Good Schools Guide

Spending time in China is the best way for children to learn Mandarin

Children thrive when they are allowed to immerse themselves in a different culture

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2018, 10:01am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 May, 2018, 11:19am

There’s no better way to learn a language than to speak it, and there’s no better way to “make” you speak it than travelling to that country. To practise Mandarin, China is a preferred choice for most as it is the only official language, but you can choose other destinations such as Singapore, Taiwan and even Malaysia, where Mandarin is one of the official languages. Check beforehand whether your children will be learning simplified or traditional Chinese characters. Taiwan is the only one of the three that uses traditional characters, the others use simplified characters.

Last year, our family resolved to bring our two boys, aged 5 and 8, to at least one destination in China each year. We started in Beijing. This year, we decided to check out Shanghai. When we stayed on the Bund, an area which overlooks Huangpu River, the first thing my older son Jaydon wanted to see was the Oriental Pearl Tower, which he referred to as “the shot” by my son because of its resemblance to a syringe. The Oriental Pearl Tower is the first thing they associate with Shanghai, and what defines the Pudong skyline for them. Built in 1995, it’s the third tallest TV and radio tower in the world.

Here are the three things I found most rewarding from our trip to Shanghai:

Mixing with local people is the best policy

Training them to build up the confidence to communicate with the people is half the success to mastering a language! One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to one of China’s most renowned hotpot restaurants Haidiao, which is famous for excellent food and service (and free manicures while you wait for your table).

During our visit, we had a chef coming up to our table and showing us how to make noodles by hand. He told us it was his first day working, which became apparent after a few failed attempts at throwing the dough around. Whenever he failed, he would say “dui bu qiwo shiīwu le”or “dui bu qi ,wo you shi wu le”!which means, “sorry, I failed”, and “sorry, I failed again”.

As a result, this became my children’s punchline thought out the trip. Their interactions with the locals helped them to learn how the people think, act and talk. In turn, it helped boost their fluency levels by mimicking common native expressions which might not exist in English.

Watching television in Mandarin is fun

If TV is allowed in the family, don’t miss this golden chance to ignite their interest through watching TV and videos in Mandarin. In addition to improving their listening skills, they will be convinced it is part of their lives. For children that are beginners, start with short clips with simple phrases, rather than complex conversations and storylines which can be overwhelming. If possible, include subtitles in English or both Chinese and English, as they will also benefit from seeing subtitles.

Another advantage in learning from cartoons is hearing natural speech with minor connecting words and transitional phrases used in conversation. You might hear “ru guo”, which means “if” or “suo yi ne”, which means “therefore”. Picking up these nuances in natural speech will help your child sound more like a native speaker.

Most hotels have cartoon channels, whether it is local TV, Disney and Nickelodeon, BUT only in Mandarin. Soon enough, they found their new “best friend” on television, which is the Mandarin version of the cartoon Super Wings. Since their first experience with them is Mandarin, they have happily accepted that this cartoon speaks only Mandarin. Now that they are back in Hong Kong, they still watch it occasionally to maintain their interest.

Mickey also speaks Mandarin

I must confess, I was not into the idea of visiting Shanghai Disneyland at first, but i must say it turns out to be the most fun and pleasant experience. The entire cast and crew mainly speaks Mandarin, not to mention the fact that all the decorations are in Mandarin, so it is an instantly engaging and fun Mandarin experience for all children. The place is surprisingly clean too, and I am talking about Japan hygiene standards toilets and bins – you literally find one every 20 steps

A tip to smooth your entrance to Shanghai Disneyland is that no matter which online platform you bought your tickets on, they will request the passport details at the time of purchase and you will need to be able to tell them back which passport / ID number you used to buy these tickets or have a hard copy (which I didn’t) at the entrance. I bought my tickets through and couldn’t remember that I had used my passport number with the details stored in my account. Because of this, we spent an additional hour waiting to be redirected to the customers service counter. This was another great test for my boys in Mandarin – and patience.

To conclude our trip, we visited one of the world’s biggest Starbucks Reserve Roasteries on the popular West Nanjing Road. It is a 30,000 sq ft coffee temple more so than a cafe. We had a pastry stop there before leaving for the airport, as our children put their Mandarin ordering skills to the final test (by that time, I think they assumed that everyone can only speak Mandarin)

I’m glad that on this trip my boys appreciated and enjoyed their interactions with different people, their languages, and their culture. Hopefully when they are older, they will be confident enough to meet people who don’t speak the same language and communicate with them (even a little bit), creating a personal bond that no translator can replace.