The main concepts are simple:

  1. Create a CLE (Chinese language ecosystem) at home.
  2. Create a Chinese-English proficiency differential, with the following goal
    • Native or near native level Chinese listening and speaking proficiency early on (critical period is ~4-8 years old), that exceed English proficiency.
    • Better Chinese reading than English reading proficiency in the beginning (opening up a “gap”), so that the child can enjoy knowing Chinese, and then catching up in English later (closing the “gap”).
 The concepts are simple but the devil is in the detail.  Execution is the key.

Below are from a previous blog, with periodic revisions:

As I am not a linguistic expert, the following are my two cents of opinion, under constant revision and editing.  I hope interested parents set a realistic goal for their children and achieve good return on the investment of their various resources.

Based on my experience as a young immigrant at the age of 11 in the mid 1980s (1.5 generation) and 13 years of experience of raising my daughters bilingual and bi-literate (and counting) and constant search for exemplary families, I put forth the following observation and recommendation on the 4 stages of Chinese language acquisition, with the goal of ~6th grade verbal fluency and ~4-6th grade literacy in Chinese by 18 years of age.  At this point, my elder daughter (13 years of age) remains a fluent native Chinese speaker (age matched ILR level ~ 4.5) and reads young adult novels without phonetics in Chinese including 金庸小說 (age matched reading ILR level ~ 4).   My younger daughter (10 years old) is about two years behind in her Chinese with similar speaking and reading ILR level, adjusted for her age.  I refer you to the rest of my blog for the amount of resources that we have had to allocate to achieve this.  As I have daughters, I will use she/her to refer to both a male or female child.

Before I start, I want to touch on what I perceive as the benefit and nature of bilingualism in Chinese and English in the US.  Certainly, bilingualism has many benefits, including family bonding (assuming one is of Chinese heritage), travel, cultural knowledge, expanded social (acquaintances, friends, spouse) and employment options (not necessarily better), and possibly higher neurological and cognitive function.  It is my belief that, for children raised in the US, becoming bilingual and biliterate in Chinese and English has, on average, limited financial benefit, with significant opportunity cost.  I will explore these issues more throughout this article.  In addition, with the advent of artificial intelligence and recent amazing advancement in real time speech-to-speech translation (mark 7:00) that will likely significantly raise the opportunity cost of non-fluent Chinese language learning by 2030 or earlier, I am dubious that there is a net financial benefit for our children to become a non-fluent Chinese speaker by adulthood, on average.  To put it crudely, what I am suggesting is that don’t have your children learn Chinese for the money!

Having stated the above, the followings are the goal I set out for my children:

1) Listening: Understand colloquial conversation and mass media at ~6th grade level. This likely include most TV shows/movies, soap opera, and basic news reporting, which include common technical terms taught in grade school.
2) Speaking: Converse fluently for extended period of time on activities of daily living and grade school subjects, adding only occasional English words and phrase, especially if they are technical terms.  Also, the child should be able to convey personal emotions and common expressions accurately.  Fluency and correct syntax are more important than truly authentic accent.
3) Reading: Read comic books in Chinese fluently and chapter books, non-technical magazines, and young adult novels comfortably at ~5-6th grade level, without phonetics.  I believe this would encompass romance/kung fu novels AND novels like Chinese edition of Harry Porter, which are mostly about 5-6th grade level in English.  Many slightly gifted students in the US are able to read the English version by third grade.

4) Writing: Know how to write Chinese characters with the right stroke sequence even without having learned the character before, be familiar with writing the most commonly used 500 characters, and be able to compose via typing at about third to fourth grade level.


With these in mind, the following are the four stages:

I.  Stage 1 (priming): 0 to 4 years old.  Difficulty level: moderate (but more difficult for parents not fluent in Chinese).  The task here is to talk, play, and interact with the child as often as possible.  The goal is that, by the end of the phase, the child understands plenty of informal colloquial Chinese, which is essential to teaching reading through phonetics.  Chinese speaking grand parents/relatives, au pairs, and nannies are essential for families whose lead parent is not a Chinese speaker with at least ILR level 2.5-3 speaking proficiency.

II.  Stage 2 (Induction): ~ 4 to 8 years old.  Difficult level: high, even for heritage family.  There are a variety of curriculum and materials that can be used for this phase.  The exact curriculum is less important than the speed and depth of learning.  The overall goal of this phase is to achieve ~ FLUENT end of second grade level reading in Taiwan (or ~ end of first semester in second grade in mainland China) by end of third grade here.   This can not be achieved through weekend Chinese school or immersion program in the US alone, primarily due to the slower pace of instruction, lack of an aggressive reading program, and insufficient socialization time with fluent Chinese speaking peers.

As language skill is comprised of four components (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), there are two main goals in each phase:

1) Listening and speaking: Comprehend conversation involving activities of daily living and achieve FLUENCY in such expression.  Fluency is much more important than authentic accent.  Obviously, the main difficulty for goal #1 is 1) lack of fluent speakers (ideally two or more) at home for those families where English is spoken amongst the adults, and 2) as peer to peer interaction and learning become increasing important after four years old, finding fluent Chinese speaking children for play-dates is a constant struggle for parents and feels like a second job!  It is rare to find near native level children past 7-8 years of age to play with in Chinese, amongst other heritage children.

Though some of these difficulties can be dealt with through sufficient fund and pure resolve by hiring Chinese speaking nanny or au pair, the lack of practice with peers often is the limiting factor for the great majority of children (except for exceptionally gifted children probably).  Therefore, once a year, or even better, twice a year sojourn for 1-2 months each time in private preschool and kindergarten in Asia starting at 3-4 years old would make this process SO MUCH SMOOTHER, even for most families where Chinese is the language spoken at home (including my own).  For families where household members (parents, nannies, grandparents, etc.) all converse in a language other than Chinese, I regard these sojourns to be INDISPENSABLE for the children to ACHIEVE AND MAINTAINING VERBAL FLUENCY by the end of this phase.  Obviously, the logistic and high cost of sending children abroad for such sojourn, both in terms of time and monetary commitment, are often prohibitive.

2) Reading and writing: Learn pinyin or zhuyin down pat (like know it cold!) and to learn about 600-800 characters (or more) toward the end of this phase.  Having excellent listening proficiency makes learning to read through phonetics sooo much easier, as the child is only trying to sound out the characters whose meaning she already know.  For those children and parents so inclined, it is tremendously helpful to get the child hooked on reading Chinese comics.  The vast majority of these comics are translated Japanese manga and  there are tons of them.  These comics are mostly characters only, without phonetics.  When the child has high level reading proficiency of ~ 500 characters (and  ~ twice as many vocabulary/words), she should be able to enjoy reading simpler comics without phonetics, despite only recognizing about half of the characters in the comics at this stage.  By or during third grade, the child should be able to read many comics without difficulty.  To me, this is one MAJOR MILESTONE.  Writing mechanism is a developing skill at this phase, primarily learning to write characters with the correct stroke sequence and writing simple sentences and simple compositions.

The main difficulty for goal #2 is that this is a very time consuming process, though it is still doable by knowledgeable immigrant parents or parents of Chinese heritage.  Spending a couple of months in kindergarten abroad will make learning the phonetic so much easier.

At this stage, the child and environment that she is exposed to are still, more or less, under the control or influence of the parents.  Frequently, the Chinese proficiency of heritage or very young youth immigrant parents (~ generation 1.75) gets better first, after relearning the material once learned in their own youth.  Achieving verbal and reading fluency at the end of this phase will get the next phase off to a good start.

III.  Stage 3 (Consolidation): ~8 to 12-14 years old.  Difficulty level: extremely high. 

Once again, there are two main goals in this phase:

1) Listening and speaking:  It is important to maintain speaking fluency at least till 10-12 years of age.  This is the time when the child’s pattern of language use can be made more semi-permanent.  It will almost certainly require exposure to native level children since the range of expression of one’s emotion and feeling needed to be expanded for the child to be able to express herself fully in Chinese.  Otherwise, the child will start expressing herself in English, which is what happens to just about every child of Chinese heritage, born and raised here or immigrant child who moved to the US at a young age (say, before 8).  Having an older sibling who is fluent in Chinese is definitely a plus.  Reading and studying are almost certainly required to acquire the additional vocabulary and expression needed for verbal expression at this phase.  Having the chance to play and interact with native level children allows the child to practice those expression verbally.  Having an adult with at least ILR ~level 4 speaking proficiency guide the child’s speaking development is tremendously helpful, of course.  Without high level speaking fluency (at least ILR level 3) at this phase, the child often looses interest in reading/studying Chinese, which becomes a double whammy.  The verbal skill and the reading/studying go hand in hand, for the great majority of the children.  The most common scenario is that the family finds it too traumatic and/or difficult to continue to require the child to converse with the parents in Chinese.  After that, the child will speak mostly English or a combination of Chinese and English, depending how good her Chinese is.

2) Reading and writing: In terms of reading, the child will need to learn a minimum of ~1,600 characters (and twice as many words/phrases).  This would probably be about end of fourth grade level in Taiwan or about end of third grade level in China.  It is important that your family has access to a wide variety of Chinese books, comics, and junior novels.  With ~ 1,600 characters, the child can likely recognize about 95-97% of the characters in casual readings.  However, it is not simply character recognition that is important, but also reading fluency and comprehension.  It is important that the child can read youth or young adult novels (or at least a variety of comics) fluently by sometimes during middle school, to reinforce her desire or at least willingness to learn Chinese and to expand the breadth of her language skill.  By the end of this phase, the teen should be using at least 5th grade textbook.

In terms of writing, knowing how to write using the correct stroke sequence, familiarity with writing the most commonly used, say 3oo to 500 characters, and simple essay (third grade level at most) would be beneficial.  I would say that, at the end of this phase (if reached), the child’s Chinese language proficiency level would be about ILR level 3.5 to 4.  In terms of overall proficiency, this is AP level to me.  However, the child won’t do well taking the actual AP test, as Chinese AP test cover a lot of cultural knowledge and adult/life-skill scenario (e.g. answering cultural/social email questions).

This is the toughest phase for the following reasons:

1) It is very difficult to find fluent Chinese speaking peers in the US by this age.  Most children either were born here or immigrated here at a young age and are not capable of or willing to interact in Chinese.  High school international Chinese students are not peers whom children this age interact with.

2) Most extracurricular activities are in English and kids are often involved in a number of extracurricular activities.  So, the exposure time to Chinese drastically goes down.

3) Weekend or after-school Chinese classes, in those areas that offer them, are almost always insufficient in terms of the time allotted and materials covered, for good reasons. As the students in the Chinese classes have variable Chinese proficiency, the kids just play and interact in English primarily.

4) Slowing down of Chinese character acquisition with less time devoted to Chinese, such that the child can not get past 3rd grade level (~ 1200 characters) to do extracurricular readings for pleasure comfortably.

5) Most children and parents see it more worthwhile, at this stage, to spend more time doing something else, like math, science, sport, or music.

6) Relative lack of access to a good collection of books in Chinese (novels, magazine, comics, self-help books, etc.),

7) The logistic and high cost of sending children abroad for Chinese summer camps.  In addition, the Chinese camps for this age group are typically meant for oversea children, which means that interaction with native speaker children are more limited and English is the main language these children use to converse with each other.  Non-language summer camps is another option but there is no specific language instruction component.  Some lucky families have access to intermittent public school education abroad, which is ideal, though there maybe conflict of school schedule between the two places.

8)***It can take a few years, lots of work, and plenty of agony to “close the gap” in English proficiency.  Around the end of third grade, it is important to start catching up in English proficiency, given that the transition from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn takes center stage in subject classes +/- annual standardized testing.  That period of time can be nerve-racking for parents, and probably intolerable by parents without decent command of English and/or decent understanding of English pedagogy.****

THIS STAGE TAKES A TEAM and a combination of different sources of language exposure.  This may include oversea relatives who can supervise the children over the summer while they attend camp or school there, Chinese speaking live-in nanny or au pairs, native speaker grandparents living near by, Chinese tutors, dual immersion school (not enough by itself, with dearth of older students fluent in Chinese), homeschooling for a year or two, and other fluent speaker(s) at home (we have done almost all of these).  The KEY is to create RELEVANCY for learning Chinese.  It is unlikely that parents can find fluent Chinese speaking peers in the US for the child at this stage (I gave up looking).  It also takes a lot of work for parents to create an enticing environment for the children to want to continue to learn Chinese.  Some parents who can afford to do so simply bring the children back to Asia for 1-2 years of studying (second and third grade recommended).  This phase can be achieved only by the most resourceful families and/or through extraordinary circumstances.  If the child is exceptionally gifted (say, IQ ~ 145 and up or fewer than 1 in 1,000), the reading part may be achieved much more readily and with less resources devoted.  Achieving verbal fluency still require frequent interaction and practice with fluent speakers.

If the child is still not fluent in speaking Chinese by the end of this phase, it will likely take longer term full immersion (at least 2 years) of living and studying in Chinese speaking regions (like China, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.) to be fluent in Chinese. By then, studying in local school won’t be an easy option, since the subject matters and language requirement would be quite difficult.

So, I consider the consolidation phase to be the key for a successful Chinese program for US based parents and, unfortunately, the most difficult phase.  The opportunity to periodically interact and play with fluent Chinese speaking peers is typically the linchpin for all three phases.  It takes a most determined and resourceful family to see this through.  For families without fluent speakers at home, this phase is just about impossible to achieve.  For families with fluent Chinese speaking parents, this phase is still very difficult still.

IV.  Stage 4 (maintenance): ~12-14 to 18 years old.  Difficulty level: medium.  There will often be teenage immigrants or Chinese speaking international students, who are already fluent in Chinese, with whom the teenager can associate. Chinese pop culture, movies, novels, and magazines can be used as supplemental materials.  With developing intellectual and psychological maturation, the teen can start preparing for  Chinese AP test.  Occasional shorter trips to Asia would be a nice bonus and affirming.

If a child can’t get through phase 2 or 3, she and the family should switch to what I call stage 5 or dormant stage, with typically gradual regression in Chinese proficiency, until she expresses an interest in preparing for Chinese AP test or get interested in Chinese in high school, college, or after.  And you all know the rest of that story.  If one is lucky, the accent may be pretty decent, though speaking fluency is typically lacking (ILR level 1-2) and the child can not express herself well in Chinese and so speak Chinese only to the parents, if at all, with English added in frequently.  Typically, the topics spoken in Chinese would be limited to activities of daily living.  For topics in other subjects or when dealing with feelings and emotions, the child will frequently switch to English.  To me, there is absolutely nothing wrong going this route, as it is the least resource intensive, with acceptable return on more limited investment.  In college, she may express interest in furthering her study in Chinese and/or take oversea trips to Asia for this purpose.  As an adult, if employment circumstances calls for relocation to Asia, after two to three years of stay there and with further study in Chinese, she may be able to achieve speaking ILR level 3-4 proficiency and may be able to get past 4-5th grade level in reading/writing.

In general, I recommend that the great majority of the interested parents do stage 1 and attempt stage 2-3, and then switch to stage 5 (dormant stage) when the child or family gets overwhelmed.  For most parents, they really have little choice but to accept this path. I think most parents should just treat Chinese as a CSL skill (Chinese as Second Language).  Frankly speaking, I think most families get the best bang for the buck this way.  We only have 24 hours a day and there is opportunity cost to consider, in terms of time, other opportunities missed, and resource allocation.

I know all these sounds frustrating, but I ask that you see the big picture.  English is THE global business, cultural, and technical language and will remain so for many years to come.  The benefit of learning Chinese in English speaking countries typically PALES in comparison to the benefit of learning English in Chinese speaking countries.  If one lives in Asia, learning English can be of critical importance in job advancement.  Regardless of geopolitical issues, learning English is promoted socially and culturally across the board, with much more comprehensive materials and ancillary support.  Interaction with the West is more straight forward also, with much more defined and adhered legal standard and more familiarity in cultural exposure and understanding.  The same thing can NOT be said about learning Chinese in the US.  In fact, the OPPOSITE can often be said about learning Chinese here.

With the huge spike in Chinese immigration to the US over the past 10-15 years or so, with no end in sight, and a projected 14% “Asian” US population by 2065, with sizable percentage being of Chinese heritage, there are and will be many 1.25/1.5/1.75 generation Chinese immigrant adults who can fill US based employment positions that require solid bilingual/bicultural skill or even those requiring just ILR level 2 proficiency.  In addition, there are many college students in China who have pretty good English.  I was truly impressed with the command of English of HS and college participants in Chinese TV shows featuring English debate/speech competitions.  Even the international Chinese students who come to the US to attend HS has much better English nowadays.   Therefore, in Chinese speaking countries, there are now quite a few locals who are functionally fluent in English given prior study and work experience in the West, who are hired locally by Chinese or global companies for their operations there.  My understanding is that they are now typically preferred over foreign nationals, given their cultural knowledge and connections.  So, I have been told that expat package are much less common these days.

For the various reasons that I discussed above, I don’t think it is practical, feasible, or necessary for the majority of children in the US to achieve ILR level 3 proficiency by age 18. The resource needed and diverted are quite substantial and there are “painful” sacrifices that need to be made.  For those committed to this path and with the necessary resources, let’s support each other.


If you have any questions or suggestions regarding this article, I would love to hear from you!
Updated 9-2016