Saturday, May 4, 2013


This post mainly serves to provide some updates.  I wanted to be brief originally, but kept writing as thoughts poured into my mind.

First of all, please check out the most recent comments.  I have been extremely touched by the various comments left by "anotherMother".  Please reply to her with suggestions and encouragement.

Yes, it has been a year since I wrote my long "blog", and readers are probably wondering how my kids are doing in terms of their Mandarin.  The short answer is, they are still fluent and are still speaking to me with Mandarin as the basic construction of sentences, although many words in those sentences are in English.  An example is "妈妈,我告诉你 - Mace Windu他好cool哦!他有the only purple lightsaber。别的Jedi都没有。"  (Mama, let me tell you - Mace Windu is so cool!  He has the only purple lightsaber.  None of the other Jedi's has one.)

Guess what?  I'm satisfied with this.  The main reason is I have so much support system, both through my parents and through living in the Bay area.  Calvin still goes to Chinese school after first grade finishes at 3pm, and there he mainly learns reading and writing.  Jason will start kindergarten in the fall, and will go to the same Chinese school at 2pm Monday-Friday.  Our elementary school has several vans waiting to pick up students from competing Chinese schools - students no longer feel like they are outliers for going to Chinese school.  Two of our son's non-Asian friends have told their parents they also wanted to go to Chinese school, since that's where their best friends were going.

My main support system is my parents, and their health and love have been my fortune.  They will be taking the kids to Taiwan for four weeks this coming summer.  I have already signed my older son up for Lego and science camps to fill these four weeks, and I intentionally selected camps that are for local students and not for international students.

Given the support system described above, I have expanded my time outside of work to focus not just on my kids' Mandarin education, but on Mandarin education in the community.  For example, I volunteered to narrate for the Mandarin show of the Ugly Duckling put on by the Jewish Community Center.  I am also planning to tutor Mandarin to elementary school kids during my limited amount of free time.  The community has helped me and my kids tremendously, and I want to contribute to this community.

Each child is so different.  Even though my older son is doing well in Chinese school and learning quite a bit of reading and writing, my younger son is inherently more talented in linguistics.  He loves reading, music and pretend-play - these interests far out-weigh any language differences.  As a result, Jason will surprise us with complex phrases he memorized from stories (both Chinese and English), inserted appropriately into his own sentences.  Meanwhile, Calvin has gone through a tough time reading and writing in first grade while sailing through math.  As another example of how different they are, Calvin has been building complex Lego sets for years, and Jason has not built any Lego sets but would pretend-play and make up stories with the sets Calvin built.

I have limited additional tips, unfortunately.  The general tip is that, as kids grow and their interests and academic requirements change, we as parents also need to adapt to these changes.  For example, I downloaded Chinese pop and rap songs, now that my boys are too cool to listen to little kids' music.  Also, Calvin has daily homework from first grade.  Even as I help him with these English-based assignments, I am reading the instructions or books in English while speaking in Chinese.  For example, parents are encouraged to ask children questions while reading a book, to make sure they understand the book and to build their own capabilities to think of questions.  I may be reading an English book assigned from school, but I ask the questions in Chinese.  The capability to comprehend and interpret literature is not limited to any specific language.  Neither is music, math, science, or history.  I know there is still a long way to go as his school work becomes more complex, and I will try my best to keep up.

Thank you to all the readers, supporters, commenters and parents out there.  As I said, I am fortunate to be immersed in a supportive environment for bilingual education.  For those who are much more difficult situations, I wish you all the best and hope that you find whatever support there is.  If you have tried your best and still feel like nothing is working, just take a breath and relax.  As much as I claim to be a "Mandarin tiger mom", I truly believe that a parent's sanity and health is most important to the family, and bilingual - or any type of - education depends very much on those factors.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012


For those who know me, I am no Amy Chua. But a person has to have the guts to write like Amy Chua once in a life time, when passion strikes.

For those who know me and my family well, I am a tiger mother when it comes to the subject of raising my kids bilingual. So far it has been a success, and hence my feeling of some degree of knowledge, even authority, on this subject.

Please do not send me death threats. I am not a Ph.D. psychologist or linguist. My 4-year-old and 6-year-old still have a life time to prove me wrong on being bilingual. I just want to write down what I have done so far to make them speak Mandarin entirely to me and English to their white all-American dad, even though they have attended an all-day English preschool most of their lives. I am also not going to keep the Chinese humility throughout my writing, or use a pat-on-the-back tone and repeat "but what you're doing might work too" after every sentence.

And if you are Amy Chua, please do not sue me. I am a tiger (my zodiac) and deserve this title by birth right. I am also a fellow Yale alum, so have some school spirit. Most importantly, I did pay money to buy your book.

So here it is: A tiger mom (虎妈)'s handbook on how to raise bilingual children - specifically, bilingual in Mandarin and English in the United States.

First, you need to make a clear decision: "Am I going to raise my kids to be completely bilingual, or am I going to raise my kids to know a little bit of Mandarin - perhaps enough to understand some basics, but not to carry out a long conversation?" There is a huge difference (which I will elaborate on in a later blog), and if your answer is the former, you had better be ready to accept some fundamental lifestyle changes.

I'm going to assume that at least one of the parents is fluent in Mandarin, since many of my tips revolve around the importance of a parent's interactions with the kid.


1. Speak to your kids entirely in Mandarin

Yes, yes, you all have heard a thousand times that at least one parent needs to be speaking entirely to the child in "the minority language" (Mandarin) - and if possible both parents should be doing this, because the kids will eventually become exposed to "the majority language" (English) throughout his life. But are you really prepared to do this? This is what I mean by a lifestyle change.

If you have playdates with English-speaking families, you need to forget about being rude and still speak in Mandarin whenever you are talking to your kids. This might mean saying something once to your kid, and repeating the same thing to the other kid. This might even mean carrying out an entire conversation in Mandarin to your kid about why he should share his toys while the other kid stands aside crying. If the parents are understanding, they are truly your friends. Otherwise, don't fret about not being invited for a second playdate.

If you're picking up your child from an English-speaking school, keep talking to the kid in Mandarin in front of the teacher even though the teacher may not understand. Tell your child to say bye to the teacher in Chinese. If he doesn't say bye, don't switch to telling him in English just so you can let the teacher know you've done your job. You would have undone your job in raising your kid bilingual.

Here's the hardest part. If your spouse speaks English, continue to speak only Mandarin to your kids at home.  If your spouse wants to know what you said, turn to him and translate. If there's something you want to tell both your spouse and your kids, say it once in Mandarin to your kids, and again in English to you spouse. You may not have interactive dinner conversations anymore - suck it up.  Your spouse may get tired of trying to understand everything, or you may end up being too tired to translate everything.  You might find playing monopoly as a family is too much work.  This is what I mean by a real lifestyle change - and one you must make a decision on before casually claiming that you're going to raise your kids bilingual.  It is challenging, I admit.

The main goal in not speaking any English to them is to reach a stage in which your kids feel weird and unnatural if you are not conversing to each other in Mandarin.  Once they have reached this stage and can remain in this stage at an old-enough age, the chances of them continuing to speak to you in Mandarin become a lot higher.  For example, if you start calling your husband a different name than what you have always called him by, wouldn’t it feel unnatural to you?

2. Expose your kids to Mandarin as much as possible

Books, books, books.  Find books in Chinese any way you can, and find ones that match your kids' interests. If you're fortunate enough to live in a place like the Bay area, you can borrow Chinese books from the libraries.  I have a whole other blog on Chinese children's books:  If you live somewhere remote and cannot access Chinese books, there are now online stores that sell (admittedly limited) Chinese books. Alternatively, find Chinese children's websites and print them out. You can staple them together to make them look more like books if you want, but the point is to find subjects to read to your kids in Chinese that are interesting specifically to them.  These may range from trains to princesses, from football to ninjas.

Many parents restrict TV and iPad time.  But if the kids must watch something or play with your iPad, let that something be in Chinese.  Unsubscribe cable TV.  Hide all your English DVD's.  Keep only Chinese apps.  Install PPTV or PPS on your computer and iPad, which contain lots of familiar and popular cartoons, all dubbed in Chinese.  And here's the lifestyle change: you do not watch English TV in front of the kids.  So stop having sports games or Home-and-Gardens in the background - at least not the English versions.

A lot of parents don't realize how much time kids spend riding in the car.  This is actually a perfect time for them to listen to Chinese!  Think about it - they are pinned down there by their seat belts, and you can say or do whatever you want to them.  There are tons of Chinese children's stories that you can listen to, if you get tired of "Two Little Tigers".  You can download some of these also from my blog Or you can play your favorite Chinese pop songs in the car.  When the kids get older though, you may need to adjust your taste a little and start playing some Chinese hip-hop, or listening to baseball game replays from Taiwan (hint: find these on youtoube, and hook your iPhone to the car stereo).  Another lifestyle change: no more NPR.

If you have the option to get additional help, you are amongst the lucky ones like myself.  I have had the luxury of getting lots of help from my parents.  Even though my father still works and my mother needs to take care of my grandmother in Taiwan, they have traveled here as much as possible to support our busy full-time-working lifestyles.  Our kids treat them like another set of parents.  Last September, I also started my older son in a Mandarin program after kindergarten, which has helped him to learn reading and writing such that his literacy skills are better in Chinese in English (for now - I know that will change).  In addition, they have traveled to Taiwan and China several times.  Last summer, I decided to leave them in Taiwan with my parents for a month, and placed them in a Chinese full-time daycare (partly for language immersion, but mostly for my parents' sanity).  As you can imagine, this was wonderful for their language and cultural understanding.  These opportunities can be rare - for example, I don't have that option this summer - so if you ever encounter them, take them.

Mandarin-speaking friends, Mandarin gatherings (my Buddhist group has Chinese meetings), Chinese nannies or housekeepers are other ways of increasing exposure.  I used to have a Chinese helper who would come a couple of evenings a week to cook dinner and do some light cleaning, and our kids absolutely loved her.  It got to the point where I would ask her to read and play with my kids while I did the cleaning.  Unfortunately she went back to Shanghai two years ago, and I have not been able to find anyone like her anymore.

3. Give your kids positive associations with, and confidence in speaking Mandarin

This is perhaps my most important advice.  After all, if every attempt in raising them to be bilingual fails, they still have the chance to learn it when they are older.  But will they make that choice?  Some of it depends on necessity and interest, but a lot of it depends on their subconscious experiences with it.

Here is a situation I see often.  A non-Chinese person starts working with Chinese partners, and learns the language quickly - even to the point of fluency.  The same opportunities arise for an American-grown Chinese, and he is so ashamed that he is ethnically Chinese yet cannot speak the language fluently, and minimizes business trips or encounters with the Chinese partners.  Why does the non-Chinese person learn so quickly?  Anything little thing he is able to say in Chinese immediately gets praise from his Chinese colleagues, which builds confidence.  In addition, he is not ashamed to have accents, because that is perfectly normal and accepted.  The more he speaks without the constant worries of perfecting pronunciation or accent, the more fluent he becomes.  The more fluent he becomes, the more awe his Chinese colleagues show him.  It is a cycle.

What you don't want is for your kid to be that American-grown Chinese who is too ashamed of his accent and lack of fluency, such that he starts avoiding speaking Chinese.  This is partly because of the concept inherent in our culture - that you are Chinese as long as you have Chinese blood in you.  This is also why it is absolutely true that the business partners in China would be awed by an American who speaks a little Chinese, but would (secretly) look down upon the Chinese-American who does not speak the language fluently.

But how do you instill confidence in your kids?  I don't have the best answers, but these are some things I've done.  Despite calling myself the Mandarin tiger mom and listing all the ways I have "force-fed" Mandarin to my kids, there's actually never been an instance in which I scolded my kids for speaking English.  They will add some English words in their sentences to me, but I usually say it back to them in a way that sounds as much like a natural conversation as possible.  For example, if my son tells me someone brought a hedgehog to his class but used the English word for hedgehog, I might respond with: "Oh, really, someone brought a hedgehog to your class today", while replacing his use of hedgehog in English with the corresponding Chinese word.  If the English gets too pervasive, I just keep talking back to him in Mandarin but with a really positive attitude, and try to engage him in the conversation.  When I keep doing this, I do find that his sentences become gradually more and more Chinese - in a natural way.

Also, learn to accept accents.  You may gently correct them, but never tease them about it.  China itself is full of different accents - very few people speak Mandarin with a "perfect" accent now, and even the definition of a "perfect" accent keeps evolving.  If you have an accent yourself, still speak Mandarin to your kids and do not worry about the accent.  If we get too obsessed with one aspect, we will never surmount that aspect.

The Truth About My Kids

If you think I’m writing this because I have perfect kids, or see myself as an exceptional parent, you are oh-so-wrong.  Name the most horrible experiences you’ve had with your kid, and most likely I’ve gone through something similar.  Even regarding speaking Mandarin, there are ups and downs.  I decided to start writing because several parents have commented on how well my kids speak Chinese, especially since their dad is American.  I also decided to write this now because, if I wait too long, my kids might change and I’ll have lost all my credentials.

Oh, and did I write that my kids “speak entirely in Mandarin” to me?  OK, I exaggerated.  But it served the purpose to get your attention, didn’t it?  Come on, even kids growing up in Taiwan nowadays don’t speak entirely in Mandarin.  What I really meant is that my kids always use Mandarin as the base of a sentence when speaking to me, while some vocabularies in the sentence may be in English.  For example, they will say “妈妈,我告诉妳,Buster Posey hit 了一个homerun!” (translation: “Mama, I’ve got to tell you, Buster Posey hit a homerun!”)  And yes, I used this example because this is especially true in my baseball-obsessed 6-year-old now.  It’s an understatement to say I’m not a sports fan.  You cannot pay me to go to Giants games.  So naturally, I don’t know all the baseball terms in Chinese, and when my son goes on and on about the details of the games using mostly English terms with some Chinese “small words” in between, I space out instead of answering him back in Chinese (what I wrote in the “Tips”).

OK, and about those “Tips” – I have slacked off too, especially since my 6-year-old entered Kindergarten and started going to Chinese school in the afternoons.  I still speak to them in Mandarin – that is really the most important part.  I also use some English words; after all, who says Jedi in Chinese?  I read some English books to them, and play American songs in the car.  My 4-year-old has been obsessed with Sound of Music, followed by My Fair Lady, and now Fiddler on the Roof.  Come on, how can a mother deny her 4-year-old son of singing “Wouldn’t it be loverly” with a Cockney accent?

How strict I am about following my own tips depends on how much I think my kids are in danger of losing Chinese.  When my older son transferred from his 3-year-old class, which just happened to have several Chinese-speaking kids, to his 4-year-old class, which contained no Chinese kids, he suddenly started adding more English words in his sentences when speaking to me.  At the same time, he started getting into baseball (sports continues to haunt me even after my last PE class!).  This was probably my strictest period of time – and when the Giants won the World Series, I hid all the English DVDs.

My younger son has been consistently stronger in Chinese than in English, even throughout his obsessions with various Broadway musicals.  When my older son Calvin was four, he had already wanted English books to be read in English.  Jason, on the other hand, insists that every book be read in Chinese.  There have been times when I have even tried to persuade him to listen to the original English version, since it would be too painful to translate “Darth Maul’s Mission” into Chinese.  He is certainly coming to revelations about the process of translation, and constantly amazes us with how little bilingual brains think.  I was singing the song “三轮车” to him last week, and when I finished the part “你说奇怪不奇怪”, he said “奇怪不奇怪就是silly, not silly”.  Later that day, he asked my mom what “A” in “ABCD” means in Chinese.  I have stopped worrying for now about his Chinese, but if he starts talking to me like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, I may need to expose him to Beijing opera.

How I Became Bilingual

I was born in Taiwan in 1974.  My family is the so-called 49-ers; both sets of my grandparents moved from mainland China to Taiwan with the Nationalist Party, bringing with them my parents who were babies at the time.

Even though I was not raised bilingual, multi-lingualism was a familiar concept because of my grandparents' special situations.  My mother's mother was born a Japanese colonist in Manchuria, and married my grandfather soon after Japan lost the war.  She was eighteen then and spoke almost no Mandarin.  She communicated with my grandfather through writing Chinese characters, i.e. Kanji.  Through the power of significant post-war social pressure and her own immense strength after her family moved back to Japan, my grandmother learned Chinese.  By the time I was born, she was teaching Japanese at one of the top universities, had written and published text books for college-level Japanese classes, and spoke Mandarin with no detectable accent.  The man she married, my grandfather, was also bilingual.  His father was killed by a bomb when my grandfather was little, forcing his widowed mother to move in with her brother and Russian sister-in-law.  My grandfather therefore grew up in the northeastern city Harbin with his Russian-speaking aunt as a "second mother".  During the war-torn period, he served as a Russian interpreter in the Nationalist Party.  So these are the set of grandparents I lived with when I was growing up.  Even though we all spoke Mandarin at home, we would often watch Japanese videos, or hear my grandfather burst into Russian songs.

My father's parents, on the other hand, were both born and raised in Shandong.  Their story was much more typical of 49-er couples, even though their tremendous strength in the midst of heart-breaking tragedies remains unimaginable to those who have not directly experienced war and poverty.  In terms of language, they speak the Shandong dialect.  After years of assimilation in Taiwan, their dialect is toned down to a somewhat heavy accent still understandable to Mandarin speakers, and they understand Mandarin as well.  What really intrigues me is that their three children would all switch immediately from standard Mandarin to Shandong dialect when speaking to my grandparents.  This is quite unusual for people in my father's generation and situation - in fact, quite unnecessary and could be considered hickish.  I never thought about this much growing up, but in today's multilingual-obsessed society, I have suddenly realized that this is a model of desired linguistic behavior.  Did my grandparents do anything special to cause this behavior in their children?  Or is there something genetic?  I don't know the answers.

OK, so onto myself.  I moved from Taiwan to Virginia Beach in southern Virginia after graduating from elementary school.  I was eleven then, but my Chinese comprehension was significantly more advanced than average.  (Did I warn you I'm painfully tossing away the Chinese humbleness I've been raised with?)  I loved reading and writing, and was blessed with parents who did not restrict my reading list and never prevented me from buying any books.  I was valedictorian when I graduated, and had represented my school in numerous public speaking occasions.  My Mandarin accent was considered ideal in Taiwan in the mid-1990s, but anyone from mainland China would immediately identify my accent as Taiwanese.

Leaving those glorious elementary-school years, I entered seventh grade in Virginia Beach immediately with knowledge of only some basic English phrases.  At the time, I was one of very few immigrants at school.  The result was a total immersion into the English language, or what you can call "being thrown into the wolves".  The world - the South, particularly teenagers in the South - did not contemplate political correctness in 1986.  Some comments from classmates include "your nose looks like someone punched it in", "please slow down for Vickie", and "hey there wang-chang-chang-ching".  Fortunately, I did not contemplate political correctness either.  I found those comments quite normal, even comical.

Total immersion is amazing for language growth.  This is what I experienced first-hand during my years in Virginia Beach.  In addition, my mother supported my academics even beyond what most Chinese mothers would do.  While I was at school, she flipped through dictionaries and wrote Chinese translations of new vocabularies on photocopies of my 500-page history text book.  This is how I actually learned some facts about American history in the seventh grade.  This is why my mother has better knowledge in American history than most Americans - she practically wrote a Chinese version of the text book herself.

My progress in English was visible to the teachers, such that they placed me in Honors English in the eighth grade.  Starting in the ninth grade, I was getting straight A's.  In my junior year, I entered the Forensic Club (not to analyze corpses - many people don't realize Forensics also stands for public speaking), and was placed 5th in the state of Virginia for interpretive prose reading.  I got a 4 on my AP English exam, graduated as valedictorian of my high school class, and went on to study at Yale.  During these years in Virginia, however, I continued to speak entirely in Mandarin with my parents.  I also went to Chinese school on Saturdays.  Chinese school in the southern Virginia region had only basic classes when I first went to check it out.  Six other recent immigrants around my age jointly requested a new class and found a teacher, and we formed the first advanced Chinese class.  We studied what we would have been missing in Taiwan.  We read passages from ancient Chinese texts, and ancient Chinese history.  The seven of us also became good friends and started hanging out socially.  We always spoke Mandarin to each other, even to this day.

Honestly though, my Chinese cannot compare with someone who stayed in China or Taiwan, at least not with a college graduate.  I can still read Chinese, but I cannot write well because I have forgotten many of the specific strokes.  Technology and pinyin saved me here - and I became a relatively fast typer in Chinese.

Today, I am a Ph.D. chemist at Genentech.  About half of my department had come from mainland China, so discussions in Chinese are heard constantly throughout hallways.  I speak to my Chinese colleagues in Mandarin.  When I do that, I realize they start opening up to me, especially the ones who are less fluent in English.  The ten years I have worked in this environment has further proven to me the importance of knowing a language fluently.

This piece of writing is dedicated to my parents for their continued love and support.

I strongly welcome all readers to share your honest opinions, personal experiences, additional tips, etc.  Discussions and debates on this topic are helpful for the community.