When my half-Chinese daughter was 2, I decided that I wanted her to learn 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 Chinese teacher that I met was not comfortable with young children. Therefore, my daughter’s chance at learning Chinese depended on me.
Initially, I was overwhelmed by the idea that I could ever learn Chinese as a busy working parent with little free time to spare! I would need to invest time, money, and effort to learn Chinese in order to teach myself and my kids.
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Learning Chinese as a parent: First, the good news!
It is possible to learn Chinese as a busy parent AND teach your children!
In a period of about 2 years, I went from barely able to speak a full sentence to being able to carry most conversations with my daughter in Chinese. When my daughter was 3, we learned how to read Chinese together.
Most importantly, Chinese learning is a special bond between us. It’s our mommy-daughter “thing.”
This scenario may sound like a far-fetched fairy tale, but it’s the result of consistent, daily hard work on my part. It took me a year to get used to reading Pinyin and then another year to learn 600-700 simplified Chinese characters.
Learning Chinese as a parent: the reality
I’m still far from being fluent, and I am humbled by how much there is to learn.
This process is not for everybody, and you have to reflect on whether the commitment and investment is worth it for your family.
By devoting time to Chinese learning, this might mean less free time and money to spend on other hobbies.
For example, my husband works 80-90 hours per week and has no energy to learn another language 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 my situation in hopes that it can help your family!
My Chinese background
Although Chinese was technically my first language, I never learned it well. 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 since my husband does not speak Chinese. None of my Chinese relatives live in the US, and I only use English at work. Therefore, I forgot almost all knowledge of Chinese.
Interestingly, kids have a funny way of changing life goals and priorities, and I have been determined to re-learn Chinese for them.
The difference between learning Chinese as a parent vs. business traveler
It took me almost a year to figure how to learn Chinese as a busy parent. Most Chinese resources and advice are geared for tourists or businessmen and women but irrelevant for parents like me who work-at-home and rarely travel.
For example, beginner Chinese textbooks for adult learners typically teach how to ask which country someone is from!
Unfortunately, learning country names in Chinese is low priority for a parent who needs to communicate with their kids about using the potty and going to the playground!
In contrast to business or tourist learners, parents are mainly learning so that they can converse with their children. The approach is different because your child can be your study partner!!
Therefore, I’m sharing specific strategies to help parents like me who are:
- Highly motivated to learn for their kids
- Busy, working or stay-at-home parent
- Sole Chinese speaker in the family
- Not able to travel to China or Taiwan
- Neither fluent nor literate
- Have mountains of laundry and other chores to do
How To Learn Chinese as a Busy Parent
This is a very detailed list of 10+ strategies for learning Chinese. I have updated this post to break down strategies in the following categories: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.
Please note that what works for me might not work for you, but I hope at least these ideas give you many options to explore.
Do not attempt to do all of these at once! Rather, read through for an overview and prioritize speaking and listening opportunities whenever possible. Over time, gradually add the other steps when you are ready.
1. Learn Chinese from native Chinese speakers
The ideal situation is to hire an au pair, nanny, or regular babysitter so you can practice conversing about everyday situations at home. This is also time-efficient because you don’t have to drive anywhere, and you have someone to answer your language and cultural questions on the spot!
If you aren’t able to hire a caregiver, the next best step is to seek private tutoring. One-on-one instruction with a fluent Chinese speaker is much better than taking a class due to more opportunity for real dialogue and teaching at your pace.
I personally feel that group classes are suboptimal for language learning, because you should be surrounded by people who speak better Chinese than you. Classes tend to run at the rate of the slowest learner.
Private tutors can be local/in-person or online. Local is preferable so that you can see clearly how the tutor moves his or her mouth and uses body language.
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 if those are the focus, it can defeat the purpose of having a live instructor.
Initially, I tried a local instructor for a few months, but I was not able to meet her consistently with my busy work schedule.
Therefore, I signed up for Tutor Ming, a program with live, native-speaking instructors from China and Taiwan. You have the chance to learn from various tutors, but they will try to arrange you with a favorite tutor per request.
However, since appointments must be scheduled at least 12 hours in advance, I had trouble keeping up with regular lessons after my second child was born due to my unpredictable schedule. I still have about 100 unused lessons, and I hope to work this back into my schedule in the future.
2. Learn Chinese with readily available dictionaries
When I’m with my kids, I am constantly checking the dictionary for new words.
We have 2 Chinese picture dictionaries (reviewed here) with real photographs that help put new Chinese words into context. My kids even like to look at the photos with me!
On the go, dictionary apps are a Chinese learner’s best friend. Popular Chinese dictionary apps are as follows:
Pleco Chinese Dictionary
My favorite app is Pleco Chinese Dictionary, because the definition is accompanied by example phrases and sentences. Pleco is known for accurate translations, so I can trust the definition results. Another benefit is that stroke order animation can be viewed for many words! You can also bookmark words you’d like to review later and organize your bookmarks by category!
The more famous Google Translate app is convenient for translating long sentences and seeing characters enlarged. However, Google translate is often inaccurate and is not trustworthy for grammar and idioms.
Train Chinese Dictionary
I do not use the Train Chinese Dictionary and Flashcards since the other 2 serve my needs. But I wanted to mention that it has been a favorite of other friends who are learning Chinese.
3. Learn how to say the most common Chinese words
The most common words depends on the age of your children and typical daily routine. Parents of toddlers may find it most useful to first learn the Chinese translation for numbers, colors, shapes, body parts, and food. Those with school-aged children may want to learn how to discuss teachers, school buses, and classrooms in Chinese.
The Rhythm and Tones book (detailed review here) is one of my favorite resources. In addition to bilingual English/Chinese text, the book introduces Pinyin and the 4 Chinese tones. The music is also very catchy, and my daughter loves to sing and dance to the songs!
Listen and Learn First Chinese Words (available here) is also a fantastic, interactive book for beginners. The hardcover book is inexpensive and teaches 120 words with audio support.
I also used a Mandarin Chinese Reading Pen set because of the clean photographs and clear audio. The series primarily teaches common nouns organized by themes. Each book includes a few cute nursery rhymes.
Although this set is expensive, we have used it intermittently for 3 years, and the pen is still like new. The books are paperback and therefore should be handled with care.
(Update March 2019: This Chinese reading pen in the below video is no longer available. However, I highly recommend investing in the 乐乐 / 樂樂 Le Le Chinese Reading Pen Book Set instead. I am currently using Le Le Chinese series to learn traditional Chinese with my children, and we love it!)
4. Know that it’s okay to say just a few Chinese words
Even if you only know a few words, don’t be afraid to say them!! In order to use them, you actually have to say them! Otherwise, you will never get better. Here’s an example of how conversations with my daughter have changed over time.
3 years ago:
Me: Where is 你的shirt?
Daughter: 我的 shirt is in the closet.
2 years ago:
Daughter: 我的 shirt 在衣柜里.
1 year ago:
Me: 我的衬衫在哪里？(Wǒ de chènshān zài nǎlǐ? / Where is your shirt?)
Daughter: 我的衬衫在衣柜里 (Wǒ de chènshān zài yīguì lǐ / My shirt is in the closet).
During the first year, we made very slow progress because I was not used to thinking and speaking in Chinese. Since we don’t have regular interaction with a native Chinese speaker, our progress has been slow. It took us a year to transition from speaking random Chinese words here and there to speaking full Chinese sentences most of the time.
5. Learn to read Chinese with pinyin/zhuyin support
When I started to re-learn Chinese, I planned to focus on speaking and had no interest in reading. However, I’m so glad that my teacher had convinced me to at least learn pinyin so that I could read to my kids.
Although children can and should learn the first few hundred Chinese characters without the phonetic support of pinyin or zhuyin, I think adults would highly benefit with pinyin and zhuyin 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
6. Learn Chinese by studying children’s 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.
Sometimes I study next to my kids when they are playing or while we are eating. Of course, if they want to play or chat with me, then I am not studying because being present in the moment is most important. But if they are playing independently or eating slowly, I’ll try to work through a story book.
When I take my daughter out to a restaurant, she often eats slowly and likes to people-watch, so I try to use that time to take a few notes!
Obviously, pre-reading and studying is a humbling, intense process that I cannot keep with every day. But I try to learn at least a few new words and phrases each day.
When my kids see me trying to learn and read, they become curious and motivated by my example. Reading is important for bonding and opening doors to new adventures!
7. Listen to Chinese children’s media
We are constantly playing Chinese music at home and in the car, and the kids have fun singing and dancing! I have also learned how to sing Chinese songs, and I now always sing two Chinese songs at bedtime. The 2 CDs that I think are the best for beginners are:
- 咔哒故事 app is helpful for beginners, because the narrators speak slowly and clearly. Although I cannot read the Chinese text in the app, you can choose books based on pictures. Since we try to minimize screen time for health reasons, I turn my iPad or phone over so that the kids are focused on listening to the story.
- XimalayaFM is a Chinese radio station with hundreds of narrated Chinese stories. This program is also entirely in Chinese, but I only need to copy/paste book titles in the search bar to find the desired story.
- Look for Chinese books that come with audio CDs. This link has some of our favorite Chinese audiobooks.
- You can explore online Chinese children’s program from websites and apps listed here. These websites are geared toward children but may be effective for parents to learn everyday vocabulary.
Chinese videos can also be helpful for adults to pick up new vocabulary. Since I spend too much time looking at a computer all day for work, I try to avoid additional screentime.
However, educational YouTube channels may be helpful for those who are looking for more Chinese language exposure. In particular, my daughter and I enjoy the Chinese cooking shows 甜悦Tinrry and 曼食慢语 Amanda Taste.
8. Label your home and office with Chinese words
Chinese words in your home and work environment are important visual cues! I often write large Chinese words on Post-It notes and white address labels and tape them to various items our house.
You can see more examples and tips about how we label items around our house here.
9. Learn Chinese on social media
For extra Chinese learning, I follow these Instagram accounts that teach Chinese words and phrases. It’s an easy way to squeeze in a few extra new words each day! Many of these accounts are also on Facebook.
10. Learn how to write or copy Chinese characters
This step is optional if you have limited time and resources to learn. However, if you can, I recommend learning basic Chinese strokes, stroke order, and placement in the standard writing grid.
Although I cannot write many Chinese characters by memory, I can copy Chinese characters and write personal notes to my kids.
In addition, if I am unsure of a character’s definition and don’t know the pinyin, having basic writing knowledge gives me another way to look up Chinese words on a dictionary app, such as Pleco, Google Translate, and Written Chinese apps.
11. Make up Chinese stories for your children
Storytelling is a fun and effective way to apply new Chinese vocabulary into new sentences! This allows the focus to be on speaking and listening while taking the burden off of reading.
If you can learn to type or write Chinese, this can be a fun way for your kids to learn how to read new words.
Initially, I would write (eg, copy) short sentences for my daughter to read. Then I could write longer, more interesting passages.
Here is a video of my daughter at age 3 years reading a story that I wrote about a zoo trip.
12. Learn Chinese through practice, practice, practice!
Practice with your child and/or spouse. (Don’t worry if your spouse is not interested though; mine is too busy to learn a new language!).
As the sole Chinese-speaking parent, I am essentially practicing and teaching them 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.
Also try to FaceTime or Skype with any friend or family member that speaks Chinese! Practice texting as well.
Write a reminder to yourself so you don’t forget. My friend has “说中文 (Shuō zhōngwén / Speak Chinese)” taped on several walls in her house as shown in the photo below!
13. Learn Chinese by being brave: Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
It is a humbling process, but you’re also teaching your child that you are working hard at improving new skills every day. I still feel embarrassed to speak Chinese to other people but not my kids!
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 and appreciation for constructive feedback.
Take home points
Learning Chinese as a parent can be overwhelming, but you can learn with your kids. Try to set reasonable, achievable goals, and know that you are modeling hard work for your children.
If you read all of this and don’t feel like this is for you, don’t worry. Just like anything else, learning Chinese is not for everybody, and we have to pick our battles. My husband can relate to you if it’s not your cup of tea!
For those of you who are committed to the journey, I can commiserate with you and cheer you on!
Below is a real life, unflattering photo of me with no time to shower, hair in greasy pony tail, wearing the same clothes as yesterday, Clearly, this is NOT a glamorous journey.
However, my son is on my lap, curious about what mommy is reading! This is a unique opportunity to learn with my kids!
Video of my daughter at age 4.5 reading and discussing Shapes Chinese Books 形状万花筒 with me (April 2018)
What are your thoughts about fitting in Chinese learning as a parent? What do you think are the biggest obstacles? Do you have any favorite resources that you recommend? Please feel free to share in the comments!
For more advice on raising multilingual children, please read the following posts from CHALK Academy:
- Raising Multilingual Children As a Non-Fluent Parent: 7 Lessons Learned
- Teach Your Child A Second Language at Home: 5 Key Steps
- One Person, One Language: Our Family’s Trilingual Schedule with 2 Toddlers
- How I Taught My Child 1000+ Chinese Characters as a Non-Fluent Speaker
From around the web
- Raising Bilingual Children – Who Should Speak What? (Huffington Post)
- How To Create a Chinese Language Ecosystem (CE Bilingual)
- Realistic Expectations for Learning Chinese (Mandarin Mama)
Happy learning, friends!