How I Teach My Kids Chinese When I’m Not Fluent Myself

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Although I am not fluent in Chinese (just conversational), I am able to teach my kids Chinese through the Sage 500 books (from Hong Kong). I spend about an hour each week total but lately, we’ve been doubling our efforts…with frozen yogurt bribes 🙂

On Mondays and Wednesdays after school, I take my 7-year old daughter to get soft-serve yogurt while my son is at golf practice. At the yogurt shop, I grab a paper cup, pull down on the lever to disperse the yogurt into semi-perfect swirls. I choose plain mango and my daughter goes for vanilla with a topping of crushed Oreos.

We take our yogurt cups to our favorite table and sit and get comfortable. For the next hour, I would be teaching my daughter how to read and write in Chinese.

You would think that I can teach my kids Chinese because I am fluent myself. But I’m not. My spoken Chinese is barely at a conversational level. I have a hard time understanding Chinese movies because they speak with such “big” words. And I can barely read above a 3rd-grade level. I stopped attending weekend Chinese school when I was in 7th grade and have forgotten many of the characters.


But that hasn’t stopped me from teaching my children Chinese. From the time that my children were born, I have spoken to them (or at least tried) in Cantonese, my ancestral language and the language I spoke at home while growing up. When my son was 4, I wanted to start teaching him written Chinese. I searched the internet and Facebook groups for ideas. But everything was cost-prohibitive. It was difficult to find a Cantonese class in Dubai as all Chinese language courses were only offered in Mandarin. We couldn’t afford private lessons.

One day I was at a friend’s house for a playdate. She had just moved from Singapore and was lamenting on how her kids were forgetting all the Chinese they had learned there. She was trying to teach them herself with a set of Chinese books she had brought with her from Singapore. They were from a Hong Kong book publisher called Sage Books – the exact books that I had been considering myself. But they were expensive and the shipping cost was even more expensive. She graciously let me borrow them since her kids weren’t interested in learning Chinese anymore.

The “Sage 500” series consists of 5 levels of books with each level containing 5 books so a total of 25 books. Each book has 20 chapters and each chapter introduces only ONE new Chinese character. And each chapter contains 4 Chinese sentences. So by the end of the series, 500 of the most often used Chinese characters have been introduced and the child can read at a decent level. Since children learn to read before they learn to write, Sage 500 is a great option for smaller children.

From the Sage HK website, they suggest that each night, the child READS a total of 5 chapters: 1 new chapter (so 1 new character is learned at each sitting) and the 4 previous chapters (for review and reinforcement).

I decided to do something different. I wanted my kids to also WRITE the characters. So I would read the Chinese sentences, and my children would write them down and then they would read what they wrote out loud to me. To do five chapters, this process would often take us an hour, sometimes much longer if their attention waned.

With my son, it was an excruciating process. He was often unfocused and fidgety, and I in turn was often impatient with him and it would result in a power struggle and someone would end up in tears. Usually him, sometimes me.

After a few years of this (I wanted to give up on him so many times), I had had enough. Chinese homework was bringing out the worst in both of us. The mere mention of Chinese homework would make my son hide in his room and he would have a panicked expression as if he had just lost all the friends in the world. I turned into a horrible monster who had no patience with his behavior and attitude and no matter how hard I tried, I could not find it within me to be kind when he forgot a word or wrote with bad penmanship. No amount of bribery could change his attitude.


But I didn’t want to completely abandon teaching him Chinese. Giving up is easy. Choosing to continue is hard. The Chinese language is part of our culture and heritage and I feel that it’s important that my kids learn as much as I can teach them. Even more so as expats where everything around us is of a different culture. In our case, living in Dubai, there’s no one to speak to my kids in Cantonese except me and maybe one other friend. There are tons of Mandarin speakers but hardly any Cantonese.

So I made the decision to switch my son to just reading, no more writing. Reading those 5 chapters (1 new and 4 for review), now took us less than 10 minutes. I’ve lowered my standards and now everyone is happy. Or at least, happier. He continues to learn Chinese and we accomplish it in a shorter amount of time with no more shouting wars. In the future, if my son ever wants to take his Chinese to the next level, like learn how to write the characters or speak Mandarin, he’ll have to take classes and learn on his own. But he will have a good base to start with and I guess that’s all I can manage for him at this time.

Now my daughter is a different story. She’s four years younger than her brother and she is a joy to teach. She loves to read and write in any language and teaching her involves no difficulties on my part. No shouting, no loss of patience, no negativity. By the end of the Sage 500 series, she will actually have learned more than 500 characters because I’m teaching her both simplified and traditional characters. (Simplified Chinese is used in China and most other Chinese-speaking countries while traditional Chinese is used in Hong Kong and Taiwan. I grew up learning traditional Chinese and I would like my daughter to learn the same. But I recognize that it’s not used in many countries and texts, so I teach her simplified as well.)

So every Monday and Wednesday, my daughter and I grab a table at the frozen yogurt shop and I spend an hour teaching her to read and write Chinese. I read her the 5 chapters and she writes down the sentences – sometimes neatly, sometimes not. I’m working on improving her handwriting but that might require more frozen yogurt bribes.

Do you home school your kids in Chinese? I would love to hear about your journey – please share by leaving me a comment below.

Click here for the list of Chinese learning apps, Facebook groups, and other resources that I’ve found helpful for my kids.

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  1. Oo nice. Okay I will try that too. I am not familiar with simplified Chinese so it’s a great way for me to learn too. Thank you!

  2. Hello, how do you teach both traditional and simplified? I’m having the same dilemma.thank you do much for your post And information !