Photo taken in collaboration with Deborah Quek

Do you remember how you learnt to order food at the economical rice store? Probably not so much from those Chinese lessons we were put through since young, but from observing those in front of us in the queue, picking up terms for certain foods we probably had no idea of otherwise.

If all else fails, there’s always pointing with our fingers and the popular zhe ge (这个, this) and na ge (那个, that).

I never saw the importance of my Mother Tongue in my youth, and it did not help that I came from an English speaking family. Now that I am a father of two wonderful children, my wife and I, both much stronger at English than Mandarin, have made it a point to be intentional in helping our kids get comfortable with their second language.

Or so we tried. If only we had known that when it comes to bilingualism – the younger, the better.

Our 8-year-old son loves to sing, dance, watch shows and read the occasional book. When he was in kindergarten, we felt that the school was doing enough and did not send him for any extra enrichment classes.

But when he entered Primary 1, he started trailing behind his peers in his Mandarin. By mid-year, we received a call from his teacher saying that he needed help for his Chinese.

So we found Mandarin shows. We bought simple Chinese storybooks. We wrote simple Mandarin words on cards for him to read and recognise. We even tried speaking Mandarin every day during dinner.

But our boy was not receptive, having engaged in only English since young. When he watched Chinese shows or was given Chinese books, he was only looking at the pictures. It all seemed “one ear in, one ear out”.

In the end, we engaged a private tutor for him, which has been much help. He is slowly but surely picking up and retaining more Chinese words.


To ensure that we did not repeat our “mistakes” with our 5-year-old daughter, this is what we have been doing for the last few years:

1. Use music to introduce the language

We include a mixture of Mandarin and English songs in our song playlist during dinner time. This exposes our children to Mandarin through music, where they’re not entirely “conscious” that they’re learning another language.

Wisetip nine point one

2. Do the reading for them

Instead of forcing my children to pick up and read Mandarin books, we the parents do the reading now. We noticed that when we read to them with animated facial expressions and varying tones of the voice, they are more interested in the story.

At times, we’ve even found them taking out the books by themselves before the designated storytelling time, flipping through the pages themselves without our instruction or guidance.

Wisetip nine point one

3. Weave the language in

If we make it less awkward to include Mandarin in our conversations at home, our children will gradually follow suit, picking up vocabulary and phrases for the appropriate moments.

My wife and I speak Mandarin at certain times in our everyday conversations. Now our children even remind us to jiang huayu (讲华语, speak Mandarin)!


That said, every child has his and her learning curve, speed, and momentum too. I believe we need time (and if we’re being honest, a whole truckload of patience) to understand how each of our children learn and process.

And perhaps the next time we’re at the coffee shop, let’s up our food ordering game by showing our kids how it’s done. No English allowed.

Shawn Quek is a father of two children, 5 and 8 years old. He is the Engagement Manager for Centre for Fathering and DADs for Life where he hopes to inspire fathers to be more involved fathers.