Raising a Child in China: Learning Languages

This post is part thirteen in the epic Raising a Child in China series – find the rest on our series page.

I was at the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Gym last week plotting with Chengdu Forum member JerryS and watching men roll around with my oldest son, Dorian. In the space next door, some kendo practitioners were screaming in full kendo gear, cracking each other on the tops of their heads and then skating past each other. Standing outside of the kendo gym were two mixed-blood kids – like my own – and they eyed me and Dorian up. Peeping the familiar as it were.

After practice I went to talk with the two boys – Alex, 7, and his little brother Jimmy. They spoke pretty good Chinese, had all the tones correct and it seemed to flow out easily, but I noticed that they hesitated a little bit with English. They had most of the vocabulary down, but there was a slight lack of the surety they expressed in what turned out to be their father language, Chinese. No surprise there. They have spent most of their lives here and they go to school here.

But it nevertheless was instructive because I notice my boys are also more comfortable with Chinese than with English. Dorian and my younger son Damian understand pretty much everything I say in English, but that is because they know me, not necessarily the words that are coming out of my mouth.

Chinese are always pretty standard when it comes to this topic. At first they wonder aloud,”Can they understand Chinese?” Usually posited as a negative, as in,”They can’t possibly understand Chinese, right?”

When I (or less frequently, one of the boys) let’s them know that Chinese isn’t an issue, the reply is almost invariably,“Oh wow, they will grow up with both languages! Lucky!”

And for those that doubt the ability of little ones to learn languages, let me state unequivocally that two languages is nothing to a little kid. Easy as pie. Do it with their left hand. As long as they have the environment and exposure.

They Pick Up What We Drop

Children are sponges, they say, and my experience corroborates. Both my kids speak a mish-mash of English and Chinese. Some examples:

  • “Dada, ?????green shoes!” (I want to wear my green shoes!)
  • “Eat??!” (Let’s eat!)
  • “???honeymilk!” (I want honey milk!)
  • “??ride Dada’s bike/???!” (I want to ride on Dad’s bike!)

So they actually are a little behind in both languages. Think about it like this: the more you cram into the little ones’ brains, the more time it takes them to process all of it, but process it they will. And much faster than you can possibly imagine. The connections they make, unassisted, are the sublime joy of my life. The moments I try and remember forever, but which inevitably melt into one big awesome feeling. Kids learning stuff is basically what it’s all about.

My oldest son Dorian, age 3

But from a practical perspective, how can I take advantage of this Age of Information and prepare these boys for everything I can possible prepare them for? How can I pour all the accumulated knowledge of the human race into one little boy?

Techniques I Have Learned

My kids are learning both languages simultaneously, which is one way people learn a second language. For some background on this subject, check out How Children Learn a Second Language and Fostering Second Language Development in Young Children.

I refer to English as both “English” and “Dada’s Language” – it seems to help them differentiate and categorize. So in conversation, I will use every opportunity I have to say a word or phrase both in “Chinese” and “Dada’s Language”. They will usually not recite what I have said immediately, or, if they do, they will recite the Chinese version first, because it is easier for them. But soon enough, the English phrase I taught on Monday will pop out, maybe a week or more later, used properly and spontaneously.

Winnie the Pooh
My kids love Winnie the Pooh

I also switch up movies and books. We have basically only English-language cartoons, because Chinese language cartoons suck (if you know of any that don’t suck, please list them in the comments) and dubbed cartoons are even worse. But any chance to show them Chinese characters is a chance for them to soak that stuff in. They see it, point, perhaps even recite the meaning or another sentence they just whipped out, but the point is that they saw the characters or heard the English. At this early stage, that’s pretty much all you need.

I sing songs to them all the time and switch between Chinese and English. When I come up with a particularly zany combination of Chinese and English, they will laugh. Why? Because they realize that putting those words together is zany. Which is the whole point.

Quality Time

I make sure to have each son with me, alone, for a good amount of time. It’s hard to describe the eagerness of a child, but basically I just walk around with them and they point at stuff and say the word, I say the word, we switch between languages, reference the word in a book or movie we both know about. An example:

With the little one, I have a pattern. I pick him up, kiss him, he cries and brushes me away, and then we begin our walk through the house. In no concrete order he will point out:

  1. The useless flower pots my wife bought and never used, make an O with his lil lips, and make a low note. I play them like a jug (blow into it to create a note) and say “music”. He says “music”. We move on.
  2. Next is this weird banner my wife bought at Ikea, covered in faces. He points at the sleeping one and says “Jiaojiao” (sleeping – or ????), then the smiling one. I say “smile”. He says “smile”. The nose one. I say “nose”, he says “nose”. We move on.

Here we either head for the window or the Winnie the Pooh mural, but you get the picture.

Next Steps

German Immersion School
Twin Cities German Immersion School

So in the first two years, it is basically just pointing and talking. But once the little one gets to three, then a new phase begins. Dorian already speaks very good Chinese and can communicate complex ideas. He can understand English and has a clear idea of the difference between the two. Now, he needs schooling. My previous post in this series deals with this new phase. My plan is actually to up the ante considerably.

My sister teaches kindergarten and first grade at a German-immersion school in Minneapolis. I am going to toss Dorian to the German Wolves and see how he does. After a bit of observation, I can confidently say that the issue will not be English or German, but his ability to retain Chinese.

Subplot to the next phase: find a Chinese community of moms and kids in Minneapolis.

15 thoughts on “Raising a Child in China: Learning Languages”

  1. I love reading everything you write Sascha. You’ve come so far and you have such amazing stories. So glad to know you. Peace! (p.s. moving back to the States????!! awesome! we need more energy like yours here! )

  2. My daughter and I are so fortunate to have a number of dual-immersion school options in our public school district in Portland, Oregon. We chose Spanish. Before she began kindergarten the teachers warned the parents — both the parents who speak only Spanish with their kids and the ones who speak only English and maybe some Spanglish (having kids from differing backgrounds is why it’s called dual immersion) — that there will be an incubation period during which they’re not speaking much of the target language, and that in about 2nd or 3rd grade there will be the “mid-level freakout.” That’s when parents realize their kid is not writing or reading as well as other, non-immersion kids, and they freak and wonder if they should pull them from immersion. With perseverance, there’s the glorious period where your kid is not just fluent, but LITERATE in both languages, and achieving at a higher level in both than the non-immersion contingent does in just one. We have reached this golden age and I have to say it is pretty awesome.
    My point to all of this: even if you don’t have a mixed-race family, there are ways to ensure your child gets the benefits of increased brain function and growth and the flexibility and communication skills that will serve them their entire lives.

    *But it’s a long-term commitment you must make.*

    I am ever thankful that it is not only available in my city, but available as part of the public school system. And it’s not just Portland — I know cities as small as Sioux Falls, SD and Fort Collins, CO among many others offer immersion — you just have to go and find it.
    Xie Xie Sascha!

  3. Nice post, it’s interesting to hear about the interplay between learning two languages in China. It only makes sense that Chinese language skills progress much faster.

    How long until Dorian speaks better Chinese than you do?

  4. Kudos for the effort. They will come to resent you anyway.

    The joys of parenthood are deep but elusive, and you can quote me on that buddy boy.

  5. Nice one Sascha – I love these posts of yours about kids. We hope that the grand-daughter Flux will grow up multi-lingual as well. Don’t your kids watch In the Night Garden in Chinese? It is dubbed but it’s done particularly well.

  6. Forgot a pic of your little delicious in this one.

    Fine story and it elaborates well on some of the conversations and questions we’ve had about the same topic.

    Still have to deduct a few cuteness points for lack of said photo. Sorry. Maybe next time.

  7. I used to love this Chinese cartoon, 黑猫警长,when I was little. Unsure if it benefited my Chinese. The trick is definitely to remain speaking aswell as reading and writing Chinese when not in China. I used to go to Chinese class every saturdays and after I quit at about 13, I fastly lost all my Chinese reading and writing ability. The only thing that remained was speaking Chinese to my mom.

  8. Good on ya, Sascha. Back to the States eh, enjoy it all, mate. Our first child was born last week, little Isabella Sophia, so looking forward to following some of your tips and also loving watching her absorb and learn. Great.

    Good luck to you.

  9. Just running into your post now, Sascha. Congrats on moving to Minneapolis! It was a great place for us to grow up, eh? Doubtless you’ll be connected to the Chinese-speaking community asap.

  10. Love this series, very interesting and informative. My husband and I will soon get into some of these situations/issues since we are moving back to China with our baby girl. Is your family still in Chengdu or you guys move back to US?


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