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Learning enough Mandarin to teach to my baby


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Hi everyone,


I am incredibly impressed with the level of Chinese expertise in this forum, and so my first caveat is that I'm definitely not at what seems to be the common (impressive!) level represented here in this forum.


I am a Chinese American who speaks some Chinese. My level: almost no reading, no writing, speaking at a basic conversational level and grew up with Chongqing dialect so my Mandarin is moderately confused, despite having taken some Mandarin classes and lessons over the years. I can speak to native speakers about the weather, and recently informed my elderly Mandarin-speaking neighbor that her house was being hit by burglars (unfortunate!). However, I am definitely not able to work in Chinese -- nor do I expect that to be within reach for me, probably ever. Instead, my goal is to be able to transmit Chinese to my child, and to be able to understand native dialogue in movies and podcasts (translated is just not the same, as you know). 


I recently had a baby and would like him to learn some Mandarin at home before eventually attending bilingual daycare and preschool. The reason I want him to learn Chinese is to become familiar with his heritage, have a gateway to the culture and be able to communicate with our extended family, some of whom live in China. We attempted to find a Chinese-speaking nanny but weren't able to find anyone suitable, so we are going with a Spanish-speaking nanny instead, to reinforce our family's other language (my husband is a native Spanish speaker from Spain). Therefore, exposing him to Chinese falls onto my shoulders. 


- What level of Mandarin do you think I need to attain in order to be able to transmit it to a baby and eventually a toddler and preschooler?

- Should I only focus on speaking, or should I also devote some time to reading, so that I can read books and access other resources?

- What are some accessible resources for someone like me, who has struggled to memorize characters due to lack of use and repetition?

- I have taken conversation Mandarin lessons many times, but haven't found them to help me with retention (maybe I didn't find a good teacher or method?). Should I continue taking conversation lessons, or should I sign up for a more structured language class? My only issue with classes is that I tend to find the boring and slow (I learn languages quickly, but with Chinese I have struggled a lot with retention since I don't read it regularly).


Note: I work an intellectually demanding full-time job and have a baby and a bunch of pets to take care of, so time is limited :)


Thank you in advance for any advice and pointers! 

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I think learning 'enough' Mandarin is perhaps a psychological approach that might set you up for disappointment. From my perspective, children seem to be able to feel whether or not a particular language is 'needed' as a key skill to interact with people who are valuable to them. If they can sense the person using the language is not entirely comfortable and confident in using this skill themselves, they will likely revert to the more natural choice of (in this case) English/Spanish. If you can manage it in your schedule (which i understand might be difficult), you should get yourself in class long term and aim for as high a level as possible, so that you give yourself the chance to communicate with the confidence and naturalness that will avoid any doubt in your child's mind. Just one perspective at least - I'm sure this is probably a question that has many different correct answers. Either way, good luck :)

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I'll take a crack at the third question out of the four you posted:
If you want to read to your kid in Chinese, there are lots of story books that are aimed at bilingual families with young kids. One good series is by Katrina Liu and is available on Amazon. The stories include characters (simplified or traditional), English, and pinyin and are available as hardbacks or on Kindle. I think they come with mp3s, too.
If you don't need the English and pinyin and/or are willing to do a little more pre-work before sitting down with your child to read, there are _tons_ of great books at books.com.tw. I like the 小象帕歐 ones. The downside for you will be that most are in traditional characters with bopomofo rather than simplified (although you could probably practice enough with bopomofo in an hour or so to make it work for you).
I know you mentioned you've struggled with characters; these sorts of books do require that you know some, but simpler ones will be less demanding, and the pinyin or bopomofo and the English can help, too. And of course, you can also just look at the pictures and make up your own story to go along with them without sticking strictly to what's written on the page.
Other threads in this forum talk about videos for kids; there are lots on YouTube.
Hope that's helpful!
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Thank you @imron @markpete and @Tomsimafor these incredibly thoughtful replies. I agree that time is limited and time spent on Chinese is time not spent on other things, but I think you have each outlined a few good paths for me to follow -- specifically by focusing on reading (I can manage children's books!) and character memorization. 


To your point about speaking with confidence and children sensing an easier path through English or Spanish, I believe increasing my vocab and reading ability is exactly what will give me speaking confidence. 


Thanks again, and if you think of any other specific book recs or places to buy them (especially NON-bilingual Mandarin-only books with pinyin but no English), please do share! 

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Are your parents, or other Chinese-speaking family members or friends, in the picture? Perhaps you could often take your child to visit them and have them speak lots of Chinese to your child as well, that would help.

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On 11/14/2022 at 11:59 AM, satchismama said:

What level of Mandarin do you think I need to attain in order to be able to transmit it to a baby and eventually a toddler and preschooler?


On 11/14/2022 at 11:59 AM, satchismama said:

Note: I work an intellectually demanding full-time job and have a baby and a bunch of pets to take care of, so time is limited


From my experience, this is going to be hard. I think learning chongqing dialect will be more successful as it’s the language that comes naturally to you and the family speak it.


Speaking will be developmentally slower with three languages- English, Spanish and Mandarin lagging behind. 


Having said that, input is important and probably more important than speaking. Hearing mandarin will allow the brain to get used to hearing the sounds.


30min mandarin conversation class for you is good. You can carry your baby with you at the same time to listen into the class. 

Cartoon videos are good though many parents want to limit TV time for their kids. Convenient to just put on. 


Trying to find some pre toddler mandarin group two or three times a week would be great. If you can’t find one, you can form one by having native mandarin speaker lead a group and trying to search for like minded native mandarin speaking families with similar aged babies. 

Having your own group will do help your own mandarin. I think you will find you can pick up more yourself and if you are trying to learn actively, you can learn from the other parents.


Such groups are usually mums groups. It’s good for socialising, exchanging information and really good for babies to help be comfortable around different people. Depending on the parents, you might find yourself having other mums eager to practice English with you so be a little wary about that.


One way to get around that might be to form a Spanish babies group for them (obviously on a less frequent basis) if they are interested.


Later on, try to find some sports / interest classes that are led by a native mandarin speaker. Drawing classes are something that comes to mind.


When even older, you can consider table tennis clubs or badminton clubs where the coach is a mandarin speaker. My friend was in Seattle and she said there were two badminton clubs, one with a native English speaking coach and one with a coach from China. All the mainland China families would go to the club with the coach from China whereas those children who grew up speaking English would go to the other club. Given that scenario, it is pretty straightforward which one to pick for better mandarin exposure.


Since you work full time, obviously your weekends are going to be packed with toddler activities. The main factor for success will be the mother’s motivation over a long period time to keep with the language environment.


Having Chinese songs playing in the car are helpful. This song is quite good for acting out movements. I know it’s been used in kindergarten and I was told it was one of the end of the night songs of Chinese student nights in London(U.K.) when clubbing. 



Putting mandarin cartoon video or kids films on to a tablet for car rides is also possible. Definitely do not have the tablet connected to the internet because kids will swipe on other non-mandarin content. Therefore I suggest being wary of Netflix and YouTube.

On YouTube , type “mandarin cartoons” in the search and you can get loads of hits. Peppa pig, the Carter family, Boonie bears etc.


Ultimately the aim would be to give your child the basic skills in the language to springboard into bilingual school. If they can understand most of the input, forming sentences will be far easier. 

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