30 in 30: First Chinese Characters

pancakes - fire

This past month has been especially busy. With Halloween festivities and end of the year work projects, I’ve had little time to focus on teaching Chinese. Then tonight while tidying up after dinner I noticed my messy pile of learning materials. Feeling disappointed in myself for not having time for my own Mandarin learning, I picked up a stack of flashcards and started reviewing them. I was sitting on the floor behind my son’s play tent, trying to get a few moments of quite time, so of course he sensed that I was in hiding and sniffed me out. Curiously he asked what I was doing and I showed him a flash card. He read it. Shocked, I started flipping through a few more and he kept getting them right. He had learned his first Chinese Characters!

Writing Tray

Tonight I discovered that in the last month since we started learning Chinese characters, my resistant 4 year old has miraculously learned about 30 characters. Why is this extraordinary you ask? First off, because it’s taken him 2 years to fully learn 26 letters in the English alphabet. And because my wild child hates learning Chinese. I had this brilliant idea to have our Taiwanese babysitter start tutoring him. I set up an ad hoc writing tray: flash cards and a baking sheet of raw rice. By the end of his first lesson he had transformed into the Great Cornholio—pants gone, briefs turned around, and shirt over his head. How ??? The rice had been strewn all over the carpet. I didn’t think our babysitter was ever coming back.


The Chinese writing books went back in the cabinet and I had to deploy plan B. We were aiming to learn about 3 characters each week. I would pick a character found ways to worked it into our day however possible. I made Chinese character pancakes, wrote the word out in ketchup, cut the character out of cheese, steamed them onto buns, etc. He was able to remember the characters not realizing his whole day had become one big Chinese lesson.

first Chinese characters

At some point I did pull the flashcards back out. Each morning I would put 2 or 3 cards on a clipboard and make up a silly story during breakfast. Then I would find ways to incorporate the same characters into our other activities. I still think writing practice is the fastest way to really learn the characters but I can’t force him to sit and write. Maybe it’s because he is left handed, or maybe he’s not developmentally ready for writing. Either way, I try to teach at his pace so he can enjoy it and be receptive. He’s very proud when he recognizes characters in books and I’m happy with the progress we’ve made.

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