culture, and even just learning a few words has been associated with increased empathy and improved cognitive functions such as memory, and problem-solving.  So, what is there to lose? 

Practical tools for learning Chinese (for parents who don’t speak it)

Where to start can be the hardest piece.  As a parent who cannot speak the language, without a doubt you need to rope in some external help.   I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all solution, and all families are different.

Simply to give you some inspiration, some things which are worked for us are to:

  1. Find a native speaker to teach your children:  this could be a nanny, and immersion school, or simply an online class.  We use a variety of online Chinese language classes through LingoAce, LingoBus, GoEast, and Vivaling all for different purposes.  In fact, I found these so effective that I even took my youngest daughter out of her immersion kindergarten and replaced it with an online class 2 x 25 minutes a week! There are whole armies of families who have learnt Chinese successfully purely through such online services, and likewise in China, there are students learning English exactly the same way.  I strongly believe that if a child cannot have regular, personal spoken exposure to the language (be it school, private tutor, grandparent etc or an online class) then it’s an uphill battle.   Plenty of great options for online Chinese languages classes can be found here.
  2. Embed the language in your house beyond the classes:  Stream Mandarin pop songs through Spotify, watch relevant television shows or Youtube, play games with flashcards, etc. With the internet these days, you can stream content from just about anywhere.  One easy tip is to have the radio on in the background in Chinese.  It doesn’t matter if no one appears to be listening – as the child’s ear will still become more familiar with the tones and pronunciation; your child will be absorbing, without realising.  Whilst there are plenty of Chinese radio stations, my main fear with listening to adult radio is that I don’t understand the age-appropriateness of content.   I’ve been well assured that Singapore radio will be appropriate – one good one is 96.3 好 FM (“Hao FM“) which broadcasts a mix of talk radio, entertainment and music (from the past and the present).   Then 93.3FM YES933 has modern pop and contemporary music.  Alternatively, stream curated children’s podcasts through a gadget like Luka.

    Another simple switch is to make are the settings on your Starhub or Netflix with default language to Chinese.  There are a wealth of children’s shows, especially cartoons, which have Chinese audio.  The children won’t know it any differently, as because they’re cartoons, there’s no obvious dubbing, lip syncing or issues with subtitles blocking the graphic.  The Disney Channel has nearly 100% of its content available in Mandarin. Once you get over this hurdle, then think about watching non-animated shows in Mandarin, as these will likely have more relevant conversational content.

  3. Follow their passions:  As mentioned above, do non-academic classes in the language like piano, art or debating, chess, etc.  If your child is too little for this, try a parent accompanied playgroup with singing and craft, like Mandarin Tree.   If your child is allowed to play computer games, let them play games in Chinese (good literacy apps like iHuman are a good start). If your child likes music, start to learn the language through a music class.  If your child likes geography, do an immersive geography class.  Do an art class in the language.  Having the motivation for second language learning in children is proven to be more important than language learning ability in reaching bilingual proficiency.  The pandemic has opened up all sorts of global possibilities for such classes and resources, and we’ve benefited amazingly from this. Look out for immersive classes on topics the child would enjoy (in my case Pokemon, Encanto, Minecraft and escape rooms are current favorites which can be found through Outschool in a variety of languages). Plenty of great non academic immersive classes taught in Chinese can be found here. 
  4. Read, read, read:  Yes, read with them, even if you cannot read the language. This is my number one tip, but I didn’t put it first because I didn’t want you to think I’m nuts! Make the time, sit with the child(ren), and encourage them.   We love reading as a family, and in fact, we prioritise Chinese reading over English reading.   Extensive reading is what I feel the secret to fluency is.

    Easiest ways to start out are audio books or books which come with a Chinese audio narration reading pen (eg Habbi Habbi, or eBooks like Ellabook), and then when the child gets more proficient and is starting to learn to read themselves, try graded readers which also have an audio option or reading pen (Le Le Chinese or Odonata).    As a child gains confidence and and can read independently, you can equip them with an optical scanning pen (like Alpha Egg or Youdao) so if they stumble upon a new word, they can learn pronunciation and translation themselves.

    Find books which will excite the children and as just as interesting as the English books they might be reading  (something like Mandarin Companion’s Secret Garden, Sherlock Holmes, or Magic Treehouse, Butt Detective etc).

    With deliberate and simple steps, it’s not hard to make reading in Chinese a habit – first step will be to pick up some basic language, but once that is achieved, reading is a great way to reinforce the learning and expand vocabulary.   We have two parts to our reading time: (1) reading characters and simple graded readers which the kids can read at levels appropriate to their learning, and this is done individually with each child for 10 minutes per day.  (2)  longer more interesting literature where we can all enjoy good story together!  We actually do the same in English and more recently Spanish too.  It’s like the difference between reading the simple “Mary & Jane” books, followed by the more exciting “Chronicles of Narnia”. Both have their place.

    I wrote a much earlier article about teaching children to read in Chinese as a parent who cannot. and demonstrated what is possible with just 20 minutes a day.

  5. Actively help with the languages: whilst I don’t speak the languages (and quite sure that I never will) I am more than just the cheerleader to the kids too.  I find classes for them, research home learning materials, talk to the teachers, test them on their spelling and vocab using Skritter. and sit with them through movies and books, and try my best to be part of the journey.

    As an interesting aside regarding literacy, all three of my children were able to read Chinese characters with more ease and fluency than their English, at the same age.  They could read short Chinese sentences at age two.  On average, a child learns to read English sentences around age 5, but because Chinese is pictorial, a younger child may be able to pick up more characters than recognise English words.  This obviously changes as the child gets older, and for us, English quickly became the dominate language for reading, since the alphabet has only 26 letters, not thousands of characters!

Finally, have a practical view of what is possible in terms of fluency and what it looks like for non native families.  Be realistic about what you want to be aiming for (or not!).

Enjoy your own journey!

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