I Speak Chinese, But My Son Didn't : My "Mixed" Family's Challenges Raising Bilingual Kids
My family had a dilemma. My 6-year-old son, Kai Kai, was not able to communicate with my parents--his own grandparents anymore.
I am a first-generation Chinese American married to a native Texan raising two young boys in Atlanta, Georgia. We chose to raise them bilingual in English and Mandarin Chinese since they were babies. Being a fluent speaker myself, I thought that it would be easy, but our family’s Chinese learning journey has been quite a challenging one.
Two years ago, my 2-year-old son Ming Ming was speaking fluent Mandarin as a result of his time with me, our part-time Chinese nanny and occasionally, his Chinese speaking grandparents who visited us from China. My 6-year-old son Kai Kai, however, started to protest the Sunday afternoon Chinese classes and screamed: "I hate Chinese!" He was also losing his Mandarin speaking ability, let alone reading and writing. When his Chinese grandparents were on video calls, Kai Kai would mumble a "你好! (nǐ hǎo "Hello") and run away. I could see the downheartedness in my mother's eyes. " Kai Kai no longer speaks Chinese", my mother would say:" Kai Kai no longer wants to talk to us."
Kai Kai was speaking Chinese just fine as soon as he started talking as a toddler. I had thought I would be able to raise a bilingual kid just by speaking Chinese with him and sending him to a weekend Chinese school. I spoke with him in Chinese often, although I increasingly found myself struggling to "switch" to Chinese because Kai Kai responded more and more in English. I sensed some challenges but really didn't given it much of a thought until he almost completely stopped speaking Chinese as a 1st grader.
I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter how many language classes your child takes. It doesn’t matter how wonderfully your bilingual baby speaks the second language. As a child grows, nothing matters more than having an engaging and fun language immersion environment that continues to feed your bilingual child’s curiosity.
As Kai Kai sprouted into a sophisticated and independent 6-year-old, his Mandarin oasis was left dry. While his English side of the brain flourished with Captain Underpants books, the Odd Squad shows and chess strategies, his Chinese side of the brain was left behind with basic daily conversation with mom and memorization of dry, old Chinese text books. He didn’t have ready access to exciting Chinese books, movies, music and entertainment. He didn't have access to engaging, relevant Chinese curriculum. He didn't have access to motivating Chinese teachers and classes. How could he learn Chinese well and willingly?
As Kai Kai shed tears struggling to memorizing the strokes of Chinese characters for the 听写 (tīng xiě, spelling quiz) drills at the weekend Chinese school, as I literally drag a feisty kid to the "boring (using his own words)" 2-hour class Sunday afternoon, I felt sad and guilty. Chinese is one of the most beautiful and richest languages in the world. It is sad to me that our family, community and society seemed to fail a wonderful course: provide an accessible, engaging and effective way for children to learn and love learning Chinese.
I might have been one of those more resourceful parents when it comes to raising bilingual kids. But, still, here are our challenges:
- It was hard to find Chinese nannies and tutors, the very loving grandmotherly nanny we finally found spoke Mandarin with a strong accent. Beside keeping the kids safe, warm and fed, she had no training and little interest on early childhood development. There were no lesson plans to progressively build a child's developmental or language skills.
- We couldn't find a preschool or elementary school that offers Chinese within a reasonable distance from where we live. In fact, less than 5% U.S. preschool and elementary schools offer any Chinese programs.
- When Kai Kai was 5, we started him at a community weekend Chinese schools--the historically "Heritage" schools many Chinese Americans send their children to. Those school often are under-resourced, using 20-year-old textbooks, untrained volunteer teachers, & outdated teaching methods
- We signed Kai Kai up for an online one-on-one tutoring class where native speakers from China interacted with him through a 25 minutes class through a video camera. He was usually engaged throughout the 25 mins class, but the curriculum were elementary and light, and there were not enough after class engagement to progressively build his language abilities. And there were no buddies, no communities for him to relate to.
- I searched Internet book reviews and ordered suitcases of books from China, and bothered relatives and colleagues to carry them to the United States. Because of the usually unreliable, overly positive reviews on Chinese online bookstores, many books ordered were retired to the corner of our house without receiving much love: not developmentally appropriate, poor Chinese translation, overly political or lecturing, inferior story telling...
- I used to buy DVDs of children's movies and shows from China, as well as DVD players from China ( with an ugly heavy voltage converter). Because of regional restriction, DVDs from China don't play on home DVD players, car DVD players, even computers here in the U.S.! One after another, my Chinese DVD players broke and the DVDs sit to collect dust.
- As the world ditched DVDs, I bought a digital player Xiao Mei He Zi 小美盒子(xiǎo měi hé zǐ， similar to Amazon TV box) after much research and consultation, only to find it very difficult to use and navigate. We tried it for a couple of weeks and give it up.
- I searched high and low on YouTube for children's shows there. The return to the time spending on searching only pays back occasionally. It is very confusing even to me, a Chinese speaker: which shows are good and age appropriate?
- I was so excited to discover 爱奇艺 Aiqiyi.com ( the YouTube of China that has a large number of Disney movies and Chinese Children's shows), but only to find out that most movies and shows don't play in the U.S. for regional copyright restrictions again!
- When China started to spouts AI robots for kids. I did my research again, bought what I had thought to be a top-of-the-line AI robot 布丁（bù dīng），hoping that the cute green robot would talk with my boys, read Chinese books to them and play Chinese shows and music. We found the robot hard to use, not smart enough to interact with. It played very few shows on a tiny screen. We couldn't even get it to read any of the 10 books it came with. Very soon, the robot became a good looking, expensive toy decorating my son's bookshelf. Yeah, over the years, we have collected a lot of Chinese-learning/playing gadgets! 点读笔 (diǎn dú bǐ， point to read pens), speaking toys, mp3 players, portable DVDs...you name it!
- I tried to exclusively speak Chinese in the precious little family time our family has, but it was hard to always do so! I struggled with the switching back and forth between English and Chinese, maybe consciously and unconsciously worried that I am leaving my non-Chinese speaking husband feeling excluded
I was exhausted...How many parents would have the time, the money, the Chinese speaking skills and the resilience required to continue their children's Chinese learning journey? My Chinese American friends' children are quitting Chinese left and right. I hear guilty, regrets, sadness, helpfulness and sometimes anger in their stories. I realized that I was also in for a crisis.
Mandarin teaching and enrichment resources in the United State are scarce, outdated and hard to find. I started to worry. Would my younger son, who speaks perfect Chinese as a 2 year old, soon follow in his brother’s footsteps, teetering on the brink of quitting Chinese?
While kids in other countries are thriving with world-class English education and growing up to be bilingual, even multilingual, my own children, born in the most developed country in the world, have to put up with a dire Chinese learning situation. It was hard for me to accept that.
I know if I, a native Chinese speaker and former Mandarin language program executive, struggle, those parents who do not speak Chinese fluently may be struggling even more. I know if someone tries as hard as me, but still struggles to create an engaging experience to raise a bilingual kid in the United States, it is not right. Something needs to change.
Many issues need to be addressed: modernized curriculum, individualized learning, trained instructors…but as a first step, an immersive home environment that enables a child to explore the beauty and intrigue of Chinese language and culture. China is experiencing a boom of children's learning resources. We have a great opportunity to take advantage of it!
When Caelyn and I met, we were delighted to find that, although our family backgrounds were different (a Chinese American "heritage family" v.s. a non-heritage family, a native Chinese-speaking mom v.s. a mom just learning to speak Chinese), our stories, struggles and hopes were the same!
Moreover, we were able to support each other with unique perspectives and great resources that we each worked hard to find on our own. A light bulb went on: why not start sharing with a larger community, one post at a time, to help make it easier for more families to raise bilingual children?
From our action to yours
It was 2 years ago when I came to the realization that, without a change, my sons’ bilingual journeys could be short-lived. I have since researched and tried many different ways to nurture their interest and curiosity, searching high and low for high-quality Chinese language and culture resources.
Ming Ming is almost 4 now and he switches between Chinese and English with ease and delight. Kai Kai is 8. He still doesn't like the weekend community Chinese classes, but he speaks some Chinese again, and begs me to play Chinese movies and take him to China for the summer!
Ming Ming (3) playing "Big Grey Wolf" in a Chinese Show
Kai Kai (7) playing a chess match with a Chinese chess team
Kai Kai (7) enjoying a play date at a Chinese book store
In recent years, high quality Chinese education resources have been emerging. Caelyn and I have learned that there is an avalanche of resources out there, if you know where to look (and how to search in Chinese!), but much more needs to be done so that a busy parent will know where to start.
We want to make it easier for other parents like us to help their children navigate the road to bilingualism. We want to start a movement to improve the Mandarin learning status quo. Ultimately, we want to create a simple and streamlined road map for parents who want to raise bilingual kids in Chinese and English. We hope you will make the journey with us!
With this blog, we’d like to
- Share our resources and experience to make raising English and Chinese bilingual children a more enjoyable and rewarding family experience
- Invite you to share your struggles, resources and best practices.
Raising kids who speak Chinese in a predominately English-speaking country can feel daunting and lonely. If you enjoyed this post or found anything about it helpful, please share the learning with others by liking, commenting, or posting to your social media feeds using the buttons below.
Thanks for reading!