The old saying “Use it, or lose it” is quite true. If my kids couldn’t remember what they learned, it would be a waste of effort to spend the time to practice Chinese with my kids. So we speak Mandarin at home. Yes, we mix some English in, because sometimes it’s just easier or more efficient to say it in English. But for the most part, I speak Chinese with my kids. But what do you do when your kids only want to speak English?
When I was a kid, my parents would tell me straight-up that are “forcing” me to speak Chinese, or I’d get a spanking (actually, a chopstick to the hand). It was a totalitarian method. I won’t say that it didn’t work… because today I am more fluent than many of my ABC friends. But as a child, this method caused a lot of anger and desire to revolt in me. My parents simply demanded a certain behavior without explaining to me the reason or benefit behind the behavior. So I felt like I had been unjustly sentenced to some sort of punishment without a fair hearing. Hence, a lot of fights with my parents over the subject. Which only made them dig their heels in deeper, re-stating that they are forcing me to speak Chinese, and reaching for a chopstick from the kitchen drawer. I got a lot of hits on my hand from that chopstick as a kid!
My parents would also employ a “tactic” of replying to my English with “I don’t understand English” – something I never say to my kids, because we all know that’s not true. It wasn’t true with my parents either. They weren’t native English speakers, but I knew they were fluent enough to understand my English sentences. Because my parents’ “I don’t understand English” statement was so ludicrous, it spurred the same anger and feelings of injustice in me (more chopstick to the hand! ouch!).
So with my kids, I explain to them that fluency in Chinese is important because it will be very helpful to their futures. I’ve explained that when they are able to converse and exchange ideas with other Chinese-speaking people, they gain access to a whole other world (including future career benefits). And, that they are to be proud to be Chinese, and therefore learn their heritage language. Also, that learning multiple languages helps their brain develop so they’ll be smarter.
I don’t do the “totalitarian thing” with my kids. I try to do the “subconscious thing” instead. I don’t outright declare that they “shall” speak Chinese or otherwise get a spanking. If they start with an English sentence, I will reply in Chinese. They usually, by default and quite subconsciously, then respond back to me in Chinese. And we are back to having the full conversation in Chinese. If they want to speak some English, I let them. Then I try to switch them back to Chinese again. They don’t feel like they are backed against a wall or drilled into the ground. Less fights and more conversation. It’s worked so far.
Young children (like mine) don’t like to sit and do something mundane (like writing characters) for a long time. So I keep my lessons short. They usually take about 10 minutes total, and that includes the time that my kids are practice-writing the character. I spend about 2 minutes describing how to write the strokes, and they spend about 8 minutes writing the character 16 times. I used to draw 16 boxes on a piece of paper, with a little space at the top where I would write the character and show them the strokes. The kids would then look at the character I wrote at the top of the page and copy it 16 times in the boxes below. I got tired of always drawing the boxes by hand, so I then started making worksheets on the computer. Here’s one worksheet that I made for the character that means “of” in Chinese (pronounced “de”):
Keeping the lessons short and focused only on 1 character per day helps the kids to retain what they learned. After 10 minutes of practice, I let my kids play or do something else for an hour or two. Then I come back and review with them. Repetition really helps them remember.
I’m an ABC. For those who aren’t familiar with this acronym, “ABC” in the Chinese community means “American Born Chinese.” My husband and my kids are also ABCs. So, it’s a challenge for my whole family to teach, learn, and retain the Chinese language since we live in the USA.
The thing is… I know first-hand what it feels like to be an ABC kid growing up in America, arguing and fighting with my parents about not wanting to go to Chinese school. Because Chinese school SUCKED. It really sucked. I fought with my mom every night about doing Chinese school homework. I put up such a good fight, that after a few weeks, she waved the white flag. I was allowed to quit Chinese school! It was a glorious triumph for me.
“Aiya!” said my mom (in Mandarin), “Fine. You can learn to write Chinese later on in life when you really want to do it yourself.” I thought I had won the battle. But really, it was my mom who had won. In her wisdom, she knew it was futile to force me to do something that I so desperately hated to do. Forcing me to continue would only push me farther away. She was taking a gamble – because she didn’t know if I’d ever want to learn Chinese characters on my own volition. But to her credit, I did. In university, I finally saw the utility of being literate in Chinese, and the beauty of my heritage.
I took three years of Chinese courses in university. “Aiya!” said my mom, “Chinese school was so much cheaper than university, you wait until university to make me pay higher tuition to learn Chinese?!” Well, at least we were able to laugh about it. I think she was just happy that I finally wanted to learn.
Fast forward to today. I’m a mother of two young children, and trying to walk the fine line of teaching Chinese literacy to my kids without causing them to hate it and revolt. So far, so good. Remembering how I felt as a child, I try to use my own experiences to help my kids learn Chinese. I mean, I can’t say they LOVE practicing how to write Chinese characters. But they don’t hate it. We don’t have fights over it (not yet, at least). I’m learning and improving my methods as I go, and would like to share what’s worked (or not worked) for me. Thanks for reading my blog and joining me along the way!