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Hi everyone –


I’m curious if anyone has advice or information on the following. I’m a first language English speaker who has spent time in China and can speak Chinese (mandarin) quite fluently. I have 2 children (ages 3 and 6) and have been exposing them to mandarin with caregivers. I am hoping my kids can learn to read and write also (the 6 year old is learning to read and write now). There’s a transliteration system called pinyin which uses the English alphabet. I’ve avoided teaching this to the kids thinking it will confuse them as they learn the English alphabet for reading English at the same time.


can anyone help?






Oakland, California


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Hi Irene,

This question is a bit beyond my expertise, as I’m not a Chinese speaker. However, I’ll offer my two cents:

My view is that you would probably want to introduce Chinese written characters at this stage instead, if your goal is full literacy. However, learning two alphabets with the same characters, but with different pronunciation is not a problem. All French, German or Spanish bilingual schools do that all the time. As opposed to Chinese, the number of characters in the Roman alphabet (even times two) is very limited, and any confusion is usually overcome rather quickly. Take a look at this article on literacy in bilinguals.

Good luck!
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Christina Bosemark
Founder & List Moderator
Multilingual Children’s Association


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Hi Irene,

My son is 5 and although language at home is English, he has had Mandarin speaking caregivers since birth and speaks Mandarin at an age appropriate level (mL outside the H). At the University here, there is a Chinese school for children that offers classes on Saturday. The first level, equivilent to Kindergarten, teaches pin yin (also poems and songs). The children do not start learning characters until 1st grade. The school is operated by Chinese teachers primarily for Chinese children of Chinese graduate students and post docs. My son will start there in a couple of weeks. Shall I try to find out anything else for you?


West Lafayette Indiana, USA

English at home

Children 14 and 5

mL outside the H (for 5 year old only)


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I’m so glad I found this site. I am also facing the same problem now.

My son is 5 yrs old. Since birth, we have practised OPOL (father speaks French, I speak Mandarin and caregiver English) we also live in Singapore which is predominantly English speaking. He attends the French school here and has Chinese lessons weekly – so he has quite good exposure to all 3 languages. He is fluent in all three languages.

My question is this. My son has not yet started to read in either English or French, but can read simple sentences in Chinese. At school, they are only doing simple letter/sound associations in French, but will not really start reading until 6. His Chinese tutor would like to introduce hanyu pinyin soon (which is an alphabetised transliteration system for Chinese as the earlier poster mentioned). At the same time, we want to start teaching him to read in French as he has shown interest in learning. Is this OK, or should we hold off on the hanyu pinyin first until he is familiar and settled with all the French letters & sounds?

Another question. I’m not sure what I should do with English as to date, we have deliberately left this as something he picks up passively from neighbours, friends and TV. He speaks English OK tho’ with grammatical errors and in a funny local accent. However, at some point I’d also like to teach him to read in English. How would this fit in with OPOL? Will it undo all the work I’ve done to establish Chinese as the sole language between us. This is becoming a growing concern especially as the environment here is predisposed to English, and so even my son is starting to lapse into English with me.

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Hi Irene,

I am no expert, but my son is 4 years old and goes to a Chinese (Mandarin) daycare and a week-end Chinese class.  I speak Indonesian to him, and my husband (Caucasian) speaks a little Indonesian, but mostly English.  I am learning Mandarin now.  My plan is not to introduce Hanyu Pinyin to my son until he can read English well.  He is learning to read Chinese characters now.  Personally, I think Pinyin is more “academic” and useful for someone who is learning the language as an adult or as an older child, but not that useful for a toddler / pre-school.

I think it is also harder to learn to read Hanzi (Chinese characters) than to learn Pinyin, so I want to start the harder one first.

Good luck and let us know what path you end up taking.
(modified OPOL: Indonesian, English, Mandarin).

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Hi Irene

I am the father of a 1 month old gorl which we plan to bring up bilingual as well (her mother is chinese). I would suggest you follow Stefanis advice and start with characters instead of pinyin. That is what we plan to do with our daughter. My reasoning behind this is that since characters are harder it is better to start with them when the child is young enough not to realize that it is hard. If you start with pinyin there is a risk that your child doesn’t want to learn characters at all since they seem much harder to learn than pinyin. And since your child knows english as well learning pinyin will be very easy to do later on. Actually you can start with character learning pretty early. See this intersting article (in chinese) about a couple who started teaching their daughter characters when she was two years old.

Chieng, Andrew

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Hi Irene,


I’m not sure whether the following view is still relevant since you last posted your question. How are your kids doing in Mandarin, thus far?


I am Malaysian Chinese but grew up in a Malaysian-ised environment. We used English but in Malaysian context, sometimes more Manglish and add with “lahs”, “mahs” and local slangs. Purely Mandarin was not my first language. To say, in school I can speak general, lay person English but was quite weak at “academic”/ school kind English.


I went through some very basic Mandarin lessons with people quite similar background – “air batu campur” (we mix sorts of languages English, Malay, Cantonese, Chinese variants, whatever).


I’m not an expert in this area. My personal view is to start your kids speaking naturally and getting their pronunciations right first (without the reading technicalities) before formally introducing them to reading system. Get them mixing with people who speak Mandarin and English. We all start any language through speaking it, not letters, don’t we? As they get familiar with speaking it is easier to get the written idea. I remember starting off this way. I knew nothing about whatever system. I merely had some people who spoke Mandarin. I found that I got the idea easier compared to those who never spoken Mandarin when they started.


When I learned at the beginning some of my peers would make fun of pronunciations like the pin yin “die” (as in English “dead”) in Mandarin the “d” is actually more to “d-e” than English “d”, and “o” in Cantonese “o tsi” (s###ting). I guess this happens because they are already acquainted with the idea.   


Besides pin yin there are actually other pronunciation guides. There is the Chinese phonetics method but this is very tough if you are comfortable reading in roman alphabets. It is closer to Chinese/Japanese style writing. There is also the Yale method, which takes some time to familiarize if you had learned other forms but in my view this method gives your pronunciation some colloquial accent compared to pin yin. But once you are familiar with romanized methods you can switch with ease. Hope this helps. 


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Hello,I’m a mom with a 5-year-old American kid. He is now learning Chinese with this free e-book, and he seems to be deeply intrigued by this e-book. I think that is a good start. I highly recommend this to you and hope you like it.

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Hi, I’m a mom with a 5-year-old American kid.

My kid learns Chinese with a free e-book and he seems to be deeply intrigued by this fun e-book.

I think that is a great start for him.

I highly recommend this to you and hope you like it.


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