How and why our kids are learning Chinese

How and why our kids are learning Chinese

“Are you teaching your kids Chinese?” and “how are you teaching your kids Chinese?” are two questions we get a lot from Chinese American parents. One question I wish more parents asked us is “why?”

When I was picking a major course of study in college, I consistently gravitated towards East Asian Languages and Culture (EALC) with a focus on Chinese for two reasons that I suspect are similar for our friends with a similar background. Those reasons were:

  1. Cultural proximity
  2. Economic anxiety

Cultural proximity

China is not a monolithic culture. There are 54-odd minorities recognized by the Chinese government and no doubt there are countless more regional dialects.

The variations between dialects of Chinese can be greater than the variation between European languages. For instance, the lexical similarity of Italian and French is 0.89 (out of 1.00 being the same language). Technically, that makes them dialects of each other since the lexical similarity is greater than 0.85 [Wikipedia]. The lexical similarity between Mandarin and Cantonese Chinese is less well-studied, however some claim it to be less than 0.5 [source]. Informally, it seems to be true – discounting written language, they’re largely mutually unintelligible.

All this to say, when I went to college, I didn’t have the opportunity to learn either of my heritage languages – Cantonese or Taishanese (Toisan). I got to pick Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. So I tried to pick all of them.

(I did, but I ended up sticking mostly to Chinese.)

Mandarin Chinese was the closest in lexical and cultural similarity, and little did I know that both of my grandmothers spoke it (albeit with an accent that I can’t hear, anyway).

Economic anxiety

This one was much more vague, though I suspect it’s a much more widely shared reason for learning Chinese than cultural proximity.

In the USA, we hear about China as a vague, foreboding kingdom where freedom-hating serfs bitterly manufacture our mass-market goods while plotting to overthrow our global peacekeeping efforts and supplant themselves as the number one world superpower. So the only way to defeat China is to…make a lot of money off of China?

The kind of discourse one hears about China in America is unhinged, frankly speaking, but it pervades almost every American’s perspective of Chinese language and culture, including Asian and Chinese Americans.

So when I was in college, my naive assumption was that learning Chinese would help alleviate economic anxiety. It’s hard to write about this because I didn’t have a clear idea of what that meant. Similar to how we were told in middle school to learn Spanish to be able to keep up with the business world, I didn’t know what it meant for my career to learn Chinese.

I hoped that it would mean that either I would have different job opportunities or higher paid job opportunities.

Different job opportunities

As I neared graduation, I started to think about what I could do with my degree in EALC. Taking cues from my seniors, they got into:

  • Horseback riding
  • Pharmaceutical liaison
  • Restaurateur
  • Grad school

…so in short, I learned absolutely nothing. I suspected that the ideal job for an EALC major was to become a translator, ideally for something like the United Nations.

Little did I know:

This is backed up by my wife’s experiences as a medical translator. Cici had a very specialized part time job that required both a doctorate level education in a medical field and high-level understanding of Chinese. There was still no way to make a living doing it.

📝 Cici's note: Medical translation was paid per word, and the more you translated or reviewed per unit time, the more money you made. The rate for this job was $50 USD per 1,000 source characters (when translating Chinese to English). I had to negotiate to get that rate. It took roughly 1 hour per 1000 words, and that's with looking up similar publications to get a feel for phrasing instead of doing word-for-word translations. Note that this is a freelancing job - these numbers are all before taxes and health insurance. The good part is you get to choose your hours.

Theoretically I could find a job in China, but I would have a significant language disadvantage compared to other job seekers. Furthermore, the kinds of jobs you can find in China aren’t necessarily more economically secure than the ones a college graduate could find in America.

The competitive landscape is also very different for English speakers now than it was 20 years ago. Many more people around the globe are now fluent in English. More people are learning Chinese in countries with closer cultural proximity, as well.

Speaking of which, it’s not just linguistic competency, but cultural competency that leads to success. Being able to hold a conversation, being able to adapt to the work style – which is generally more top-down, directive based than American work culture. These are easier when your at-home culture is closer to the target culture in question. Needless to say, teaching your child a culture that’s foreign to you is hard.

Higher paid opportunities

So that leads to an even more vague value proposition, which is the possibility that your maximum earning potential goes up when you learn Chinese. It may be true under very specific circumstances, but I would argue that it’s unlikely to affect your wage ceiling. Let’s talk about the exceptional cases I can see where this might be true:

Entrepreneurship

Being able to communicate in Chinese opens up a large potential market for any products or services that you can offer. It also allows you to theoretically tap the Chinese manufacturing and supply chain. So theoretically if you target the Chinese market or if you learn how to manufacture, it would help you a lot.

The downside is that it’s not necessary. If you’re running a business, you have more important problems to deal than learning Chinese. If you already know supply chain management and manufacturing, learning Chinese could be a helpful skill if you achieve a high enough level of fluency, which, frankly, is unlikely given the amount of time you’d have to invest versus the reward.

Media

You can make it big in the Chinese entertainment business if you know Chinese very well – and you happen to be non-Asian. Non-Asians and mixed Asians are very disproportionately represented in Chinese media as show hosts or guests. The famous comedian 大山 is representative of this kind of trend. Even our random white friends living in China have gotten calls to be on news stations for no discernible reason.

Unfortunately, this is largely inaccessible to the majority of my friends, who are Asian. As Asian Americans, we are largely invisible (or ugly 🤣) to mainland Chinese people. When we are visible, we are seen as defective if we don’t speak Chinese. Non-Asians, however, are regularly applauded for speaking even basic Chinese, which creates a positive feedback loop for continuing to learn.

In China, non-Asians are exotic and interesting and they represent The West, which China has a complicated relationship with as an ascending super power. Asians are just meh.

Why learn Chinese?

Learning Chinese is hard and not necessarily financially rewarding. As parents, we have to question whether the time investment is worth it when the kids are so young, especially with the amount of money that can be poured into it with learning materials, tutors, and immersion schools. And we’ve seen friends do well learning Chinese starting in high school. So why teach kids, especially young kids, Chinese?

Our kids are learning Chinese anyway. Ultimately, it’s because the reasons are not financial. And, as you’ll see, we think those are the best motivators for the kids, anyway.

We struggle with how to teach our kids Chinese because I grew up without a good understanding of my grandparents, and because my wife’s parents have a tenuous grasp of English themselves. And Cici’s childhood in China gave her an appreciation of the culture that she wants to share with us. It comes down to our cultural connections.

Our kids watch a lot of Chinese shows, a few of them being shows that Cici watched as a kid, but also a few new ones. Ironically, cultural connection to China means quite the opposite of being productive in a capitalist culture. The fact that our kids can appreciate Chinese shows means that they can appreciate shows, media, and the arts from an entirely different country. During the pandemic, we have all discovered the importance of turning to the arts to keep our spirits up. They have a lot more opportunities to do so, being able to watch Chinese or English shows.

It’s just, like, fun, man.

Secondly, when I went to college, my aim with learning Chinese was to be able to communicate with my grandparents better. Sadly, Cantonese isn’t offered at very many colleges (I think it’s just Yale), and my grandparents spoke an even more obscure dialect of Chinese called Toisan (台山话 / Taishan). So due to cultural proximity, Mandarin Chinese was the closest I could get to studying my family’s language in college. I took it and thankfully my grandmothers both speak Mandarin to some degree, so it has helped.

But it was still over twenty years before I could make myself understood to them using sentences more complex than “I like <noun>.” Those twenty years weigh on me. My 奶奶 (paternal grandmother) has passed away, and I’m glad we were able to visit her consistently after the birth of our son, but I want – and cannot have – more time.

I don’t want that for my kids.

While my parents speak Cantonese and Toisan, they speak English by preference now. But Cici’s parents are still much more comfortable in Mandarin Chinese. I’m not worried about our kids learning English – they will pick it up. But we are worried that they won’t be able to connect with their maternal grandparents linguistically or culturally.

And so we make sure to expose them to a good deal of Chinese when we can, even though we speak to each other in English. We put in a consistent amount of moderate effort to do these things.

How we’re teaching the kids Chinese

Cici has seen it from the lens of learning English as a foreign language as a child, and I’ve come at it from the other end, learning Chinese as a foreign language as an adult, and we’ve converged on the same set of principles. We feel that the key to success is to cultivate the kids’ personal reasons for learning Chinese.

We both agree that workbooks, passive learning, and other explicit language learning activities are very poor motivators, poor motivation leads to poor engagement, and poor engagement leads to poor retention.

Cici remembers her mom turning on the AM radio on long trips in the USA for “passive learning” and my wife would just zone out. When she was bored enough, she would tune in, but wouldn’t really catch anything. She has done the workbooks and the exercises and the memorization, but nothing of consequence stuck before moving to the US.

Even as recently as just a few years ago, I was writing and rewriting characters to memorize them and I can confidently say I recall almost none of the pages of characters I wrote. In college, I learned thrilling words like “bill of lading” in Chinese, which I would say I forgot but in truth never truly managed to learn. And we both have friends who recounted ruefully that they spent plenty of weekends in Chinese school only to forget it as soon as they stopped, or worse, grew to hate it.

But what did work for Cici as a tween was learning lyrics of the songs her friends were into. I still remember Chinese lyrics of songs I learned 15 years ago, and learning songs in English or Chinese is something we still connect on today.

The key idea for us was to focus on the content, not the language learning itself. The learning would come if the content was engaging. And so we did our best to craft a miniature digital Chinese immersion environment through media exposure including apps, everyday communication, and a restricted English media diet. Importantly, though their options are limited, they choose what they want to do.

Learn Chinese myself

First of all, as the parent least comfortable in Chinese, it’s my responsibility to try to continue to learn and push myself to learn Chinese. In day to day interactions, I try to use mostly Chinese with our children unless I really just don’t know how to say something. And if it bothers me enough, it’s a sign that I need to learn the word for it.

This is hard with a busy schedule. Theoretically I should keep flash cards for words I should or am currently learning, but that’s a little too much overhead for me right now, so I just try to learn with my kids.

I think if I had married a partner who spoke a different, non-heritage (for me) language, I would likely try to do the same.

Accept that code-switching is a part of life

Code switching, or switching between languages, is a perfectly natural part of life, even for native Chinese speakers. Accepting that we’ll be mixing Chinese and English makes it easier to work vocabulary into your current patterns of speech. Accepting that your children will code switch makes it easier to accept that some days they’ll feel like speaking English, and some days they’ll feel like speaking Chinese.

Importantly, code switching should not be seen as a deficiency by default. If your kids code switch with each other, they might be reinforcing each others’ vocabulary in a mix of languages. And in countries like Malaysia, code switching is part of living in a multilingual country. Cici’s Malaysian friend can code switch between Malay, English, and Chinese in the same sentence. It’s not because she can’t think of the words in each language, she’s simply using the words that are the closest proximity to the idea she’s trying to express.

I will also sometimes code switch on purpose because I know that I can connect the ideas of one language that aren’t particularly strong in another. As a contrived example, we use the word 洗澡 or bathe/shower all the time. So if my son points at a car wash and asks “what is that?” I can say it’s a 车洗澡的地方 or “a place for cars to bathe.” Or when I can easily explain something in English, I start with an explanation or a word in Chinese to let him struggle with the meaning before explaining it in English.

That said, I do think patterns of code switching and the inability to think of words in a language are actual weaknesses. We also need to encourage them to speak Chinese, ultimately. It’s the speaking of the language that really cements it for the long run. I know this as a child who used to speak Cantonese a lot better than I do now. Once I stopped speaking it, I began to lose the ability to even speak the phonemes correctly, which made me even more self-conscious and less likely to learn.

Restrict English media

English media is a pervasive fact of life in America, and we try not to have anything to do with it. They will never lack for English media, and the latest and greatest cartoons and animations will be in English, so we do not allow unfettered access to English media.

That means no YouTube, time limits on English media apps like WTTW, and supervised access for shows on Disney+, which we watch in the Taiwanese Mandarin localization whenever possible.

In America, access to English media will never be a limitation. It can easily become an addiction, though, and for a kid, the language of entertainment quickly becomes the language of preference.

Encourage Chinese media

That said, there are a lot of Chinese shows on YouTube that we would like for the kids to be able to access, and for that, I use yt-dlp to download entire playlists at a time. Then for access, I run a Jellyfin instance on my iMac to serve the videos over our router. Yes, being a programmer helps a lot, especially since setting up Jellyfin to be actually usable took a lot of tweaking.

Here are some shows on YouTube that we self-host:

  • 宝宝巴士 – Baby Bus: shows, lullabies, and nursery rhymes good for babies and up
  • 巧虎 – Qiaohu: lots of Asian-style life lessons. Qiaohu was teaching kids to wear masks 3 years before the Covid-19 pandemic
  • 海底小纵队 – Octonauts: a show about saving animals in the ocean that our kids loved
  • 小猪佩奇 – Peppa Pig: not the parents’ favorite show because the characters can be kind of obnoxious, but the kids like it

Additionally for older kids, our 8yo has enjoyed:

  • 叶罗丽 – Yeluoli, a show about magical dolls and fighting evil
  • 小花仙 – Xiaohuaxian, a story about a girl with a magic bracelet
  • 绿野仙踪 – The Wizard of Oz: a favorite of Cici’s from her childhood. It’s an anime remix of the Wizard of Oz that was originally in Japanese, but she watched it as a kid in China
  • 还珠格格 – A period drama about a fake princess
  • 白蛇 – An animated movie about a demon snake and the snake catcher who finds her – EDIT – I forgot this one’s not a kids’ show. There is definitely a sex scene. That said, it’s pretty subtle and it went over our kids’ heads.

You can filter your YouTube search results for playlists. When you give yt-dlp the URL of a playlist, it will download the entire thing.

There are also a few shows / movies that the kids enjoy on Disney+ in the Taiwanese Mandarin localization:

  • The Lion Guard – a show about one of Simba’s sons. Almost the entire show has been localized in Taiwanese Mandarin.
  • Bluey – a show about an Australian dog family. About a third or a fourth of this show has been localized.

Finally, we used to let the kids watch YouKu as much as they want, but unfortunately there are stupid slapstick humor shows on that as well that our son loves and learns bad habits from. It’s still more regulated than YouTube though, so we feel safer letting them have unsupervised access than we do with YouTube.

📖 Story time: When our eldest was maybe 3 or 4, we would tell Cici’s parents not to let her watch YouTube without them. Time and time again, we would come back to find her watching YouTube on her own. One time – one of the last times – I came downstairs to find her watching YouTube on the television. The video in question involved a giant cartoon baby face that stretched across the length of the TV. The corners of its mouth were held open by raven claws reaching in from the corners of the screen. The baby looked like it was in pain and occasionally shed a tear. At the bottom of the screen, a conveyor belt brought random objects to the baby’s mouth which were force-fed to the baby. It was like something out of a feverish nightmare. So, and pardon my French, fuck YouTube’s algorithm.

Exposure via family

We have Cici’s mom stay over roughly 4 days out of the week because it would be impossible for us both to work without a third adult to help keep the kids safe, and it helps us expose the kids to Chinese through relatives. We’re not always the best at speaking to the kids in Chinese, but Cici’s mom is significantly more comfortable speaking Chinese than English, so Chinese remains her default mode of communication. It helps a lot, but she doesn’t consistently push them to use Chinese, which is something we’re working on. Cici’s dad is also a comedic figure and likes Chinese word play.

Adorably, when our children see my maternal grandma, they can communicate with her, too. ❤️

Apps

We have a few different learning apps installed, and they are some of the few that don’t have time limits on them, so when they go on long screen time binges, which is unfortunately too often, they end up doing more Chinese apps. One of the most effective is iHuman’s 洪恩识字 app. Our son also has a favorite that I’ll update this article with when I can find it.

EDIT – found them:

  • iHuman 洪恩识字
  • 2Kids 识字
  • 2Kids Chinese
  • 2Kids 学拼音
  • 2Kids 数学天天练

Ideally, try to let the kids use the app in Chinese mode, not English mode for full immersion. That means for Chinese illiterate parents, the UI will be inscrutable. But breaking the immersion is costly. On a meta level, it’s not just engagement with the content that’s important in this case, but engagement with navigating the content, which helps them navigate content anywhere. Avery has mentioned that she knows characters because she knows what buttons labeled with those characters do. Also a lot of Chinese apps ironically emphasize learning English, which is very annoying.

Neglect handwriting

We have almost no emphasis on having the kids learn handwriting beyond possibly writing their names. When we teach the kids characters, we let them use pinyin keyboards to write in Chinese. Otherwise this would all take much, much more effort for less reward.

That said, the apps they use do have handwriting sections, and if they enjoy it, well, good for them!

Different strokes

When our eldest daughter was around 4 years old, she was going to daycare with English-speaking caretakers and gushing over PJ Mask with her friends. I became alarmed when she started responding to her grandparents’ Chinese inquiries in English. Part of it no doubt was her interest in hearing their accents in English, but a large part was that she was just becoming more comfortable speaking English than Chinese, even in Chinese language contexts.

I had lived thirty-plus years of that, and I found the possibility of that outcome intolerable.

Now, our oldest daughter’s Chinese is decidedly better than mine in every dimension. She’s basically literate and able to pick up new characters much more quickly due to her verbal fluency and familiarity with ~1.5k characters.

We have been homeschooling our children since the start of the pandemic and are planning on continuing to do so until all of our children can get the Covid-19 vaccine. That means we set the school curriculum, which includes an hour of Chinese using 洪恩识字 each school day, in which Cici emphasizes sentence composition. We incentivize by letting her watch YouKu or Jellyfin afterwards.

Her Chinese has really blossomed under these circumstances, and she’s eager to read every Chinese character she can find, and she enjoys messaging her 阿婆 (maternal grandma) in Chinese.

But I don’t think the method of instruction would work with every kid. Our 3 year old son, for instance, would probably hate sitting down to study at any age and I doubt there will ever be an cajoling, incentivizing, or punishment that would get him to do it.

Right now, our son is exploring Chinese through the apps that we have and we appreciate that he likes to play on the Chinese learning apps about as much as the English ones.

Ultimately, language learning for the kids has to be something that they enjoy.

One response to “How and why our kids are learning Chinese”

  1. As a half-Chinese person living in Malaysia, I’m what you’d call a banana, since I can’t read it. But I’ve been self-learning and I’ve also come to the same conclusion that focusing on writing early on would only be a hindrance. In fact, using pinyin at first works much better in drilling the characters into my head.

    I’ve also had the privilege to code-switch my entire life, and it’s definitely an advantage. Thinking in multiple languages just gives that extra bit of latency to understanding everyday things. Interesting post, Brian. Thanks for sharing!

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