It is important to arouse children’s interest in the language they’re learning. Photo: Anita Shum
by Anita Shum
by Anita Shum

Learning Mandarin can be child’s play – with the right approach

Parents should keep in mind the stages of language acquisition – listen, speak, read, write – when teaching their child a second language

Think back to how your child learned his or her mother tongue language. From the day he or she was born, you gave them a “silent language acquisition period” lasting for anything up to 3 years, during which they were immersed in the language 24/7, able to observe, listen and absorb the language before trying to speak their very first word.

Now compare this with the expectations of our children when they are learning a second language, such as Mandarin. Many parents complain that their children aren’t conversing in the language they are learning when they receive perhaps only a few hours’ (or less) exposure to that language each week.

Let’s do some maths. Your child is exposed to his own mother tongue for 14 hours a day (counting the time needed for sleep) x 7 days = 98 hours a week – as opposed to maximum 5 hours a week or less to the second language. With only 5 per cent of their time being exposed to the second language, how confident do you think he or she will be when it comes to expressing themselves in Mandarin vocally?

The fact is, parents need to adjust their expectations concerning the speed at which their child should be able to pick up a second (or third) language, to ensure those expectations are realistic and in proportion to the amount of time their child is exposed to the language.

Be mindful that by the time the child utters their first single meaningful word of the language, he or she has already spent many months playing around with the sounds and intonations of the language and has been connecting words with meanings. We must show considerable patience and give them encouragement as well as adequate language exposure and interaction to help them familiarise themselves with the language and in turn use it as their own.

Here are some suggestions for how you can motivate your child’s Mandarin learning interest:

1. Sing along with children’s songs in Mandarin

Songs in Mandarin can provide an easy introduction to the language. All children love music, so shouldn’t we make it a part of language learning? With a good number of repetitions, actions and dance moves to go with the songs, you will soon find your child is singing along themselves. This can be a useful first step towards speaking, and allows your child to practise using the language in a pressure-free way.

I personally like to use songs by Qiao-hu and Pink Fong for my pupils. Qiao-hu has songs that appeal to tots from about 1 year old – or from when they first show an interest in different languages and sounds. Pink Fong has songs with a faster beat and more playful lyrics and rhythms for slightly older children. I especially love Pink Fong’s weather song – the little ones can’t stop dancing when they hear it, and try to sing along with the song!

2. Ensure your children read Chinese books (don’t let English books dominate their bookshelf!)

Have a look at your children’s bookshelf to see how many Chinese books they have. It’s quite possible that over 70 per cent of the books will be in English, with a small number of Chinese books sadly struggling for space on the shelf. Many parents may feel that, if they are not familiar with Chinese themselves, then reading to their children from a Chinese book will sound extra awkward. My golden rule for learning to read Chinese story books is that Native and Chinese reading should both go hand in hand. When your child starts learning to read in English, you should also start them on Chinese reading.

The reason for this is simple. If you let your child advance in English too fast, like some kids I see who are already reading Harry Potter books in grade 1, what’s the chance that he or she will still be willing to pick up a book with fewer than 10 Chinese words per page? Many Chinese schoolteachers I work with say that this is a critical problem, one which is often overlooked. Reading sessions with my own kids each night always include one Chinese and one English book. And for parents who don’t know Chinese, audiobooks may be a good option – even if you don’t understand everything completely, audio versions will dramatically improve your “ear training” and help you become accustomed to the general speed and cadence of a native speaker. Also, try books with which your child is familiar. My son used to love Peppa Pig, and by introducing these books to him in Chinese, he found it easier to accept that Peppa is called Pei Pei Zhu. Remember, they look to you to set the agenda; if you insist on making Chinese reading a ritual, your child will happily observe it.

3. Help your child to want to learn Mandarin

It is often easiest to introduce multiple languages when your child is still at the stage of exploring languages (in normal circumstances, this is anywhere from 1 to 3 years old). Beyond this stage, yourchild will be conversant in their mother tongue, and will feel less of a need to learn a new language unless you can convince them it is in their interest to do so. Children tend to learn a language better when they are interested in it, and are motivated to learn the language when it is used in a context they are familiar with.

The easiest approach is through play activities; children learn a great deal through play and teachers and parents should consider play to be a very serious part of all learning. In play, children can try out new roles and practise their language skills, and often perform beyond what they are capable of in more formal settings. They can make discoveries about language that are stored more successfully in their memory than when “presented” to them by a teacher. Therefore, a teacher’s role is to support children and to guide them, modelling language that is needed for success, and prompting and challenging children to learn.

4. First impressions always count

In addition to Mandarin, I also loved learning Japanese when at high school – largely for the simple reason that I loved the teacher. I still remember her: she was an elegant, blonde-haired lady with blue eyes (yes, a non-Japanese lady teaching Japanese), and I really liked her because she was so passionate about her teaching and extra supportive, even when I had doubts about my ability. I took Japanese beyond high school and I’m so glad to have basic conversational Japanese skills now when I travel to Japan. On the other hand, I hated history – I remember the teacher coming in every day making us copy whatever she wrote on the blackboard, and her handwriting being indecipherably small.

Now think back to when you were a child. We may not remember all of the materials we learned at school, but we all remember which teachers were good and which were bad, and whatever impression we formed may have influenced how far we would go with that particular subject. And the last thing you want is to have your child exposed to a Chinese teacher who might scare them or bore them, or cause them to switch off whenever they encounter Mandarin again.

Fill your shelves with Chinese books! Photo: Anita Shum

So to return to the question of how long a parent should expect to wait before hearing their child converse in a second language: there is no specific point at which your child will begin to converse suddenly (at least, not after learning for only a few months). Children acquire language in stages, and different children reach the various stages at different times (in the order we know as listen, speak, read and then write). The order in which these stages are reached, however, is virtually always the same, starting with listening.

So, mums and dads, remember that it takes a great deal of time for children to learn their mother tongue – let’s therefore not be too harsh with them when they embark on learning the next language. If you foresee that your child may need this language later, it is wise to expose them to it early, in the form of music, leisure reading and games. That way, you can avoid any need for crash courses when you suddenly realise they don’t understand the language at all at school.