Teaching Kids Chinese by Following Their Passions

“I hate Chinese!” my 5-year old daughter yelled at me, “I don’t understand it.” When she was younger (the cheery age of 2 or 3) she followed along with whatever Chinese lesson I concocted–not caring if she could pronounce the words perfectly or that she could understand everything. She was just happy I was focusing my attention on her. Now, at the tumultuous age of 5, she resisted things that required effort. With fire in her eyes, she reminded me of myself when I was younger and demanded that my parents, “stop speaking THAT language!” It was history repeating itself, and I was afraid my child would grow up like me–ignorant of a language and culture that was apart of her.

I am the little girl with her tongue sticking out. I was very resistant to learning Chinese.

One night, while staring at the ceiling and pondering existential questions (or something), I decided I would have to not teach her harder, but teach her smarter. I thought of how different of an experience it was to potty train my son than my daughter. My daughter needed a schedule, stickers, distant big rewards. When I tried the same program with my son, he failed completely. I ended up needing to potty train him using games and instant rewards. It worked better with his restless, on-the-go personality. So it was only when I catered to the child and his/her situation, I became an effective teacher.

I applied this idea to teaching my fiery 5-year old. When she was little, she loved cut-and-paste worksheets, so I found cut-and-paste worksheets in Chinese for to do. It worked then, but what about now? I took a good long look at her and her passions. I realized she was really into independence and every time she returned home from a book fair she bought Easy-reader books because she could disappear into her room and read them herself. Pretty soon, she had a good collection of 9” x 6” Easy-reader books–it was her pride and joy and she lined them up neatly on her bookshelf. I immediately got the idea to make a Chinese Easy-reader book for her, but I would model it after the many books she already loved: They would have several short stories in one book. The would contain stories that were very simple, or versions of classic tales she was already familiar with. They would have colorful illustrations and games/review exercises at the back of each story. But most of all, they would be simple enough that she could attempt to read them BY HERSELF!

And with that plan, I went ahead and created two Chinese Easy Reader books. Was it effective? That is the important question. Did her passion that manifested itself in English translate over to Chinese?

I have to relate the experience I had when I first showed her the final copy of the book. The covers were bright and glossy, the illustrations I had slaved over were more engaging in person, the new book smell flew out of the crisp pages. I placed it in her hand and encouraged her to repeat after me to read the first page. Suddenly her eyes glazed over and her lips tightened. “Come on,” I urged her, “say dà!” She turned and walked away.

I was stoney silent the rest of the night. I thought my daughter was being cruel, that if she wanted to drive a knife into her mother’s heart, there was no better way. I thought of giving up, never speaking Chinese to her again. But then I thought of myself as a young girl, how many times I had angrily refused to learn Chinese from my parents, but at one point I hit a turning point. I transformed from a recalcitrant girl to a regretful girl. If history repeats itself, so will her regret come one day.

I let it sit for a few days. We didn’t speak Chinese. I didn’t touch the new books I had made for her. We were at an uneasy truce.

Then one night, while we were choosing books to read before bed, I asked her, “can we read the book I made for you?” She nodded. So there we sat, daughter in mother’s lap, and I read to her a simple story in Chinese. I asked her to repeat a few characters, and she did. Then we played the review game together–which she did with more gusto. Then we put it away, and read something else.

It was a small victory that meant so much to me. Instead of being more authoritative in my Chinese teaching, it became more natural when it was eased into our nightly routine. I tried the same thing the next night and the next night with similar success. She became more and more willing to read with me because she knew what to expect (just a short 5-minute moment in Chinese). Could she read a complete story by herself? Not yet, but I could feel her confidence growing when she tried to read a few characters by herself.

Now, everyone’s relationship with their kids are different. Some have kids that readily take up a second language. Maybe mine inherited my stubbornness. However, I think the principle in teaching your child Chinese can be the same. You need to make it fun for them and the only way to do that is to follow their passions. Do what they like and do it in Chinese. That way, when they get to that turning point where they actively want to learn Chinese by themselves, they will have fond memories of learning it with their parents.

Happy Learning!

Love, Enge

My daughter is in the middle, five and full of fire. But I love her.

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