Reading to write (compose)

It was truly a pleasant surprise, that 12 year old “Charlotte” can compose in Chinese relatively well (by typing) despite having NOT written any Chinese since around 9 years old, except for character practice mainly.  It had been my strategy that extensive reading of Chinese textbooks and novels would greatly help her with composition, but to see the process in action and the whole thing coming to fruition was just a joy.

One parent noted that the story that Charlotte had composed in the last couple of days reads like a translated novel.  Well, there is a good reason for that.  She read quite a few Chinese edition of American novels, including The Selection series, Ender’s Game, Twilight series, and Starters.  She also read aloud with the Chinese tutor a couple of the Chinese edition of Arsene Lupin’s novels, commonly known as 亞森羅蘋 in Taiwan.

I think reading aloud is quite helpful for language learners.  There are many excellent youth novels with zhuyin from Taiwan, such as 亞森羅蘋 series.  I don’t know if there are as many youth novels with simplified characters and pinyin from mainland China.  Books like these serve well as bridge readers and for read alouds.  Here is what亞森羅蘋’s novels look like:


In any case, I think it is time that she reads some more original Chinese novels.  She did read a couple of 倪匡‘s 衛斯理 series before.  One of my goal is for them to be able to read 金庸’s kung-fu novels proficiently.  I thought that it may still be a couple of years out.  But, out of curiosity, I showed her a copy of 金庸‘s 神雕俠侶, whose story she is familiar through watching the cartoon version.  She seems to get the gist of the story.  Maybe I will have her read it aloud with the tutor’s assistance.  Who knows, she may be ready for it!


Chinese-Spanish-English immersion

A fellow parent’s child rearing experience points out an interesting concept on raising children to be trilingual in Chinese, Spanish (or other category 1 language), and English.  This probably applies best to Chinese speaking household where English is not used much.

  1. Have the child attend Spanish-English immersion school starting kindergarten or earlier.  There is a good chance English will start to be introduced around 2-3rd grade.  Spanish is easier to learn even compared to English, and the child can read chapter books fairly early in early elementary school.
  2. Do lots of Chinese homeschooling with CLE (Chinese language ecosystem) at home as discussed before.  Get reading level up quickly as described before.
  3. Minimal or no English at home.  Since the child has not formally learned English at school and does not get to speak English at home, he only gets a little of English exposure and won’t be as comfortable playing with and interacting with non-school individuals in English.  The goal is for the child to prefer Chinese outside of school.  At school, it is mainly Spanish.
  4. When English is introduced and taught more and more at school, the child can learn English fairly readily, due to its similarity with Spanish and with all the English ecosystem outside of school and home.  After a few years of learning, the child’s English may get close to that of monolingual kids.
  5. The overall “scheme” is to for the child to learn an easier (but closely related to English) minority language at school and a difficult minority language at home.  Then, add English, the community / majority language, at ~ third grade.  Of course, time constraint will, as always, be the main factor in determining the proficiency of the various languages.  There is still no getting around needing to cut back on other commitments if the child is to have equivalent proficiency in English and Chinese compared to other children (matched for age and intelligence) learning just English and Chinese but not Spanish.  But, when the other children start putting time into learning Spanish (or other category 1 language such as French) in middle school or high school, things can even out, with better Spanish accent to boot.

Reading/writing, subject/language

In our bilingual journey, I made two observations that are likely different from the commonly used pedagogy for Chinese immersion schools.  The following assumes that the goal is IRL level 5 (native level) for English and IRL level 3 or greater for Chinese by end of high school.  I appreciate any feedback.

1.  Reading and writing.  Get reading proficiency high first, so that the child can enjoy entertaining readings in Chinese around the time he develops stronger and stronger English reading.   Enjoying CLE (Chinese language ecosystem) in greater depth does not require writing but requires decent reading proficiency.  Since all these reading practices takes time, which is often the most precious resource, I recommend not spending nearly as much time doing writing early on.  Also, the reading part of the CLE would be mostly narrative readings.  When the child can read youth and/or young adult novels proficiently hopefully by/in middle school, start doing more expository readings and then start doing more writing and typing.  Composition is the typical “highest order” skill, used to narrate, explain, or persuade.  I would be more than happy if my children can compose decently well in Chinese by typing instead of writing everything out.  But of course, they need to know how to write basic characters and how to write any characters presented with the correct stroke order.

Don’t get bogged down with trying to learn much reading and writing at the same time and then end up with only IRL level 1-2 on both end due to lack of time.  Get reading proficiency high to IRL level 3-4 as soon as possible and then come back to work on writing.  One’s writing proficiency is almost never as good as one’s reading proficiency; so, getting reading proficiency high first.  Then, the child will have a much higher chance of writing Chinese using the correct Chinese syntax and expression, rather than “Chinglish”.

However, if the community ecosystem has a strong Chinese language presence (not saying it is dominant) with decent CLE built in and the overarching schooling assessment takes bilingual education into account, such as in Singapore, then simultaneous emphasis on reading and writing can work well.

2.  Subject language learning.  These are the more “technical” vocabulary and expression in different subjects, mainly science and social studies.  The child’s Chinese proficiency almost always lags behind his English proficiency, particularly past third-fourth grade.  Not to mention that annual standardized testing and assessment are mostly done in English.  So, it makes sense to learn these subjects using the more proficient language – English.  It’s much faster too, as the child won’t be bogged down by inadequate Chinese proficiency.  After a year or two, come back to do some reading of these subjects, in Chinese.  This second part is to learn the terminology in Chinese but not the subject itself, since the child already knows the subject in English.  In this fashion, we separate subject learning from Chinese language learning and use the English language ecosystem to our advantage.

打字寫作: on typing and composition

Happy holidays!  We took a few days of my DD’s Christmas break to do some Chinese lessons.  To get ready for next summer’s lessons on composition, I took the opportunity to “teach” “Charlotte”, my 12 year old, how to type pinyin (like I know how~), by giving her print-outs and links to YouTube videos on the topic.  After spending a couple of hours on it between yesterday and today, she typed the following needing only some corrections (wrong choice of character with the same sound):





在她媽媽的葬禮,凱莉跟自己說,人要懂的放下。  她發誓,要成為一個堅強的人

轉眼間,十三年過去了。  凱莉二十歲了。



有一天,凱莉的爸爸問她,“凱莉,妳為什麼不去結婚?  我可以照顧我自己。”



I am so proud of my DD!  This is the first time she writes anything in Chinese, as in compose rather than practicing characters, in ~ 4 years, as I had mostly concentrated on improving their reading proficiency previously.  I think this comes from all the Chinese readings she has done.  I was counting on her relatively high reading proficiency and breadth of reading to show her what Chinese writing should sound and read like.   I am much encouraged by Charlotte’s first piece of writing at this point.

Of course, “Georgia”, who is 9 and wants to do everything her elder sister does, is now very motivated to learn how to type Chinese with pinyin herself!

Addendum:  Here is what she typed the following day in about an hour:

凱莉翻了一下白眼,對她爸爸說,“您一個人在麵包店裡做不了多少,需要幫忙。”凱莉的爸爸想了一下,又說,“可是妳結婚後還是可以回來幫我啊。”  從凱莉的爸爸坐下來的位子,就能聽到在廚房的凱莉嘆氣。

“嫁人有那麽慘嗎?  又不是說沒人要娶妳。” 她爸爸好奇的問。

“您不是說不會逼我結婚嗎?  怎麼現在突然要我嫁人啊?” 凱莉不耐煩的回答。

“我只是問一問而已。” 她爸爸自言自語的說,然後搧一搧手裡的紙扇。

突然,有兩位客人走進麵包店。  凱莉快速的上前招待。  幾分鐘後,凱莉拿著一封信走回店舖後。  凱莉的爸爸問,“誰寄的信?“

”好像是從皇宮寄來的。“凱莉說。  她的爸爸馬上起身而從凱莉的手裡搶走信封。

相聲 & other videos

As part of our CLE (Chinese language ecosystem), my girls watch quite a few entertaining YouTube videos, many of which have cultural references, either historical or current.

The following is a stand-up routine from Taiwan back in the late 1980s, with references to historical and cultural events in Taiwan and mainland China from ~ 1940s to 1980s.  My girls and I watched this a couple of years ago and we are re-watching it tonight.  It’s really funny.  They should learn something different every time they watch it.

Along with explanation, educational programs such as China: A Century of Revolution, and movies such as 末代皇帝 The Last Emperor and 霸王別姬 Farewell To My Concubine, I hope to give my daughters some idea of the events of those era, some of which were intimately tied to how they came to this world in the first place.


Below, I also list a few of the YouTube videos, movies, and TV series we had enjoyed over the past 5 years.  These really help them solidify their interest in the Chinese language.

Avalon of Idaho:


Jesus of Spain:




The PG version of You Are The Apple of My Eye (那些年,我們一起追的女孩).  The link below is a PG-13 version instead.


Secret (不能說的秘密)




神雕俠侶 cartoon!   The first kungfu cartoon series they watched about 5 years ago.  This is the first time I find it on YouTube!






Of course, I try not to miss out on American culture as well.  Here is one excellent series of the Civil War era featuring Patrick Swayze: North and South.  It gets agonizing to watch toward the end since more and more misery pile on.  My wife and I could not finish watching it a decade ago and neither can my elder daughter and I a year to two ago.


Singapore vs. PRC primary school Chinese reading level

I have just read a number of discussions on Singapore’s education system and the Chinese curriculum there.  Singapore manages to pack a lot of learning for their students and has a world class educational system, as far as standardized testing is concerned.  As best as I gather, Chinese is taught as a stand-alone class, at most one period a day during school, as the rest of the school instruction are conducted in English.

In any case, I looked up some reading samples from Singapore.  Here is Singapore website published by the Ministry of Education in Singapore.  Click on a 高級華語 textbooks for the first semester of sixth grade.  The passages look very reasonable to me, for 6 years of daily one-period instructions with established CLE in the country.  I think my 9 year old should be able to read these in traditional characters or very close to reading them proficiently.

I then looked up China’s textbooks for first semester of sixth grade.  Here is one link what I found : 6th grade textbook.

It appears, to me at least, that China’s Chinese reading level is higher than that of Singapore’s.  That’s not surprising given, I presume, almost all classes are conducted in Mandarin Chinese in China.

So, once again, more exposure / learning = higher level.  Simple as that.

On multilingual kids in Taiwan


It is very doable to be raised trilingual in Taiwan in Mandarin Chinese (community language), English (the lingua franca of the world), and another mother tongue of one of the parent, if one parent is a fluent Chinese/English speaker and another parent is fluent English/the other mother tongue speaker, and the parents communicate in English.  These kids are likely biracial.  My brother’s family is like that and may even know this young lady.  So, my nephews are trilingual in Mandarin Chinese (and reads 金庸 novels too), English, and Danish.  They homeschooled a couple of years also.  They likely know a number of families whose kids do something similar, including another Taiwanese-Polish family.

I suspect many of these kids have some international experiences, like growing up abroad till around 6 and/or spend summer breaks abroad in the country of the third language (other than English and Chinese).  It helps when there are many international expats living in Taiwan whose children are native English speakers.  It probably helps when the third mother tongue is held in high esteem by the community.  My suspicion is many of these kids enjoyed some type of alternative schooling at some point, rather than attend 12 yeas of regular compulsory education through the Ministry of Education.  There are established homeschool groups that kids can join.

Learning multiple languages while growing up is not difficult, as long as there is a ready community/resources that supports such development and measure proficiency according to multilingual standards.  Many populace around the world do this all the time.  What is difficult in the US for kids to learn English and a category V language is the lack of such ready community/resources, with English as still the lingua franca of the world and the amount of time needed to be develop higher level competency in the category V language early on.  The difficult task for US families is therefore to “artificially” create such community/resources, or the CLE (Chinese language ecosystem) that I talk about.  Obviously, if parents enroll the children in traditional schooling and want the children to “excel” in the various academic and nonacademic activities that other mostly monolingual kids participate in, that put further time constraint in the picture.

下ㄧ代 (Next generation )

An older adult immigrant parent once commented something along this line, “Why spend so much effort teaching the children Chinese?  Their children won’t be able to speak Chinese anyway.”  What she meant was that second generation heritage children mostly achieve low Chinese proficiency level; so, their own children (3rd generation) practically have little chance of learning much Chinese at all.  The “line” will be broken anyways.

Well, that was NOT my plan from the beginning.  我自己是第ㄧ代半.  I am a 1.5 generation immigrant, having emigrated at the age of 11, and my daughters are 2.5 generations.   I want something that is reproducible for the next generation.  I would say that my overall Chinese proficiency is about ILR level 4-4.5.  My listening should be close to 5, my general speaking 4.5, my reading 4-4.5, my writing (at least composition) – around 3.5 (I hope!).  I wanted my children to achieve level 3.5-4 in overall proficiency by the end high school.  If they continue to learn and read Chinese in college and their 20s, they should be able to improve further to solid 4-4.5 by the time they are parents.  When they raise their own children in Chinese and English, as they will be consolidating their foundation further.  My wife and I will even consider moving back to Taiwan for a period of time to hopefully care for our grandchildren (if any) for a few months a year for the first 6 years of their life, to help provide them a strong foundation in the Chinese language.  So, hopefully through similar path and with further technological advances, my grandchildren will be able to achieve 3.5 by the end of high school.

這樣,至少有可以承傳給她們的下ㄧ代。But that’s just me.

Characters recognition vs. reading proficiency

A parent’s question:  How many characters does one need to be able to read a children’s chapter book fluently?  An wuxia novel (e.g. Jin Yong)?  A newspaper?

My take on it:  There are characters, and then there are words/vocabularies and idioms, which are often combination of characters. On top of that is reading proficiency/fluency (with good comprehension of course), which takes practice, even if one recognizes all the characters and words.  In general, knowledge of 1,600 characters cover about 95% of the characters in regular mass media, at least for traditional characters, and that is generally considered the minimum to be considered “literate”.  Of course, one can know what certain characters/words mean when one reads them, but without knowing how to pronounce it. There are different levels of children’s books, chapter books included of course.  If I have to make a guesstimate, I would say it takes familiarity of somewhere around 600-1,000 characters to start reading chapter books, though reading proficiency / fluency takes practice over time.  A child who knows 1,000 characters and read a book at 500 characters a minutes with good comprehension has much higher overall proficiency than a child who recognizes 1,500 characters and reads the same book at 100 characters a minute.  Similarly, reading proficiently more advanced media such as Jin-Yong kungfu novels and newspaper written for regular adults (not abridged version for language learners) requires much more than character recognition.  There are words, phrases, idioms, background knowledge/concepts, and relevant cultural knowledge involved.  But, if you really want to have a number to work with, I would say knowledge of 2,000 characters is the minimum. In general, I think parents shouldn’t dwell on the number of characters the child knows but whether the child can read proficiently.  Reading proficiency is so much more than character recognition.


“Georgia” finished reading “Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe” today.  The Chinese edition consists of 17 chapters, totaling 193 pages with scattered drawings.  She spent ~15 minutes a day reading 2 chapters for most days of this past 9 days.  I have to say that she prefers reading just one chapter a day; but I asked that she reads two chapters a day.    One day, I did ask her to read three chapters but in two blocks;  that was too much for her really.

In any case, she gets the gist of the story but some of the details she missed.  For example, I asked her what happened between the witch and Aslan toward the end and she did not know that Aslan was killed but then was resurrected.  But then again, that may be asking a little too much of a 9 year old just starting to read such novels in Chinese.  I am sure that as her Chinese improves and she gets more mature over time, such details will become more evident.

In any case, she is now watching the movie version now, in English.  Gosh, I thought I bought the Chinese edition dubbed with Mandarin.  It turned out to be dubbed in Cantonese!  That won’t work for us.  Hence, they are watching it in English now.  She did watch this movie several years ago but she does not recall any of it since she was so young then.