The Chinese for Families project

Jiale Zhongwen’s “Chinese for Families” started in 2008 with one small class of children aged 4 to 5 and an action research question: “How much can children with little or no Chinese language knowledge learn in a one lesson a week language program?” Almost immediately it became evident children with little or no Chinese language knowledge could make significant progress in engaging and structured classes run mostly in Mandarin with the teacher using many techniques to support comprehension.

Over the next years the program expanded to include 8 different levels, each with its own tailored program and methodologies suited to the students’ age group and prior learning. Hundreds of students passed through our classes with up to 60 concurrent students and many students staying with us for four or more years. Many teachers came to observe our classes with more than ten undertaking training and working with us as teachers. While methodologies varied across the levels, key components in all classes were 1) the extensive use of interactive and comprehensible spoken Chinese,  2) stories: listening to stories, reading stories and co-creating stories, and 3) an open ended approach to literacy development with a primary focus on reading comprehension. While we made many of our own resources, the Better Chinese curriculum played a central role in the Beginners to Intermediate Level 4 classes and students in the Chinese Text Creation classes greatly enjoyed Mandarin Companion readers. The number of classes were reduced in 2023 and in 2024 one class of Chinese Text Creation students will complete their final year, after which the project will conclude.

Looking back on the past 16 years, many tangible successes and highlights come to mind.

  • Classrooms full of laughter and lively interaction
  • Magical moments where students engaged in authentic interactions in Chinese with the teacher without conscious effort
  • The warmth and community of the Beginners and Continuers classes where parents learnt with their children and helped with craft activities
  • Countless jointly created class stories and booklets in Chinese
  • A range of creative short videos made by our Intermediate and Chinese Text Creation classes (some of which can be seen on the Jiale Zhongwen Youtube channel)
  • Primary school children reading texts in characters aloud with confidence
  • Many of our students successfully sat a range of Chinese proficiency tests (YCT 1, YCT 2, HSK 1, HSK 2, HSK 3).
  • A good number of our students successfully continued with Chinese at secondary school, in some cases skipping a number of year levels

The Jiale Zhongwen “Chinese for Families” project was also very enriching to me as the main teacher and director. Through this project I met many families of a range of backgrounds who were very keen for their children to learn Mandarin. I had the opportunity to teach the same students over a period of years and watch them grow not only in language proficiency but also as young people. Many classroom moments were pure joy, gems of deep connection, learning and laughter. I started with what I thought were ambitious learning goals only to find that the students could easily exceed them. I learnt that much more is possible than I had ever imagined. Many thanks to all the parents, students and teachers who were part of this project. It has been wonderful!



Chinese: A great language for Australian young people to learn

Jude at the last Chinese Text Creation class in 2019

Jude and Lewis have been regular students at our Chinese for Families classes for a number of years. Many thanks to their grandfather Larry Owens Emeritus Professor of Education from Flinders University  (known to us as Larry) for writing this review of our classes.

I became interested in Chinese language as a result of work commitments over many years in Beijing and Shanghai. As Australia’s biggest trading partner, China is of immense importance to us and a greater understanding of Chinese language and culture is critical to us now and in the future. My oldest grandson, Jude (now 12 years old) was being home-schooled from his reception year and he needed to study a language as a part of his approved Australian curriculum. Fortunately, we found Belinda’s “Chinese for Families” (Jiale Zhongwen) which offered Chinese after school hours and on weekends. Belinda is a highly experienced teacher of Chinese language and she marries together an advanced theoretical knowledge of language learning with highly engaging classroom methodologies. With the help of the “Better Chinese” resources, Belinda and her staff provided an attractive teaching programme so that both my grandsons (the younger one, Lewis, now 8, also joined the classes) really looked forward to the weekly lessons. In fact, both boys have thrived, continually developing their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. Jude is progressing through the Hanban official Chinese proficiency examinations, having achieved over 90% in both HSK1 and HSK2 (standardized tests of Chinese language achievement for non-native speakers). Lewis will begin these examinations in 2020. I can certainly recommend Belinda’s Chinese language programmes offered by her “Chinese for Families” classes.

Larry Owens, PhD, Emeritus Professor of Education, Flinders University

Teaching Chinese in the sunshine – finding the keys to unlocking students’ potential

This blog post is about the learning journey of teachers. In particular it is about my learning journey at Chinese for Families , now in its twelfth year of operation. Many thanks to all who have supported me in this journey.

There is a famous Chinese idiom about a frog who lives in a well. This frog thinks the sky is only the size of the mouth of the well because that is all he has ever seen. When a passing bird tries to tell him about the vast world outside, he angrily rejects her words as rubbish. To me, this metaphor is very relevant to the field of Chinese as an additional language education.

As a practicing teacher, I see that a significant number of key players have already given up before the students even walk into the classroom. Chinese is ‘too hard’, students are ‘unmotivated’, it is ‘not possible’ or even more sadly, it is ‘not important’ or children ‘shouldn’t have to learn it’. Without belief, purpose or a sense of the importance of our work we cannot teach effectively, while without effective teaching most children will not learn.

An adapted version of this idiom “Viewing the sky from the bottom of a well” appears in AI Story Time

In fact, we do not yet fully know what is possible. The question of how best to present this very different language with a highly memory based written system to children growing up in the Western educational environment is still not fully explored or understood, although there is a small but growing body of research on the topic. To learn more, we need to be willing to try different approaches and leave the safety of the well of past practice. To have the courage to explore, we need to believe in the children’s learning potential and in the importance of our work.
I started a one lesson a week program, Chinese for Families Adelaide, in 2008 with a belief that it was possible for children to learn more than was common in once a week primary language programs and a desire to find out how to do it. I wanted them to develop a sense of the language and give them a foundation that would set them up for success in secondary school. Read more

Building a language foundation – your child’s journey in learning Chinese

Our parents often ask about learning outcomes: how much will my child be able to understand, speak, communicate, read and engage with the Chinese speaking world? Recently one of our students went on a family trip to China and her mother kindly agreed to share her observations with our Chinese for Families community.

         “Our daughter has been learning Chinese for nearly 8 years now with “Chinese for Families” and our family    recently travelled to China for a holiday. It was a wonderful trip and gave us all the opportunity to experience       the food, language and culture while visiting some amazing places.

         During our travels we had no particular expectations of our daughter’s level of Chinese language – she has learnt a lot during her lessons but we knew she would not have the confidence or vocabulary required to hold a fluent conversation. However despite this, we were pleasantly surprised to discover how much she actually could understand while we were travelling.

        She was able to recognise various characters on signs and menus, and she could listen and understand some spoken words and phrases. At times she could assist us communicating with staff in shops and restaurants – even if only by speaking some words here and there – and even though none of this involved a full sentence or conversation it was extremely useful.

        It made us realise there are many stages in learning a language before reaching the highest level of fluent conversation – and all of these stages can help in communicating. As a family we felt very thankful for the weekly classes at Chinese for Families and the opportunity it has given our daughter to broaden her language skills. Thank you Belinda!”

I like to think that in our one lesson a week program we take children a significant way along the path of genuine language acquisition. When they finish with us, they still have some way to go but they’ve gone far enough to see the peak and to know that they can there. They have a solid foundation in and engagement with the spoken and written language. They ‘get’ Chinese and they are ready to race ahead on their journey to the mountain top!