Tips from a Chinese Tutor:
Structuring a bilingual environment at home


Chinese language tutorMandy | Mom of 1 | Grew up in: Shanghai, China; Lives in: Bay Area, California 
Native language: Mandarin Chinese & Shanghainese; Fluent in: English
Raising a bilingual child (& tutoring kids from <1 yr old to college!)
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We were thrilled to sit down with Mandy - originally from Shanghai, she is now a private tutor and creator of ‘Fun with Joy Mandarin.' Given her experience teaching kids of all ages - from <1 yr to high school - we were interested in hearing her tips on setting up a bilingual learning environment at home. We loved our chat and hearing tips that don't require formal tutors or teachers. We hope you find it helpful too!

Bilingual learning at home - How would you start?  

The most important element, I think, is consistency. Even just 30 minutes a day works - as long as it’s consistent. Of course, if you have more time, great. But consistency is key. 

On the structure, I would break it down into 3 simple categories - in any order you want: 

  • Singing and dancing - This could involve anything from nursery rhymes, movie theme songs, pop culture songs, and even topical coronavirus songs going on now.   
  • Story time - This could be 1 book or 2 books … it doesn’t matter. It can even be the same book, for young children - where they want to repeat the content to learn and remember it. For parents who don’t speak Chinese, there are an increasing number of sound / reading wand / robot products on the market now!  
  • Interactive activity - This could be something like tracing, arts & crafts, or games. 

If the session is only 30 minutes, is it 10 minutes for each? Is 10 minutes too short? 

No, as long as you keep it consistent - I don’t think it’s too short. Realistically, the hardest thing is to be consistent, and that’s the most important. Similar to exercise … if you can just keep a regular routine of 30 minutes a day, that is terrific. 

The activities also sound like they require a lot of parent engagement. Is it possible to be more independent? Or is that unrealistic or ineffective? 

It’s possible. For the singing / dancing - you can just play it on YouTube - and that doesn’t mean you have to show them the screen, since you can just play the audio. Of course if there are actions or dancing paired with the song, that might be helpful for them to see, to join along. 

For story time, there are so many products and sound books available - like your product (Habbi Habbi), where kids can try to read by themselves. There are also products that can play themselves (like books on tape or those robot toys that have pre-recorded stories or music on them). You can even find bloggers who read Chinese stories or are conducting virtual story times (Mine is here, and some other favorites are linked below). 

For the activity, there are activities kids can do themselves like simple word tracing, pairings, or puzzles. You just need to print it out, and they can color the word. 

A lot of young kids have short attention spans. What activities, based on your experience, work well for these kids? 

I’d suggest building off something they love - a favorite toy, Legos for example (using them to build 2D or 3D Chinese characters!) Integrate the activity with that toy. Also, young kids with short attention spans often have a hard time sitting still because they want to move. So you might integrate the Chinese activity with movement (for example, dancing with the song). 

Every kid is different - in what they like and what holds their interest. I’d suggest parents try different types of activities - and for whichever one that sticks, continue to do more of that activity, with different content.

We’ve discussed ‘basic exposure’ types of activities for young kids. What if you want to expand and go a little bit deeper? 

There are other activities that can be more involved but are also fun. (Fun is important, because it’s so important to make sure language learning holds their interest - and is not a chore.) Some example activities include a Chinese art wall or poster, building their own illustrated Chinese dictionary, or writing their own Chinese story. 

When they create a story, would they write it or speak it? 

Either - it depends on their capability. If they can, I’d encourage them to write it. I’d also encourage them to make their own illustrations … kids love imagining and building characters, their stories, and the settings. 

How do you even start thinking about teaching writing, in a way that doesn’t feel like memorization or worksheets? 

Start with simple characters, with fewer strokes - like 人 or 天. And just like English that starts writing with tracing, you can just start with tracing or coloring the characters. Start with 50 characters - a simple list - and go from there. In my experience, kids think Chinese characters are fun - because they look more like drawings than words, so they enjoy coloring them. You don’t have to just focus on pencil tracing - it can be coloring with crayon and markers or even using materials like Playdoh and pipe cleaners. 

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Written by H&AL of Habbi Habbi; first published on Red Tricycle | 20.07.15