When should a child start learning to read her second language? Linguistic experts say: no later than when a child is introduced to reading her first language!
In an English speaking country, a child's first introduction to English reading can be as early as 3 to 4 years old. When second language reading is introduced at the same time or before first language reading, a child's second language reading ability builds up naturally. Her brain processes the 2nd language the same way as it processes her first language. She does not perceive the second language reading as more challenging than her first language. If your child starts to show an interest in recognizing English letters and sight words, she might be just as ready to start reading in Chinese!
I've learned this lesson the hard way. I raised my first son to speak Chinese since he was a baby. I tried to speak Mandarin Chinese with him most of the time (his dad and everyone else in the family spoke English with him), and read a few Chinese books to him here and there. He was able to carry daily conversations in Chinese as early as he could talk. I had thought we were all set. My toddler was already speaking Chinese and English!
It never occurred to me that, as he grew, he would actually be losing his Chinese everyday. At age 6, he wasn't able to speak Chinese anymore. It also did not occur to me that his loss of language was probably largely due to his not being able to read in Chinese, a skill that is so crucial in safeguarding 2nd language. After all, I was a first time mother. How was I supposed to know that a 3 or 4 year old kid is even able to read? I wanted my son to just be a child, to play, and have fun. How was I supposed to know that reading can be a form of playing for children at that age? When they are learning to recognize sight words, they are discovering, they are exploring, they are getting to use parts of their brain that are itching to be used --they are being challenged, but in a good way, they are fulfilling their potential as children!
This realization of the importance of reading came from extensive research as I started a relentless quest for answers about: how to raise a child to happily learn a second language, and to safeguard it as he grows. Almost all the 2nd language acquisition research and success stories discuss fostering a child's reading ability early on!
You might be as shocked as I was, if you saw this 5-year-old American girl reading Chinese chapter books? Her mom Betty Choi, who is learning to speak Chinese herself, is raising her children to be truly fluent Chinese speakers and readers. Betty's Chalk Academy blog and her resourceful Montesssori approach to raising multilingual children is inspirational for me. Getting your 3, 4, 5 or 6 year old to read in Chinese is possible, doable, and even, dare I say, necessary if you'd like your child to keep up with their Chinese learning happily and effortlessly later on!
Linguist Stephen Krashen makes a distinction between language acquisition and language learning, arguing that acquisition is a subconscious process, whereas learning is a conscious one. My observation is that the younger you expose a child to reading a 2nd language, the more spontaneous subconscious acquisition starts happening.
My older son, now 8, reads English content at an adult proficiency level. So, his patience is limited when it comes to learning to read basic Chinese. He is still working on it, but, it is much more language learning than language acquisition. Since I learned from my experience with him, I changed my approach with my second son.
We started to introduce our second son to recognizing Chinese characters before he turned 4. Now, my 4-year-and-2-week old Ming Ming knows about 150 Chinese characters and is reading multiple small books independently. Ming Ming is playing as he reads. He is having so much fun! He surprises himself when he is able to associate words with meanings and physical objects. He is so proud that he can read on his own. He wants to read and read and read some more.I am awed that learning to read Chinese actually takes less time, less frustration and less effort for my 4 year old son than his 8-year-old brother, 4 years to his senior.
In the video above, Ming Ming learned to read a lovely birthday story last week. I have listed the four steps we took to get there. Ming Ming learned to read this entire book in just 3 days. It certainly helps if you are a parent who speaks Chinese, but please note that the steps are applicable for your child's Chinese-speaking grandparents, tutor, nanny, and Au Pair, whoever is exposing your child to Chinese in your home.
Step 1: Spot the early I-am-ready-to-read cues and nurture them!
Sometime when Ming Ming was just 3, he started to show interest in words and letters. At daycare, he was learning an alphabet letter each week. One day, he rode his tricycle past a parked school bus. He stopped, pointed to the big letters on the front of the bus and read out: “S---C—H—O—O—L—B—U—S”. It was one of these “Wow! I-had-no-idea-my-kid-knew-that” moments for me. He also started to recognize that letters together can form a word. When we were reading a Star Wars little golden book, he would point to the words and read “C-THREE-P-O”, “Mommy, it is C3PO!” At this point, I knew that he was ready and eager to read.
I started to point out some Chinese characters, words and phrases to him in the books we read: 大(dà, big), 下雨(xià yǔ, raining)， 小羊(xiǎo yáng, little sheep)，大灰狼(dà hūi láng, big grey wolf)，肚子里的火车站(dù zǐ lǐ de huǒ chē zhàn, the train station in the belly) ，飞机(fēi jī, airplane)， 鼠小弟和鼠小妹(shǔ xiǎo dì hé shǔ xiǎo mèi, little brother mouse and little sister mouse )… First it was all the book titles that he could point to and read (mostly from memory I believe), but later on, he started to point out some words from different books.
I wrote Chinese phrases from my son's picture books on our playroom easel
I went by the following 3 principles as I started to introduce Chinese characters to him:
All these words are from his favorite, familiar stories and topics.
The characters didn’t have to be simple. At this point, a simple 3-stroke character 大(dà, big)， is no different from a 13-stoke character 鼠(shǔ, mouse). All characters are sight words. What matters more is that he knows what it is, and he is interested in what the characters are associated with.
Introduce characters in chunks: words, phrases and even sentences. Don’t focus on disconnected single characters. You think single characters are easier, they may not be! Dr. Lance Knowles pointed out in his brain-based language learning theory, Recursive Hierarchical Recognition (RHR) that brains have the ability and preference to process language in chunks, in another words, to recognize and process groups of words rather than discrete items. Based on Dr. Knowles’ advice, teaching discrete words should actually be avoided. Even though we do introduce individual characters to Ming Ming, we do make sure they are introduced in a familiar context.
Introducing reading to 3-year-old Ming Ming hasn’t required a curriculum or a set schedule--though I do feel a need for structured consistency to make the process even faster! At this point, we just include it in our daily lives, in our evening reading time. Sometimes I write phrases on an easel for the boys to play make-believe classroom games.
Step 2: Introduce words and stories by themes that excite your child.
Task-based language teaching scholars believe that brains learn most effectively when doing meaningful tasks using the target languages. For young learners, this is even more true! It is less like a task, and more like engaging play. New words should be introduced in everyday themes according to their interest.
Two weeks ago, Ming Ming had his 4th birthday party. He was so excited about the party that for months beforehand he talked about whom he would invite and how it needed to be a dinosaur-themed party. We grabbed this opportunity to play and learn Chinese language chunks about birthdays and dinosaurs.
I printed out Chinese characters to label most items at his birthday party. Since most guests were not Chinese speakers, we made all signs bilingual in English as well. As the boys helped to put up the signs, they were instantly drawn to read out those characters with me. We had the signs up for two weeks in their playroom and our dining room, where they spend most of their waking hours. Breakfast and dinner are usually the only chance for our family to sit down together for a relatively calm and quiet time (the boys are not running around, jumping or wrestling). The signs are easily in sight when we sit at the table. The boys very quickly memorized the characters and phrases.
Some of the phrases posted around the house included:
生日快乐(shēng rì kuài lè, happy birthday)
谢谢(xiè xiè, thank you)
恐龙(kǒng lóng, dinosaur)
霸王龙(bà wáng lóng, tyrannosaurus rex)
At the dinner table, we talked about the meaning of the Chinese character. Chinese names for dinosaurs, in the humble opinion of someone who doesn’t speak Latin, I find the Chinese names more self-explanatory and illuminating. Dinosaur-恐龙(kǒng lóng): fearsome dragon (恐, “ to fear”, 龙 “dragon”). T-rex-霸王龙(bà wáng lóng): tyrant dragon. Stegosaurus-剑龙(jiàn lóng): sword dragon. Both boys were captivated by the meanings behind the characters of their favorite animals.
Step 3: Choose fit-level books to read, read, and read.
There is no better way to experience chunks of language than by reading picture books. To further bring the birthday phrases to life, we found two books in our favorite 可爱的鼠小弟 (kě ài de shǔ xiǎo dì, Little Mouse Series) to read:
鼠小弟的礼物 (shǔ xiǎo dì de lǐ wù, Little Mouse Brother’s Gift)
鼠小弟的生日 (shǔ xiǎo dì de shēng rì, Little Mouse Brother’s Birthday)
Why is 可爱的鼠小弟 (kě ài de shǔ xiǎo dì, Little Mouse Series) the perfect beginner Chinese book for any young Chinese learner?
Engaging stories that make little ones laugh
Short: one or two sentences each page.
Repetitive: nearly every story has a repetitive scene that happens to little Mouse’s different animal friends, then finishes with a punchline.
Limited new vocabulary for each story.
Everyday conversational Chinese: the stories are carried out as conversations among the animal friends. The book is translated from a Japanese bestseller. But the Chinese translation is fabulous.
Ming Ming already knew most of the words from his birthday party; he could almost read the book. I then printed out the few new characters in the book and put them on our kitchen cabinet facing our dining table. He was excited to learn those few new words on the cabinet because he saw them in the stories…Children love repetition and familiarity!
We also read a collection of books about dinosaurs, although those books have a much larger vocabulary and I didn't feel that they were a great fit for Ming Ming to read independently yet, he still loved being exposed to the new words since they described one of his favorite subjects!
Step 4: Harvest the power of audio books.
I ignored the power of Chinese audio books for a long time. Since I am a native Chinese speaker and read Chinese books to my boys almost daily, it never occurred to me that we would need audio books. Here is why I was wrong:
Audio books help to tackle the biggest challenge of second language acquisition: lack of language input. There is a 30% language exposure rule of thumb: A child needs exposure during about 30% of their waking hours to become proficient in that language. My children certainly don’t get that much exposure to Chinese: both of my boys started full-time English-only daycare at about age 1. This means we would have to use 2 minutes of every 3 minutes of our family time in Chinese to make the 30% exposure. We are far from that! One mom cannot do it all. I need a system to support this environment: audio books to the rescue! Audiobooks can be played as bedtime stories and morning wake-up calls, and can be played when I am on the computer or battling dinner in the kitchen. Audiobooks are flexible enough to fill almost any fraction of time your children may have.
Again, a child’s brain is built to gain cognitive ability through repetition. In Dr. Knowles’ RHR brain-based theory , language learning needs to be coordinated with visual, conceptual and phonological inputs. Dr.Knowles calls it multimodal input. Multimodal activities enhance the creation of new or strengthened synaptic connections, which is the stuff of new memories. By multimodal, he means the coordinated, synchronized activation of visual, auditory, conceptual and other systems within the brain. When a child is listening to a story he read, looked at and touched before, his auditory, visual, conceptual systems in the brain click!
Ming Ming taught me the power of multimodal learning when one day, he picked up a book and started to read, little index finger moving along each character. It was a book we read often, and also an audio book he listens from 凯叔讲故事 (kǎi shū jiǎng gù shì, Uncle Kai Story Time). Yes, for the first few times he might be “reading” by reciting the stories he had memorized. But, after a while, Ming Ming did learn the individual characters and enjoyed pointing out the same characters from other books.
Ming Ming was also just so proud and excited to associate what he heard with the words he saw right in front him. This new association is a delightful discovery for his growing brain. For our birthday theme, we found the 可爱的鼠小弟 (kě ài de shǔ xiǎo dì, Little Mouse Series) audio story in 喜马拉雅 (xǐ mǎ lā yǎ). 喜马拉雅 (xǐ mǎ lā yǎ) provides a large collection of free audio books. Xi ma la Ya is a great app, however, you should be aware of a few caveats, in addition to being a Chinese-only site, 喜马拉雅 (xǐ mǎ lā yǎ) is an open source platform which allows anyone to upload their own audio files. Therefor, you will have to sort through a number of options to find the best version of a particular book.
Our favorite audio book resource is 凯叔讲故事 (kǎi shū jiǎng gù shì, Uncle Kai Story Time). Although it will take a person who can read Chinese to download and navigate the all-Chinese APP, and an active Chinese phone number to register. I do believe it is worth the hassle. There are some free stories, but we are paying about $65 for a year's subscription. In my opinion, 凯叔讲故事 (kǎi shū jiǎng gù shì, Uncle Kai Story Time) is one of the highest quality children's audio resources in China and is already loved by millions of children there. 凯叔讲故事 (kǎi shū jiǎng gù shì, Uncle Kai Story Time), however, has a limited selection of stories. When we can't find a story on 凯叔讲故事 (kǎi shū jiǎng gù shì), we search 喜马拉雅 (xǐ mǎ lā yǎ) ; When I can't find a good audio version in 喜马拉雅 (xǐ mǎ lā yǎ), I record my own using the iPhone voice memo.
If your children are already conversing in Chinese or learning Chinese from a tutor, or if you or your caregiver are already reading Chinese books to them, maybe it is time to start helping them read independently. Let’s not miss the opportunity afforded by the critical language acquisition age. It has been a beautiful, magical experience for my family.
Thanks for reading!
Reading can help develop and safeguard language skills over a lifetime. -Dr. Naomi Steiner, M.D. Author of 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child