The “three little pigs” approach to laying foundations of Mandarin learning

  • Once upon a time, there were hasty parents who used the wrong methods to teach their children. Instead, it is a patient approach that builds confidence
PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 11:13am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 November, 2018, 11:22am

This article is dedicated to mummies and daddies out there who have just had a baby in the last, let’s say, 24 months. Other than congratulating you on having survived your first years of parenthood, if you have plans for your child to learn Mandarin as a second language in the future, this article might help you make a life-changing decision for you and your baby.

The solution is simple. You need to give your child ample opportunity to listen to Mandarin, the same amount of listening that you give in helping them utter their first word in their native tongue. Although human interaction is preferable to digital means, ample songs and stories will help the child’s Mandarin development in the long run.

The reason I need to emphasise this is because I have seen too many families fall into the same trap, using the wrong methods at the wrong time to teach their child Mandarin. The poor child ends up struggling to learn while loathing it as one of the most boring subjects.

Some parents hold off from letting their child learn Mandarin, afraid that they may get “confused” learning multiple languages. By the time they realise their child is struggling with it at school, they expect their competency level to increase at an exponential rate within a short time.

As a rough timeline, under normal circumstances, babies, when fully immersed in their mother tongue daily for 12-18 months, may then start to utter their first words.

However, when it comes to Mandarin as second language, parents may ask why their child isn’t yet speaking to them in Mandarin – when the parents themselves sometimes don’t even speak it – when they have only been learning it for less than a year, with a maximum of five hours’ learning time a week – less than 5 per cent of the time they are exposed to their mother tongue. The maths is simple: how much you put in, and how much you get out.

Other than the time factor, the method chosen to teach has a major effect. To illustrate this, I love to use the story of “Three Little Pigs” to describe the behaviour of some families who send their children to learn Mandarin as a second language. In the story, the “building materials” the “pigs” use to build their houses are the Mandarin materials taught, while the “big bad wolf” is simply a reality check on what the outcome may be in the long run.

‘First little pig’ – the ‘competition and certificates go-getters’

In the story, the “first pig” is often perceived as the one who wants to build things up quickly, with no foundations whatsoever. This is the case with families whose priority is simply to get as many certificates and accreditations as possible within a short period of time, mostly for school applications, to prove their child has had “exposure” to learning Mandarin. Inevitably, when the big bad wolf comes along, everything is blown to pieces in no time as most of the learning materials involved only short-term memory.

In this context, taking part in Mandarin poem recitation competitions is one of the most popular choices. For parents, the excitement of seeing their child on stage performing and “speaking” Mandarin is understandable. Chinese poem recitation is one of the most beautiful things youngsters can do, but I think it is only suitable for those with a competent oral foundation as a drama and cultural learning experience.

Some parents are under the misconception that training their children in poem recitation is the first step to helping them acquire the language. This isn’t quite right, though. There is also a high level of proficiency mismatch if we teach children overseas who are the same age as those taught in China.

What other effects will this have on our children? Imagine how excited you think your child will be if you expect him to recite a whole verse of Shakespeare when he is struggling with his ABCs. At their young age, their frustration may not yet be visible to us, but in the long run it is what builds up a negative impression of Mandarin. This is a good opportunity to assess teaching stimuli to motivate your child in their learning.

‘Second little pig – the ‘overly academics’

At the other end of the spectrum, the “second pig” is also very results-oriented within a short time frame, but this time is trying to “pile up” the academics in no proper order. “Listen, Speak, Read and Write” is a logical route to follow when learning a new language. But doesn’t it seem unusual that in Hong Kong children will need to start to “draw lines” and do writing preparation without being able to speak it properly?

The struggle, and the pressure, are real for our youngsters. I remember a mother once approaching me to help teach her son Mandarin. I asked her what she needed help with, and she said she wanted him to learn how to write, preferably to be able to phrase sentences, as soon as possible. I asked whether her son knew how to converse yet. Her answer was, “No, he is not that good at speaking Mandarin yet. But the school needs him to know how to do phrase sentences soon. We don’t have much time, so let’s work on the writing first.”

Did I miss something in between? If a child cannot even converse fluently yet, how can he possess the vocabulary and logic to form sentences?

‘Third little pig’ – the ‘persistent foundation builder’

The third pig tolerates being laughed at by the first and second for being too “slow” to show results, but is determined to build a solid and near-native Mandarin competency. Children learning Mandarin as a second language need lots of time – I will say it again, lots of time – to listen to others talk – just like babies – digest what they hear, to develop a receptive vocabulary and the confidence to reply.

The only difference is that we have far less patience with our child in helping them build that “first word” in Mandarin. When they do have the confidence to speak, we want that speaking to be real and purposeful instead of contrived. Although the period of time when they are not yet talking is longer, this does not mean they are not learning. They may understand what is being said, but are not yet ready to talk about it.

You may well ask: what determines the length of this “silent period?” Personality definitely plays a key role. A shy, quiet child is usually going to take longer before they feel comfortable speaking. This can range from one to three years. Let’s say that we start when the child is one-and-a-half years old; by four-and-a-half, with consistent exposure, their oral competency will be as solid as a near-native, and their progress will only be on the rise from thereon.

So, does that mean that if your child is older, and already too late to start, they will never be able to catch up? The answer is no. Of course, it is naturally easier for young children to learn a new language, and it gets more difficult as we age, but it is never too late to start, although parents must be mindful in assessing the most suitable way for their child to start.

No parent wants to be a “first” or “second pig”, yet many will eventually give in to the conventional rules, thinking that since others are doing it, it’s safer to follow them. There is no harm if you need to touch on these two paths down the road, but be sure to handle matters with great caution, and not destroy the child’s interest in Mandarin.

At the same time, it is even harder to be a “third pig”. Not only do you need to have a firm belief that what you are doing is correct and in your child’s best interests, you will also have to withstand the many doubts and criticisms of “fellow pigs” about how slow and lacking in results you are. However, as the story unfolds, your brick house will be the only one to withstand the big bad wolf while you and your family live “happily ever after”.