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.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Children's Audio Books for Ipad

For the last 6 months, I've been following the 5Q Channel.  This innovative resource offers audio Ebooks for Ipad and Iphone.  Books are available in Traditional, Simplified, with Zhuyinfuhao or pinyin.  The content is suitable for children/students at the ACTFL Novice High to Intermediate High levels. 

The animation is charming an the content features traditional Chinese folktales, Idiom stories and children's stories from other cultures.  Each story is ranked by level (level 1 is suitable for ACTFL Novice High or Intermediate Low) and age.  Note:  these stories do require a base in Chinese.  If you are unfamiliar with the ACTFL (American Council for Teachers of Foreign Language levels, you can read the proficiency level definitions here:  ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines

In a nutshell, a student at the Novice High level is one who has mastered memorized vocabulary, is beginning to "create with language" but cannot sustain conversations beyond predictable social situations.  Students at the Intermediate level are able to begin creating with language - or utilize vocabulary to talk about topics they do not yet possess specific vocabulary for.  This is a fancy way of saying the student can talk around a topic where they lack specific or appropriate vocabulary.  They create rather than utilized memorized words and phrases. 

a.  Appropriate content for young children
b.  Great audio that is easy to listen and understand
c.  Engaging illustrations
d.  Cost is fabulous - US$ .99-2.99 per book (higher priced books are sets of 4-6 books)
e.  New content is added frequently giving you ample opportunity to build an E Library.
f.  Content contains cultural depth presenting an excellent opportunity to study Chinese culture through reading.
g.  This is the best Chinese Children's EBook site in the Apple IStore at this time.  Highly recommended.

a.  Students/children must have a strong base in Chinese to use these Audio Ebooks - Novice High or better.  This is not a product for absolute beginners but IS suitable for children in native speaking homes.
b.  Not all books are available in both Traditional or Simplified Chinese.
c.  Not all books are available with Zhuyinfuhao (bopomofo) for those who prefer this to Pinyin.
d.  If you do not know the vocabulary, you must look it up in a dictionary - the applications lack built-in tappable dictionary functions or comprehensive vocabulary lists in the back of each EBook. 

5 Q Ipad & Iphone apps

or visit them in the IStore.

Happy reading!

A Great Resource for Older & more Advanced Learners

It is so rare to find a great resource for intermediate and advanced students working on reading skills, I wanted to deviate from the theme and recommend this new product.  Decipher Chinese Reader is a new and excellent resource.

Currently available in full version for Android devices and in a trial version on the I Store, it offers reading content for HSK (the mainland Chinese proficiency exam) levels 3-5 divided into three separate applications.  The Beginner level contains 50 articles at the HSK level 2/3.  The Intermediate level features articles at HSK level 4 and Advanced has content at the HSK level 5. 

What makes this product unique?  Each article has a built-in finger tap dictionary/pinyin feature allowing you to get assistance for words you do not know.  The reader can save their progress or mark an article as read.  In the Save Progress mode, you can maintain the "tapped" words with pinyin visible for the next time you review the article. 

a.  The product only provides articles in Simplified Chinese. 
b.  You cannot create a vocabulary list or flash card set of the unfamiliar words. 
c.  This is not a product geared for young children (I'll recommend an excellent source of Ipad Chinese Children's audio books in a separate post). The articles are not selected for young children and may contain content the is unsuitable for children.

a.  Interesting articles geared for adults or teens divided by clearly defined levels associated with a recognized Chinese standard for measuring proficiency (HSK).
b.  The application is mobile.  It works on Android phones/tablets and will soon work in the full version on Ipad and Ipod allowing the student to study whenever or wherever.
c.  Finally something for advanced learners!!!!!!

I have only been using the application for a couple days working my way from the beginning through advanced levels and so far I love it. 

Important series on how to study Mandarin

For all of you studying Chinese, teaching your children, or just wondering how to get started, the following series is for you.  It outlines practical strategies for pursuing language learning based on RESEARCH.  If you are unfamiliar with Dr. Stephen Krashen, please take a few minutes to Google him.  A great place to start is this article in the Washington Post about comprehensible input.  What is comprehensible input you ask, excellent question. 

"The results of studies done over the last few decades by a wide variety of researchers and published in scientific journals support this view: We do not master languages by hard study and memorization, or by producing it. Rather, we acquire language when we understand what people tell us and what we read, when we get “comprehensible input.” As we get comprehensible input through listening and reading, we acquire (or “absorb”) the grammar and vocabulary of the second language." (Stephen Krashen Washintgon Post The Right and Wrong Way to learn a Foreign Language 6/16/12)

In other words - context  matters.  Vocabulary lists, flash cards, books, and videos that  present vocabulary in isolation fail to provide the critical context for language learning.  If your child is learning to count or name animals in Chinese, what can they do with that information?  Vocabulary in isolation is not useful to the learner, no matter how old or young they are.  But, selecting appropriate materials for the age and language level of the learner is not easy.  Our previous posts "Why Authentic Content is Best at Any Level" and "Learn Mandarin with Chinese Teletubbies" address this issue. 

I highly recommend this series of articles on how to increase your listening practice and identify appropriate content for that practice. 

Articles in this series
Problem analysis
Background listening
Passive listening
Active listening
Listening speed
Deliberate practice and i+2
Social and motivational aspects (not yet published)
Indirect ways of improving listening ability (not yet published)
Audio resources (not yet published)

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why authentic content is best at any level

We just started a thread where our recommended products are all "made for native speakers."  Well, sort of.  They are dubbed versions of children's programs (cartoons and live action) designed for the very young. 

This has advantages - first the content is suitable for children - no bad words and no inappropriate content.  Second, the language level is rather basic and simplistic.  The videos we will recommend feature simple sentence structures in short narratives (approximately 5 minutes in length).  Although you may like to watch movies, will a full length feature film really provide the repetition and appropriate language level for a beginning student?

Here is an excellent article about why authentic content is best.

If you have any doubts after reading it, rest assured, it is the latest trend in language teaching.  The IPA or Integrated Performance Assessment technique is specifically designed to utilize content for native speakers in language learning classrooms.  Teachers trained in the IPA technique can open up a whole new world of relevant content.  You can learn more at ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching for Foreign Languages)  Ask your language teacher if he/she is trained in IPA.

Learning Mandarin with Chinese Teletubbies - yes the Teletubbies!

Yuck!!!!! Ewwww!!!!  I can hear the groans of parents everywhere.  Yes, Teletubbies are our favorite.  Why do we love the Teletubbies?  The answer is simple - would you like to start your toddler or pre-schooler on the road to speaking Mandarin without pulling you hair out, having them rip the keys off your laptop or break the IPad?

What you really need are basic sentences, presented in a meaningful context that you and your child can understand by watching while you listen.  Books, apps, cds and other products that teach lists of words can accomplish only that - lists of words.  Products made for older kids can't hold the attention of very young children. 

If you have a toddler you know they are very special.  Your life revolves around trying to get them to do things you can't make them do - learn to use the potty, eat, say words, go to sleep when you are exhausted.  In general, they've turned your adult world up-side down and you may feel that they are in control, not you.  How will you introduce a second or third language?  Easy, give in and use something designed especially for the 2 year old brain - Teletubbies. 

Chinese Teletubbies, unlike their English counterparts, speak clearly without all that baby talk babble.  Teletubbies are perfect for beginning level learners.   At Chinese for Families we have transcribed most episodes.  Contact us for more information and special classes for young children. 

If you have a child between the ages of 1 and 4, Teletubbies will give you a few moments of peace, engage your child in a language rich environment designed especially for them, and provide just the right amount of repetition.  As an added bonus, you will learn too.  Give it a try.  We think you will fall in love with the Teletubbies the way we have - well maybe you won't name your car Xiao Po.  I did.

Now, not all Teletubbies episodes are created equal.  There are some that just don't meet the threshold of content you can understand by watching while you listen.  Our recommended DVD/VCDs are:

Here come the Teletubbies
Animals Big & Small
Big Hug
Happy Weather Stories
Hide & Seek
Favorite Things
Go & Let's Dance
Uh Oh Messes & Muddles
Busy Day

We don't like these Teletubby DVDs: 

Dance with the Teletubbies, Happy Christmas, Nursery Rhymes. 

These tapes have one or more issues that make them unsuitable for language learning:  a lack of Mandarin audio (either too much English or too much of another language) and/or a lack of visuals that correspond with the audio track. 

There are a number of new Teletubby titles but we have not yet seen them and therefore cannot comment.  However, we would LOVE to see them. 

The challenge is finding a store to buy Chinese Teletubbies. has Teletubby DVDs (region 3) from Taiwan and provide high quality authentic DVDs.  Video stores in Chinatowns also may carry Teletubbies.  Be certain to ask if they have Mandarin audio, not just subtitles.  If you have friends visiting China, Taiwan or Hong Kong, ask them to pick up copies for you.  VCDs are a less expensive format that will enable you play the video without having a multi-region player. 

Stay tuned for our next installment in the video learning realm - Miffy & Pororo.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Chinese Grammar – A Brief Intro

This blog entry will briefly introduce Chinese grammar.  The contents of this article are limited to modern, vernacular Mandarin Chinese. 

Here is the good news -- in contrast to the writing system, Chinese grammar is simple and straightforward.  We’ll present “just enough grammar” to get you started.  At the same time I’ll explain what you would typically see during the first year of Chinese instruction.  The explanations and examples will be in English with limited pinyin.  

The purpose of this column is to give you a brief overview of the basic “rules” to keep in mind when trying to form a sentence in Chinese.  This isn’t a column to burden your child with.  Rather, this is intended for adults only!  Fortunately, kids approach language learning differently and are less preoccupied with grammatical rules, they just repeat the structures they hear.  We adults get bogged down in the semantics because that is the way we have always been taught languages (unfortunately).  So, I’m using a format that we are all familiar with to answer some basic questions. 

First of all, please keep in mind that Chinese is REALLY not as hard as you were led to believe.  This discussion of grammar should convince you.  Set aside those concerns about conjugation, case, gender agreement, and the grammatical “pitfalls” that slowed you down when studying other languages.  In Chinese, your primary concern is with the order of words in a sentence (the syntax).  Once you understand the basic sentence patterns, you just plug in new words. 

Basic Word Order

1.  Subjects come before Verbs 

Subject + Verb

2.  Objects can be located in two different places - after the verb or before the verb is a special particle is used
a.  Subject + Verb + Object
b.  Subject + "particle ba" Object + Verb

3.  Time comes at the beginning of the sentence

Time+ Subject + Verb

4.  Location also comes at the beginning of the sentece

Subject + location + Verb

Subjects & Verbs

Subjects occur before verbs and verbs are not conjugated, nor do they indicate tense.  Really, I’m not kidding.  Verbs are not conjugated and do not indicate tense!!!  Here are some examples:

Yesterday I go to the store, today I go to the store, tomorrow I go to the store, GO never changes

Further:  he go to the store, I go to the store, we go to the storeAgain, the verb NEVER changes in Chinese. 

Incomplete & Completed Actions – not the same as tense

In Chinese you have incomplete and completed actions.  A completed action, “yesterday I went to the store” would read:

Yesterday, I go to the store le .
The use of the special word “le” at the end of a sentence or after a verb indicates that the action is finished or completed.  The use ofle can be a little more complicated, but for now this is a sufficient explanation.  Please note that le is pronounced with a short vowel, not a long “eeee” sound.


Next, objects can appear at the beginning (before the verb) or after the verb.  If an object appears at the beginning of a sentence/phrase, you just add a special word next to the object.  This special word is bǎ A sample sentence would look like this:

Cassandra, please bǎ pencil pick up. Or
Cassandra, please pick up that pencil.

Nouns, Numbers & Measure Words

There is NO PLURAL, GENDER, or CASE agreement in Chinese.  Yippee!!!  A noun is a noun is a noun; no matter where it occurs and how it is modified.  If you want to indicate that you have more than one of something, like cars, you say exactly how many or indicate that you have a few. 

There are special “measure words” that accompany nouns when counting or indicating an amount.  These “measure words” are words that indicate categories of shape, size, or other characteristics.  So different types of nouns are usually associated with specific measure words.  These can be difficult for non-Chinese speakers to grasp since they do not typically occur in western languages, but when you get used to using them in conjunction with their partnered nouns, they become natural over time.  Just keep in mind that measure words are like saying you have a “pair of pants.”  Pair in this phrase is a measure word.  If you don’t know a specific measure word you can always fall back on the generic measure word .

3table (remember that you don’t need to change the noun to indicate a plural, so no “s” at the end in Chinese)
3 zhāngtable

Here are some good resources for measure words:

Adverbs & Adjectives

Adverbs generally occur before verbs but can also be located after with additional modifiers:

slow go.  Go slow.
go slow a little.  Go a little slowly. 
Adjectives are usually indicated by the particle de (which also makes a word possessive by the way). 

Red de balloonRed balloon.
Beautiful de girlBeautiful girl.
I/ de balloonMy balloon.


Time words always occur at the beginning of a sentence.  So, if you are going to the store tomorrow, you say:

Tomorrow I’m going to the storeNotice that the time word is in the beginning of the sentence.  Here’s another example.

Now, what time is it?  In Chinese, because “now” is a time word, it goes before the question “what time is it?” 

Place & Location

Place has a special “location” within the sentence.  Place words are usually accompanied by a word indicating that you are “in” that location or headed “toward” that location.  There is some wiggle room here but the general pattern is below:

I zàischool.  I am at school.  (Subject + location)
I dào school go.  I am going to school.  (Subject + location + verb)

How to Form Questions

There are 3 primary ways to ask questions in Chinese: 
  • using a question word such as “what, where, why, how, or when,”
  • negating the verb “go not go,”
  • by adding the question word “ma” or the phrase le méiyǒu 了沒有 to the end of a sentence.
a.  Using a question word (where) - You dào where go?  Where did you go?
b.  Using the negative - You dào China go (not) go?  Did you go to China?
c.  Adding ma to the end of a sentence - You dào China go ma ?  Did you go to China?
d.  Adding le meiyou to your sentence - You dào China go le méiyǒu 了沒有?” Did you ever go to China?


Ok, now you know the basics of Chinese grammar – REALLY!  We searched for a basic overview of Chinese grammar that would provide clear explanations in English accompanied by characters and pinyin.  This was no mean feat.  Here are some websites for further reading:

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chinese – The Basics

Chinese isn’t as hard as reported (or Chinese grammar is simple)
Chinese is one of the most difficult languages requiring years of study to master.”  We’ve all heard this before.  Let me contradict this statement and then agree with it.  What we often think of when we refer to the Chinese language, is usually the Mandarin dialect.  It is one of many dialects currently spoken throughout the world.  Spoken Chinese is by no means standard across dialects, but more on this later.  For purposes of this article, I’ll address the Mandarin dialect specifically. 

The grammar of Mandarin Chinese is almost dream-like in its simplicity.  Imagine a language that lacks conjugated verbs, tenses, plural nouns, and case agreement between words (where subjects, verbs, objects, and articles “agree” according to gender or number) in a sentence.  This is Mandarin Chinese.  Chinese grammar is very simple when compared with Romance, Semitic, German, or Slavic languages.  To start speaking Chinese, you don’t have to stop and think, “how do I conjugate that verb in the past tense” or “do my subject and object need to agree for case here?”  I’ll make basic grammar the subject of the next column. 

Yeah, but what about the tones?  Do they matter?

Yes, tones matter.  They are not similar to the use of inflection in western languages (i.e. raising your tone at the end of a sentence indicates a question in English).  Rather, tones change the meaning of the word itself.  Chinese is a language of homophones – words that sound alike but differ in meaning.  Therefore, many characters share the same "pinyin or romanization" and possibly share the same tone but differ in meaning.  So, when you want to look up your child’s Chinese name or understand the meaning of a pinyin or a Chinese word spelled out in the English (roman) alphabet, you must start with the characters.  Some dictionaries allow you to look up the word from the romanization, but you will see that the words are then ordered according to tone, stroke number and radical (this varies by dictionary). 

Wait a minute, what is romanization?

Pinyin is considered a "romanization" (i.e. a rendering of pronunciation into a roman alphabet) rather than a character.  There are many romanizations still in use internationally but Pinyin is becoming the accepted worldwide standard.  Pinyin was first developed and adopted in mainland China as a teaching and romanization tool.  Bopomofo (or zhuyinfuhao) is a phonetic alphabet used to render Chinese pronunciation rather than a romanization.  Bopomofo/Zhuyinfuhao was developed in the 1930’s and is used throughout the primary school system and to teach foreign students Chinese in Taiwan.  Unlike Pinyin, Bopomofo is not a romanization and does not serve to transliterate Chinese into western languages.  Due to the developmental history surrounding both systems, there are political as well as methodological considerations surrounding their use in Chinese instruction. 

Why do I want/need to learn Pinyin and/or Bopomofo?

Both pinyin and Bopomofo are tools to learn the pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese.  They each have advantages and disadvantages.  Both methods should be viewed as an aid to help you learn new words.  However, you cannot use either method as a means to communicate effectively in writing.  Learning one or the other is no substitute for learning Chinese characters.  An important part of the beauty and historical meaning of Chinese words are the characters themselves.  So you can incorporate either method in your language learning process, but don’t neglect the real writing system. 

There are distinct advantages to learning Pinyin.  It is now used for computer input of Chinese characters, text messaging in telephones and portable devices, and it is the accepted standard for romanizing Chinese in academic publications.  The disadvantage is that pinyin does not accurately reflect pronunciation of all Chinese phonemes.  Some phonemes are shared by the same letter, this leads to students failing to learn the differences between the two sounds – creating inaccurate pronunciation.  VERY IMPORTANT NOTE:  English speaking children who do not yet read at a 3rd grade level in English should NOT learn or be taught Pinyin until they reach a 3rd grade level of reading proficiency in English.  Pinyin will interfere with their phonemic awareness in English and can have very real consequences in the development of English literacy. 

Bopomofo is also very helpful as a learning tool.  Using Bopomofo avoids the potential for alphabet confusion because it looks nothing like a western alphabet, and it opens up the door to utilizing children's books from Taiwan which are printed with the bopomofo next to the characters in lower elementary level books.  There is no issue with learning/teaching Bopomofo/Zhuyinfuhao to pre-literate English speaking children. 

It is important to remember that there is no ONE best way to learn Chinese.  Everyone learning Chinese should eventually learn Pinyin.  Pinyin is the accepted international standard for Romanizing Mandarin Chinese.  But, what if you have a pre-literate English speaking child?  You can teach him or her Zhuyinfuhao or Bopomofo.  However, a better alternative would be to just expose your child to verbal instruction with some characters.  Pinyin will not help you learn to read characters.  Most students learning with pinyin learn to read the pinyin (which is printed above or below the row of characters) and visually skip the characters.  Students actually fail to “see” the characters on the page.  Only when the pinyin is taken away, are they eyes forced to look at the characters rather than the pinyin.  This is not necessarily true for literate native speaking Chinese.  For this reason, many teachers do not understand that Pinyin will not help their students.  Using Bopomofo/Zhuyinfuhao will help a student learn characters, if it is printed on the right side of the characters.  If the bopomofo is printed above or below the characters, the same problem will occur that takes place when using Pinyin – they eyes see only the phonetics, not the characters. 

At Chinese for Families, we advocate that all students start with verbal instruction, adults and children at/above the 3rd grade level be taught both Zhuyinfuhao/Bopomofo and Pinyin.  Zhuyinfuhao/Bopomofo is excellent for learning precise pronunciation and for correcting pronunciation mistakes.  Pinyin is clearly superior for tying Chinese on a keyboard and through digital devices. 

Egads!  What about characters?

Now, even with the extremely simple grammar of Mandarin Chinese, which makes learning to speak faster than that required in other languages, there is a zinger to be dealt with – the writing system.  You can rapidly attain verbal skills, but when you want to read and write, you encounter a new host of difficulties.  To sum up, because Chinese is grammatically straightforward and simple, speaking and listening skills can be developed in a VERY short time period.  Becoming literate in Chinese is another matter and does require years of study.  Here are a couple of articles that addresses this question:,

Chinese Characters – a Primer

Each Chinese character represents a morpheme or syllable.  Characters in turn are comprised of basic semantic and phonetic elements.  The semantic elements are often called radicals.  These 214 radicals provide some insight into the nature of the word represented such as its original composition.  For instance, the character for an item originally made from bamboo might contain the bamboo radical.  Learning radicals is an important step toward literacy in Chinese.  A program or curriculum that teaches Chinese characters without teaching radicals puts students at a distinct disadvantage.  If you would like to learn more about radicals, please visit the following websites that provide radicals lists, stroke order, and meaning:

To learn one radical a day, follow Chinese for Families on Twitter @CHForFamilies #RadicalADay.  Each week 3-5 radicals will be introduced and explained.  Each week will have quizzes with a monthly word search puzzle pasted to our website

Radicals in turn are made up of strokes (brush strokes from writing with a bamboo brush).  There are both “simplified” (jiantizi) and "traditional" (fantizi) characters.  Simplified characters are used in mainland China while traditional characters are used in Taiwan and many overseas Chinese communities (this is changing gradually).  Simplified characters are easier to learn and can lead to "faster" rates of literacy for native speakers, however they are not necessarily easier for students of Chinese as a second language.  The radicals contain pictographic elements that give students an idea of what the character was made of or what it represented.  The simplified radicals sometimes take these “clues” away by replacing one radical with another.  Therefore starting with simplified characters is not really the “easy way out.”  Many universities outside of Asia require students to learn both when studying Chinese.  At Chinese for Families, we do advocate that you begin with Traditional and move to Simplified later on.  It is important not shortchange yourself by choosing to focus on one system.  What you want to learn is dependent on how and where you will use your Chinese skills.  If you want to learn to converse in Chinese and to read books, newspapers, and street signs, either one will do.  If your goal is to work toward literacy in Chinese and to pursue Chinese at the college level, you need to learn traditional characters. 

Where is Mandarin spoken?

Spoken Mandarin is standard.  So, Mandarin speakers from Taiwan, Beijing, or Singapore all speak the same dialect, with some minor pronunciation differences.  Mandarin is the official language of instruction in many Chinese-speaking communities.  So, even if you speak a local dialect of Chinese at home and on the street, you will learn Mandarin in school.  Written Chinese is also standard across dialects (we'll stick with this for argument's sake).  So, a Cantonese speaker can read what a Fujianese speaker wrote without being able to converse face to face.  There is a raging debate in academic circles about whether the differences between Chinese dialects are significant enough to constitute different languages, or if they are merely dialects of the same language.  However, some of the differences between Chinese dialects are numerous enough that when applied to other languages (such as Russian and French for example) they would constitute different languages. 

How can I learn pinyin and tones without driving myself crazy?

There are many books, CDs and websites to help you.  Chinese for Families has Fun with Pinyin and Bopomofo – a book and flashcard set with audio CD featuring songs, chants, and puzzles.  5Q Channel features an audiobook Bopomofo app for IPad with interactive search games.  For Pinyin, visit  An excellent site to learn how to write Bopomofo/Zhuyin is

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Yummy Vegetarian New Year Food & Event in Philly

Dear Friends - if you are a meat eating family, allow us to apologize.  Please feel free to post your favorite meat lovers recipes in the comments.  The Vegetarian Times just sent links to some fabulous Chinese New Year dishes that we would like to share:

Sugar Snap Snow Pea Stir Fry
Stir Fry Rice Noodles
Haricots Verts Stir Fry with Sichuan Peppers
Vegetable Moo Shoo wraps

For families living in the Philadelphia metro area, please join us for Chinese New Year at the University of Pennsylvania Museum Saturday February 4 from 11-4:30.

Chinese for Families students will perform at 11:30.

We challenge you to a trivia contest at 12:00.

Dress up like an Emperor or Empress from 2:00-4:00 in the Chinese Rotunda.

For more information, visit the event page or just email us

We look forward to seeing you there!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Welcome to our Blog "aka" Why have a Blog at all?

After years and years of looking for the best materials to help families learn Chinese together, the time has come to share insights about what made our list of favorites. 

Once a month or so, we'll feature something (app, program, book, CD, DVD) we love and use.  We won't sugarcoat it - strengths and weaknesses will be highlighted.  Although nothing is perfect, the goal is to talk about products we like and use; not to criticize products we didn't purchase or stopped using out of frustration.   

Readers are invited to add their thoughts and feelings.  Please remember the golden rule.  We're not here to flame something we really don't like.  Product recommendations are always welcome.  Please note, if you would like to see a product reviewed that we do not already own and use, we are happy to do so only after receiving a preview copy.  If we don't like it, we won't flame it here.  We will not purchase products specifically to conduct a review.  We only buy what we like for our own use at home or in the Chinese for Families school.

We invite you to join the Chinese for Families Network:

Please visit our website for information on our classes books & CDs.

Follow #RadicalADay on Twitter @CHforFamilies.

Check out our students' work on the YouTube Channel.

Like us on Facebook, see recent photos and stay informed about upcoming events.

Our 2nd blog entry will feature a day-by-day guide to celebrating Chinese New Year.  Stay posted - it is coming soon!