Confession: I dropped out of Chinese school by ninth grade, despite an illustrious run of speech contest victories throughout grade school. The extra three hours of school on weekends was just too much, even for the bookworm I was (and still am). Naturally, I used the mounting homework load of high school as my excuse to duck out.
In college, I made one last grab at my heritage language by testing into a 600-level Chinese language class designed for childhood native speakers and focused on reading and writing. But history repeated itself and after freshman year I gave up my Chinese classes in favor of animal physiology (mild regrets) and organic chemistry (major, major, major regrets).
Of course now that I’m a parent myself, I wish I had worked harder to maintain my fluency, particularly since my child is biracial and my partner speaks no Mandarin beyond “Wo shi nan ren,” and a few juvenile potty phrases. The language barrier that always kept my grandparents at arms’ length (or further) now looms between my kids and my parents. (That barrier is somewhat lower because of my parents’ decades in the U.S., but only somewhat.)
I had every intention of teaching Mandarin to my then-new baby, but I failed to account for the sheer difficulty of parenting full-time. Convenience often provides the only margin of error that makes the difference between a decent day and a train wreck. I was too busy surviving to try and conduct our daily business in a language that by now has become nearly foreign.
So now I have a preschooler who bossily commands, “Stop speaking Chinese, Mommy!” when I try using our heritage language. But he loves books and games, so I decided to try a sneak attack. (Anyone who says they do not believe in tricking their children into what’s good for them is 100% lying.)
We have three enhanced books for learning Mandarin Chinese. Two of them have no screen component at all, which is a nice bonus. (For the record, we let our kid play with age-appropriate games on a Kindle Fire, and don’t @ me, Barbara.) Two of them are made by Asian American founded brands. So if you’re looking for educational gifts for preschoolers to early elementary students, here are my picks.
Habbi Habbi Reading Wand and Bilingual Books
Habbi Habbi is the MVP with their magic wand and interactive, bilingual books. I supported their Kickstarter campaign so we got our Starter Set back in November.
Kids can use the wand to touch anywhere on a page to hear words, phrases, and full sentences in both English and Mandarin (or Spanish, if you get that set). You can also play sound effects and music. (My little critter is particularly fond of the “angry music” in the Book of Emotions. I’m not sure if I should be concerned or not.) I really like that the book teaches stand-alone vocabulary and also puts them into complete ideas and sentences.
The books in the Starter Set range from first words and phrases to career profiles featuring women in leadership roles, including Chief Home Officer and Entrepreneur. (Bilingual and feminist, yessss!) They have storybooks planned for future releases.
I think the content level of the Starter Set is appropriate for ages 2 and up. My kiddo likes the wand but seems to lose interest somewhat when there isn’t a storyline to follow. (The career book is more narrative-driven and I’m saving that for Christmas, so we’ll see how he likes that.)
Gordon & Lili Books and App
I picked up this adorable board book at the Museum of Chinese in America back in January when I was in New York for the Mochi exec team retreat. There’s a corresponding app that reads the English and Mandarin words and plays cute animated versions of the book illustrations.
Little Critter loves the app, naturally, but he will also sit down with just the book and “read” in both languages. There are other books in the series including first words and counting, but the app only works for the animals (at least for now). So at least my kid knows his animals really well! The app also has a character tracing feature that we haven’t played with yet, so it can grow with your child. You can buy the Gordon & Lili app on iOS or Android for $1.99. The books are available on Amazon for less than $10.
Usborne Listen and Learn First Chinese Words
Another screenless option, the Usborne Listen and Learn has a built-in sound pad that reads the Mandarin words aloud.
There are four double-sided cards you can put over the sound pad. You select which care you’re using by pressing a unique spot on the sound pad. Then you can press the illustrations to hear the words.
This was actually our first Chinese learning book and my kiddo still plays with a year later. The illustrations clearly link the word to the concept. It looks like this is no longer sold on the U.S. Usborne website, but you can try contacting an Usborne consultant to see if they have one in their inventory. You can also try searching Amazon or eBay for a copy.
Teaching Chinese as a Chinese School Dropout
Even with these educational books for learning Chinese, I was getting hung up on not being able to speak fluently to my kid. One thing I’ve started doing, at the advice of my friend Mandarin Mama who homeschools four children(!) in Mandarin(?!?!), is to simply start where I am. We play with the books, wand, and app together. Then I work those Chinese vocabulary words into sentences that are otherwise all English. “Is the qing wa a mammal?” and stuff like that. (Gotta throw in biological classification lessons early, too!) This helps us get used to hearing the language and matching the concepts with the sounds.
Maybe someday we’ll live somewhere with bilingual schooling options. (I will NOT be bilingual homeschooling my child[ren], thank you.) But until then, we use these three books for learning Chinese and call it good enough.