How to get my kid to learn Chinese when my own Chinese is so bad?

by Woo Yen Yen

An English teacher’s journey towards getting her daughter to learn Chinese.

In this four-part series, former New York-based professor and “ang moh pai” (Western-educated) English teacher Dr. Woo Yen Yen went from being that student who ripped up her Chinese textbook to writing Chinese comics and a giant musical that toured 25 cities in China. She shares her journey on how she got her American-born daughter with zero Chinese to thrive in a Taiwanese public school where the instruction is completely in Chinese.

This series of lectures was produced for the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Mother Tongues Languages Symposium 2020 and supported by the Speak Mandarin Campaign.

#speakmandarincampaign #bilingualism #chineseeducation #comics #multicultural #bilingualeducation

Why is learning the Chinese language so hard?

So it was the night before my Secondary 1 Chinese exam and I was panicking!

I was trying desperately to memorize the words and the meanings of my list of Chinese idioms or 成语. Yes, it was definitely my fault for delaying studying until the last minute.

It seemed like my classmates knew so much more than I did. They knew what was going on, the meanings of al the idioms, while I was really quite lost.

I kept flipping back and forth to see how many more pages I had to go… 11pm … there was no way that I could finish. What on earth could I do?

I was desperate and upset, and I really felt like a failure, and very much alone. Why is Chinese so hard?
And so I tore up my Chinese book, into many, many pieces… and just sat there and cried.

After dramatic experience of ripping up my Chinese textbook, I eventually went on to get my degree in English literature and language from the National University of Singapore, and became an English teacher in a secondary school. Obviously, I wasn’t going to be a Chinese teacher!

After a few years teaching, I got a scholarship to get my doctorate in education from Teachers College at Columbia University in New York, and I went on to become a tenured professor in Long Island University in New York, and also a visiting professor in Taiwan’s National Central University.

That night when I tore up my Chinese book, I never could have expected I would go on to:

  1. make a movie that was mostly in Chinese which has been screened all over the world;
  2. write a musical—in Chinese! (I did get some help)—that got produced by the biggest name in Chinese theater, and which toured over 25 cities in China;
  3. give lectures—in Mandarin!—in Taiwanese universities or at the National Palace Museum;
  4. design the Dim Sum Warriors bilingual books and learning system.

If my Chinese teachers back in school were told that I would be here giving a lecture at the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Mother Tongues Languages Symposium on the learning of Chinese, they would have thought it was a joke.
But, people change, and I have changed. How on earth did I go from tearing up my Chinese book to creating a system that teaches Chinese to kids?

My daughter was born in New York and we only moved to Taiwan when she was 8. Before that, she had close to zero Chinese. I could never have imagined that within 3 years, she could pass exams not just in Chinese but also math, science and social studies in Chinese. I could also never have imagined that so many of her responses to everyday conversations are now in Mandarin! She has learned to say, “哎呀,拜託啦!“(oh, please!) and to tell me that she wants to “耍废“ (chill).

But back to that night when I tore up my Chinese book… the process of learning a language foreign to your background can be difficult, and in Singapore, the learning of Mandarin for ethnically Chinese can also be quite emotional. Based on the latest statistics, 70% of first grade kids in Singapore come from English-dominant home. So, for many kids, even though Mandarin is regarded as a “mother tongue” by the school system, it is not, in fact, the “home language” or the language that kids are most proficient at. For many, they are learning Chinese as a second language if not a foreign language.

Recently on the Dim Sum Warriors Facebook page, I posed the question to the Dim Sum Warriors community: What word would you use to describe the emotions of learning Chinese in Singapore?

And we got many passionate responses. Here’s what these Singaporean parents told me:
“sian” (Singlish word meaning fatigue, tiredness or reluctance); frustration; fear; despair, pain.

I was quite shocked that there was only one positive response.

When I conducted a workshop at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content sometime back, I was saddened, if not surprised, to hear even Chinese teachers lament that their kids were reluctant to speak Chinese. Somehow, when kids get to formal schooling, they choose to speak in English over Mandarin or other languages like Malay and Tamil. This is not dissimilar to the experience of immigrant communities that I met in New York City where the language of power is English.

In this series, I will share parts of my journey and relationship with Chinese as both a learner, and educator and also as a parent. And I hope it will be helpful to your journey learning languages and also to those who want to teach Chinese to kids.

I will do this through 4 videos:

Part 1: “I tore up my Chinese book!”
Part 2: “What can we learn from being last in class?”
Part 3: “How do we follow our child’s interests?”
Part 4: “How do we become confident with our languages?”

Although I was invited to speak about language learning, we should be aware that language learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It happens for us within the context of a wider set of principles and values about learning.

I will not prescribe a specific set of tips or methods to use for learning Chinese or any language alone. Rather, I shall discuss principles that I have learned which apply to learning anything—whether it’s languages, music, riding bicycles, whatever.

Ultimately, my goal as a parent, and in this series, is not to get my kid or your kids to get especially good grades in Chinese (sorry!). What I want to provide you with a set of principles that can help us remove the fear of learning languages, or something difficult or new, and to replace that with curiosity and a sense of adventure. This is the best way to teach Chinese to kids!

So back again to 11 pm the night before the Chinese exam. By midnight, I was sitting on the floor with Scotch tape, taping back the shreds of my book. My Chinese book for the rest of that semester was pretty messed up …

Continue to Part 2: “What can we learn from being last in class?” 

If you have any questions or topics that you would like me to cover in the areas of education and parenting, please send me an email at I check all my emails personally and look forward to your questions. However, if you’re a student who’s trying to ask me to do your homework or project for you, I will most likely not have time to respond because I get way too many of those emails and it’s quite impossible to answer them all. ?

I am also hosting The Dim Sum Warriors Doodle Date, a FREE bilingual chat-and-draw-along session which is run via Facebook on select Saturdays at 10.30 am (Singapore time (UTC+8). If you are interested, check out this introduction to Dim Sum Warriors.

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