Have you said this before? “I started speaking Chinese to my children…but they are replying back in English.”
I’ve been there, too.
The struggle is real: getting our kids to speak Chinese can be a huge challenge when it’s the minority language.
Why you need multiple strategies to get your kids to speak Chinese
Those of you who have been on the bilingual journey for a while know that it’s never as simple as “just speak Chinese”.
Because my parents’ immigrant generation failed at keeping me, my sister, and many other Asian-Americans fluent in the mother tongue, I can’t help but hope we can improve the odds for our kids’ generation.
The good news: Chinese speaking habits can be formed and maintained by a combination of intentional strategies that make language relevant and enjoyable.
Getting my children to switch from English to Chinese was not easy
Although my 2 children and I mainly speak Chinese together now, I’ll never forget how difficult it was in the beginning.
When my daughter and I first began to learn Chinese, it took us almost a year to break the English habit and get in the rhythm of speaking Chinese.
On the other hand, my son had the benefit of hearing Chinese from me and big sis since birth.
However, the dominant language is undeniably influential! Although many of my son’s first baby words were Chinese, his first real sentences were reflexively English, our family’s language.
With gentle consistency over the past few months, I have been encouraging him to default to Chinese when we are together.
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20+ Strategies that Encourage Kids to Speak Chinese
This post has over 20 strategies that can encourage your kids to speak Chinese at home.
The focus here is Chinese, because that is what I speak with my half-Chinese children. However, these strategies apply to all minority languages, no matter where you are located.
Each strategy requires a committed parent or caregiver, and none work magically.
If you apply at least a few of these strategies, over time, your children will have a better chance at speaking Chinese regularly.
Please share this with anyone who needs inspiration and motivation!
1. Be consistent with speaking Chinese with your child
Rule number 1: You need to be consistent with speaking Chinese.
Desirable habits in children begin with modeling from parents and/or other primary caregivers (nanny, babysitter, grandparent).
Yet so many of us, even those who are fluent, forget and slip in English.
Here are actionable solutions:
- Write down reminders to speak Chinese
- Set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself to speak Chinese
- Jot down 1 or more thing you want to make sure say in Chinese today
- Be patient with yourself and make sure to see strategy 21 in this post!
2. Talk to yourself in Chinese
Having dialogue with yourself might sound silly, but it’s actually a smart strategy.
Thinking out loud gives your child a chance to hear how questions and answers should sound in Chinese.
Christabelle Min Chen, a bilingual mom and pharmacist shares:
“The success of crossing the road has been cracked.
I tend to ask: “看左看右. 有没有车？And I respond to myself with 没有车.”
Now this is the one scenario when they have started replying in Mandarin without prompt.”
3. Narrate actions, especially repetitive tasks
Narrating repetitive actions is a natural way to practice Chinese words.
For example, when my 2.5-year-old son and I saw a palm tree shadow, we ran back and forth under each leaf’s shadow.
While running, we would repeat:
“跑过去！跑回来！跑到这里！跑到哪里！这个叶子非常大！(Pǎo guòqù! Pǎo huílái! Pǎo dào zhèlǐ! Pǎo dào nǎlǐ! Zhège yèzi fēicháng dà!)”
4. Touch the object that you’re talking about in Chinese
Whenever possible, hold the object that you’re talking about in Chinese, then pass it to your child.
For instance, while talking to your child about a dress, pick it up while describing the appearance. Encourage your child to touch the details.
If your child can “feel” what you are saying, the tactile stimuli might help them remember words better than if you were to talk about it without a physical reference.
5. Talk about your child’s interests in Chinese
What are your children obsessed with? What are they holding in their hands right now? What are they looking at?
These are perfect conversation starters in the minority language.
Our kids are more likely to remember these Chinese words because they are often thinking about their interests.
As an example, if my kids talk about shells and rocks during water play in English, I reply with Chinese translations and repeat them several times in subsequent sentences.
6. Do or make something completely new with your child while speaking Chinese
What is something your child has never done before? This new experience is the perfect opportunity to teach Chinese, because no preceding memories exist in English.
When my children went boating for the first time, my son easily learned Chinese words like 踏板船 (tàbǎn chuán / pedal boat) and 湖 (hú / lake) since he did not know the English names.
Cooking and baking are also practical opportunities to create new things and therefore learn new vocabulary.
7. Talk to your pets in Chinese!
Basically, talk to everyone and everything you can in Chinese!
Eva Lou, quadralingual mom and creator of Madeleine Editions, shares this brilliant and hilarious idea:
“I purposely talk to our dog in Chinese in front of my daughter! 😂
She loves it when I do that and imitates me.”
8. Sing with your child in Chinese
My children love to sing and dance to Chinese songs, but singing is more than just fun and good tunes.
According to Hong Zhang, Chinese professor of music and founder of Song of Silk:
“Singing increases sensitivity to tone. The four tones of spoken Chinese pose an intimidating obstacle to most foreign learners of the language.
The ability to recognize and reproduce various pitches, can be enhanced by musical training. A singer is said to sing more with the ear than with the mouth.
In learning to sing, we learn to listen.”
9. Role-play in Chinese
Imaginative play can work wonders for children of all ages.
For younger children, use their favorite toys to create relevant dialogue. This can take the pressure off the child who can “practice” Chinese during play.
With older children and adolescents, you can come up with funny scenarios and act them out together!
10. Offer multiple choice answers
If you’re child is hesitant about replying in Chinese, “multiple choice questions” can be a low-pressure way to invite a Chinese response.
When my children first began to learn Chinese, I might ask them if they want “这个 (zhège / this)” or “那个 (nàgè / that)”.
As their Chinese improved, I offered specific, descriptive Chinese options, such as “Do you want to eat the 红苹果 (hóng píngguǒ / red apple) or the 黄香蕉 (huáng xiāngjiāo / yellow banana)?
Gradually, simple vocabulary will grow into full Chinese sentences and paragraphs.
11. Use code-mixing as a transitional tool
If they are already fluent in another language (eg, English), you might need to code-mix to scaffold in more Chinese vocabulary in the beginning. Their pre-existing knowledge is their foundation, as shown in the prior example about the banana and apple.
Over time, isolated Chinese words will become longer Chinese phrases and sentences. Gradually, code-mixing will become less necessary and potentially distracting from achieving fluency.
Instead, as proficiency improves, try to use familiar Chinese words to describe what you are saying with the help of visual and physical cues.
12. Read Chinese books out loud every day
Regular read-alouds boost speaking skills by introducing a wide range of vocabulary, topics, and concepts.
In addition, stories are one of the best ways to help kids understand something without experiencing it for themselves.
13. Tell your child stories about your childhood in Chinese
My kids love to hear stories about life before they were born. These are some of their most requested “Chinese stories” because they know the “characters” are real and just want to know more about us.
Some of their favorites are about how my husband and I met in medical school, and also what life was like with our siblings decades ago!
14. Tell your child about your day in Chinese. Then ask them about their day.
We have a habit of sharing our day together in Chinese, and I think this is really important for parents who spent time away from their children due to work or school.
After work, I usually tell my children about my day first. They love to hear all of the seemingly unimportant details, like where I sat, whether or not the room was chilly, and what I ate.
Then my kids are more likely to reciprocate and share details about their day in Chinese.
15. Play games in Chinese
Get active with your child and play their favorite game in Chinese, such as:
For beginner speakers, a game like “Simon says” is a fun way to learn body parts and action verbs in Chinese. Children need to listen carefully in order to follow directions correctly.
Proficient and fluent kids can play board games which encourage discussion about observations and strategies for winning!
16. FaceTime family members in Chinese
We are grateful that technology can connect us with far-away relatives.
Every week, we try to FaceTime with my Shanghainese-Canadian auntie at least once a week.
Although my daughter has met her in person twice and my son only once as an infant, they have grown close with her because we “see” her routinely.
17. Use media and technology as passive Chinese exposure
Although my children have limited screen-time, they occasionally watch Chinese shows for passive audio exposure to native Chinese speakers.
18. Look for Chinese-speaking friends
Growing up, I went to school with no friends that spoke Chinese or any other languages for that matter. Foreign languages were considered un-American. Unfortunately, this caused me to avoid speaking Chinese during my childhood.
Although my children are being raised in a small, non-diverse town, I’m grateful that they have some half-Chinese friends.
One mom found me through Facebook and then connected me with her other Chinese friends! Although our daughters end up speaking English together, at least they hear us parents speaking Chinese.
19. Show your child why speaking Chinese is important
Before learning Chinese with my children, I’ve been in numerous situations when Chinese tourists or foreign exchange students have approached me for help.
I know they assumed that my Chinese appearance meant that I could communicate with them. But I could not help them.
Maybe you’ve been in a similar situation, where you weren’t able to connect with someone who needed you, such as a relative.
These are important examples that we should share with our children.
20. Travel if you can!
Of course, traveling to China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and other areas with native Chinese speakers is one of the best ways to motivate our kids to join the Chinese conversation!
However, many of us cannot travel abroad. We need to work with our everyday resources, and the aforementioned suggestions can empower us at home.
21. Give yourself grace
Like many parents, when I’m tired, I forget to speak Chinese and my native language, English, just flows out.
Rona Luo, bilingual mother and acupuncturist gives sound advice:
“I’ve realized that when I notice a lot of English coming out of my mouth, it’s a sign that I’m stressed or tired, and need to do more self care, rather than beat myself up and tell myself to try harder to speak Chinese consistently.
The less I push myself, and the more I pay attention to my own needs, the more I am able to carry on speaking my non-dominant language!”
What strategies help your family speak Chinese?
If you’re feeling stuck, I truly hope that these ideas can benefit your family!
Please share your experience and tips in the comments below!
Share this post with parents and caregivers who need encouragement for their bilingual journey!
HOW TO TEACH KIDS CHINESE
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- Raising Multilingual Children as a Non-Fluent Parent: 7 Lessons Learned
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- How I Taught My Child 1000+ Chinese Characters as a Non-Fluent Speaker