Due to increased school work for my fifth grader, our main scheduled Chinese lessons are now reduced to Saturday or Sunday mornings, consisting of 45 minutes of reading aloud, 45 minutes of writing practice, and 45 minutes of karaoke singing.  My younger daughter has less homework as a third grader, so I give her Chinese lessons to work on weekday evenings IF she is done with school work.

However, to me, these short “formal” Chinese school work are only half of the story.  Since their Chinese are fairly good already and they grew up surrounded by Chinese environment, they are learning by osmosis also.  They listen to Chinese pop music (iPod shuffle, no screen to distract them), sing Chinese pop songs (and a few English ones) while riding in the car, watch Chinese soap opera and cartoons in Chinese on some mornings and evenings during the week and on weekends, and read Chinese comics and books (novels, story books) with and without zhuyin.  All these other things, they do it WILLINGLY and EAGERLY for FUN.  Not that Jay Chou’s Chinese pronunciation is good, but all these other things make Chineserelevant, which to me, is one of the most important and difficult aspect of such bilingual upbringing.

So, that’s why I think it is CRITICAL to get the children’s colloquial AND formal Chinese to decent level of fluency early on (by 7-8), before other things in their life take more priority, so that they will ENJOY these other aspects of Chinese.  Otherwise, parents like us are just fighting a loosing battle.

Many parents have children whose Chinese is not strong enough, thus speaking more and more English, shunting Chinese home work, or not interested in extracurricular reading of books in Chinese.  Since the rate of improvement in the Chinese of children of Chinese heritage almost always lags behind that of English, the situation is likely to get worse.  I suggest that the parents perform a jump start in their Chinese program, if their resource allows.  This would typically take the form of an extended immersion trip where the children gets formal instructions in Chinese and daily exposure to peers and people of various age group and background who speak Chinese to them.  The required length of these trips obviously depends on the level of the children’s Chinese.  For my children, I think 6 to 8 weeks a year is good enough.  For children whose Chinese is very rudimentary, it may take up to a couple of years.

I hope this helps.

Real time speech to speech English to Chinese translation

This is Microsoft’s English to Chinese speech to speech translation technology in 2012. Start at 7:30 min and listen for yourself.  You will be amazed.  In 10-20 years, technologies like this may make it more difficult to justify most “casual” Chinese (or most second language) learning. Unless the goal is to achieve near native level fluency, most language learners probably have better return on investment with their time learning other things.

On the transient effect of language immersion trips at young age

For several years, my daughters used to spend about 2 months with their grandparents in Taiwan twice a year, where they attended local preschool. So, they would have about four months’ gap in between their trip. One time, after about three months went by back in the US, my elder daughter, who was probably in kindergarten or first grade by then, started to slip in more and more English at home and we had to keep reminding her to speak Chinese only. I said to myself then, “yap, it is about time for them to go back.” The effect of the previous immersion trip started to wear off by then (~ 3 months), despite speaking Chinese only at home and taking Chinese lessons at home about 5 days a week.
As she grew older and her knowledge of Chinese solidified further with more lessons and exposure to Chinese pop music, cartoons, movies, jokes, comedies, comics, etc., the effect of subsequent immersion trips lasted longer and longer. These days, my elder daughter is the Chinese language “police” at home, reminding her younger sister to speak Chinese if she slips in English.


(From earlier blog)
These are a few issues we encountered.
1)  Peers.  We have had difficulty finding children of Chinese heritage for our daughters to speak to and play with in the US.  From my observation of children of Chinese heritage (CCH) from non-southern CA areas, their Chinese colloquial skill peak at around 4 to 7 years old. Afterwards, their Chinese are not fluent enough for them to express themselves well; so, they will switch to English. Also, in a group of such children with variable fluency in Chinese, English is their common language; so, the group switch to English as their language of choice, no matter what their parents ask them to do.  As my children are still in grade school, it is my hope that, in a few years, they will meet the many newly arrived immigrant children (fresh off the plane) from China who come to attend US high schools and will be able to speak more Chinese with them.  Until then, I will be content with them speaking Chinese with us, Chinese tutors (often young ladies in mid 20s), grandparents, and oversea in Taiwan.
2)  Time.  By about third grade, it got more difficult to keep up their Chinese lessons.  By this time, kids start to have more extracurricular activities, which are almost all held in English. So, despite our best effort, their exposure time to Chinese became less.  So, their Chinese language acquisition did slow down some at this stage.  Fortunately, by this stage, our daughters have achieved good grasp of Chinese already and can move along relatively smoothly in their learning.
3)  Price.  There is a “price” to pay for emphasizing Chinese to this extent.  Our daughters’ English language art lag behind their peers for a couple of years in elementary school but they have been catching up over time.  My two daughters have pretty much caught up by now.  You must have patience and faith in the process.
4)  Third language.  Do not bother with learning a third language seriously in elementary school.  As Chinese and English are from completely different linguistic families, it takes tremendous effort to learn these two languages well (or well enough).  We tried serious study of Spanish for a year to two, including hiring a Colombian live-in au pair, but had to put it off till later.  Most likely, your children won’t have enough exposure to a third language, after all the extracurricular activities.

5) Extracurricular reading.  This is probably THE major obstacle to learning Chinese for children of Chinese heritage (or anyone learning Chinese as second language really).  One probably needs to know 1,000 to 2,000 characters to recognize about 85-98% of the characters used in the real world.  The pace that typical CCH learns the characters in Chinese school is too slow, such that the children can not enjoy extracurricular reading by 10-12.  In that case, which occurs almost all the time in the US, English takes over.  We are able to overcome this only through biannual immersion and schooling trips to Taiwan and/or daily Chinese lessons (M-F) in the US early on, such that Charlotte, our elder daughter, can read junior novels comfortably without phonetics a few months before she turns 11.  That came as BIG relief for us and the family celebrated big time!  We expect Georgia, our bright younger daughter, to make that milestone by nine and a half, if not sooner.

6) Priority.  There is only 24 hour a day.  How each devote his/her time to acquiring new skills is different.  I would rather that my daughters have superior Chinese (for a CCH) than becoming a typical accomplished pianist (or whatever it is that they pursue) when they leave for college.

Decision and priority

(From earlier blog)

This is my third blog but I have yet to blog about how we have raised our children bilingual.  The reason is that there is something more fundamental than the particular ways we raised our children.  It is the decision we made and the priority we give to raise our children bilingual.

In the age of helicopter parents, tiger mothers, and over-scheduled childhood, it is not unusual for children to spend hours after hours every week on some academic or extracurricular activities, be it math, an instrument, a sport, art, etc.. In this increasingly competitive and globalized world, I think we, as parents, try to balance the utilitarian aspect of their upbringing and the joy of childhood and life.
When our daughters were born, we decided that we would try our very best to make Chinese one of their forte.  If they can learn Chinese to ~ 5-6th grade level, it can be a skill that they can use for decades to come and can benefit their own children as well.  Unless they have particular talent and inclination for another area and the two conflict in terms of resource utilization (time, money, man-power, etc.), we would devote more of our resources to their Chinese, especially since things like math can wait a little without affecting the long term path of the child. After all, I suspect most of us don’t use higher level math or make a living playing piano, violin, or basketball (Jeremy Lin did show particular inclination for basketball, at least that’s my understanding. He also went to Harvard… What a guy!).
So, I attribute our success in our Chinese program so far not just to the resources we fortunately have (like parents in Taiwan willing to care for them for a few months a year) but to our determination to make learning Chinese a major priority in their young life.


Here is one section of the first novel without zhuyin that Charlotte read at 10 and half.  I was ecstatic when she told me that she enjoyed reading a novel on her Kindle.  I put it in Kindle two years prior, hoping that she would one day be able to read it.  Our hard work over the past 10 years finally payed off!