Helping my kids learn Chinese, English and Japanese through picture and sound associations


Supporting our children in learning 4 languages is no easy task. It doesn’t make it easier that I am so selective in the resources that I use. Either I research for hours just to find one specific item, or I end up creating my own teaching materials from scratch.  From the process of searching to creating, we have come to the realization that mnemonic associations have helped both kids learn everything from English letter-sounds, Japanese Hiragana to Chinese characters and music notes.  The mnemonic method is one that involves linking visual cues, sounds or images to characters, letters, words or concepts you are trying to learn.  This blog will briefly explain how I have incorporated this strategy (mnemonic associations) into our children’s learning at home.

Learning through Images

Japanese Hiragana

Hiragana is the phonetic alphabet that is usually the first writing system you learn as a child. It consists of 46 sounds. On the Internet, you can find website after website that detail the fastest and most effective ways to learn hiragana.  Unfortunately, most child-friendly hiragana charts I came across were poorly designed for a non-Japanese speaker.

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Yes, there is an illustration for each hiragana so it is clearly trying to use an illustration to help remember its sound.  For instance, for “あ” pronounced “ah”, there is a picture of an ant or “ari”  However, this is equivalent to me drawing an “apple” next to the letter A.  Unless you are looking at the chart, there is no way anyone would be able to remember that association.  On top of that, Kai does not know half of the Japanese vocabulary on that chart!  These online resources were not helpful for Kai.

In the end,  I wanted to create cards that involve image-based mnemonics which is appropriate for memorising Hiragana. I wanted the Hiragana to actually LOOK like the illustration that it is trying to portray. 

For example: 

  • On the right:  The hiragana “mu” looks like the cow that “moo!”
  • On the left: The hiragana “no” looks like “nostrils”

For the more challenging sounds, I even used Cantonese and Mandarin words to support.

  • On the right:  The hiragana “u” sounds like “u gui” 乌龟 or turtle in Mandarin
  • On the left:  The hiragana “te” sounds like “tek” 踢 or kick in Cantonese

Get the idea?  So in the end, I planned and drew one memorable picture for each Hiragana character that involves English, Cantonese and English.

Kai’s Hiragana Chart
Kai’s Hiragana Chart (2)

Kai knew all 46 of the hiragana characters well before he turned 4 and although my husband wants to claim credit for this, I think this is because of my artistic ability and creativity. HAHA (Husband was proofreading my blog)

Here is another simple activity we did on the sketchbook where Kai had to connect the Hiragana in order:

Hiragana in order

This recognition of the characters all started from seeing and learning each image.  It is amazing what you are able to memorise when using mnemonic methods!

Chinese Characters  

When I started teaching Kai Chinese characters, I did not have any particular methods. Just like how most people learn it, I first introduced the most basic characters which are 一二三 and then proceeded to other characters that could somehow be easily represented in pictures or actions.  For instance, the character 大 can simply be depicted when one spreads his/her arms out and legs apart.  Since a small proportion of Chinese characters are pictographs, an appropriate approach is through a pictorial method.

You can see some of these Chinese characters below that depict what they name:

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Initially, Kai learned many of his first Chinese characters from random flashcards that I drew and the amazing Magikids app which I have blogged about (here).  However, to support his learning, I wanted a more systematic mnemonic method for Kai to learn Chinese.   I searched on Taobao, and came across this fabulous set of cards (here). 

Chinese QR coded cards

There are 502 cards in the set, and each card is printed on the front and back.

The front shows the Chinese character, pinyin and stroke order.

The back shows an image that looks like the character, as well as words that contain that character.

Another cool feature is the QR code that links to a video that voices all the information on the card:

These cards are creatively designed and although some pictures only remotely resemble the characters, they are memorable enough for children to associate the two.

Here is a little game I invented in order for Kai to get acquainted with the illustrations:


And here is our practice after:

In just a few days, Kai was able to learn many Chinese characters, with the support of other resources I am currently using.  For the cards he has already mastered, I stick them on his word wall with the illustration-side showing so he or I can refer to them when reading Chinese books.

Chinese QR code cards

As for Kei who is just turning 3 this month, I’ve come up with simple pictures for the following Chinese characters.

Chinese DIY cards

And this was the practice we did the other day to reinforce what the Chinese characters are.  Kei then had to read out the words.

Chinese-picture matching

Having pictures on the back of the Chinese characters really works as Kei has picked up so many new characters this way.  He just turned 3 when this video was taken.

This is another set I drew for Kai who is 4.5 years old:



Learning through Sounds

Japanese Hiragana

As explained previously, Hiragana is the basic Japanese phonetic script that represents every sound in the Japanese language.  Some sounds do not exist in English nor Chinese, so to help Kai pronounce the Hiragana characters, I found a very cute song that sings out the Hiragana system in order.

You can click on the YouTube link here


Chinese Pinyin 

Part of mastering any languages involves building a strong foundation in pronunciation.  This is especially true for Chinese. Hanyu Pinyin 汉语拼音 is a system of ‘spelling out’ Chinese characters.  Pinyin forms the basis of Chinese pronunciation, and just like English, it can be divided into consonants and vowels

Chinese Pinyin can be divided into vowels and consonants as follow : ɑ, o, e, i, u, ǖ, b, p, m, f, d, t, n, l, ɡ, k, h, j, q, x, z, c, s, r, y, w.

Some of these pinyins are difficult to pronounce accurately, so each sound should ideally be practiced many times.

I did not develop this Hanyu Pinyin method but rather re-created it from Kai and Kei’s neighbourhood Chinese school called Bibinog from memory.  I have heard that other schools have similar methods to reinforce the pronunciations of pinyin.  This Hanyu Pinyu song is basically a chant that the teachers sing at the end of every class.  The purpose of this is for children to know the order of vowels and constants (which apparently is important), and pronounce the sounds accurately through repetition.

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Here is a video of Kai reading out the pinyin:


English Phonics

If you are unfamiliar with Jolly Phonics or Letterland, they are both programs that take a synthetic phonics approach to teaching literacy.  This is a method which first teaches the letter sounds and then builds up to blending these sound together in order to pronounce the whole word.  Letterland mainly uses its own characters and stories while Jolly Phonics use songs and actions.  (Here is more information about Letterland and Jolly Phonics.)

Both programs are effective because children can rely on characters, stories, songs and actions to recall letter-sounds.  

I prefer Jolly Phonics because of its songs and intuitive actions.  I followed the program closely, introducing the letter-sounds in the order that is specified.  

Here is a comparison of how Letterland (left) teaches the letter A compared with Jolly Phonics (right)

Here is my YouTube video that features all 42 Jolly Phonics songs that teach the sounds (here).

By learning the songs with its associated actions and singing/playing the songs throughout the day, my boys were able to recall the letter-sounds easily.  As they progress and become familiar with the songs, the reinforcing mechanism allowed them to simply point to the letters, and the actions proved no longer necessary.  (If you’d like to read about how I taught literacy at home using Jolly Phonics, please visit my other post  “Teaching my child to read using traditional VS technology-based resources”(here)

Here is a video of Kei practicing his phonics. Notice how he uses the actions with the songs.

Here is a video of Kai moving on from individual phonics sounds to blending English words:

There are so many different methods to help with learning, and mnemonics devices serve as a shortcut to reading difficult Chinese characters, pronouncing Pinyin and learning the alphabets and their sounds. When concepts, words or characters are presented in a way thats easily recognizable, it can fuel the children’s self-confidence and motivation to learn.

Would love to connect to share ideas!

Here are some other posts you might be interested in how I have continued to use mnemonic associations to support my children in learning:

Below are more Chinese resources (These were shared with me so I didn’t create them):

Published by Ms Claudia L. Kimura

Apple Distinguished Educator, Class of 2015 Primary school teacher, technology coordinator Not just a regular mom, but a teacher-mom Mom of 2 boys, stepmom of 3 boys

9 thoughts on “Helping my kids learn Chinese, English and Japanese through picture and sound associations

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