Build a library of your target language in your home


the-bfg-in-mandarinPretty much where ever you look in my house, I have piles of books. Books in shelves. books in boxes and books outside down our magical path. I love watching my kids cuddle up with a book literally where ever they are in my house and read. Up until about a year ago, most of the books were in English. This year, my focus has been more on the written skills of learning Chinese. What better way to get my kids immersed in written Chinese than to pepper our book collection with more Chinese texts? But where to find books in your target language?



  1. Find a distributor that focuses on your target language. We adore They have a wonderful selection of books and DVDs that the owner has personally reviewed. Excellent quality!
  2. Go to your library. Request that they bring in more books of your target language. MyGood Night Moon in Mandarin library has recently acquiesced to my request to bring in a ton of Mo Williem’s books in Chinese. You really can’t get a better early reader than the Pig and Elephant series. 
  3. Ask a friend to start a book sharing program together. Buy books that you both agree would be great texts for your kids and then exchange when done!
  4. See if there are any used books in your area that have a large population of people in the community that speak your target language. They  might stock your target language! We have an amazing used bookstore in our area called Book Go Round that always has a ton of Mandarin books since Saratoga has a large population of Chinese folks in our community.

Perhaps your children are not reading yet in your target language  — that’s ok. To be immersed in these books — have your children grow into these books — is all part of this second language adventure!

Have fun!

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Pen Pals for Second Language Writing


pen-palThis year I am determined to improve my kids’ writing ability in Mandarin. They speak well, but writing is a totally different beast. Now that my youngest, Hudson, is 4, life has become a bit easier. I actually have the ability to brainstorm in the car without having to hand back sippy cups or cheerios or pull over to change a diaper — and a few months ago asked myself:

How to make writing Mandarin interesting?

 What would pique their curiosity and keep them writing?

PEN PALS!  A real person. I’m talking about the old-fashioned ink-and-paper kind. While apps and technology seem to be taking over our lives, writing an actual letter to pen pals feels like the poodle skirts of language learning — antiquated.

But nothing builds excitement more than a trip to the mailbox to find a letter with your name on it that looks like it has traveled a long road to get to your house.

How to get one? 

The website Students of the World offers electronic penpals, but I found the interface challenging to get through (think web pages of the late 90s.)  Besides, I was looking for snail mail ones. They do offer a snail mail option for a fee. So I sent in my 16 euros, which entitled me to get 4 addresses. My kiddos diligently wrote to these young folks in China and a few weeks later, we got all of our letters returned to us — “insufficient address”. I lucas-pen-palwrote to Students of the World but they indicated that it was “difficult finding young people from Asia” and sent me the addresses of four new folks in their mid-twenties.  We opted to not follow up.

Bummer. I wrote to Students of the World but they indicated that it was “difficult finding young people from Asia” and sent me the addresses of four new folks in their mid-twenties.  We opted to not follow up.

I wrote to Students of the World, but they indicated that it was “difficult finding young people from Asia” and sent me the addresses of four new folks living in China in their mid-twenties.  We opted to not follow up.

Now what? 

I reached out to a bunch of yahoo groups and facebook groups that focus on Mandarin learning with kids, and within a few hours, we had oodles of penpals! Now, a few months later, we get a few letters a week and it is exciting to go to the mailbox to see what is in store for us! Sometimes we get fun little surprises like little presents or pictures as well!

Some Suggestions: 

  1. Join Facebook groups that focus on your language of choice
  2. Join Yahoo groups that focus on your language of choice
  3. Reach out to expat groups that live in a country that speaks the language of your choice.
  4. Ask everyone and anyone you know for the address of any kids living in a place that speaks the language of your choice.
  5. If you have a babysitter speaks the language of your choice, ask her for young family members that might be interested.
  6. Check out some other online penpal options (I will review more when I finish planning my daughter’s mermaid party and let you know what I discover!) TIP: so far — I have discovered that most are for adults!

Good luck!

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Dinner Entertainment Ideas for Kids


Mandarin dot to dot 1-20No judgment here — but we don’t bring iPads with us to dinner.  While it is nice to entertain the kids for a bit while you wait for the meal to come, it is challenging for us to then tell our kids to put it away for the meal. Sometimes they are just getting started with a game when the first course arrives.

What to do?

Just throwing out another idea for you guys — why not go with an old-fashioned coloring page to entertain your kids instead — especially one that might teach them something new?

A couple of restaurants offer one boring coloring sheet to fill in,  but you never know which places have it and which don’t or if your child will even be interested in the drawings on those pages.

Why not bring your own?

We leave a little case filled with pencils, crayons, and twistable colored pencils (that don’t need to be sharpened) and our own coloring pages in the car. That way, I don’t have to remember to pack it every time we eat out. The entertainment packs are in the car waiting for the next restaurant adventure!

Perhaps you can bring Adventures in China with you on your next trip? Even if you are not Collage dice 1-20learning Mandarin with your children, our learning packs are a great way to learn about Chinese culture and our detailed coloring pages will definitely keep your kids engaged until the first course arrives (and maybe until dessert!)


Let us know how it went!

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Lunchbox Inspiration


LunchboxWhat do you do with those “return” envelopes that come in your mail? Do you actually return the survey, bill or renewal that the company wants you to send back? For us, 99% of the time, I either fill out online or throw it away.

Why not use those envelopes?

Check out this “green” idea– I use them as the envelopes for my kids’ lunchbox love notes! If you collect these envelopes for a few weeks — you will have LOADS! Trust me. I have done it! I now have enough envelopes to last until they are in college. I am sure that they will love getting lunchbox notes in college! :)

Why the envelope? It makes the note feel “special”. Anything that you have to open feels more like a present than just simply a note.

How I do it? I use the lunchbox love notes to talk about what they are going to do that day after school, reminisce about something special that we did that weekend, or build anticipation about a trip or adventure that we are about to take (to “optomize” a vacation it’s important to anticipate and then remember it according to hedonic psychologists — yes it is a real profession :)

Decorate with stickers and have fun!

Second language learning? As you probably know — I try to squeeze in a little second language learning everyday! I asked our babysitter to write a few Chinese lunchbox love notes to include once or twice a week. The other kids are curious about the characters and my kids love to share their Chinese letters at lunch. They then teach their friends a few characters! Bonus! Kids learn best while teaching — why not with something fun like lunchbox love notes!

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Music to Cheat a Little


Frozen DVD and CDSo the theory goes that children need 30% of their “waking hours” to be in a second language in order to achieve fluency. Check out Adam Beck’s cool pie chart and descriptions about how his family sneaks in about 30% of a second language.

Yet for many folks, that percentage can be tough to achieve. How do you get in your second language when you also have homework, soccer, piano, playdates chores and everything else to do in a day? I know that we struggle with the 30% rule often!  Do you just give up on a second language  if you can only get 15%? What about 5%?

No.Good Morning Mandarin

I love this quote from Multilingual Living around this topic, “Sometimes less exposure can have more of an impact than we know!  Just allow yourself to adjust your expectations to match your family’s language journey and see where you can add more language exposure along the way.  The gift of language is priceless, no matter how much language exposure your child receives!”

That said, I have a little secret that I do every night that I think has a tremendous impact. Music.

Given that a third of our kids’ lives are spent sleeping, why not make use of the time! Studies have shown that some language acquisition can take place during the Zzzzzzs!

Every night after story-time and cuddling, I put on a playlist of Mandarin music for the kiddos. They love it! Lucas my son gets a different set of music than the younger girls. Lucas tends to like more Chinese pop and the girls love anything Disney. The music lasts for about an hour and half and they fall asleep to it. The music does not keep them awake but instead, I hope, they have sweet dreams of Elsa as they sleep!

Typically, I will cheat some more and play it again before I head up to bed just to get in another hour or so of language time. Try it! Can’t hurt right?

Filed Under: Chinese, Homeschooling, Music to Learn a Second Language, School for Immersion, Spanish, Uncategorized

Beach Day Turns into Language Learning Fun


Beach Day Learning ChineseWe go to the beach often. Why not? We live in California! There is no place more magical than the beach!

I am a big believer that learning is best when practiced in different ways and locations. Learning a second language by simply using flashcards all day will not get you very far. If you shake it up a bit, the learning moments will have a stronger impact.

So… with that in mind…. we decided to use the BIG canvas of the beach as a fabulous learning tool! This time on our beach adventure, I asked the kids to practice some of their Chinese characters in the sand.

The kids loved writing their Chinese characters in the sand — and tried to teach Jim and I a few words and sentences. Lucas made some of his characters HUGE, while Lousha loved teaching her little sister using a little stick in the sand.

However, that was not the interesting part of the story.Learning at the beach in Chinese

A few children near us noticed what the kids were doing and started chatting with my children — in Chinese. The connection had been made and my children spent the next three hours building sandcastles, writing Chinese characters in the sand, playing football, splashing in the waves — all in Chinese. What started off as a fun little second language exercise that was meant to last 10 minutes, turned into a long, three hour, laughter-filled, Chinese-infused adventure!

Next time you are at the beach, try it and see if you get any young takers who pop along for the fun!


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Repurpose Disposable Tablecloths for Learning


Mandarin Character IdeasAfter reading The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up,  I was inspired to clean out those forgotten closets.   While rummaging though one abandoned closet, I discovered a pack of disposable tablecloths that I must have purchased for some school party. No parties were scheduled for the next few weeks and so instead of donating or throwing away the tablecloths, I found a great way to repurpose them!

Chinese character practice!

You can still use this idea for really anything — spelling practice, math problems, Spanish words, French Pictionary or simply to have fun with paint!

What a cheap and easy way to create a large canvas for your child to play! Simply put something heavy on the corners and voila — you have a huge canvas! My children enjoy Chinese language learning because I am always mixing up HOW they learn the language. Lousha, my daughter,  just loved the large canvas and happily painted awayMandarin Characters Learning practicing her Chinese characters

Some ideas to make this activity more fun:

1. Tracing: I painted the characters using the correct stroke order and then Lousha painted on top of my characters using a different color paint

2. Painting: Allow your child to simply paint the characters, but watch to make sure that the stroke order is correct

3. Add Pictures: Have you child draw pictures of the character that he/she is writing. Lousha loved painting a cat next to the character of “cat” that she wrote.

4. Teaching: Lousha loved teaching her younger sister, Hudson, how to correctly write out the Chinese characters. When a student teaches another, the retention is far greater than simply listening.

If you are interested in reading about my journey of “tidying” up my house using The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, check out my blog posts on our family site, Gannon Gang.

Filed Under: Chinese, Homeschooling, Uncategorized

Advent House Number Game


Advent House Numbers GameWhy not make use of your Advent House for something other than waiting for Santa to come? We use this magical little house to explore numbers in a second language in a fun and challenging way!

A Few Different Game Variations: Print out these number PDF pages below (numbers from 1 – 25) and cut them out. Scatter them in front of your Advent house and set a timer on your phone.


  1. Solo Race-  How quickly can your child put the number in the correct door? Try this game several times to see if you can beat your previous score.
  2. Sibling Competition- If your children like to compete against each other, set a timer and race to see who can be the fastest to put the numbers in the correct doors.
  3. Work Together –  Your family can work as a team to put the numbers in the correct doors. How fast are you guys?
  4. Other ideas? Please comment below!

Print Outs of Numbers 1-25: 

Mandarin Numbers

Spanish Numbers

French Numbers

English Numbers

Filed Under: Chinese, English Literacy, French, Games to Learn a Second Language, Homeschooling, Spanish, Uncategorized

Your Library’s Free Language Resources


Use Your Library for Free Language Resources

Right now, we use Rosetta Stone as our French curriculum (we once had Rosetta Stone for Greek, but that, along with my computer, got destroyed in a Rosetta Stone, both from a user’s perspective and as a parent. Its immersion-style of learning mimics the way we naturally learn languages, so you quickly gain a certain level of fluency. And for the kids, it’s nice to have a program that they can do entirely on their own. However, it is not cheap (although you can often find it up to 40% off, so make sure you price check before you rosetta-stonebuy), and if you want practice to grammar or writing, Rosetta Stone isn’t really structured to provide that kind of instruction.

For our other foreign languages (Spanish and Greek), we don’t have any “official” program. My intention was to wait and slowly add more languages to my Rosetta Stone collection, but I keep finding a lot of other uses for that money. I’m also just not convinced, given how many free resources are out there, that I have to pay for anything (at least not at this early level of instruction).

All you need is a library card and a dream!

I don’t go the the library as often as I should, given how much I love the library (and how often I am buying books that I should just go check out of the library). But I have a very bad habit of racking up late fees, and until recently, my 3 year old thought of the library as his own personal playground, with books instead of balls to throw. We didn’t make a lot of friends among the staff or other patrons.

We are, more or less, past all of that now, so I have begun to re-discover the library.  Although I knew you could get more than books at the library, I had never investigated all of the free e-resources available through most public libraries. At libraries across the country, with nothing more than the account number on your library card,  you can access, at home or anywhere else, a treasure trove of educational tools, from audiobooks, ebooks for kids and adults, test prep, magazines, (even Us Weekly, yay!), and online membership to language learning programs.

Muzzy and Mango

Through my library, there are two different language programs available: Mango Languages and Muzzy (both of which you would normally need to pay for.) By logging on to my library’s website using my library card and a pin # they gave me, I can use these two programs on my home computer (or any computer), as though I was a paying customer.

Mango is not designed specifically for kids, but as long as they can read at a mid-Elementary level (a strong first grade reader, or average 2nd grader), they will be fine. The program is offered in 63 languages, although some languages have a lot more lessons than others. Unlike many programs, Mango doesn’t focus on teaching you the foundations of the language, but rather getting you to a point where you could function if you were dropped off in the middle of the country on your own.

Each lesson starts with a list of conversation and grammar goals, which l like; there are also cultural notes interspersed throughout the lesson. As a starting point for language learning, I like Mango (especially if you get it for free). I could definitely see us using it as a replacement for Rosetta Stone, at least for the first level or so. On the negative side, it’s not very interactive, which could cause some kids to lose interest, but luckily the lessons are short and sweet.

Muzzy, produced by the BBC, is one of the oldest, and best-known language learning programs for children. I was very excited to find this program offered through my library, because I have wanted to try it out for years, but didn’t want to buy it. It offers 8 languages, including Spanish, French and Mandarin (but not Greek, sadly!). It uses cute animation, videos and games, implementing a “see and say, listen and learn” method which mimics native language learning. And they have recently redone their animation and music, so it doesn’t look as horribly dated anymore, although its still far from glamorous (you can see a clip of their updated look here). Given that we can access it for free, I am happy to have my kids use it to complement their work on Mango.

So that’s what I’ve found at my library. How about you? I’m curious if other libraries offer different, or more, selections. In a future post, I’ll share some other great, free, language learning resources from the interest and YouTube that we’ve enjoyed. Stay tuned!

Thank you for reading!

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Lisa Sarafidis – Guest Blogger

Independently Schooled


Filed Under: Chinese, Cool Websites, Cultural Experiences, French, Games to Learn a Second Language, Homeschooling, Lisa Sarafidis - Guest Blogger, Product Reviews, Spanish, Uncategorized

Using Soccer to Teach Spanish


lisa SarafidisLisa Sarafidis  – Guest Blogger

This may come as a shock, but my 7-year-old son’s attitude to learning a foreign language has been a bit less than absolutely enthusiastic. On a good day, we could, perhaps, describe his mindset as indifferent. I see now that he thought the bulk of the work was him choosing which language he wanted to learn, and now would I please let him get back to watching that super interesting youtube video featuring a 35-year-old man playing Minecraft in his mother’s basement.

I’m going to have to be sneaky, because few things are sustainable in a house with young kids if it causes lots of drama. Kids are drama enough. So, while my son isn’t exactly passionate about Spanish (the language he picked), he is passionate about soccer. And there are LOTS of ways to link Spanish and soccer.

El Mundial (aka The World Cup)

Soccer to Teach Spanish
Photo credit: Steven Depolo

For those of you who don’t already know, World Cup soccer is upon us! Coming to us from host country Brazil, the World Cup will be broadcasted in the US in English on ABC, ESPN and ESPN2 and in Spanish on Univision (side note: Univision has the most extensive coverage of the World Cup, broadcasting 56 of all 64 games, compared to ESPN’s 43 matches). The first game is Thursday, June 12 at 4:00pm EST between Brazil and Croatia; the final is July 13th. That’s a whole month of soccer, for better or for worse.

My plan: have my family watch the games on Univision, where all of the commentary will be in Spanish. You would be surprised how little the kids care that they don’t understand the language…my husband, son and even neighborhood kids have gathered in our house to watch past soccer championships on Univision…many tournaments are only broadcast on Spanish-language channels in this country. And everyone loves hearing the commentators yell “GOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!”.

Get Ready with Some Simple Vocabulary Prep

The main goal of my “Spanish through soccer” plan is to just get my son familiar with the sound of the language, and maybe pique his interest when he hears the passion of the fans, players and commentators in Spanish. Plus, he’ll get to watch TV commercials in Spanish, which is actually a great way to get learn commonly-used phrases and vocabulary. (I don’t know if World Cup commercials are anything like Superbowl commercials, but I’m guessing we’ll find out). But, to maximize what he takes away from the experience, I am going to prep him with a bit of soccer vocabulary, so he’ll be able to keep an ear out for words he knows, and maybe pick up a few new ones.

If you type “soccer words in Spanish” into google, you will find many lists to choose from. I picked 20 of the most common terms, and made a Quizlet flashcard set. If you are not familiar with Quizlet, it is pretty awesome. You just make an account (free) and then you can turn any list into online flashcards. Here is the list I put together for my son:  Soccer Vocabulary in Spanish

Shakira and Soccer

World Cup Brazil - Learn Spanish through Soccer
Photo Credit: Thomas

Music is another great way to introduce language to children, and, through the magic of youtube, we have access to a lot of songs and videos that combine both Spanish and soccer. This year, the official theme song of the World Cup is sung by Colombian singer Shakira; there are several versions- this is the one in Spanish that features more soccer (rather than just a typical music video). Shakira also sang the theme to the 2010 World Cup… her Waka Waka song was immensely popular: it features a lot of famous soccer players, and is really hard not to dance to.

There are also many compilations of soccer footage put together by fans (you can find this in any language you are looking for), and set to music. If you type el fútbol musica into youtube, you will get lots of options. And if your kids have a favorite player, there is a good chance someone has set up a tribute to that player (type players name and “espanol”). Here are a few I’ve found, but there are SO many out there:

Argentinian Soccer
Colombian Soccer
Tribute to Lionel Messi (one of top players in this year’s World Cup, captain of Argentina team)
Tribute to Maradona (famous Argentinian soccer player, can find lots of vintage footage)

Hopefully, these ideas will inspire my son. Let me know how they work for you, or if you have any other tricks or tips to share. Please post your comments below! I’d love to hear your thoughts!


Filed Under: Cultural Experiences, Flashcard Fun, Games to Learn a Second Language, Homeschooling, Music to Learn a Second Language, Spanish, TV as a Tool
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