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How to get more Mandarin in your child’s life

October 31, 2012

[I’ve noticed that of all the things on this blog, two are the most popular–this essay and the list of Mandarin immersion schools. Both get clicked on several times a day. So it seemed time to do an update as the last was two years ago. I’m always eager to hear from parents about what they’re doing at home to make Mandarin a living language. If you’ve got a story, a site or a product that you’d like to share with other readers, please email me. — Beth]

How to get more Mandarin in your child’s life

Families with children in Mandarin immersion programs in the United States face a problem – our children are learning Chinese but we live in an English-speaking environment. Even families who speak Chinese at home face an uphill battle insuring that Chinese is a living, language for their children outside the home. For families that don’t it’s all that much harder.

Even in programs that begin with 80% time in Mandarin, students still spend no more than four hours daily being immersed in Chinese. In programs that are 50% Chinese from the beginning, it’s often fewer than three hours. For all parents, getting more Chinese in your child’s life is something like getting more vegetables in their diet – you’ve got to think strategically about how to slip it in where and when you can. The good news is that it’s not impossible and Mandarin immersion families have been figuring out how to get more Mandarin in their kids’ lives for years now. Here are some of their ideas.

There are a flood of books, CDs, computer games and apps out these days that claim they’ll teach your child Chinese. Mostly they’re just ways for non-Chinese speaking kids to learn a few simple works — words most immersion students learned their first month in school. So don’t waste your money on ‘teach your child Mandarin’ items. That’s why they’re in immersion, they’re learning in Mandarin. Instead, you want to offer them opportunities to have ‘authentic’ language experiences (as language teachers like to term it.) Here are some ideas, gathered from parents at immersion programs across the country.

Seek out Chinese speakers


Don’t let your discomfort about interacting with families who speak a different language than you do keep your kids from playing with their kids. Kids want to play with their friends but at times parents go the route of least resistance, which can result in only having play dates with kids whose parents they can easily email and talk to on the phone. Go outside of your comfort zone. Have your son or daughter call to ask for a playdate. By first grade they should have enough Mandarin to do it. Don’t be shy. You’ll make friends, they’ll get to play with their friends and your program will be strengthened because there will be social connections that didn’t exist before!

Look for local businesses with Mandarin-speaking staff. Then when you go in for a haircut or for dinner, ask the staff to only speak to your child in Mandarin. Share with families at your school. In San Francisco there’s a hairdresser who now has multiple students from the Mandarin immersion program who get their hair cut there.  She knows when they come in to only use Mandarin with them.

Parent tip: “We keep an eye out for Chinese businesses and try to figure out what the characters on the signs are.  Sometimes he chats with the shopkeepers and shoppers too because many people can speak basic Mandarin even if they are Cantonese speakers.  Menus in Chinese are also always fun to try to decipher. The kids don’t know most of the characters (menus use lots of flowery language ) but they’ll be able to pick some out.”

Attend Chinese cultural events

There are many cultural events that happen across the country, especially around the Autumn Festival and Chinese New Years. Keep your eyes open and share with other families in your school.


Planning a date night or weekend getaway? Consider hiring a Mandarin speaking babysitter who will help reinforce vocabulary and might even be able to help with homework. Often local community colleges have English as a Second Language programs, you can post notices there looking for babysitters.



Chinese kid’s songs

For younger kids, get CDs of Chinese songs and put them on your car’s CD player. Ask your child’s teacher for recommendations. Ask families with older kids in your school what they listen to.  You can find lots of these CDs at local Chinese stores, ask the clerks which are good for kids.

There’s a new CD out called Chinese Children’s Classics v 1.0, available at


Lots of older Chinese kids’ song available at the link below. Songs like “Young Communist Pioneers” and “Heroic Little Sisters.”



Find the local Mandarin language radio stations and set your car radio to them.

Ask families or teachers in your program what stations are good. Pop music is pretty universal.

Online streaming radio stations: is similar to other Internet radio stations like Pandora and Spotify, it’s a free app you download on your phone.  But it’s got a couple of Chinese pop playlists. Lots of latest and greatest Chinese pop.


There’s a whole world of Mandarin language popular music out there. Just as K-pop (Korean pop music) is huge right now (think “Gangnam Style”) there’s a similar wave in Chinese called C-pop, or sometimes MandoPop.


Some online links to get you started


Mandopop videos and a streaming site

Top 2011 MandoPop groups


Find out if you get any Mandarin language programing on television where you live. Again, ask families who speak Mandarin what shows are good. For example, there’s a Taiwanese kids’ show called 水果冰淇淋 [Fruity Pie in English] that airs in some areas. There are also lots of kung-fu movies, historical dramas and even old-fashioned variety shows.


Many cable TV companies have various ‘ethnic’ packages available that you might not be aware of. Call your cable company to ask if they have an Asian or Chinese package, it will probably come with Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese and Korean programming.


Make it a rule that the kids can have the TV or movies on, if they’re in Mandarin. English is for special occasions. [Though beware; in some of the dubbed Disney movies the sound is so muddy that it’s difficult to understand.]

Players for Chinese DVD’s

All commercial players should be able to play Chinese DVD’s. The problem is that players are set to view just Western DVDs.  To get around this you have two options:

1. Unlock your player. You can go to this website, type in your model number, and follow the simple directions

2. If you’d rather not mess with your DVD player, another option is go to your local Chinatown and buy a cheap travel DVD player there, though confirming first that it can play Chinese DVDs.

Note that if you go to China there are lots of very cheap DVDs sold there, but most will only work on a player set for China’s region code.


If you get movies from NetFlix, you can click on Genres and then Foreign Language and then Mandarin Language to see their offerings. However they don’t appear to have children’s movies.

Your local Library:

Check with the librarian to see if they have movies in Chinese. They might be in a different branch, or shelved elsewhere, so ask. And ask for help choosing appropriate ones for your kids. Librarians are always eager to assist you.

Online cartoons:

Bin-bin’s Magical Bubble Adventure. For K and 1 kids mostly, but all in Mandarin.


Reading is key to broadening vocabulary, deepening understanding and strengthening your child’s grasp of grammar, in all languages. For parents who don’t read Chinese, there are a couple of possibilities:

Books with CDS

Lots of Chinese storybooks come with attached CDs that read the story aloud. Look for them online and in your local bookstores. Some books also come with links to the story read online.

Parent tip:

We have a Chinese tutor who comes over once a week to spend time working with our son in Chinese. She’s a student from Shanghai at the local community college. She has been reading my son books that she helped me buy from ChinaSprout. Last week my husband had the idea of recording her reading one of the books on his iPhone, using the Voice Memo app. The next time we were in the car I brought that book and I handed my son the phone and he listened to her reading it, following along in the book. We’re going to have her record more next week.

Online stories

A stellar site out of Taiwan that has apps and stories online, in both simplified and traditional characters. Kids love it and they have nice animation. Definitely worth signing up for. They have a very high fee, $140 per year, which is really aimed at schools. They offer a lower priced alternative, usually $30, for parents in the United States. Email them to ask for more information about their US pricing. Highly recommended.


This is a digital library of over 1,000 books read aloud in Mandarin, kids can see the story and hear it read to them. There are stories for kids 4-12 including fairy tales, idiom stories and famous novels, all narrated by professional Chinese narrators including TV and radio hosts.

Online Bookstores:


This is a good Chinese bookstore with lots of kids books in simplified characters and lots of books with CDs for kids.

Little Monkey and Mouse

This is an on-line bookstore that’s got a nice blog attached which tells you about new books, CDs and games that might be of interest to parents. The owner works with several Mandarin immersion schools, so she has a good sense of what the kids need and what level they can read at.


They have a very broad selection, with lots of storybooks, graded readers and an excellent video section.

Chinese Child Book

They’ve got both books, CDs and DVDs

Lots of U.S. Sesame Street videos dubbed into Mandarin

Chinese comic books          

As a multi-year project by researchers at San Francisco State University found, it’s a lot easier to get kids to read Chinese comic books (often called manga, from the Japanese) than regular books. And it’s equally effective at increasing vocabulary and Chinese ability. Here are some sites where you can find manga in Chinese. Be aware that topics vary in how age-appropriate they are. Also check to see if the comics are in traditional or simplified characters and buy the kind your school teaches. Be aware that manga are something of a rabbit hole, kids get addicted to the things. But that’s not really a bad thing as long as it’s all in Chinese, eh?

Some reviews are posted at the site below. You can then look for Chinese language versions of these manga.

Yes Asia

Monthly storybook/DVDs from Taiwan

There’s a monthly Taiwanese magazine that comes with storybook, workbook, CD, and sometimes DVD or toys, based on a similar product from Japan.  Very popular there, something like Highlights For Children here. The materials are age-specific and go all the way up through elementary school.  One mom said “My kids absolutely love the materials.  My 2.5 year old can “read” the books and listen to the CDs by himself and sing along in Chinese. The only way to get the materials is to call Taiwan and have them shipped.” Unfortunately, the web site is all in Chinese and the magazine only comes in traditional characters. But it might be appropriate for someone in a program that uses traditional, and a teacher could help with ordering.

Streaming TV from China and Taiwan

Many of these sites are only in Chinese. But it’s amazing what you can do with Google Translate online. Copy a block of text and translate it to get some sense of where you are. Or ask your kids for help.

If you find something you like, bookmark it! It can be very hard to find them again if you don’t know the name in Chinese (or if you can’t write it in Chinese.) Also, you’ll be able to send the URL around to the other families in your school.

But don’t let your kids wander online by themselves, you need to be there to edit, quickly. It’s easy to click on things in Chinese and end up someplace you didn’t expect, like “Pretty Lady Asian Dating Service” which featured some very R-rated photos. Once you get to know a site is okay you can bookmark it, but you probably don’t want kids to click around themselves too much at first.

KyLinTV is a large Chinese internet TV station aimed at overseas Chinese worldwide. It’s got a great children’s section and it’s got an English page (when you first go to the page, look for the Language pull down box towards the right of the top of the page.)

Parent tip: You can get a cable box from them for your TV, but the PC/iPad internet access is cheaper. I picked the Taiwan TV package because I like the kids’ channel that it comes with – YOYO TV. However, the part that my kids really like is “Kids VOD” (Video On Demand). I added that for $10 more per month and they can watch a huge selection of kids’ shows, such as Pleasant Goat & Big Wolf, which has 470 episodes. It’s expensive, but there’s no contract for the internet subscription, so you could get it for some extra Chinese over the summer and cancel when school starts up again.

The most popular Internet streaming video software in China. You download a player to your computer, iPad or iPhone and then can chose from a large variety of TV shows and movies from China, Taiwan and Korea. You can either find a friend who reads Chinese to talk you through the process or just click on things and see what happens. You’ll get a message saying you need to download the app, which I did. Then it gets fun. For example, when I was writing this I clicked on a few things and ended up with a TV news report about an international computer game play-off which features players from China, Korea and Japan. The report featured footage from the games they were playing, including dwarfs firing spells and exploding trees. Quite fun.

Another Internet streaming site from China that requires a downloaded player, but which offers tons of shows, including a fair number of popular U.S. TV shows dubbed into Mandarin. Big Bang Theory in Chinese, anyone?

Popular streaming site. All in Chinese but poke around and see what you find.


Parent Tip: My kids enjoy watching Mandarin videos, such as PororoThumb Bear, Martin Morningand Big Head Son. To preview these series online, go to and search for:

“大头儿子小头爸爸”  (Big Head Son)

“马丁的早晨”  (Martin Morning)

“小企鹅 pororo” (Pororo the Korean penguin)

“拇指熊” (Thumb Bear)

Other sites where you can find cartoons:

Sun flowers language studio stories

Chinese YouTube

Show to watch: FruityPie

This is the Taiwanese equivalent of Captain Kangaroo with some Mr. Rogers thrown in. The main character is Granny Fruity Pie, (played by a man in drag.) You can Google水果冰淇淋 and find lots of episodes posted. Kid up to 3rd grade like this one.


You can also have endless fun wandering YouTube searching on Mandarin. It’s a nice chance for the kids to be the experts, they can tell you about what you’re hearing or seeing, or if they can’t you can have lots of fun guessing together.  For example, here’s American claw hammer banjo player Abigail Washburn singing the classic folksong Little Birdie in Chinese with kids in China.


Or here are some kids in Hong Kong singing about how they hate veggies

And here’s one about how everyone’s learning Chinese these days

iPhones and iPads

Great story apps for iPads. The perfect car-ride solution. You can toggle back and forth between traditional and simplified characters. The stories are nicely animated and very popular among elementary school kids in immersion programs.


Chinese dictionary that allows you to practice Chinese characters by drawing them on the screen.


A character-practice app, where you draw on the screen.

Animal Fun: Chinese for Kids

Animal and fish names in Chinese and English, games, flashcards.

Rye Studio

They have several apps, some which are comic books, some of which are stories read aloud.

Doodle Chinese

Games for learning characters and more.

ZhongWeb  中网

A nice website by someone in Boston who reviews iPad and iPhone apps for learning Chinese.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2012 8:23 am

    This is a really good blog post, quite thorough about the many ways to get more Chinese into your children’s life. It’s amazing now how many different methods of learning and picking up Chinese are out there! The next generation is really lucky.

    I’d also recommend the website which has reviews of Chinese language podcasts (ie aimed at Chinese people) and some of them would be great for kids. The reviews try and explain the podcasts a little bit.

    On our website, we also sell Chinese language books and lots of books with pinyin (and zhuyin) for parents to read with children or for kids to read with their teacher if parents are not a native speaker.

  2. michelle permalink
    February 12, 2014 3:47 pm

    Thank you for listing all this information. I am finding it very helpful!

    My son loves watching Qiaohu on youtube: . I believe the show originated in Japan, but has been dubbed in numerous languages, especially throughout Asia.
    I have been playing this pinyin song for him since he was an infant:
    We have also found a numbers song that is quite entertaining:, as well as this color song:


  3. Regina permalink
    May 30, 2015 1:35 pm

    Thanks! My 1st grader is in mandarin immersion so this is a great list of resources for us

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