Joining the dots holds the key to boosting Mandarin skills

Memorising words and tackling worksheets offer little children can relate to. But a three-week summer immersion camp in Taiwan cannot only work wonders for their ability and enthusiasm but also helps them think and act in it

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 10:02am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 September, 2018, 11:57am

Families in Hong Kong who want their children to learn Mandarin as a second language may find this a challenge as, unlike mainland China and Singapore, it does not have an immersive Mandarin environment. More importantly, parents who want their children to learn the language using traditional characters face even greater problems, as much Hanyu pinyin – the romanisation system for Chinese reading materials – is often associated with simplified characters. This is exactly our predicament.

Earlier this year I took my two boys to Shanghai for a Mandarin immersion and cultural exchange. Although they enjoyed it very much, I realised they were unable to read the signs properly because they did not understand simplified characters. As a result, when I want to find somewhere to fine-tune their writing, mainland China is ruled out. In the end, I chose Taiwan, one of the few places that still uses traditional characters.

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

I signed them up for a three-week full-day camp – 9am-5pm! – at Mandarin Daily, a course designed for overseas children aged 6-15. Before we left, they had to take an online assessment, so that they could be assigned to groups, ranging from beginner to advanced level. Each class numbered about 20 children, and the course was a highly intensive academic programme consisting of speaking, listening, reading and writing, supplemented with daily homework and a quiz. Academic lessons took place in the morning, followed after lunch by Chinese cultural courses touching on topics such as calligraphy, kung fu and Chinese chess.

There are many Mandarin workshops for children in Taiwan. If your children are at beginner level, you may consider Lih-Jen International Private School, or, if your child is younger than six, you can try the Ms. Lam Montessori School.

I asked my children what impressed them most about their three-week Taipei experience, and they told me three things.

The first was that they “succeeded” in their homework and quiz. Every day after school they had homework, plus a quiz next day on 15-20 words they had been taught. The children were quite anxious at first. After the first quiz, my son came home boasting he had got 99 marks in his quiz, which was pretty amazing. But next day, he came home saying he had got 100! I could see the confidence in his eyes, making him so eager to finish his daily homework. I was very curious as to how he had managed to get all the words correct. When I asked him, he told me the teacher had actually written on the white board all the words the students might be tested on. Whenever she mentioned the word to be tested, she promptly wiped it out. So if the child is quick enough, he or she will be able to spot what they need to get “correct”.

It sounded a weird way to do a quiz, but I have a feeling the teacher had a reason doing it like that, and I was right. I asked the teacher to find out why the quiz was carried out this way, and her reply gave me pause for reflection. She said, “We want to give them confidence. Each day we practise new words with them. Children may be overwhelmed by the difficulty of some Chinese character structures, but in fact many students already know how to write it themselves. By writing them all on the board, and rubbing out each one as it is called acts as a little reminder of what they know already. We want them to enjoy the experience and be confident about learning how to write, rather than constantly penalising them when they can’t. Summer is the perfect time to help them build up this confidence step by step, so that they are ‘fuelled up’ to face the learning journey ahead in the coming school years.”

The second thing my children told me was that they enjoyed living like the local people. We rented an apartment during our stay, and they thoroughly enjoyed living and interacting with the locals, whether it was the supermarket cashier or the taxi driver. Those who have been to Taiwan will agree that most of the inhabitants speak in very polite tones, just like those in Japan. During class, rather than constantly remarking on their errors, my sons found their teachers to be very encouraging and motivating. Finding a teacher with a positive attitude is one of the most crucial elements, especially as Mandarin is a relatively difficult language. The last thing you want is for your children to feel defeated and helpless.

One Taiwanese activity we especially loved doing was hanging out at bookstores. The children’s department is like a dream come true for many youngsters – and for parents who want their offspring to read more Chinese books. At bookstores in Taiwan, people can read at ease with their children, with no one stepping over your legs every other second. Even if they do not understand all the words, the illustrations are so attractive they can keep them entertained for hours.

I’m probably one of those rare non-Taiwanese who is an advocate of the sound-based Zhuyin writing system, but to me the fact that my children can pronounce most of the words in a storybook simply by mastering 37 Zhuyin characters is the best deal ever. This helped my older son in particular: he has fairly fluent conversation skills, but his character recognition ability is poor, so by being able to sound the words out using Zhuyin he is able to read and understand the text. You can find out more about Zhuyin in my article here.

The third thing my children told me was that they were able to find connections with Mandarin.

Every day after lunch they would have Chinese cultural classes on various activities. My children enjoyed it when the teachers organised a calligraphy crossover art session with them on various Chinese characters. They learned that characters go back more than 3,000 years and that the symbol began with pictures drawn to represent the various items. They also had great kung fu sessions, with the teachers giving them instructions on how to fight in Mandarin. Now, even after we have returned home, the boys still use these Mandarin terms during their kung fu matches.

The connection with Mandarin continues at BabyBoss, which is probably one of Taiwan’s best kept secrets. My elder son has been going there every year since when he was three, and nothing motivates him more to interact in Mandarin. It’s basically a huge Mandarin learning centre for children, where they get to experience different professions such as astronaut, magician, archaeologist, news broadcaster, bank teller or firefighter. The children are given a quick briefing about each profession and are expected to act out the role accordingly. Once they have completed their tasks, they will be “paid” and will also receive a completion card. They can then use their “hard-earned” money to “buy” – or rather, exchange for – some souvenirs. Whether you are a beginner or a local, you cannot resist joining in the fun of “work” – but most of all, you have to make the effort to use all the Mandarin you know to complete the task.

For many children, learning Mandarin is a subject where they have to memorise things and complete worksheets, yet which has barely any connection with their daily lives. Parents are often too busy looking for academic support, yet we have forgotten that there are many aspects of Chinese culture that children can encounter and understand.

Summer holidays are a golden opportunity to place children in a fully immersive language environment to nurture a love of, and an interest in, Mandarin. I can tell it worked for my children because when we arrived back in Hong Kong their grandad asked what did they had done in Taipei. My younger son started with “wo men” — as in “we” – quite naturally, and that was when I could tell he had subconsciously switched to Mandarin mode. Although this mode may be “holiday-only”, I know that I have planted a positive seed in his mind, and this will surely help his future years of Mandarin learning.