Improve Chinese Vocabulary (Additional ways)

This post of our Linguistic Series is based on one of our Chinese blog posts. You can read the original here.

This post focuses on the progression of learning a language and provides additional ways to help your children apply speaking and writing Chinese in their lives.

Children are immersed in language and sounds from birth so what they hear most becomes their dominant tongue. They learn speaking by absorbing tone, vocabulary, intonation, and expressions. These listening and speaking skills build a foundation for reading and writing.

The more fluent your children are at listening and speaking, the easier it will be for them to learn reading and writing because they will already have the vocabulary and it is a matter of putting a symbol to a word they already know. Additionally, it will be easier for your children to guess characters as they read if they know common phrases, idioms, and expressions. Thus, even if they do not know every character in a sentence, they can logically infer what the character should be.

In fact, listening and speaking are paired together like reading and writing. Just as honing listening skills will improve speaking abilities, improving reading will naturally lead to better writing because children will passively accumulate writing skills by reading and observing different styles. This does not negate the need to formally learn grammar and writing rules, but reading widely and often will go a long way to give your children an innate “feel” for how Chinese (or any language) works and should sound.


If you combine all the steps of listening, speaking, reading, and writing, your children will gradually go from recognizing a single character to a phrase to reading a whole article and understanding the entire story. It really is that simple, though may not be easy. (By simple, we mean that the concept and theory behind the application is straightforward. The consistent speaking, reading, and writing in Chinese is a different story entirely.)

We have addressed many ways to help your children improve upon their various Chinese language skills (especially reading and writing because those seem to be the most difficult to do). Here are an additional set of suggestions that you can try.

 1 Provide lots of reading material 

The key isn’t just to provide lots of the types of books your child would naturally read on their own. Although, it IS wonderful to follow your child’s lead so if they love dinosaurs and will read anything with dinosaurs in them - regardless of fiction or non-fiction - provide as many books as you can that mention, include, or focus on dinosaurs.

However, we encourage you to expose your child to different styles and rhetoric. The more types of reading material you give your child, the more their reading comprehension skills will increase. This will then help their writing skills without you needing to actively do anything about it.

 2 Teaching life skills and metaphors in Chinese 

The Chinese language is full of metaphors based on life skills. Connecting these two seemingly unrelated tasks will therefore largely enrich daily vocabulary. Life skills such as doing the dishes, cleaning the house, folding laundry, cooking, etc. and common metaphors and idioms are often spoken and used without thinking. But since these make up a good portion of normal conversation, your children will need these words to describe the world they live in.

Here are a few such examples.

  • 治大国若烹小鲜 running the country is like frying a delicate small fish - do not over interfere
  • 十指不沾陽春水 one’s fingers do not have to touch the cold water / do her own laundry in March - living a privileged life
  • 年年有魚 (餘) Surplus year after year - greetings at Chinese New Year

 3 Impersonating people 

Although this may sound odd, it’s a fun and unexpected way to improve your child’s imagination and language skill. Your child will have to think carefully about how the person they’re imitating uses language such as the types of words they use, the level of vocabulary, usage of slang, whether they have accents, the cadence and speed, as well as how the person moves. This forces your child to describe and consider the world in livelier and more vivid terms - all on the subconscious level.

 4 Translate and understand intangible things 

For a younger child, intangible thing could be a smell or a feeling. Ask them, for example, what colour does this smell remind you of? Why? Or if cold was a texture, what would it feel like? Would it be sticky? Rough? Smooth? Why?

If your children are older, you can ask them to explain the difference between love for your family and love for a hobby. Or perhaps have them describe the feeling of a sunset without using colors and only food words. Or ask them to look at a painting and describe what the painting is trying to evoke without stating the subject or describing the actual painting. You can also ask your child to translate the meaning of a sentence or phrase into Chinese without doing a literal word for word translation.

Of course, you should use your discretion to make sure the materials you provide are appropriate. This skill helps your children access different parts of their brain as well as increases their creativity.

 5 Answer questions with more questions 

Too often as parents, we get irritated with questions from our children and want to answer as quickly as possible. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, we can take advantage of the innumerable questions as an opportunity to get our children to think of things in a new way. (And in Chinese, too!)

So when your children ask you a question - no matter how close or open-ended, ask them another question and make them think and come up with an answer.

A simple example would be if your child asks you what time it is. Instead of telling them the time, you can ask several follow up questions such as: What time do you think it is? What are ways you could try and guess the time without using a watch or phone? How high is the sun or moon in the sky? Is it light or dark outside? Have they eaten a meal recently or finished an activity that is normally at a certain time?

Of course, this depends on your ability to suffer, but it can be a great learning experience! And yes, these questions are not limited to the Chinese language - but the idea is to have your children be flexible in their thinking - and to do it in Chinese.

 6 Teaching different descriptors 

We’re used to teaching our children easy descriptors such as big and small, near and far, light and heavy, and light and dark. But there are more contrasts and descriptors than those basic ones. You can teach them words for layers, depths, parallels, opposites, weights, densities, textures, sounds, materials, pressures, etc. The idea is to provide as many words as possible to help your children make a story or piece of writing sound more convincing and real.

 7 Rhymes 

The beauty of the Chinese language is that there are so many homonyms, actual rhymes, and near rhymes. Your child can learn different pronunciations, special rhymes, heteronyms (破音字 pò yīng zì - eg: "minute" and "minute" in English). You can also slip in teaching sound components because those will give a hint to possible rhymes or homonyms.

All these methods can be done individually or as part of a whole. But the idea is to make the Chinese language richer and fuller for your children. Thus, because they have such a wide and vast comprehension, it will be relatively easier for them to read and write. Their internal resources will be deeper and your children will have more words from which to draw on and use in their speaking and writing, thereby improving your child’s Chinese fluency and literacy.