Learning Chinese as a busy parent is not easy, but it’s doable and can even be fun. Kids have a funny way of changing life goals and priorities, and I have been determined to re-learn Mandarin for them. If you’re in a similar situation, I hope this post can reassure that it’s never too late to learn Chinese with your kids.
Even if you are starting from scratch.
Even if you can’t travel to Asia.
Even if you’re like us – the only Chinese-speaking family in our neighborhood. You can still learn how to understand, speak, read, and write Chinese.
I first wrote this blogpost almost 3 years ago, and Chinese resources have only increased and improved since then. I’ve updated this guide with what’s stood the test of time and new tools we’re using.
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My experience with learning Chinese as a busy working parent
In a period of about 2 years, I went from barely able to speak a full sentence to being able to hold most conversations with my children in Mandarin Chinese.
When my daughter was 2, we began to learn how to speak Chinese together. Shortly after, she surpassed me, so I pushed myself to learn how to read.
Again, she blew me out of the water and became a voracious reader of Chinese chapter books! Meanwhile, my second child is learning at his own pace. Although English is our family and community language, the 3 of us speak Chinese as our main bonding language at home.
It’s important to know that I started with low expectations. Momentum came gradually with patience and consistency. I’m still not fluent and am constantly humbled by how much there is to learn.
Since first publishing this post a few years ago, many of my readers have shared even more impressive success stories. There are always going to be people who have more time and talent to learn, opportunities to travel, and more help. While celebrating their successes, I remind myself not to compare and that I’m learning at my own pace.
And this process is not for everybody. The time, money, and effort may not be worth the endeavor for you or your spouse. For example, my husband works 80-90 hours per week. Despite being proficient in both Spanish and Korean, he only wants to speak English at the end of the day.
But if you truly want to learn Chinese for your children, it’s worth trying.
I am happy to share what has worked for our situation in hopes that it can help!
Re-learning Chinese from scratch
Although Chinese was technically my first language, I never retained it.
Growing up, my parents spoke a mix of accented English, Mandarin, and Chinese dialects. My father often code-mixed Shanghainese and Cantonese while my mother was nostalgic for Changshahua, her native tongue.
By the time I entered Kindergarten, I would speak to my parents in English only. As the only Chinese family in my elementary school, speaking English – and only English – felt necessary to belong to the community.
After my parents passed away in my 20s, I had no need to use Chinese in my personal life. My husband does not speak Chinese. None of my Chinese relatives live in the US, and I only use English at work. I quickly forgot everything except for a handful of words and, strangely enough, how to copy Chinese stroke order.
Why I started to (re)learn Chinese with my child
When my first child was was 2, I regretted that I could not teach her Mandarin Chinese. The problem was that we had just moved from Los Angeles to a small Californian beach town with very few Chinese people. I had hoped to outsource to a babysitter or nanny, but we couldn’t find a fluent Chinese caregiver.
At that time, the only local Chinese teacher was not comfortable with young children. Therefore, my children’s chance at growing up bilingual depended on me.
I didn’t want her to miss out on her grandparents’ language just because I could not speak it.
As Mandarin Mama says, “it’s that emotional why that will sustain you when Chinese fluency and/or literacy seems especially far away. It’s that emotional why that will push and drive you forward to persevere.”
The difference between learning Chinese as a parent versus business traveler
Most Chinese resources and advice are geared for tourists or businessmen and businesswomen.
However, travel and corporate vocabulary is often irrelevant for homeschooling, work-at-home parents like me.
For example, beginner Chinese textbooks for adult learners typically teach how to ask which country someone is from!
In contrast to business or tourist learners, parents need to prioritize everyday vocabulary that they can use to converse with their children.
We need to communicate the need for hugs, using the potty, finding favorite toys, and playing outside at the playground!
The approach to learning Chinese as a parent is different because your child can be your study buddy!!
How I’m improving my Chinese language skills as a parent
One word at at time. One sentence at at time.
In addition to strong motivation, the other first step is to recognize that my learning pace and style may be different than other busy parents. What works for me might not work for you, but I hope at least these ideas give you enough options to explore.
Take your time to get prepared. Over time, add new goals and try new resources when you are ready.
Improving Mandarin Chinese listening / speaking skills
Listening and speaking are the foundational language skills for learning any language.
These are the resources I explored and/or used to improve my listening and speaking skills in Mandarin Chinese.
Caregivers: Nanny, babysitter, au pair
If you have the budget and space, I highly recommend looking into bilingual childcare.
Unfortunately, this was not an option in our non-diverse location. I searched high and low for Mandarin-speaking nannies and babysitters in our area with no luck. We also do not have space for a live-in caregiver.
Chinese tutoring versus class
Another important first step is to schedule Chinese lessons.
In my opinion, one-on-one instruction with a fluent Chinese speaker is better than taking a class.
With personalized instruction, you can learn at your pace and have more opportunity to practice listening and speaking. Classes tend to run at the rate of the slowest learner, so you’ll have a better chance at improving if you are with people who speak Chinese than you.
In-person private Chinese tutoring
In-person is ideal because you can see how the tutor moves his or her mouth and uses body language.
Initially, I tried a local instructor for a few months, but I was not able to meet her consistently with my busy work schedule.
Online Mandarin Chinese tutoring
If you cannot find a local tutor, compare online Chinese tutoring programs.
Make sure that the lesson includes opportunities for real conversation rather than passively watching videos and PowerPoint presentations.
Lecture slides can be helpful, but there’s no flexibility for candid discussion, I think it defeats the purpose of having a live instructor.
I tried Tutor Ming but felt the program was too structured and business-oriented. I also tried iTalki, a platform to find any language tutor to customize a learning plan. Many parents shared great reviews, but you have try different tutors to find the best fit for your needs.
For the past couple years, I have not been taking my own lessons. If I have time, I try to listen in on my children’s tutoring sessions. Her teachers also welcome me to text and email them with translation questions.
I’m constantly checking the dictionary for Chinese translations!!
Chinese picture dictionaries
We have 2 Chinese picture dictionaries (reviewed here) with real photographs that help put new Chinese words into context. My kids like to look at the photos with me!
Chinese dictionary apps
On the go, Chinese dictionary apps are my best friend. Popular options include:
- Pleco Chinese Dictionary is known for accurate translations and pronunciations. It’s my favorite app because each definition is accompanied by example phrases and sentences. You can bookmark Chinese characters for future review and organize saved words by category. Free stroke order animation is available for some words, but you can pay to upgrade for extra features.
- Google Translate: This more famous app is convenient for translating long sentences and seeing characters enlarged. I love that I can translate words from Chinese to Korean, my children’s 3rd language. However, Google translate is often inaccurate. It is not trustworthy for grammar, idioms, and sometimes Hanyu Pinyin.
- Train Chinese: Less often, I use this app, because the aforementioned two serve my needs. However, TrainChinese has free stroke order animation for every word, and you can adjust the speed of tracing. This has been my main use for this app.
Note: If you have the Amazon Echo Dot, you can ask Alexa for translations, eg “Say apple in Chinese!” We ended up giving ours away to a friend, but my kids had fun asking Alexa random questions when we had it!
Focus on common parenting vocabulary
Regardless of your child’s age, the most useful first words help with communicating daily needs.
- Common greetings: 你好吗？/ 你好嗎？ (Nǐ hǎo ma? / How are you?) 很好。or 不好。 (Hěn hǎo / Very good) or (Bù hǎo / not good).
- Basic needs eg, eating food and drinking water
- Body parts
- Going to school
- Your child’s interests
Books that help with Chinese parenting vocabulary
Some of my favorite initial resources are out-of-print, and many new amazing resources have become available.
Bilingual parenting books
- Everyday Mandarin for Parents was just published, and I had to buy it immediately! The phrase book has simplified Chinese characters and Hanyu Pinyin. If you create an account on the author Ann Hamilton’s website, you can listen to the audio for free!
Children’s books with Mandarin audio
The following Chinese books have audio resources to help with listening and speaking skills:
- Rhythm and Tones (reviewed here) was one of my favorite first resources. In addition to bilingual English/Chinese text, the book introduces Pinyin and the 4 Chinese tones. The music CD is also very catchy, and my daughter loves to sing and dance to the songs!
- 乐乐 / 樂樂 Le Le Chinese Reading Pen Book Set comes with 300 books on various topics with realistic illustrations. We got it only 2 years ago, and I wish we had it at the beginning! This series is a splurge but a worthwhile investment in my opinion.
- Usborne Listen and Learn First Chinese Words is a cute, interactive book that teachers 120 nouns. Mandarin audio plays by pressing an image. With all of the new options that I have listed here, I don’t think this is necessary.
- Picture books with audio like the Mandy and Pandy Series and Mina Learns Chinese.
Listen to Chinese children’s media
We are constantly playing Chinese music at home and in the car!
In the beginning, I set a goal of learning a new Chinese song every 1-2 weeks. Songs like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and Happy Birthday in Chinese were a good place to start because I was already familiar with the tune.
The I Can Sing in Mandarin! CD is great for beginners, and you can download printable lyrics I typed up.
Chinese websites, apps, and podcasts
There are so many websites and apps with free Chinese books of various levels. Unite for Literacy and Learning Chinese Through Stories are great websites to start with.
As our Chinese improved, we began to use Ximalaya FM for free Chinese audiobooks.
Videos related to parenting and kids
- Chinese YouTube videos, especially ChineseClass 101 which has videos at various levels. Story time and cooking shows have also been helpful for learning everyday vocabulary!
- Henry羅寶鴻 老師 Henry Lo is a Taiwanese Montessori teacher with gentle and positive parenting tips. For example, he will advise parents on how to promote independence while kids are struggling through new skills, such as peeling a banana.
- 王宏哲教養育兒寶典 This pediatrician popular in Taiwan and gives health and parenting advice. For example, he has shared about healthy sleep habits for children.
Many people have suggested watching Chinese Dramas to learn Mandarin, but I found that to be too overwhelming and un-relatable for me in the beginning.
Practice, practice, practice your new words
In order to get better, you have to talk! One word at a time – every word counts!
As the sole Chinese-speaking parent, I am essentially practicing and teaching my children simultaneously. Even if you’re thinking “I don’t know that many Chinese words”, each of those words are still valuable to share with your kids.
Set an alarm on your phone so you don’t forget. My friend has “说中文 (shuō zhōngwén / speak Chinese)” taped on her walls as shown in the photo below!
Learning how to read Chinese as a busy parent
At the beginning, I had no plans to learn Chinese characters. However, I’m so glad that my teacher had convinced me to at least try Hanyu Pinyin so that I could read to my kids.
Phonetic support with Hanyu Pinyin or Zhuyin Fuhao
While I believe children can and should learn the first few hundred Chinese characters without Pinyin or Zhuyin, I think adults would highly benefit with phonetic suppport because:
- Reading Pinyin/Zhuyin is easier than memorizing hundreds of characters.
- The phonetic system can help you read Chinese characters independently
- Pinyin/Zhuyin provide visual cues to improve pronunciation and the 4 tones of Mandarin
- Pinyin is necessary for typing in Chinese (eg, computer, smartphone, iPad) which can help you look up words in the dictionary
Read this: When Should My Child Learn Hanyu Pinyin?
Studying children’s board books and picture books
Since I am mainly interacting with my kids in Chinese, I found children’s books to be the most useful source of reading practice.
I started with these short Chinese board books and picture books.
Initially, I would study as often as a could. I studied at night, during lunch breaks at work, or sometimes next to my kids if they were playing independently.
Along with my daughter, I used Chinese leveled readers to memorize Chinese characters. These kids’ books were far more relevant than the “adult” textbooks that I had purchased initially.
Over time, I’ve gotten a lot lazier about studying. Thanks to technology, Luka Reading Robot can narrate Chinese picture books to me and my kids!
Our Youdao dictionary translation pen has also been a huge help for reading advanced picture books and chapter books with no Pinyin!
Chinese labels = visual reminders
Chinese labels have been an integral part of normalizing the language in our home. You can see more examples and tips about how we label items around our house here.
Learning how to write Chinese
This step is optional if you have limited time and resources to learn. However, if you have time, I do think it’s helpful to know the basic Chinese strokes, stroke order, and placement in the standard writing grid.
Chinese writing apps
- Train Chinese – As mentioned previously, this is a free dictionary app shows stroke order animation
- Skritter and Chinese Writer are other popular teaching apps. I have them on my phone but have not had time to use them.
Writing messages and stories for my kids
To practice improving my Chinese handwriting, I have been writing short messages to my children every week over the past few years. Occasionally, I have spent extra time to write short stories.
Although I cannot write many Chinese characters by memory, I can copy Chinese characters from the dictionary and write to my kids.
It’s time-consuming, but these personalized stories excite my children.
Here is a video of my daughter at age 3 years reading a story that I wrote about a zoo trip with minor grammar mistakes.
For those of you who are committed to the journey, we can commiserate and cheer each other on!
Take it one step at a time, and set reasonable, achievable goals.
Below is a real life, unflattering photo of me from a few years ago. NO time to shower, hair in greasy pony tail, wearing the same clothes as the prior day, Clearly, this is NOT a glamorous journey.
Now, my daughter knows when my pronunciation and tones are wrong, and she corrects and tells me that I need to study more. And it’s a great opportunity for me to model grace, patience, and optimism through constructive feedback.
On the other hand, you might not feel like this is for you. Just like anything else, learning Chinese is not for everybody. My husband can relate if it’s not your cup of tea! You are still an amazing parent.
Are you learning Chinese with your child?
How is your journey going? What have been the biggest obstacles? Do you have any favorite resources that you recommend? I’d love to learn more about your experience. Please feel free to share in the comments!
More tips about teaching Chinese to kids
- Raising Multilingual Children As a Non-Fluent Parent: 7 Lessons Learned
- Teach Your Child A Second Language at Home: 5 Key Steps
- How I Taught My Child 1000+ Chinese Characters as a Non-Fluent Speaker