Continuous practice to improve speaking and writing capabilities
It may seem as if we’re belabouring the obvious, but one of the most important aspects to help your children speak or read Chinese is consistent practice. Malcolm Gladwell claims that it requires at least 10,000 hours of practice in order to become an expert at a topic, and while one may disagree by saying that the quality of that practice matters more than the quantity, putting in the work is still essential.
If you can speak Chinese, speak it to your children and encourage them to speak it back. Even if it requires you to have an “artificial” feeling practice time of 15 minutes a day of only speaking Chinese, do it. If your child is having difficulty speaking back to you, you will likely need to boost their vocabulary.
Depending on your household’s Chinese ability, you may need to hire tutors, mother’s helpers, or convince family to come for the specific purpose of conversing in Chinese with your children. (You may need to do this even if your Chinese is excellent.) Whether the time is a session to learn new vocabulary, a play-based free time, or a formal lesson, that’s up to you. There are pros and cons for each of these choices, so it depends largely on how much time and effort you can expend.
The same goes for writing Chinese - you may engage your children to actually write the characters or you may have a game of expressing cogent and well-expressed ideas with them. We’ve gone into more detail in one of our previous pieces about how writing promotes thinking, explaining why writing Chinese is an important skill. With all that theory on its benefits, the key here is nonetheless practice.
For writing characters, your children will need to either practice writing characters alone, or in the context of phrases and sentences, or try out any of our writing focused activities on the Learning Journal. For writing essays or longer forms of writing, consider using prompts, pen pals, drawing comics, or any other methods to encourage writing longer thoughts down. The more they practice writing in this manner, the more they will improve.
Going beyond everyday conversation to provide a specialized or expanded vocabulary
Although you may spend 95% of the time speaking to your children in Chinese, if you only discuss daily living activities, your children will not have a very wide vocabulary (unless your daily conversation is incredibly broad and varied). Consequently, your child’s writing is a direct reflection of their speaking lexicon. After all, it stands to reason that if they do not know the word when speaking, they will not know it for writing.
When you take an honest look at what you talk about with your children during the course of a day, it is very basic. The rudiments of communication are covered - such as bodily functions and needs, foods, school, family, and perhaps, feelings. Of course, these are important terms to know and use. However, they are not enough.
It is this knowledge gap that is the biggest hindrance to Chinese fluency in your children.
When your children are young, it seems enough to only know the words of daily living. But when they are older or become adults, they will feel the inadequacy of their vocabulary very keenly. They will no longer be able to describe 80-90% of their life with any clarity, sophistication, or intelligence. Why would any person choose to express themselves in a language that cuts themselves off from so much of their life if they were not compelled thus?
Intention and effort are needed to introduce specialized and expanded vocabulary
Truthfully, to do anything well requires specific intention and effort.
It is even more the case when it comes to increasing the breadth and scope of your children’s Chinese vocabulary. This is basically because the words and terms you need to use are NOT part of your daily life.
You may need to seek tutors or outside help (and perhaps, a lot of online videos) to introduce and expound on these topics. There exists also a large collection of specialized books and magazines, many of which geared towards children. And though these materials are readily available, it does requires some additional energy and time to research and procure them.
Give children the opportunity to formally say / debate / discuss topics in Chinese
This may sound somewhat intimidating, but what we really mean is to create space for, schedule, and follow through with a time to discuss things with your children in Chinese. If you want it to be more “formal” than a deeper conversation with your kids, you’ll have to do more work.
Keep in mind that this can be as simple as doing a book report or presentation with some Q&A afterwards, a book club with other kids, or as complex as a debate team. The entire point is to provide opportunities for your children to be able to think on their feet, formulate cogent arguments, as well as be flexible as they respond to others - all in Chinese.
This is especially important if your child tends towards perfectionism and doesn’t want to speak Chinese unless they can say everything perfectly. These artificial scenarios will allow your child to practice and fail in “safe” situations. The more they see that the world won’t end if they make a mistake and that everyone is practicing, the more they will be willing to try in “real” life situations.
Furthermore, if you extend this application towards writing, your kids will have additional time to shape their words into more sophisticated phrases, sentences, and paragraphs. The main benefit of writing is that it is not instantaneous or immediate. The very nature of writing allows for more considered word choice as well as relief in knowing that editing exists so their efforts do not have to be perfect immediately (or at all).