Ideal social group for Chinese learning

As you all know, it is extremely difficult to find for your grade school child other playmates who speak Chinese fluently.  If you are so fortunate to find one, the Chinese speaking between the two of them is highly unlikely to last long.  I came up with a couple of good reasons for this.

  1.  If the child is a new child immigrant, the parents are most interested in having the child get their English up to speed ASAP.
  2. Children in this age group have not developed the full spectrum of Chinese (or English) language proficiency to describe and verbalize their developing and evolving emotional and social life.  They will learn much of their new and evolving colloquial expressions in English, from their peers and schooling.  Unless there is a mechanism through which these children learn the equivalent expressions in Chinese and have a chance to become proficient at using them, children will shift gradually (and often rapidly) from Chinese to English.
  3. Chinese immersion schools likely have very few older native Chinese students enroll as new students in the school, if at all.  Older native speaker students can play a role in passing on their Chinese colloquial skill to their peers and younger students, creating an “institutional colloquial knowledge”.  Since Chinese immersion schools start from scratch with their first class in kindergarten or first grade, there are no upper-class students who can demonstrate to younger students how to play and socialize in “proper” Chinese.   So, it’s more akin to the blind leading the blind, limiting the use of Chinese to the academic sphere, at best.
  4. Even among the very rare families who are super gunho in teaching their children Chinese at home, like my family, different families have different Chinese usage pattern based on their interest, schedule, and proficiency.  These families are unlikely to be “slackers” in other areas also, and the children likely participate in many different extracurricular activities, in English.  With limited time and different usage pattern, the range of proficient Chinese language acquired by the children in each family is a smaller subset of what the adults have.  With these limitations, the Chinese colloquial language acquired by the children are “incomplete” and not readily “sharable” among children of different families.  Therefore, the children simply and quickly resort to their community language – English, and everyone then understand each other just fine.

Therefore, the “ideal” social group for Chinese learning may have some of the following features:

  1. Children are of different age groups with the older teen children being native or fluent speakers.
  2. Many parents of these families are first-generation adult-immigrants and many keep close ties with their motherland.
  3. These families share a close-knit community with Chinese as their spoken language and have frequent gatherings, allowing the children to play and interact with each other often in Chinese.

These features allow the younger children to develop a near native level colloquial proficiency, upon which reading proficiency can be acquired much more readily with consistent instruction.  I believe these are the main reason why a number of young immigrant friends of mine in the Caribbean were able to develop > ILR level 4 speaking proficiency and > ILR level 3 reading proficiency.

Finally, in some instances, children of select immigrant families need to help out in the family business, such as a Chinese restaurant, and Chinese is used constantly in the process.  I can see that the children grow up to be proficient in colloquial Chinese.  But that’s not exactly a social group that other children can join.

What do you think?


Revised 2-2019

Talk shows

Watching talk shows is an excellent way for both non-native level parents and late teens to learn how the Chinese language is used in every day conversation.  Like any English talk shows, these shows are just constant back-and-forth conversations with various levels of intricacies and nuances that are hard to match in terms of their breadth and efficiency.

Here is one of the last episodes (1/11-12/16) of the famed Taiwanese talk show 康熙來了 (Kangsi Coming), featuring as a guest famed Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, who played Blink in X-Men: Days of Future Past.


Here is an interesting one from the same talk show:

Another one that I find interesting is 奇葩說 (You Can You BB), which touts itself as the first Chinese internet talk show, now in its second season.  The show invites one popular Chinese female celebrity to chat with three male commentators on trending topics and organizes debates around a current issue in Chinese society.  The language used is slightly crude and the views expressed are quirky.  This show seems to be more appropriate for those with fairly high level Chinese proficiency.  Check it out and see for yourself.

奇葩說 (You Can You BB)

66% for CLE vs. 20% for ELE

In one prior post, I noted that it takes about 2/3 of the waking hours for CLE (Chinese Language Ecosystem) exposure for the children to achieve a minimum of ILR level 3 speaking proficiency between the age of 3-8, as compared to ~ 10-20% English Language Ecosystem (ELE) exposure to achieve the same level in English.

Now, why is that?  Does anyone really think that colloquial Chinese is intrinsically more difficult to learn as a native speaker in Chinese speaking country, as compared to English in English speaking country?  Do average 6 year old children in China have worse command of colloquial Chinese when compared to the command of colloquial English of average 6 year old children in the US?

To my untrained mind, the answer is a NO.  They are more likely than not equivalent.

I postulate that the reason for much higher required exposure time for CLE is that the QUALITY of CLE is not as good as the quality of ELE that typical children get in English speaking country.  So, to compensate for such deficiencies, more exposure TIME to CLE is required.  I think we all know this to be true.  I will try to list the difference in the quality of CLE and ELE.

Features of typical ELE that 3-8 year olds are exposed to are:

  1. High level interactivity.  Children typically and frequently play with peers who are mostly fluent in English.
  2. Variety of teaching method:  Children in different school or extracurricular classes or activities are exposed to different instructional styles, such as lecture-authority, demonstrator-coach, facilitator-activity, delegator-group, etc.
  3. “Native” or “faster” pace of advancement in language and subject instruction and usage.
  4. Wide breadth of language exposure in a variety of topics and subject matters in school.


Features of typical CLE that 3-8 year olds are exposed to are:

  1.  Lower level interactivity.  Children have few peers to play with who are fluent in Chinese and such play are harder to come by as well.
  2. Limited teaching style: Children in typical CLE are exposed to classes or activities with less variety of instructional methods.
  3. “Non-native” or “slower” pace of advancement in language and subject instruction and usage.  This limits the depth and breadth of children’s Chinese.
  4. More narrow breath of language exposure with a more limited range of topics and subject mattes.  At home, conversations often centers on activities of daily living and schooling.  Parents, often the main source of Chinese language exposure, may not have established a habit of extended conversation with the children in a variety of subject and topics.  The children also spend a big chunk of time doing things that do not require active use of the Chinese language.


With such major differences in the QUALITY of the two language ecosystem, it is not a surprise that more TIME in the CLE is needed to achieve equivalent proficiency.

Therefore, parents with hopes of higher Chinese proficiency level for their children would do better by IMPROVING not just the percentage of CLE exposure but also the QUALITY of such exposure.  INTERACTIVITY, BREADTH, and PACE of exposure are so very important.

To this end, I spend much time talking to my daughters on a variety of subjects and topics.  I would say that one important thing that I talk about with my daughters is their friends, friendships (school drama….I mean girl drama), and their personal struggle as they grow in maturity over time.


What’s your opinion on this topic?

Scaffolding Reading Experience for Chinese-English bilingual children

My 12 year old “Charlotte” at times refers herself as my 白老鼠 “white mouse”  or  guinea pig in my quest to raise them to be bilingual and biliterate in Chinese and English in the US.  I don’t blame her for saying so.  There was simply no readily available guide to this journey with sufficient detail and tract record when she was born.  So, to achieve the extraordinary, I had to resort to the extraordinary.

Not that learning Chinese well is difficult by itself, but that learning Chinese well as a child in the sea of English language ecosystem is an immense challenge, not just for the sanity of the parents but that of the child also.  Whether one likes it or not, such quest can throw into the open the question of “Who am I and what do I value” and constantly challenges the entire family every step of the way regardless of one’s resource, for there is one thing that limits us all – time.

In my quest, I at times stumbled upon ideas or goals that are deemed out of reach (such as reading 金庸 in middle school) or contrary to popular sentiments (such as the importance of phonetics).  At other times,  I “discovered” teaching techniques that are likely of common knowledge in the disciple of pedagogy and second language learning.  Today, it came upon me that parents can indeed aim for seemingly out-of-reach goal in Chinese reading through the Scaffolding Reading Experience (SRE), an instructional technique used for English language learner or learners of any subject.

As you know, our children are often limited to basic reading proficiency as more “advanced” Chinese reading calls upon knowledge of many  more characters, words, phrases, sentence structure, idioms, and background knowledge, whether cultural or technical.  The Scaffolding Reading Experience (SRE)*, tailored for the Chinese language, just might make this quest a little easier.

The SRE has three essential components, as follows:

  1.  The scaffold.  This is a temporary and supportive structure that helps the learner accomplish a task beyond his or her ability without the scaffold.
  2. Zone of Proximal Development.  A learner has a surrounding zone of development, a range within which they can learn.  At one end of this range are learning tasks that the learner can operate independently.  At the other end are learning tasks that the learner can not complete even with assistance.  Between these two ends is the zone that the learner can complete with some assistance.
  3. Dismantling the scaffold.  Over time, the instructor gradually remove the scaffold and allows the learner to complete the task independently.

There are two phases of the SRE:

  1. Planning phase.  This phase takes into account the learner, the reading selection, and the reading purpose.  The planning leads to the creation of the SRE and its implementation.
  2. Implementation phase.  This phase has three activities.
    1. Pre-reading.  This consists of motivating the learner, building background knowledge, making the reading relevant and meaningful to the learner, preteaching the vocabulary, etc.
    2. Reading.  This consists of reading to the learner, guided reading, silent reading, read-aloud, etc.
    3. Post-reading.  This consists of discussion, writing, artistic/acting activities, application, etc.

With these in mind, the SRE for Chinese can be as follows:

The three SRE components for Chinese:

  1. Scaffold: Chinese text with zhuyin or pinyin.
  2. Zone of proximal development.  Separate language learning from subject learning.   Allow the child to learn the subject either first in English, the more proficient language almost for all past third grade, or learn the subject in Chinese through multimedia and be familiar with the concept and terminology first.  For effective Chinese as second language learners, it may even be better to first learn the subject in English and then learn the Chinese terminology first through Chinese multimedia exposure.
  3. Dismantling the scaffold.  Chinese text of the same subject and level without zhuyin or pinyin.

The two phases of SRE for Chinese:

  1.  Planning phase.  Take into account the child, his/her interest, and the purpose of the readings.  Sometimes, the reading is for academic purpose, such as social studies or science text.  (Personally, I think social studies reading is more important than science reading.)  At times, it is for general reading, such as 金庸‘s kungfu novels, which contain plenty of cultural knowledge of course.
  2. Implementation phase.
    1. Pre-reading.  Learn the subjects first in English at school and then come back to do Chinese reading on the same subject weeks to months later.  Or watch kungfu TV series or cartoon in Chinese and then come back to do the Chinese reading on the same story.
    2. Reading.  Read first the text with zhuyin or pinyin.  Print out text with phonetics yourself if needed (search for text, copy, paste, add phonetics – super easy).  A combination of reading to the child, listening to audio-recording, guided reading, read-aloud, and silent reading are great ways to speed up learning.  Then, read, read, and read.  Once the child can read the text quickly (different speed for different topics – faster for casual reading like novels, say > 500 characters a minute), it would be time to try similar text without zhuyin.
    3. Post-reading.  Discuss the subject, do brief writing/character practices, or do some artistic activities.

Below are two examples of SRE for Chinese:

#1.   My daughters learned in English about communities in the third grade and basic North Carolina history/geography in the fourth grade.  A couple of years later, I ask them to read the corresponding Chinese textbook from Taiwan.   It was still challenging for 9 year old “Georgia” due to the amount of new Chinese terminology but at least she knows some basic concept already.

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Here is Georgia reading one such text, as posted a few weeks ago:  She has yet to progress to reading such text without zhuyin.  That can wait.

#2.  Charlotte started reading Return of the Condor Heroes earlier this month.

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Charlotte had watched the cartoon version several times a couple of years ago.  She read the dialogues in the novel just fine but has had difficult with some passages and visualizing the fight sequence.  So, I printed out the text with zhuyin and asked Charlotte to read it aloud with the tutor, who then explained whatever she didn’t understand.  After doing so for about an hour and half over two days, Charlotte had much better mental picture of the story.  Now, instead of going back to the novel book without zhuyin, I have her read the text with zhuyin and she finds it much easier to read.  I will just have her read such text until she reads it very quickly and then go back to the novel without zhuyin.  I will ask her to do some read-aloud with me from time to time.


So, the above is SRE for Chinese in a nutshell.  I am certain many of you have utilized similar technique to various degree. I am simply laying it out in a somewhat organized fashion.


I hope this post is helpful.  Thank you for reading.



*   Michael F. Graves and Jill Fitzgerald, Scaffolding Reading Experiences for Multilingual Classrooms.   

Read aloud of kung-fu novel 金庸’s 神鵰俠侶

The following is a print-out of salient parts of the novel with zhuyin added, for read-aloud lesson with the Chinese tutor on the weekend, who explains phrases that “Charlotte” doesn’t quite understand.  Original Chinese writings are simply more authentic and just about nothing beats 金庸’s work in this category.  These read-aloud should make Charlotte’s own reading of the novel easier.

(Of note, I didn’t correct for alternative pronunciation for the zhuyin, since that would be too tedious to do.  The tutor will correct her if she reads it incorrectly.)

Last stage, for now


  1.  繼續念台灣小六的自修中文課本,多念些介紹中國文化的文章。
  2. 七年級的暑假加強用打字寫作。同時,因她喜歡寫作繪畫和彈吉他,也試編寫和畫雙語童書和學吉他自彈自唱中文歌。
  3. 八年級的暑假學讀簡體字和加強論說文,說明文等非記敘文的文章。
  4. 九年級的暑假由親友安排去台灣或大陸打工ㄧ個月。
  5. 十年級準備考Chinese AP test。學到這階段,這應該不難。

在大學前中文學習進入尾聲時, 她也可重新學習九歲時中斷的西班牙文。

  1. 七年級完後的暑假念五十小時的西文。
  2. 八年級週末念些西文文章。
  3. 八年級完後的暑假念八十小時的西文。
  4. 九年級上西文二或三的課。
  5. 九年級完後的暑假念四十小時的西文。
  6. 十年級上西文三或四的課,之後西文應有ILR第二級的程度。
  7. 十年級完後的暑假由親友安排去我國高中時住的多明尼加去做志工服務ㄧ個月。
  8. 十ㄧ年級上西文四或大學的西文課程,之後希望有~ILR第三級的程度。


Now that 12 year old “Charlotte” starts reading 金庸’s 神鵰俠侶 and can type her own creative writings, I can see the beginning of the last stage of our pre-college Chinese language art (CLA) journey.  At this point, I foresee that this last stage will last three years, from 7th through 9th grade, as follows:

  1.  Continue studying 6th grade self-study guide over the next two years.  It takes longer for my elder daughter, since she has heavier school work.  At the mean time, continue reading novels, concentrating more on original Chinese novels instead of translated ones, and doing read-aloud of literary work and cultural studies with the Chinese tutor on the weekend.
  2. Summer after 7th grade: focus on Chinese composition (by typing).  She will hopefully work on bilingual children’s book, as drawing/painting and writing are two of her passions.  With another year of playing/learning guitar, a favorite activity, she will hopefully work on making covers of Chinese songs (she is playing 時間都去哪兒了 tonight).  She is receptive to voice lessons.  So, we’ll see.
  3. Summer after 8th grade: learn commonly used simplified characters and do more non-fictional readings.  After going over the basics, it should be fairly straight forward.  One simple way would be to read fluently articles on and first in traditional and then in simplified characters.  These articles are suitable for HS students and adults, not kids.
  4. Summer after 9th grade: one month of summer job in mainland China and Taiwan alongside other natives through friends and family.
  5. Studying for and taking the Chinese AP test should be fairly easy in 10th grade.  She will be “wrapping up” her pre-college CLA journey while most heritage students are just ramping it up in 9-10th grade.
  6. Continue reading Chinese novels and enjoying CLE after all these.

This “last” phase of our pre-college CLA journey should be the first phase, or more accurately, resumption of our Spanish language art journey.

  1.  Summer after 7th grade: resume Spanish home self-study and home tutoring.  It’s fairly easy to find suitable tutors.  Current plan is for ~ 50 hours of study.
  2. 8th grade: read/study more Spanish on the weekends.
  3. Summer after 8th grade: Another ~80 hours of study.
  4. 9th grade: HS Spanish II or III.
  5. Summer after 9th grade: ~ 40 hours of study.
  6. 10th grade: Spanish III or IV.  By the end 10th grade, she should be IRL level 2.
  7. Summer after 10th grade: hopefully one month of immersion volunteering trip in the Dominican Republic, back in the home country of my teenage years.
  8. 11th grade: Spanish IV or college Spanish.  She should be close to ILR level 3 by then.

Of course, like all “good” Asian parents, she has time for some fun (she loves sleep-overs and hanging out with her friends – who wouldn’t.) and to work on other subjects, activities, and tennis, her sport of choice.  Lastly, she reminds me that I promised her equestrian lessons this summer, another favorite activity from several years back, for achieving her target grade so far this year.  Thank goodness lesson cost is reasonable in our neck of the wood in relatively rural eastern NC.

Well, at least these are the plans.  We’ll see how it goes.  I can’t wait.

New textbooks for 2016!

“Charlotte”, 12, and “Georgia”, 9, are off to a bright new year.  At the end of 2015, Georgia finished the first semester third grade self-study guide textbook and Charlotte finished her second semester fifth grade Chinese language art textbooks.

Since I don’t have a self-study guide textbook for second semester of third grade for Gerogia, I decided for her to just skip ahead to the first-semester fourth- grade one that I have.  Her reading comprehension is pretty good; so, I think she will be alright.  The material is significantly harder but she will be just fine.


As for Charlotte, we proceeded to first semester sixth grade self-study guide textbook.  She thinks the self-study guide is more tedious, but she will live….

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