Dots read my first post on how another parent teaches Chinese and pointed out that most questions regarding teaching Chinese can be categorized into (and I quote):
- My kids don’t go to immersion
- My Chinese is crap
- I don’t have the money for a library
I guess it worked out that my first post was category #1! And Fleur happened to fit into category #2!
Okay, technically Lavender’s spoken Mandarin Chinese isn’t that great either. But for her, her struggle was whether she can teach Chinese at after school instead of an immersion school. Similarly, it’s not completely true that Fleur‘s Chinese is crap. However, she faced the issue of providing the level of Chinese teaching she wanted for her kids when she didn’t have it herself.
Fleur is the complete opposite of Lavender when it comes to parenting style. For those who read the first post and thought, “Too intense and not me”, I hope reading Fleur’s story illustrates, once again, it’s not the methodology as much as it is the consistency.
Yes, choosing the most efficient methodology that suits one’s family does matter, especially with English competing for the children’s attention. But whatever method you choose, consistency puts you ahead.
1. What’s the family make up and background?
Fleur is an ABC with 3 girls, each 2.5 years apart: Bebe, Omi, and Gnome. Her parents spoke a mix of English/Chinese to her growing up. She watched Chinese soap operas with her parents in middle school and did not last more than a few weeks in Saturday Chinese school.
She learned the majority of her Chinese in college (1.5 years of classes) and almost got a minor out of it. Her husband speaks English only. But he has been very willing to use the few Chinese words he learned from Fleur when speaking to the girls, like eat, shower, etc.
Fleur says she has a kitchen Chinese level. She doesn’t know zhuyin and forgot a lot of the characters she learned in college. So she doesn’t really read to her kids. Yes. Past a certain level of books, Fleur does not read to her children!
2. What is the language environment and how did they teach Chinese?
Fleur once told me that there’s only one thing she is consistent about when it comes to parenting her kids, and that’s creating her CLE (Chinese Language Environment). Having lived with her for 3 months in Taiwan, I have to agree. She is definitely super laid back when it comes to most other things.
Since her oldest, Bebe, is the one reading, I will only profile her and her CLE at each stage.
Age 0-1: Worked from home with Bebe. Dad tried to speak as much Chinese as he can. She consistently spoke Chinese with Bebe, read simple English books that she translated to Chinese on the fly and constantly played Chinese nursery songs in the car.
Age 2: Sent Bebe to first 1 hour, then 2-3 hours per week of Chinese home-based preschool for about 1.5 years. In the preschool, Bebe learned Chinese songs, had stories read to her, learned characters including writing. She went to various 1 month sessions of English classes like Gymboree but never took long term English classes. At this time, Fleur also joined a Mandarin playgroup that met weekly for playdates for about 1.5 years.
After Omi was born, Fleur went back to work and Bebe’s English speaking grandma and an English speaking nanny cared for her for a year. The kids were not watching any media at this time. Fleur still read to Bebe daily in Chinese by translating English books. Dad would continue reading books at night in Chinglish, using Chinese words whenever he knew them.
Age 3: Bebe started preschool full day at a play-based 100% Mandarin immersion preschool 4 days a week and grandma watched her 1 day a week. It helped having Bebe in the immersion school since she wasn’t getting as much Chinese as previous years. They had a very long commute to school and Fleur would bring books to read to Bebe on the commute train.
Age 4: They started commuting to school daily so the children were listening to Chinese nursery music in the car 3-4 hours a day.
Age 5: Gnome was born. By this time, Fleur was often saying “Speak Chinese” to Bebe because she was speaking more Chinglish. The kids were speaking Chinglish to each other. So Fleur took the kids to Taiwan for 6 weeks where they attended a Chinese preschool. The kids were exposed to a lot of Chinese and English media for the first time. Omi‘s language exploded after the Taiwan trip and the kids started playing with each other in Chinese.
Bebe started at a 90/10 immersion kindergarten after the Taiwan trip. They switched back to commuting by train and Fleur started Sagebooks with Bebe during their commute. They finished the set in 6 months. Apparently going to that preschool where they learned to recognize character and write, even though she never reviewed after that 1.5 years, plus all those years of listening to audio CD, helped! Bebe zoomed through the first few sets.
For Sagebooks, Fleur wasn’t consistent. They covered as many characters as Bebe was willing daily, sometimes it was a few, sometimes none, sometimes whole book. Because of all that previous aural input, Bebe knew instinctively how to pronounce heteronyms like 長 without explicit teaching.
Age 6. Summer before first grade, Bebe took a zhuyin class for 6 weeks (18 sessions). She only learned up to some combos and wasn’t too clear on the tones. First grade was also 90/10 Chinese immersion. Fleur spent the year driving hours to local libraries borrowing books for Bebe to read.
Bebe basically learned the rest of zhuyin herself through reading.
They spent their commute time (2-3 hours daily) reading books out loud and listening to some audio books in the car for the first time. (It was all songs before then). The children started watching Chinese videos during commute as well. One thing notable was that because their dad had long hours, the children didn’t see him at night during the week. So there was not a lot of English at home.
Age 7: The children were pulled out of immersion school and homeschooled in Taiwan for 3 months. Fleur decided to homeschool because she could see that Bebe was going to lose any ground she gained by continuing at the immersion school. They continued to read and listen to audiobooks.
The turning point was both siblings being able to play in Chinese together at age 5 , and Bebe learning to read. That was when the Chinese really took off and now Bebe prefers Chinese to English.
Age 8: Bebe learned to read at 6.5 . By 7, she was reading Magic Treehouse. By 7.5 she could read Harry Potter book 1. By 8, she could read the Circuit from the Cross Century set, Chronicles of Narnia, Little House on the Prairie. At 8.5, she can read non-zhuyin stuff like the My First Science Manga without any problem. At this point her Chinese has far surpassed her mother’s.
The amazing thing is, Fleur is pretty hands off in the whole process other than providing the material since she herself can’t read much. Bebe has learned so much vocabulary just from reading and figured out component rules herself to guess character pronunciations.
They don’t supplement English at home other than dad reading to the kids in English when he has time. The children had English exposure from parents, grandma, and school. But not through extra curricular activities. Bebe learned to read through her immersion school and is reading at grade level in English.
Though she learned to write simplified characters at immersion school, Bebe hasn’t written composition much. This semester she took a Chinese composition class and dictated a composition for her mom to type out and her teacher is really impressed with her word usage and flow.
This is a lot of details. In summary, Fleur provided a consistent Chinese spoken and listening environment as much as possible with books, nursery songs, parent interaction, and no TV before Bebe was 5. She didn’t own many Chinese materials till way later.
3. What are the Chinese books/resources used?
Before her trip to Taiwan when Bebe was 6, Fleur had very little Chinese books. They used 3-4 nursery song books, a few board books, and a few picture books from AsianParent.com. She mostly translated English books and borrowed from local libraries.
In terms of reading progression at the beginning, she said she basically followed my blog and borrowed these books from various local libraries. (I Love Vicky, Little Bear, Frog and Toad, Arnold Lobel). Then it was whatever chapter books she could get a hold of.
From her world schooling trip to Taiwan last year, she brought back 300 books. Now Bebe reads to Omi and Gnome.
She has Kang Xuan, which the kids havn’t used yet, and Zhuyin Big Pocket.
4. What is the one advice you would give to others?
“Don’t over think it, just do it.”
“It’s never too late.”
“Don’t let your own limitations dictate your children’s potential.”
“My sucky Chinese never hindered me.”
Fleur is a woman of few words. But I know what she’s is trying to say here. I’m constantly wringing my hand wondering if I should teach Chinese this way or that way. Do I bother with teaching writing? Is it useful teaching science vocabulary? My kid is reading too late! Should I go to Taiwan for 3 months? Will it help?
Her answer is, just do it.
What I learned from Fleur
Or, why I like to use Fleur as an example when talking to other people who fret because their feel their Chinese isn’t good enough.
1. She didn’t do that much other than provide CLE consistently.
Consistency is the key. The kids did not watch TV, did not have tons of books to read, nor yearly summers in Taiwan.
Having met Hapalicious this summer, I’m ever more convinced that providing a consistent CLE (in a bilingual household) during the preschool years accomplishes 70%-80% of your work for you. I believe the Great Oliver says that this translates to 2/3 of your waking hours at least. So during those time, kids should be in a Chinese language environment.
2. They children had tons of audio input first.
Music is a very important way for children to learn a language, especially in the early years. For many kids, ages 2-3 is when their vocabulary start to explode and rather than spending time to teach a child to read, it may be more developmentally appropriate to provide aural input.
Thumper also listened to music non-stop in the first two years of her life. Sadly, by the time Astroboy came along, I was kind of tired of only listening to Chinese nursery songs, on endless repeat, so he didn’t get as much of it. A quick Google can tell you why music is important for language learning.
Once you learn phonics, it is the vocabulary and comprehension that hinders you. Depending on the child, rather than spending a lot of effort teaching kids to read in the early years, it may be more efficient to provide them with high comprehension.
Oh right, lastly, Fleur did not teach her kids to read with Sagebooks till past 5. If they have the comprehension, it looks like it is pretty fast to learn to read once you can get the child past at least the first 2 sets and then add zhuyin.
3. Making lifestyle choices that result in a CLE.
Some things are out of our control, but for those that can are, Fleur consistently chose activities that provided a CLE. For example, when the kids were young, she did not sign them up for English extracurricular classes. Even now, she will drive long distance just so the kids can have a Chinese art class. The children only listen to Chinese music and watch Chinese videos. They scheduled mostly Chinese playdates.
This is a hard choice for parents and everyone has their barometer of what’s important. Often Chinese is just part of a bunch of other things we would like our kids to learn. But as the Great Oliver has mentioned before, you may need to make choices that sacrifice other extra curricular activities in English if you want the CLE and the Chinese.
4. You don’t have to be the Chinese teacher
For Fleur, providing a CLE is actually easier than putting in the work to teach her kids Chinese herself. The most she’s done is really talking to her kids Chinese 100% of the time and “reading” picture books to them. She didn’t teach them to write or read. She outsources whatever she can to either school, Chinese tutor, or Bebe.
She drove to local libraries 1-2 hours away to borrow Chinese books for Bebe to read.
5. Reading 1+ hours a day in Chinese is important that first year of reading
My new revelation after talking to another parent whose child also finished Reading 123 this year. You have to provide an environment where the child has nothing to do but read read read for at least an hour, preferably 2+, a day. The child doesn’t need to be forced to read something they don’t want, just time to practice reading.
As I mentioned, after reading for about a year, Bebe was able to read Harry Potter. She has probably another year to actually want to pick it up herself to read. But she had no problem with reading without zhuyin. When I talked to her, I also noticed her vocabulary really expanding after that year of reading.
Even 2-3 months of long daily reading will have a huge impact. Sadly, I don’t do this. But I like to say this is why I homeschool, so I can slack often and lots and still get some things done.
6. Don’t sabotage the children’s Chinese learning by feeling inferior about your own Chinese ability.
Fleur contineues to offer Bebe level appropriate Chinese materials (mostly books) even though her own Chinese isn’t at that level.
How does she pick her books, you may ask. She just borrowed tons from libraries and lets Bebe pick whatever she wants to read. She is of course also in various FB groups to collect info on what she can do.
This may sound like “d’uh of course”, but as Thumper starts surpassing my Chinese level, I increasingly find it hard. I don’t tend to look into Chinese resources that I can’t comprehend myself. There’s a mental block there. How do you judge something to be worthy when you can’t understand it?
Thankfully there ARE tons of resources and support out there. Its a matter of finding a person you trust who has walked the road ahead of me and trying to be mindful so that my own uncomfortableness doesn’t sabotage my children’s Chinese learning.
In re-reading my first post, I see I’ve repeated the same points I listed on Lavender’s profile, just worded differently: provide a consistent CLE, you don’t need to have a lot of materials, it’s not too late, and reading for a year is the ticket to fluency.
Next I’m going to profile Emilia. Her son goes to an immersion school. He finished Reading 123 last year and made a huge leap in reading this past summer. Her journey to getting him to read was also different from the other two. Let’s see how many months it takes me to interview her!
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