20 Ways to Get Your Kids to Speak Chinese

Raising bilingual children - 20 Ways to get our kids to speak Chinese

Have you said this before? “I started talking to my kids in Chinese…but they only reply in English.” I’ve been there, too. The struggle is real: getting kids to speak Chinese can be a huge challenge when it’s the minority language. So how do you teach kids to talk in Chinese?

Why it’s hard to get kids to talk in Chinese

If you have been trying to raise multilingual children, you know that it’s never as simple as “just speak Chinese”.

We’ve seen our immigrant parents face countless obstacles, including teaching kids a second language at home. I can’t help but hope we can improve the odds for our kids’ generation.

Good news: Chinese-speaking habits can be formed and maintained by a mix of fun and relevant strategies that you can use anywhere.

How to switch from speaking English to Chinese

Although my children and I mainly speak Chinese together now, I’ll never forget how difficult it was in the beginning.

A few years ago when my daughter and I began to learn Chinese together, it took us almost a year to break the English habit and get in the rhythm of talking in Chinese.

On the other hand, my son had the benefit of hearing Chinese from me and big sister since birth. But even for bilingual babies, the dominant language is undeniably influential! Although many of my son’s first baby words were Chinese, his first real sentences were reflexively in English, our family’s language.

However, with gentle consistency and a conscious mix of language strategies, I have been able to encourage my children to speak Chinese plus many other families around the world.

Try this: How to Make the Switch from Dominant to Minority Language

20 strategies that teach kids how to talk in Chinese

This post has over 20 strategies to teach kids how to speak Chinese at home. The focus here is Chinese, because that is what I speak with my children. However, you can use these strategies to encourage any minority language, 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.

If you are a language teacher for children, these tips will help your students connect and talk in Chinese.

1. Speak Chinese consistently with your child

First and foremost, talking in Chinese should be part of the regular daily routine. 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 native Chinese speakers, forget and slip in English. Here are actionable solutions:

  • Write down reminders to talk to your kids in Chinese.
  • Set an alarm on your phone labeled “speak Chinese”.
  • Jot down 1 thing you want to make sure say in Chinese today.
  • Create a Chinese print-rich environment with labels around the home.
  • 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 way to show kids how to talk in Chinese. When you think out loud, your child can hear how questions and answers 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. Talk through your actions in Chinese, 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.

Narrate actions in Chinese, especially repetitive tasks

While running, we would repeat: “跑过去!跑回来!跑到哪里!跑到这里!这个叶子非常大!(Pǎo guòqù! Pǎo huílái! Pǎo dào nǎlǐ! Pǎo dào zhèlǐ! Zhège yèzi fēicháng dà!)”

In English, this translates to “Run over there! Run back! Run over there! Run over here! This leaf is super big!” But I only said these phrases in Chinese, not English.

4. Hold the object that you’re talking about in Chinese

Use body language to enhance communication with bilingual kids and encourage kids to speak Chinese

To help kids learn how to speak the minority language, hold the object that you’re talking about in Chinese. Then pass it to your child.

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.

For instance, while talking to your child about a toy car (玩具车/玩具車/wánjù chē), pick it up while describing the appearance.

If you’re talking about the car wheels (轮胎 / 輪胎 / lúntāi), spin them at the same time, and encourage your child to touch the details.

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 how to say these Chinese words because they are often thinking about their interests.

As an example, if my kids are talking about their favorite animals shows in English, I reply with Chinese translations. For extra reinforcement, I also repeat the animal names several times in subsequent sentences.

6. Speak Chinese while doing something completely new with your child

Can you think of something your child has never done before? This new experience is the perfect opportunity to teach kids how to talk in Chinese, because no preceding memories exist in English.

When my children went boating for the first time, they easily learned Chinese words like 踏板船 (tàbǎn chuán / pedal boat) and 湖 (hú / lake). Since they had no prior experience with pedal boating in real life or books, they did not know what they were called in English.

This hands-on experience was a fresh chance for Chinese words to stick in their memory.

get kids to speak Chinese through new experiences

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

Chinese children’s songs are much more than good fun and melodies. According to Hong Zhang, Chinese professor of music and founder of Song of Silk, music can help kids learn how to speak Chinese.

“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. Speak Chinese during imaginative play

Imaginative play can work wonders for children of all ages. For younger children, use their favorite open-ended toys to create relevant dialogue. During play, their toys can “practice” learning how to talk in Chinese.

With older children and adolescents, brainstorm funny scenarios and act them out together! In this video, my daughter was 4 years old acting out 狼和七只小山羊 (Láng hé qī zhī xiǎo shānyáng / Wolf and Seven Little Goats) with her toy animals.

10. Offer multiple choice answers in Chinese

If your child is reluctant about speaking 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. If we’re brainstorming what food to eat, I’ll ask “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.

Offer multiple choice answers to help kids speak Chinese

11. Use code-mixing as a transitional talking tool

If your child is 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. As your child learns how to speak Chinese, code-mixing will become less necessary. It also could be a potential obstacle from achieving fluency in the minority language.

When proficiency improves, try to use familiar Chinese words to describe what you are saying with the help of visual and physical cues. Consistency will help kids stay in the Chinese-speaking mindset.

12. Read Chinese books out loud

Daily story time is a powerful bonding opportunity for families. Reading out loud can help kids speak Chinese by introducing a wide range of vocabulary, topics, and concepts.

In addition, stories are one of the best ways to help kids understand new concepts in Chinese, even without firsthand experience.

Here are the best Chinese books for kids organized by type and level.

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 protagonists are real. And kids are often curious about what our own childhood was like. Take this opportunity to share your exclusive childhood story in Chinese!

14. Talk about your day in Chinese

Whether you work outside or inside your home, sharing about your day with your children is an amazing way to connect in Chinese language. When parents model how to share about their day, kids are more likely to reciprocate and divulge details in Chinese.

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.

15. Speak Chinese while playing games

Get active with your child and play their favorite game while speaking Chinese.

Here are some games that we’ve turned into bilingual learning opportunities:

For beginner speakers, a game like “Simon says” is a fun way to verbs and learn body parts in Chinese. Children need to listen carefully in order to follow directions correctly.

Sidewalk chalk activities: Hanzi Chinese Hopscotch
Outdoor Sidewalk Chalk Activity: Jumping on Chinese characters!

Conversational and fluent kids can play board games in Chinese. Have fun talking about your strategies and actions while speaking Chinese.

And if you’re traveling, try these fun car games for bilingual kids to use the minority language.

16. Speak Chinese during FaceTime with family

Our generation is lucky that technology can connect us with far-away relatives. Talk to your family and set up a regular time to connect and bone while speaking Chinese together. This is a meaningful way to get kids to speak Chinese.

Every week, we try to FaceTime with my Shanghainese-Canadian auntie at least once a week. Although my children have rarely seen her due to distance, they are familiar with her because we talk to her in Chinese on FaceTime.

17. Let kids hear people talk in Chinese on TV

Screen-time is a popular low-prep tool that can give kids passive exposure to native Chinese speakers. Although watching videos is not enough to teach kids how to talk in Chinese, it can help normalize the minority language at home.

Occasionally, my children watch Chinese shows on Youtube and classic Disney movies in Chinese.

Videos that include Chinese people, such as 讚美之泉 Stream of Praise DVDs or 巧虎 (Qiaohu / Ciaohu), show our children that people like them exist and do interesting things!

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.

make friends with kids who speak Chinese

Although my children live in a small, non-diverse town, I’m grateful that they have a few mixed Chinese friends.

One mom found me through my Chalk Academy website and then connected me with her other Chinese friends!

Our daughters end up chatting in English and we can’t force them to speak Chinese, but at least they can see and hear some of the parents talking in 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 hoped that my appearance meant that I could communicate with them. Since I could not speak Chinese, 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 is probably the most effective way to get kids to speak Chinese. If you have the chance, plan a trip to China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and other areas with native Chinese speakers.

However, traveling to Asia is not an affordable or realistic option for many families. We need to work with our everyday resources. The aforementioned suggestions can teach kids how to talk in Chinese at home.

21. Give yourself grace

Like many parents, when I’m tired, I forget how to speak Chinese, and my native language, English, just flows out. I hope that it’s reassuring to know that this is common for most families, regardless of fluency.

Rona Luo, bilingual mother and acupuncturist, offers sound advice from her experience:

Need to give bilingual parents grace

“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!”

Which strategies help your kids talk in Chinese?

If you’ve made any strides, how did you get your kids speak Chinese? Please share your experience and tips in the comments.

If you’re feeling stuck, I truly hope that these ideas can help your family! To spread bilingual encouragement, share this post with friends, caregivers, and teachers.

tips for encouraging minority language

Have fun talking to your kids Chinese!


  1. Hi Betty,

    A heat-felt thank you for all the wonderful and practical advice that you’ve given in this article on how to encourage our children on speaking Chinese!

    This is an article that I will keep coming back to. I’ve been feeling defeated and lost on the Chinese-coaching/learning journey with my four and half years old boy. Your blog and articles have surely shined the lights on what I can do.

    I have now set up a time at 8 pm every night to reflect on your 21 comphresive tips – what is the ONE tips that I have practised with my boy today? What can I do better/keep doing tomorrow? I will be in touch for more updates!

    Thank you so much for your inspiration. Look forward to learning more with you.

  2. Thank you for sharing your journey to teach your kids Chinese. My older boy, who turned 3 two months ago, has stopped speaking Chinese 2 months ago…after we got a new English speaking nanny. Previously, Chinese was his dominate language until he was 34 months old…once our new and wonderful nanny joined us, he switched to English within a month and now refuses to speak in Chinese…even when I know he knows how to say it. I understand why he’s leaning into English; his English has just skyrocketed…complex sentences, gaining so many vocab every day…while his Chinese likely stayed at fairly limited capacity (though he fully understands everything). I have told him that he needs to try to speak to me in Chinese if he wants to communicate with me…but he just rather not say anything at all…but says he misses mama before bedtime every night. It’s very frustrating and I feel terrible because he was finally at a point he could communicate so much…like a little adult. Besides getting better at being more consistent in speaking to him in Chinese, any other tips you found helpful to get the little ones to try again?

  3. Thank you Betty for sharing your precious experience of raising your kids with a language that touches your heart. You are very creative and very successful raising multilingual kids. I appreciate at most your generosity to share the wealth of resources you found with people you don’t know. I am a Chinese teacher myself and a native speaker of course. I did not raise my two kids in the way you did and of course they are both fluent in speaking and still learn to read and to write now in their teens years. I have learned a lot from you. Thanks again for sharing.

    1. Hi Esther! Thank you for taking the time to write and share about your family. It’s encouraging to hear that your children are fluent and continue to learn! I hope my kids will still love learning Chinese at that age!

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