My son has been learning Putonghua at school and I want him to make progress. But I am not a Putonghua speaker, so how can I help?
The successful acquisition of a second language takes place when the learner starts integrating the new language into their daily lives. There is a big difference between learning a language at school and translating that knowledge to the real world. Luckily, there are opportunities to practise Putonghua all around.
While indoors, your son can watch Putonghua cartoons and television programmes. It is easier to watch fiction than follow the news, which is read too quickly. Because of the repetitive nature of cartoons, he will soon start identifying set phrases. Once your son is familiar with the vocabulary of a series, try turning off the subtitles and see how closely he can follow the plot.
There are also many websites offering Putonghua learning, and a quick Google search will reveal everything from tone practice to audio clips. Some sites even offer Skype-style lessons which give you access to private sessions with teachers on the mainland. Your son will be learning extensive vocabulary at school. You can support this by going to a stationery shop, where you will find books of blank cue cards bound with a metal loop. These are designed for memorising vocabulary. Write the Chinese character on one side of the card and the pinyin (phonetic pronunciation) and English translation on the other side. Using colours and highlighters can help with memorisation. These books are small enough to be carried around, and your son can flick through them when he has a few minutes to spare.
You could consider buying or making flashcards with the names of common household objects on them, which you can stick around the house. Seeing the Putonghua word for an everyday item brings the language into the house, and helps to make connections with daily life. Before tests, you can create posters which you can stick on the bathroom mirror so your son can revise as he brushes his teeth.
Many learning centres offer Putonghua programmes, and this is one way to supplement in-school teaching. Alternatively, you could advertise for a student teacher. This is a popular part-time job for local students, as it is a way for them to make pocket money and improve their English skills. You can also visit a bookshop and stock up on non-school-related Putonghua materials. That way, your son will not associate the classes with schoolwork.
During the holidays, one option may be going to the mainland and enrolling in a summer school. We have had parents who have taken groups of children to the mainland and have spent a week with a local teacher doing classes in the morning and showing the group around in the afternoons. If you would rather not engage a teacher, you could set your son a daily task which relies on his using Putonghua to communicate. We are fortunate to have terrific transport links with the mainland and a quick day trip is both convenient and reasonably priced. Set yourself goals before you venture out. Tasks could include ordering food in a restaurant, asking for directions or for items in a shop.
Once a language leaves the classroom and becomes a tool for communication, the incentive to learn increases. If you support your son's in-school learning and provide extra opportunities for him to practise speaking Putonghua, his progress will be accelerated and, more importantly, sustainable.
Jessica Ogilvy-Stuart is the director of the Brandon Learning Centre and prepares students to study abroad