Thursday, October 29, 2015

New 4 Part Series on Chinese for Children - practical tips for students and their parents

If you are asking "How do I  help my child learn Mandarin?  How do I help myself learn Mandarin?" we have the answers for you.  Join Chinese for Families as we guest blog for Hacking Chinese at

Part 1 - Setting Realistic Goals is our starting point.  We put YOU in the drivers seat.  You are central to the learning process.  Your goals, your priorities are what is important.  Learn how to set goals you and your children can achieve.

Part 2 - How to choose a Chinese teacher - Now available online - What really matters when choosing a teacher or school?  A balanced review of factors that impact your learning experience.

Part 3 - How to choose materials - coming soon

Part 4 - In the trenches - learning at home - coming soon

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Teaching About Families - a Letter to Language Teachers

Dear Language Teacher – 

I would like to ask about your students.  If you are like me, you have taught students of various ages.  You may have taught in public, private and after school settings.  Your students have different backgrounds, interests, and goals.  But there is one thing they have in common.  They are not “average.” Just what is the average student anyway?  Is he or she a child from a 2 parent household, upper middle income, living in suburbia?   Most of my students didn’t fit this mold.  

Do you have students with divorced parents, some who have lost a close relative to terminal illness or accident, some who are adopted or in foster care,  some who are biracial, have siblings that don’t look like them or live with a grandparent?  Your students are all different and sometimes these differences may be invisible to us in the classroom.  However, we have the job of teaching them to learn another language when they step into our classroom.  How can we do this better?
Did you know there is one particular assignment that is VERY painful and can cause severe EMOTIONAL TRAUMA for many children?    

I ask this question because it is important in all classes.  For language teachers it becomes important when we teach the vocabulary of family.  This famous assignment is (drumroll......) the dreaded family tree.  When it comes to teaching our students the names of family members in another language, we often think of using a family tree as a project.  However, for the child who does not conform to this artificial norm that may have only existed in fictional families on TV, going through this exercise is not a learning experience.  It is an opportunity to publicly reveal personal and private details that may be painful.  Assignments like this are frequently highlighted by adoption professionals as  “triggers” that should be avoided.  

If you think this does not apply to you, let me tell you a story.  An adoptive parent recently told me about a family tree assignment that was given the her children in a language class.  These children were adopted internationally, are of a different race than their parents and are not siblings by biology.  They are siblings by adoption - this means they didn't look like each other. 

This assignment caused significant anxiety, stress, and trauma for two siblings.  The teacher suggested that the two siblings cheated on the assignment.  To the teacher, they weren't brother and sister.  Not all siblings share the same race or ethnic background and it is not the teacher's role to make this determination, express or even hold a value judgement on the status of their family.  It is unclear what the learning goals were in this particular assignment, but they certainly were not met.  Instead these children were forced to publicly discuss what is and should be private - details of their family. 

I would like to present an expanded view.  Family trees are inappropriate for adopted children; they are also potential triggers for children living with divorce, foster care, loss of a parent or sibling due to death or another factor.  I encourage you to read the chapter “A Forest of Family Trees” in Adoption and the Schools by Lansing Wood and Nancy Ng for more information on the needs of students in your class.  This resource is a MUST for all schools and is available from FAIR.

So, back to the family tree assignment.  What can you do instead?  First examine your learning goals.  What is the purpose of the assignment?  Is it to teach the names of immediate family members (parents, siblings) and grandparents?  Will you include the vocabulary for aunts, uncles, distant and close cousins?  Are you prepared to teach vocabulary for half siblings, second cousins, step siblings or parents?   Finally, do all students need to know all family member names or be able to discuss their own family situation with confidence?

Why not design an assignment that allows the child to learn what is likely to be covered on standardized language exams and allow the student to craft an assignment with maximum flexibility for their own family situation.  I have developed an assignment that meets this criteria.  It is flexible, covers essential vocabulary that students will face on a standardized exam, and it is comprehensive.

Suggested assignment for any language student:

Have your students create a photo or picture album of their family and close friends.  Allow them to include ANY family members they choose including friends and pets by posting a photo or drawing a picture.  Create a list of 5-10 target sentences and ask the students to choose 2-3 questions for each family member, pet or friend.  Sentence patterns can include the following:

  1. “This is my (family member name).” 
  2.  “He/she is named (name of person).”
  3. “He/she lives in (name of town, state, country).”
  4.  “He/she likes (hobby, food or preference).”
  5.  “He/she is (age).”
  6.  “He/she goes to (name of school) elementary school/jr high/high school/college.”
  7. “He/she works at (name of workplace).”
  8. “He/she is a/an (occupation).”
  9. “He/she is located in (place where the picture was taken).”
This is a multi-week comprehensive written and oral activity.  Start with an introduction to the vocabulary and sentence patterns in class followed by activities where they learn to identify family members in a fictional textbook family.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to choose a neutral family to portray rather than using actual student family members.  The only instance where you should use actual student family members is in small group or individual classes where you have the express permission of the parents and do so in a way that does not single out the child as different, "special" and not the norm.  

 Next provide time for the students to compile their books in class and as homework assignments.  If the students are old enough, they can write out the sentences and paste them on the pages of the album.   Finally have the students complete an oral assessment and/or presentation on their album.  

It is important that you ask the students to present their photo album to you during the oral assessment/presentation stage INDIVIDUALLY one-on-one and not in front of the entire class. Requiring students to present to the entire class is stressful, highlights differences, and can defeat the purpose of creating an inclusive activity.  With some groups it would be appropriate for in-class presentations, but for many it is not.  You can record your students making the presentation on video or as a Powerpoint presentation and give them a copy of the recording to share with their family.  As an alternative or in addition to this option, you can conduct the final activity as an assessment by asking the students to answer 2-3 questions about pages you randomly select in their albums.    

I have successfully used this assignment in every Chinese class I have taught over the last 10 years from pre-school, elementary, high school and adult settings.  I am confident it will suite your diverse student needs.  

Additional resources are available to help teachers in any subject create inclusive assignments that do not ask children to share personal and private information:

Adoption Resources for Teachers - US Department of Health and Human Services 
Adoption Awareness in School Assignments 
Guide to Making School & School Assignments More Adoption Friendly - National Council for Adoption
Adoption Basics for Educators - Iowa Foster & Adoptive Parents Association 
Adoption in the Schools - Families Adopting in Response (the most comprehensive treatment across all ages and stages)

About the author - I am an adoptive parent and have worked extensively with transracially adopted language students as well as children and adults in public and private school settings.  

A Day-by-Day Guide to Celebrating Chinese New Year

It is that time of year again.  Time for Spring Festival 春節.

At Chinese for Families we're a bit old fashioned.  We love folklore, ancient history, and old fashioned traditions.  When should you start your preparations for 春節 New Year, with the Laba Festival of course. 

The Laba Festival 臘八節 falls on the 8th day of the 12th month (in the lunar calendar).  If you missed it, don't worry, you can put it on your calendar for next year.  On Laba Festival, families eat 八寶粥 8 Treasure Porridge made from rice with 臘肉 la rou (bacon), fruit, tofu and nuts.  There are many stories behind this festival. In each, this simple porridge of left over rice, fruit and meat saved the characters from from a terrible fate.   
The Kitchen God Festival 小年 Xiao Nian
The Kitchen God 灶神 lives above the stove.  He is the household reporter - similar to Santa Claus with one important difference -- he keeps track the adults too.  All year long, he watches everyone in the house while his wife keeps a careful record.  On the 23rd or 24th day of the 12th lunar month, the men in the house remove his picture from above the stove and send him to heaven for a meeting with the Jade Emperor.  Before sending him on his way, it is important to make certain the Kitchen God is happy and well fed.  He will be reporting both the good and the bad upon his arrival in heaven.  To keep him from telling your secrets, you need to offer him special foods.  For ideas on what to feed your Kitchen God, listen to this story from NPR.  To hedge your bets, it's a good idea to smear a little honey on his lips and include melon candy in his offerings.  This will make his words sweet.  Or, you could add a very American food certain to keep him from talking.  A honey and peanut butter sandwich should do the trick!  We have a downloadable Kitchen God calendar for you coming soon to our Facebook page.

Now it's time to send your kitchen God to heaven (with a little help of your fireplace).  You can work on a new poster for next year.  Don't post it right away, put the new Kitchen God up after the Lantern Festival is over. Mark your calendars and don't forget the Kitchen God's birthday.  It takes place on the 3rd day of the 8th lunar month (around August and September).  You'll have another chance to get on his good side before next year.

Flower Market Day
Visit a Flower Market and find beautiful spring blooms to decorate your house.  The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco prepared a wonderful guide to shopping for Chinese New Year plants.  

House Cleaning Day
Kids can grab brooms, mops and dust clothes to help their parents 打掃房子dasao fangzi.  House cleaning before Spring Festival is essential.  Sweep out the old dirt, dust, and bad luck.  Then, put the brooms away till the first day of the new year has passed.  You'll avoid sweeping away the new year's good luck and have a clean house. 

Everyone needs new clothes, a hair cut, and decorations for the house.  Don't forget to pick up door gods 門神 menshen and new year sayings or Chunlian春聯 (check out our Facebook page for a downloadable link).  These wishes for a prosperous new year can be found in Chinese markets, bookstores and if you are lucky from your friendly neighborhood calligrapher.  Always printed on red paper, they feature gold and black ink, beautiful writing and auspicious decorations.

New Year's Eve 除夕Chu Xi
The big day has finally arrived.  Spend all day (or even start a couple days before) making the biggest feast of the year.  For ideas on what to cook, may we suggest the culinary creations of Jaden Hair from the Steamy Kitchen.  For my fellow vegetarians, peruse this menu from the Vegetarian Times.  Each dish in the new year meal is important and represents something special.  Whole fish symbolize prosperity.  It is important to save this dish for new year's day.  The word for fish 魚 sounds like the word for having a surplus 餘.  The saying 年年有餘 niannian you yu is a wish that every year there will be a surplus.  In Mandarin it sounds like "every year there will be fish!" Gather your whole family for the new year's eve meal.  Make certain to cook enough to avoid cooking on new year's day.  Using knives, scissors or other sharp objects is bad luck on the first day of the year.  

Parents and grandparents give children red envelopes 紅包 hongbao filled with crisp clean new bills.  Children put them under their pillows when they fall asleep to bring good dreams. It's going to be a late night - everyone stays up till midnight to welcome the new year.
The Story of Nian 年 (click to watch a video on our Facebook page)
According to legend, the Nian 年 monster came down from the mountains or out of the sea every new year's eve to terrorize families.  Each year the villagers would flee and hide in the mountain caves.  One year, an elderly man entered the village and provided sage advice.  Decorate your homes with with red lanterns 燈籠 denglong, bright chunlian 春聯, and stay up past midnight setting off fire crackers and making noises.  The bright red color and noise will frighten Nian 年 into thinking the village is filled with fire.  The ruse worked year after year and Nian 年 never returned.  The new year wish "過年了 guo nian le" refers to this success - Nian 年 has passed by.  For this reason, firecrackers are set off at midnight on new year's eve.  In ancient China, bamboo served a similar purpose.  It was heated till it cracked making noises 踩歲 caisui like firecrackers. 

New Year's Day
The first day of the new year is for spending time with family.  It is important to honor your elders and visit your grandparents.  Avoid using knives and other sharp objects.  Leave the housework for another day - it's bad luck to clean.  Give your children red envelopes 紅包 hongbao and catch a Lion Dance.  Don't forget to wish everyone a happy new year 恭喜發財 gongxi facai or simply 恭喜 gongxi.  Some families eat vegetarian for the first day of the year. 

2nd day of New Year
On the second day of the new year, married women return home to visit their parents.  Some believe this is also a special day for dogs, so give your furry friend a special treat. 

3rd day of New Year
On the 3rd day, families visit the temple and son's visit their parents.  

5th day of New Year
The 5th day is the 財神 God of Fortune's birthday. Wish everyone "財神來錢財到 caishen lai, qian cai dao," May the God of Fortune come and may wealth arrive with him.

6th day - Lion Dance Parade

7th day of New Year
Everyone has a birthday today.  This holiday is known as ren ri 人日.

Jan 31 - 8th day of New Year
Celebrate the birthday of the Jade Emperor with another family dinner.

12th days of New Year
Time to invite friends and family over for dinner.  Share the joy of the season.

13th Day of New Year

After all the over indulgence of the past two weeks, it's time for some vegetables.  Celebrate with vegetarian meals for a day.

15th day of New Year Lantern Festival 元宵節 Yuanxiao jie
The last day of the new year holiday is here.  Children will enjoy 湯圓 tangyuan - a sugar soup with sweet rice dumplings.  In China and Taiwan, lanterns decorate the streets and families go out at night to see the beautiful lights.  You can make your own lanterns together and hold a family contest to see who makes the most beautiful lantern.  According to legend, the Jade Emperor had a beautiful pet bird.  Some say he became angry at the people on earth for killing the bird, other say he was simply jealous of the happiness on earth.  He decided to set fire to earth on the 15th day of the new year.  A heavenly maiden warned the people of earth.  They decorated their homes with bright red lanterns making everything bright as if on fire.  The Jade Emperor was fooled and calamity averted.

You now have a day-by-day guide to Chinese New Year.  Enjoy the holiday by sharing meals with friends and family.  Don't forget to post a new Kitchen God poster in your kitchen, just watch what you do in front of him.  Remember, he's watching you!

We invite you to share your favorite Chinese New Year recipes and traditions.  Please leave a comment.  Note:  all comments are reviewed prior to posting too keep this a family friendly blog.  Thank you! 

We have more crafts and activities on our Facebook and Twitter pages.  Visit us there throughout the new year for new activities and chunlian 春聯 for the first 15 days of the holiday.  

Monday, October 1, 2012

Learn 36 Characters in 1 movie clip

This classic animated short from the Shanghai Art Film Studio brings 36 pictographic characters to life.  The soundtrack is in Mandarin and perfect for Novice High to Intermediate Low level students.  Take a look:

Recommended - Review of 9 Essential Digital Tools for Chinese

The Confused Laowai Blog has posted a wonderful article on essential digital resources.  Some are products I have recommended previously, others are new.  Check it out:

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Radicals - the Real Building Blocks of Chinese Characters

Learning to read Chinese isn't as difficult as you have been told.  Yes it will take a lot of time to learn to recognize characters, but there is a method to break through the madness.  Should your child start learning Characters right off the bat.  I my opinion no.  I'm a proponent of audio learning first.  But, there is a definite place for starting early with Chinese radicals.

What is a radical?  Radicals are the building blocks that make up Chinese characters.  There are 214 traditional Chinese radicals and around 189 listed in simplified Chinese dictionaries.  Each character is made up of one or more radicals.  Learning to break up characters into their component parts will make memorizing and reading characters much much easier.

Here are my favorite radical books I own and use frequently:

Wei Chu-hsien's How to Recognise Chinese Characters, an Introduction to the 214 Radicals of Chinese Thought and Script.  This very old volume is still available (Google it) but note that it is out of print.  Note - this book is not intended for nor of interest to young children.  It includes fabulous origin diagrams (illustrations of early Chinese characters starting from Oracle Bone through modern script), stroke order diagrams, zhuyinfuhao and yale romanization.  There are two different numbering systems at work in this book - the standard KangXi numbering system and the author's own frequency order.  I found this book available from AbeBooks.

Best Radical Book:  The Composition of Common Chinese Characters an Illustrated Account.  Note that this is not a book on radicals, but includes many many of them.  This book has online reviews stating that it's selection of Oracle and Seal script is the "most definitive."  I like the bilingual definitions, the origin diagrams and the cute illustrations.  This volume could be used with kids as it tends to avoid unpleasant or inappropriate illustrations.  Parent's, always look at the illustrations before showing your kids - some of these may contain topics you find inappropriate.  I found and purchased it from Amazon. You can look up characters by subject category, pronunciation (pinyin), or stroke number.

My Favorite:  The Origins of Chinese Characters By Wang Hongyuan.  Although this volume was not written by a scholar of ancient Chinese, it is a very interesting fun book.  I love the fact that the author includes multiple versions of Oracle Bone and Seal Script for each entry.  The illustrations alone make this book worthwhile.  It is a trip through history.  The author categorizes characters by subject category, by pinyin and includes an English glossary.  It is a great way to build character knowledge by seeing where characters came from.  Although not a book on radicals per se, just as with the volume recommended above, it will have many radicals listed.  This book is also available on Amazon

Chinese Calligraphy from Pictograph to Ideogram, the history of 214 Essential Chinese/Japanese Characters is a book on radicals.  It seems to have questionable oracle bone and origin information but is highly useful.  I always cross check the information provided in this volume with those listed above.  Also available on Amazon

There are other books out there and a few that I own.  For those not listed - I either don't like them (due to inappropriate illustrations for children, lack of origin diagrams - you can tell I really really like oracle bone script/bronze script/seal script diagrams) or I haven't had a chance to see them.

For a free resource, check out my Twitter Feed @CHForFamilies #RadicalADay.  I feature 3-5 radicals a week Monday-Friday.  In one year, you can learn all 214 Traditional and Simplified radical variants.

I have written a workbook introducing the first 50 common radicals.  If you are interested in a fun, child-centered workbook in English and Chinese filled with puzzles and interactive activities, contact me at to purchase a copy.

How to choose a dictionary for you and your child

Old Fashioned Bound Dictionaries - fpr the nostalgic and everyone who is a serious Chinese student

For all of you old enough to remember thumbing through a dictionary to find a word, here are some recommendations. As an adult learning Chinese (or if you have a teen or college student) you should have two dictionaries in your home library.  One comprehensive Traditional Chinese and one Simplified Chinese dictionary.

The BEST Traditional dictionary I have used is the Far East 遠東 published by the Far East Book Company of Taiwan.  My current favorite is the English-Chinese/Chinese-English version 2 in 1 dictionary.  I like having a comprehensive Traditional Character dictionary I can use to look up a Chinese or English dictionary at my fingertips in one book.  This dictionary has never failed.  If you can't find a character in this dictionary, it is likely a very very old word.  In the newer Far East Dictionary versions you can look up a Chinese character 2-4 ways - by stroke number and radical, by radical and stroke number and by pronunciation (zhuyinfuhao aka bopomofo, or by pinyin).  No matter where you live or what you study, there will be a day when you need to look up a traditional character.  Buy one fabulous traditional dictionary and use it forever.  I am still using my first Far East dictionary I purchased 25+ years ago in Taiwan.

For Simplified dictionaries, the obvious choice is the Xinhua Dictionary.  I currently have a 2000 edition with English translation.  It enables lookup by pinyin and radical/stroke count.  It is organized alphabetically by pinyin allowing for browsing based on pronunciation.  I like that this version includes traditional variants and zhuyinfuhao pronunciation systems along with pinyin.  There is something for everyone here.

I own but no longer use the Oxford Concise dictionary.  Although my 2nd edition contains fairly up to date vocabulary, I haven't opened it in years.  It simply is neither convenient nor comprehensive.  When I really need to find a word, I turn to an electronic dictionary and when I can't find it there, I pull out the Far East Dictionary.

Electronic Dictionaries - the Good and the Great!

Android Users - I LOVE Hanping Pro.  It is a very very GOOD electronic dictionary.  This was my first dictionary on my Android phone and I've found the paid Pro version to be worth every penny.  You can get it for free and it is still wonderful, but it is better in the paid version.  Now, before you download this dictionary, read about Pleco below.  Hanping Pro lets you set your preferences to Traditional or Simplified, Pinyin or Zhuyinfuhao, keeps a list of your most recent words looked up, has audio if you want, includes Idioms 成語, lets you input English, pinyin, handwriting or speech without the need to have additional keyboard input languages installed on your device.  If you are new to Android, you must download and install additional input languages - they don't come pre-loaded as on an Apple device.  I tested the speech input and found it to be weak when speaking Chinese, but fine for English.

Best Electronic Dictionary - the Great
Pleco is absolutely fabulous.  It runs on Android and Mac devices (Ipad/Iphone/Ipod).  Pleco is a free dictionary with many many paid extension to choose from.  I have been teaching my students to use Pleco and highly recommend the paid handwriting input extension.  It tracks your handwriting stroke by stroke updating selections as you write the character.  I have not experimented sufficiently with it yet, but initial testing with two 10 year old intermediate students has been highly satisfactory.

I have the benefit of having both Android and Ipad/Ipod devices in the house and like to switch between both platforms and programs - Hanping and Pleco.  I'll be focusing on Pleco more intensely over the summer as the kids I work with are primarily Iphone/Ipad/Ipod device users.

For Cantonese & Mandarin speakers/students using Ipad/Ipod/Iphone devices -  a student of mine strongly recommends Qingwen.  This dictionary allows the user to hear and input Cantonese and Mandarin pronunciation. 

Recommendation - download both free versions if you are an Android user - give them a good trial then choose which one you want to add and pay for extensions with.

Children's Dictionaries:

I have not seen any electronic children's Chinese dictionaries so I will ONLY comment on the bound book versions I personally own.

Favorite 2:  Usborne's First Thousand Words in Chinese and Times 500 Chinese Words for Children.  Truth be told, these aren't really dictionaries.  They are thematic picture books  with illustrations, simplified Chinese and pinyin.  When you want to cover one particular topic such as the kitchen, they provide one stop shopping.  There is some but not 100% overlap between these two volumes so I recommend both.

Good Supplemental Book:  Another volume to consider if you can find it is the Mandarin Picture Word Book by Ling Li and Barbara Steadman.  This is more coloring book than illustrated picture dictionary.  It makes a nice supplement to the two children's dictionaries listed above.  I don't like the very busy black and white line drawings.  I don't find them to be appealing to kids in any way.  I do find them to be incredibly useful to parents who want to get a quick list of relevant vocabulary they can use with characters and pinyin.  Again, this version only includes simplified characters.

I'll feature a list of Radical Books in an upcoming post.  Radicals are what you really need to focus on when starting Chinese, no matter what your age.