When my 5-year-old American daughter speaks and reads Chinese, she surprisingly sounds like a child from China. Since my Mandarin is limited and my daughter spends only 1-2.5 hours per week with her Chinese teachers, I attribute her Chinese fluency to large amounts of input, mostly in the form of Chinese audiobooks and music. Our children’s screentime, albeit limited, is also intentionally restricted to Chinese because English is our native language.
Among the various audio resources, Chinese audiobooks have been the most useful for advancing my daughter’s listening and reading comprehension, vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation. Music is fun and inviting, but it doesn’t teach sentences, intonation, and dialogue. Videos can be helpful if you can see the actors and actresses moving their mouths while speaking. However, we generally limit screen time due to its cumulative negative health and behavior effects.
Luckily, Chinese audiobooks are widely available on the internet, apps, and CDs. When my daughter and I first began to learn Chinese, we read very simple board books like the Mandy and Pandy series and occasionally used the 咔哒故事 app on iTunes. Eventually, when I buckled down and figured out how to use Ximalaya, we have been listening to Chinese audiobooks almost daily.
In this post, I will share:
- How we choose appropriate Chinese audiobooks
- 3 ways we are learning Chinese with audiobooks
- Limitations of our Chinese environment
1. How to find appropriate Chinese audiobooks for children
The ideal Chinese audiobooks will depend on various factors. Trial and error might be inevitable before finding the right stories. It’s really important to keep this in mind, because another child’s favorite book might be too boring or too hard for your child. For example, the Magic School Bus series was one of my childhood favorites in English. Three years ago, I tried listening to it on Ximalaya with my daughter. Because the content and pace were too advanced for our level at the time, we were discouraged that we could not understand the narrator, and I gave up on Ximalaya for a while.
So, what are some important factors to consider when choosing audiobooks?
- Level – What is your child’s age and Chinese skill level? If you’re just starting to learn Chinese, you may want something repetitive like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? and the Mandy and Pandy series. More advanced learners can give input on selecting audiobooks with attractive content.
- Content – For children, stories about daily life are most likely to be relevant and therefore understandable. In addition, consider your child’s interests (eg, animals, solar system) and find audiobooks on those topics. For our family, this means famous Tang poems are unlikely to make the cut in our busy day.
- Narrator – The voice should be clear and without distracting background noise or music. Some children may prefer a calm reading style while others may be intrigued by a dramatic narration.
2. Three Ways My Daughter and I Use Audiobooks to Learn Chinese
Now that we are comfortable with finding the right Chinese books for my daughter, we can devour wonderful stories regularly and improve our Mandarin. We try to listen to Chinese audiobooks in the car, during which my daughter is pretty attentive other than looking out the window. Occasionally, we listen to stories during meals or while my children are building with, and I’ll turn it off it they seem distracted or focused on something else. I don’t leave it on as “background noise.”
Currently, my daughter is often listening to Chinese audiobooks alone. Unfortunately, I am not able to sit and listen with her as often as I would like. My 2-year-old son does not yet have the attention span to listen to audiobooks and much prefers that I read to him. This is a significant reason for the growing gap between the language skills of my daughter and me. Even if I have time, I often zone out as I’m planning the day in my head. Hopefully as my son matures, we can all enjoy audiobooks simultaneously.
Here are the 3 general ways that we listen and learn from audiobooks.
1. Listening before reading the books
We often listen to stories by our favorite narrators on Ximalaya, even before purchasing the books. Benefits of this include:
- Focusing on our listening skills.
- Leaving images up to the child’s imagination – kind of like how we adults often read novels before a movie so the video images don’t “spoil” our notions about a narrative.
- Figuring out whether we like the story enough to buy the physical book.
I generally let my daughter choose which story she wants to re-listen to and when she wants to try new stories. Or I will just play a new story and see if it captures her attention. We usually listen to favorites multiple times. Each time we listen, we can learn more about the story, things that we may not have noticed before.
2. Listening while following along the text
For the physical books that we have, audio narration allows us to read books that would be too hard for me to check all of the words in the dictionary. In order for a child to follow along a narration, they need to:
- Understand 1:1 correspondance (each spoken Chinese syllable corresponds with a Chinese character)
- Keep up with the pace of a narrator
- Not be distracted by the illustrations
Because the illustrations in books will naturally attract children, I give my daughter plenty of time to take “picture walks” through each book that she wants to learn to read. The ability to “read” illustrations is an important skill itself; it also provides context to the audio narrative. When she’s satisfied with the visual exploration, she can concentrate on the Chinese characters better. Then she listens to the story multiple times so that she can memorize the text and thus learn new Chinese characters independently.
If we encounter unfamiliar Chinese characters, then we write each down on Post-It notes and stick it to the page. Usually I’ll write Pinyin and English on the back of the Post-It for reference for myself.
3. Listening without ever seeing the books
For the bulk of the Chinese audiobooks that we have listened to, I won’t buy the physical books if the illustrations appear unattractive or if we already have similar books on the topic or reading level. Therefore, we listen to them like old-fashioned storytelling. As mentioned above, this is very effective for honing the receptive language skills because there is no visual input. As my daughter matures, I would like to encourage her to try drawing what she thinks has happened in the story by trying this myself!
3. Limitations of our Chinese learning environment
Despite our progress with Chinese audiobooks, person-to-person interaction will always be the best way to learn Chinese. I wish I could read Chinese with her the way I can do in English. We don’t listen to audiobooks in English, because nothing is better than a parent’s voice.
Currently, my daughter’s Chinese reading skills are more advanced than her speaking skills. I foresee this to be a long-term problem because of our English-dominant environment. Although she sounds fluent and she has over 1000 Chinese characters memorized, her Mandarin vocabulary and grammar are probably average for her age due to lack of practice with various native speakers.
The other limitation of most audiobooks is the lack of word-for-word narration. My hope is that over time and as technology advances, more reading pen options will be available on the market. We loved the 樂樂文化 Le Le Chinese Pen Leveled Readers System for its clean design, individual word and sentence narration, and realistic illustrations – I’d love to see more audiobooks like this available on the market.
We also love the C-pen reading pen, which is my next big project to work on and share with you all. With the C-pen, our Chinese teacher can record any story for my daughter, and our nanny can record any Korean book. We can also download stories from Ximalaya and then upload the mp3 files into the reading pen. I anticipate that the C-pen reading pen will vastly improve the number of Chinese books that my daughter can listen and learn from independently, and therefore boost her fluency and literacy.
Regularly listening to Chinese audiobooks can improve both speaking and reading skills. I highly recommend incorporating audiobooks into your daily routine and involving your child’s interests in the story selection.
Does your family listen to audiobooks, and if so, what are your favorites? If not, what challenges have prevented the use of this resource? Please feel free to share in the comments or questions below as many other parents share the same concerns!
FREE CHINESE AUDIOBOOKS
Ximalaya FM has thousands of Chinese stories for children for free! Our favorites are listed in this post. Since the entire website and app is in Chinese, please refer to this guide if you cannot read Chinese.
Also be sure to check out other Websites and Apps with FREE Multilingual books for Kids!
WHERE TO BUY CHINESE BOOKS FOR KIDS
For more Chinese book recommendations for kids, please visit and bookmark this link of our favorite books! Every week, I will be adding book reviews to this website!
If you’re wondering where to buy Chinese books for children, please click here for a list of the most popular online bookstores!
Tips on creating a Chinese learning environment at home
- Teach Your Child a Second Language at Home with 5 Key Steps
- Raising Multilingual Children as a Non-Fluent Parent: 7 Lessons Learned in 2017
- How To Get Your Child To Speak the Minority Language
- Encourage A Child to Love and Speak the Minority Language with 5 Strategies
- How to Find a Foreign Language Teacher for Your Child
- 5 Reasons Books are the Best Gifts for Multilingual Kids
Teaching kids how to read Chinese
- When and How to Introduce Chinese Characters to Kids?
- 5 Basic Tips for Memorizing Chinese Characters
- 10 Ways to Encourage Your Child to Read
- Create a Print-Rich Environment with Labels that Promote Literacy
- How I Taught My Child 1000+ Chinese Characters as a Non-Fluent Speaker
- When Should My Child Learn Hanyu Pinyin?