How to improve your child’s Chinese

Chinese books

After I published a post on my children’s school system, an SAP school which emphasizes greatly in Chinese traditions and values and everything Chinese, many parents wrote to me to ask how I manage to engage my kids’ interest in the Chinese language. To be honest, we started off easier than most parents whose kids are struggling with this language. We are a Chinese speaking family. In this post, I am going to share with you what we do in our family and 10 tips that sees our kids enjoy through this “monster” subject that many Singaporean children hate.

During our parents’ generation, many of them speak dialects and Chinese, and the children grew up speaking the same language and less of English or even none. That’s what happened to Kel and I. Both of us speak no English at home. We picked up in schools. And similarly, we have many friends who are like us. But what puzzles us is, when many of our friends got married and have kids, they speak to their kids in English most of the time even though they may speak Chinese to their spouses. I may understand to a certain extent on this mentality. It could be attributed to the lack of English speaking environment during their own childhood when they may have gone through a tough time learning English. Hence when they have kids, they do not want them to go through the same tough journey on learning English and are determined that their kids be exposed to English speaking environment from young. I wonder how many parents think this way.

This is, however, not so trending with the times. Our country’s founder Mr Lee Kuan Yew has many times, places great emphasis on the Chinese language and its importance for our future generation to venture the emerging China market. He is a great motivation for many who are struggling with Chinese. Although he was introduced to learning Chinese from the age of 6, he really started learning the language at 32! And from then on, it was a lifelong quest for learning the language. Now, he speaks fluent Chinese in public speeches! In his book on “My Lifelong Challenge: Singapore’s Bilingual Journey”, he spoke on the importance of learning Chinese at home as the kids will learn English in schools anyway. I can’t agree more than that. To quote him:

Language is heard and spoken long before people learn to write and to read. The more frequently one uses a language, the easier it is to express one’s thoughts in it. The younger one learns to speak a language, the more permanently it is remembered.

And that’s what happened to my kids. They grow up in a Chinese speaking family. Kel and I speak Chinese. The grandparents speak Chinese. We watch Chinese shows most of the time. Kel and I read both English and Chinese newspaper. For me, it is faster to read in English though. Both of us picked up English purely in the schools, and now our kids do the same.

In school, my kids are natural in switching to speaking English with their peers. That’s mainly because most of the kids speak English and most lessons are taught in English. They have ample opportunities to hear and speak English in schools. And when they are back home, they revert to speaking Chinese to us and with each other.

So, how can we improve our child’s Chinese?

1) Start speaking Chinese at home as much as you can

Start by switching to speaking Chinese gradually. Designate a regular time to speak Chinese or play a game with the rule of only Chinese language is allowed during the game. The important thing here is to make the language fun.

2) Label Chinese words

Put labels everywhere in the house with simple English and Chinese words on objects like television, fridge, toothbrush, door, bathroom, etc. You can label action words like “brush teeth 刷牙”, “wash hands 洗手”, “open the door 开门”, etc.

3) Read Chinese books to your kids.

Go to the nearest library and borrow those translated English books. I love books by Japan authors in particular. They have good provoking thoughts and books on good values and traditions that are translated into Chinese for a good read. The Japanese are good with illustration too. Books written by US, England, Hungary, Korea authors, etc are equally good too. Look out for those which says [日] author’s name, [译] translator’s name, for eg. for a Japanese story translated book.

4) Go to the library

Visit your neighbourhood library often and tell your kid to borrow equal number of Chinese books and English books. Help them choose interesting and easy-to-read ones.

5) Watch Chinese Children’s programme

My kids love to watch Children shows in Chinese on Channel 8 every Sunday morning. They have interesting and educational content. Recently they have Di Zi Gui 弟子规 too. Also, try switching to Chinese when watching Mickey Mouse clubhouse, Baby TV and other shows. Most of these shows have dual language selection.

6) Listen to a Chinese audio

Switch on to Chinese radio channel in the car. Play a CD full of Chinese Kids songs. During the Chinese New Year period, play and sing the New Year songs together.

7) Write small notes in Chinese

Write love you notes and leave them around in the house for your kids to find. They will be excited to read what you have written to them!

8) List your groceries in Chinese

Write down your groceries in Chinese and give the list to your kids. They have to read the list and search for the groceries in the supermarket. Before long, they will recognize “soya sauce“, “toilet paper“, “milk” in Chinese.

9) Tell your own childhood stories to your kids in Chinese.

Children love stories. My kids love to hear my childhood stories and can’t resist their grandma’s childhood stories too. Through listening, they’ll get more exposure to Chinese words. Remember, try to recite your story without the temptation of adding in English words unless you are explaining the meaning of a Chinese word to them.

10) Start a reward system

Start a reward system which your kids can start accumulating points for good effort of speaking Chinese. Then they can redeem for a sticker or a fun trip or anything you set for them. The points can be accumulated with any games, a Show and Tell performance in Chinese, or just a simple question in Chinese. A small effort to speak the language is worth your encouragement.

Most of the above are tried and tested in my family. The Chinese language is our family’s first language. Whenever I speak English, it’s usually for reprimanding or serious instructions. Hence, my kids do not like me to speak to them in English. The photo on this blog is a recent trip to our neighbourhood library where out of 24 books, 18 of them are in Chinese. Even The Diary of a Wimpy Kid is borrowed in the Chinese version! That’s how much my kids love Chinese more than English. My woes now are to motivate them to read more English books. How I wish they are master of bilingualism!

It’s never too late to start instilling interest in learning a language. Start early and create as many Chinese speaking opportunities as possible. This would be most helpful to improve your child’s Chinese language.

I hope you find these tips useful for you! If you have more to add to the list, feel free to tell me!

22 thoughts on “How to improve your child’s Chinese

  1. Those are really practical and excellent tips, Christy! I’m from and English speaking home, but luckily my hubby is from a Chinese speaking family and my MIL only speaks either Chinese or Cantonese.

    I read that the foundations of grammar are laid in the brain (synapses etc) before babies are one! So exposure is really important. And I think many of us really struggle with Chinese.

    Recently my son came home with an interesting homework activity, he had to look for characters containing 十, so it could be words like 年,果 etc. I think I will get him to do more of such activities to increase interest and awareness of the language. JTS 🙂

    How about sharing some of your favourite books?

    • That’s a good tip! That reminds me! My boy had a homework to identify all the 单人旁, he took a Chinese newspaper to search for these words. I think it’s a good activity to help them be exposed to more Chinese words. Your kids’ home exposure of Chinese is excellent too. And best of all they are exposed to Cantonese, a dialect, like others which are fast disappearing in this generation onwards.

  2. We should probably do more of these, except it’s an effort for us because we don’t speak Chinese (although we know a few words – A knows more than me).

    The parents at my school sometimes ask me what we do to teach our son English “because he speaks it so well” and all I can do is shrug and say well, we’re native speakers of international English – we don’t really *do* anything and yet he picks it up. But of course really what’s happening is much of the above – we speak, write, hear and use English with our kids every day in many different formats.

    My son also dislikes Chinese, like many others, but I’ve noticed my daughter finds it fun to try and speak other languages. Hope that lasts when she has to really study it!

  3. Thanks for the tips, Christy. Both hubby and myself belong to the group you mention. Hahaha. We came from Chinese speaking family, but we converse to each other in Singlish (mix of Chinese, English, Hokkien and Cantonese). But we speak to our kids in English. We don’t know why to, but it came naturally to speak to them in English. So there was a period my boy won’t speak Chinese.

    Luckily, my MIL stepped in and insist on speaking Chinese to him. So now he naturally talks to my MIL in Chinese and will only replace words he doesn’t know in Chinese with English. We will then jump in to tell him what is the translation in Chinese. He improves lots.

    Another trick I did was to translate (on-the-fly) a Russian cartoon he is watching to Chinese. Well, my own Chinese improves along the way. Haha

  4. It’s intriguing to me to read that people don’t always speak their first language to their kids! Here it’s said that one should always use the first (hopefully strongest, well native anyway) language to their kids. For me the choice was difficult though as I grew up speaking two languages all the time and then my husband uses a third language. Anyway, we use most of the same practices as you suggest, and i believe it really is about exposing kids enough and in multiple ways to languages to increase their skills. And then I think as long as they have at least one strong language, all other languages they know at least to some extent is a bonus.

    • You are right that it’s weird we don’t master our own mother tongue! I hope that change for future generations! It’s so important to speak mother tongue but it’s all because the whole education system is geared towards English medium and society’s needs. You use most of these tips with your kids? Great minds think alike! And I know you have way many ideas on creative fun learning! 🙂

      • …I should have added that some of them (the grocery list, labelling items at home) I actually don’t use on my kids, they are too young, but to teach Finnish to my husband 😉

        I actually didn’t realise people would use English because they wouldn’t master their mother tongue. I thought it may just be a habit from the society… But I saw recently some ranking where Chinese (Mandarin) was called the most difficult language in the world, maybe that is a reason for the trend? But according to the same ranking Finnish was the second most difficult one! I don’t know how they judged that one but I am sure that makes our kids geniuses 😉

        I think in Finland the most people become bilingual the way I did: Mum always spoke Swedish with me and Dad Finnish. Is this approach used there at all?

  5. I think these tips could be used to learn any second (third, fourth, etc) language in the home! Thanks! I spoke mandarin (badly) while living in Taiwan, but have forgotten much of it now 😦

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