The age-old dilemma of American born Chinese parents everywhere is how can I possibly teach my child Chinese when I can’t speak or read myself. I have researched tons of Chinese curriculum that is out available for purchase. Universally, all of that curriculum is pretty near impossible to use unless you are fluent yourself, and you pretty much better be able to read Chinese. Also, most of the time, the curriculum was developed to be used overseas and hasn’t been adapted for Western learners and sensibilities. So, you will frequently find the material to be just plain off putting, questionable, or too foreign with very strange English translations. I also found the emphasis was frequently heavy on rote memorization.
Enter the answer to my prayers. I have put off writing this product review for quite awhile, mostly out of sheer laziness since I knew that it would take a little more time and effort to write. Better Chinese is a well developed curriculum with a thoughtfully designed pedagogy. It is the only one that I have found that was intentionally developed to also be used by non-native learners. I have My First Chinese Words set right now. I really love that this is a context/story based curriculum which is really helps children from a non-native speaking home. It does not assume previous exposure to Chinese or that the parent have any exposure in Chinese.
I did purchase the Homeschooler Starter Kit which is linked here: http://www.betterchinese.com/ProductDetail.aspx?CurriculumID=&ProductID=304 I started using this curriculum with my son when he was 2 years old (now 3 1/2). I have not introduced the workbooks yet which introduce writing exercises. I mostly concentrate on using the 36 My First Chinese storybooks and pull out the relevant flashcards to introduce them to him. I plan to spiral back when he is ready for more formal learning exercises. We listen to the songs that support whichever storybook we are reading this week. I actually spend about 2 weeks per storybook since repetition is key. If you can’t speak or read, there is an audio CD that you can listen to with your child so that they can hear and practice the correct pronunciation. The stories are colorfully illustrated and are designed to help your child make visual and auditory associations. There are sample lessons that can be downloaded for you to try out as well.
The curriculum is offered in both traditional and simplified Chinese with standard pinyin which is really rare to find these days since most traditional Chinese curriculum uses bopomofo (the Taiwanese phonetic system). There are a lot of great supporting learning supplements with this curriculum like their DVDs, online learning activities and videos (over 1,400), and games. If you order this, you need to remember to specify that you need the English instructor’s guide otherwise you may get the one written in Chinese. This can be exchanged, but it just saves the hassle of exchanging later.
The challenge that I have found with Chinese language schools in areas with larger Chinese populations is that there are frequently huge gaps in ability since you have students from native speaking homes and non-native speaking homes. Frequently, these teachers are strong Chinese speakers with limited English abilities which makes it a huge problem if they are unable to adapt for students from English speaking homes. It can be pretty hit or miss with various schools with their curriculum choices as well. If you are very lucky, your school segregates classes based on exposure to Chinese. To be quite frank, I am pretty hesitant about a lot of Chinese language schools since the instructors frequently use teaching and classroom methods which I dislike for philosophical reasons. I really don’t like shame based classroom discipline style, and I dislike dictatorial teaching styles which I don’t think helps to foster any love for learning. So, I am leaning towards delaying formal Chinese school until my son is much older.
Better Chinese has also been adopted as the standard Chinese curriculum in many school districts (like San Francisco) and states (like Texas). It is even being used in a number of weekend Chinese language schools now as well. I found the curriculum really refreshing and quite easy and enjoyable to use. I look forward to continuing on with Better Chinese My First Readers (ages 7 +) when my son is a little older. They also have middle school and high school/AP level curriculum available as well. I am fluent in Cantonese which is entirely the wrong dialect if you are trying learn or teach Mandarin. However, I do have one year of college Mandarin which helps me since as long as I can read the pinyin, I can master the vocabulary with some practice.
Highly recommended for pre-K to 2nd grade. This is a really wonderful curriculum for homeschooling families or families who want to start teaching Chinese while their children are still young.
ETA 2/21/2016: After completing 36 storybooks, my main focus was speaking and listening. I decided to loop back through, and this time he was older. I chose not to move up to the next level yet because I didn’t think he was quite ready for the writing output required.
I focused this time more on character recognition working with reading the storybooks and the flashcards. I would ask him to use the flashcards to make new sentences. This was really helpful to him to begin to put together new sentences and be able to visually see the sentence he was composing and made it easy for him to read it back to himself and double-check the grammar of his sentence and easily correct himself when he realized his errors.
I started him on practicing a little writing by picking one character to practice. You can use this free printable. http://chineseprintables.com/ The rice grid version is helpful to young children with proper positioning when writing their characters. I would take a character and write out a step by step example with arrows across the top row of the practice paper adding in the next stroke with each box. I also wrote it out using color to show the next new stroke that was added.
After we finished our loop back through, we worked through the 12 book series “I Love Chinese” and PinYin for Everyone from Better Chinese.