A few months ago, my little bilingual (Polish/English) son has begun a new language adventure and he started learning Chinese. Thanks to his decision, since then I’ve been meeting new parents, whose children are also learning Chinese. One of them is Po Tim, who agreed to tell us her unique story. Po Tim homeschools her young children in Chinese and she uses a method called “home – outside the home”, recommended by Prof. Francois Grosjean. I wrote about this approach in my other post. In this method, Po Tim’s family uses one language to communicate at home (English) and another language to speak outside the home (Cantonese). Thank you, Po Tim, for sharing your story and your great advice.
Po Tim King is a native Cantonese speaker, a mother of three bilingual children aged 6, 4 and 2 years and married to a Japanese-American. She is a pianist, vocalist, chorister, and former Chinese teacher who graduated from BYU with a degree in Linguistics and minors in TESOL and Music. Po Tim shares Chinese language learning resources via her blog Fortune Cookie Mom to help other parents homeschool their multilingual children, aged 3-6.
Three years ago, my husband and I decided to move to Hong Kong with our two little girls, 3 and 1,5 years old then and our son on his way. Then we made a decision that would change our lives forever. Instead of sending our children to school, we decided to homeschool them and teach both Chinese and English.
1. Our background is different from the locals
My husband is a half-Japanese-American who speaks amazing Cantonese and a little Mandarin. He lived in Hong Kong for four years, so he understands quite a lot about Hong Kong and the people. For 5 years, we have been living as a family in the United States, so even though now we are living in Hong Kong, we both agreed that it would be better for our kids if we maintained our American lifestyle.
This means that, for example, we have our dinners earlier (6:30 pm) and have an earlier bedtime for our kids (8:30 pm) than an average Hong Kong family which has dinner around 8:30 pm, and sends their kids to bed around 11 pm or midnight. We mainly speak English when we are together as a family, but we speak Cantonese when we are outside with other Hong Kong people. We also allow our kids to play in the dirt or rain, and we look for living creatures around our neighborhood, so our neighbors always think we are crazy parents. We also allow our kids to cook and eat a variety foods not just Chinese food.
For all these reasons, we didn’t think our kids would feel comfortable if they went to a local kindergarten. We were also aware that their English level is higher than that of their peers, but their Chinese is only at beginner level. It would be extremely hard for all of us if my kids had to learn the same way as other Hong Kong children. We also couldn’t afford the expensive tuition fees for an international school, so we decided that homeschooling was the best option for our family.
2. We don’t feel the Hong Kong education is right for our family
I am the product of the Hong Kong education system, and I’m so lucky that I managed to get through. I believe my piano skills and the rewards I would receive from playing badminton helped me a lot. If I could choose again, though, I would not want to go through the Hong Kong education again, so of course, I didn’t want my children to have experiences that were similar to mine.
Compared to my kids, the local children might be the same age as mine but they know more facts and information learned at school or from their parents. Most of this knowledge, however, comes from their textbooks, tests, and exams. Yes, they know a lot because otherwise they wouldn’t get good grades. They are also excellent at memorizing information, so they know a lot more Chinese characters than my kids.
I didn’t want our children to compete with other kids though. As a child, I possessed a good memory, however it was only short-term memory, so I would learn and then forget things quite quickly. This is why, for my kids I wanted to provide more opportunities to explore and make meaningful connections so that they could learn and experience things rather than memorize facts for a short time. Also, I wanted my children to have the freedom to choose what they wanted to know and truly learn about the world instead of being instructed what to remember from textbooks. And most importantly, I wanted my kids to love learning and studying, and I didn’t feel they would get the same chance if they went to a local school.
3. We are at the Right Time and at the Right Place
Almost a year after moving to Hong Kong, we were finally able to move out of my parent’s apartment and into our own. I loved living with them but with time, our family became too big to share the space.
I think it was a great time to start homeschooling because my kids were so young. To homeschool preschoolers didn’t sound to me as terrifying as homeschooling high school students. I knew I could teach simple English and Chinese even though I am not a qualified teacher. Also, learning at this stage involves lots of playing, so it is fairly easy to come up with play-based lesson plans, and there is always Pinterest to help when I run out of ideas.
Raising a family with only one spouse working in Hong Kong is very hard. The price for everything goes up, but your income does not increase, so we decided that instead of paying the tuition fees for both our children we could make some savings through homeschooling. This would also allow our children to develop at their own pace. Moreover, we could use some of the money to purchase very cheap but awesome educational resources from China on Taobao, so it all made great sense to us.
4 Tips to Start Teaching Chinese at Home
I quickly realized that I would always have to homeschool my kids in Chinese because I’m their only source of the language and culture, especially if one day we decide to move back to the US.
I felt I couldn’t ignore this responsibility. If I wanted to resign from teaching my children my heritage language, I would have to resign from being their mother, too! I decided, if this was my lifetime calling, I should take it very seriously.
1. Create a Chinese learning area at your Home
No matter where you live in the world, China can be in the corner of your home if only you build it. You can make your own little Chinatown by doing the following things:
- Find a place and tell your children that this is your little Chinatown and you are all going to learn Chinese right there. It doesn’t have to be big, in our home we use our dining room table.
- Decorate your space with pictures, posters, cultural decorations (lanterns, banners, dolls, fans), maps, and newspapers. Put some books there too. Finish by putting Chinese labels on different items.
- Play Chinese music when you are teaching. Chinese nursery songs, folk songs, or Chinese instrumental music are just perfect.
- Invite your children to put up decorations together. I’m sure your son or daughter will be excited to be involved in setting up their corner to learn Chinese.
2. Set a regular time to learn Chinese
Being consistent is the key to success. When you want to start teaching your child Chinese, it’s best to develop a routine in your daily schedule so learning Chinese can become part of your daily life.
- Decide on a regular time for you and your child to learn Chinese in your Chinese area. At the beginning, it is easier to keep your Chinese time short but you should do it EVERY DAY (or, you could choose weekdays only, whatever suits you best). For example, you could plan 15-30 minutes after dinner.
- Research and collect age-appropriate activities and lesson plans that will interest your child.
- Set a regular “Chinese Time” rotation schedule using 2-3 learning areas. For example, on Mondays you can have a Chinese storytime, on Tuesdays Chinese nursery songs, reserve Wednesdays for playdates with your Chinese neighbors, Thursdays for Chinese arts and crafts, and Fridays for Chinese cartoons. Of course, it is up to you how you plan your activities to keep them varied and relevant to your child’s interests.
- Remember, the main goal is not how much your child learns but how much he or she enjoys the learning process. When your child has fun learning Chinese, they will be more willing to learn Chinese on their own.
3. Learn Together
No one likes to be alone, and our children are no exception. In my experience, my children are much happier and willing to work when I can work together with them. Sometimes it’s hard to put away what I am working on but when I do, my children behave and learn better because they know I love them.
- This applies to all parents. Even if you cannot speak Chinese, you can learn together with your child. One day, when your child starts to speak the words, which you taught them, you will appreciate this amazing moment.
- Even when you learn simple vocabulary together with your child, you will be able to see how difficult it is to pronounce, remember the meaning, and use correct grammar, so you will be more supportive of them.
- Since you are already preparing the materials and lessons for your children, you might as well learn them! Adults can benefit from learning a new language just as much as children. I also think it is a great experience for a child to witness how their parent is learning a new language.
4. Connect with other parents/ groups online/ in person
We can’t work alone, and we should embrace the amazing technology which provides us with more opportunities to meet new people all over the world. It’s great to be able to meet someone who has a similar mindset, goals, and problems to yours. I met Bea from BornBilingual on Facebook. We are both raising bilingual children and we are trying to teach them Chinese and we connected so we can chat and learn from each other. It is great to find support and not feel alone anymore, especially in such an uncommon area like teaching your child Chinese at home.
If possible, it is always best to have families, friends and neighbors that speak Chinese, so you can meet them in person and learn from them directly. If not, there are several Facebook groups where you can meet other educators and parents like yourself. Here are a few groups that I like. Before joining, make sure to check their requirements because each group has different rules.
- Homeschooling Chinese & English Pre-K/ K Group
- Multilinguals Learning Chinese
- 美國在家自學的雙語家庭 Chinese-English Bilingual Homeschoolers in America
- Raising bilingual children in Chinese & English
- Cantonese Parents