If Mandarin is a foreign language for your child, but you wish them build a solid foundation in order to be prepared for the future, this article may offer some tips to help them establish a firm basis. What are the problems parents are facing now? If you ask young children nowadays what their least favourite subject is, the chances are, especially if they are in an international school, that Mandarin will be the answer. Their parents, in turn, will share their grief and anxiety as they simply cannot find ways to motivate their child to learn Mandarin when, in some extreme cases, it has reached the stage where they loathe the language. This is not a new issue. When I was a child, many of my friends also found Mandarin to be the most unappealing subject ever. When I asked them why they hated it so much, they would either say they did not find it relevant to their daily lives or that their teachers were monotonous and strict. Years later, all the Mandarin they remembered was the four sounds “Bopomofo” – the basic pinyin sounds – and that is probably the level their ability remained at. Sadly, now many confess they wish they had learned it properly. There have definitely been changes and improvements to teaching methods to make it more fun and interesting, but it seems that this “I don’t like Mandarin” situation has not changed much among our next generation. Mandarin is one of the most beautiful languages, yet children learning it as foreign language find it so difficult to establish connections with it. So what is the missing link? When faced with the problem as to why children do not like Mandarin, many people assume it is because learning it is too difficult. I admit that Mandarin is not the easiest tongue to pick up as a foreign language, but I strongly believe the missing link arises because they have missed stepping stones in their learning journey – more specifically, they lack sufficient oral exposure and immersion experience to build the confidence to use it. What can I do to build a firmer Mandarin foundation? Many of us have heard of the four elements of a language, which are “listening, speaking, reading and writing”. In fact, they are also the stepping stones each child must firmly grasp in this same sequence to manage their Mandarin studies competently. In reality, however, children nowadays are forced into writing, reading, pinyin or grammar without a firm foundation in their oral competency. This is especially true for children in Hong Kong as parents believe this will help their child “win at the starting line”. However, this is almost like building a tall building without proper foundations, and so we risk tumbling down in the long run. Stepping Stone 1: LISTENING Your child will not suddenly know how to speak Mandarin without having had sufficient opportunity to listen and learn to decode it. Yet parents tend only to focus on wanting to hear their children speak and do not devote as much effort to helping them learn by listening. It is a shame that many overlook its importance, as listening is truly the first and foremost strategy in language acquisition. How to build a good listening foundation and how long before will they start speaking? Involve them in lots of listening opportunities from a young age. Whether it is Mandarin songs, cartoons, storytelling or simple conversations among native speakers, all are beneficial in helping children accrue vocabulary and the confidence to speak Mandarin one day. As for how long is needed before they start to speak, every child is different, depending on their age and ability, as well as how much exposure they get. To be successful, parents must be patient as this part of the process does not show apparent results easily and takes a relatively long time to build. Stepping Stone 2: SPEAKING When I talk about speaking, I mean actual conversational skills and not simply the ability to recite poetry. When your child has developed sound listening skills, it is time to put their learning into the process. The advantages of helping children attain sound oral foundations are: It builds confidence. It helps them thread together all individual words and terms – including nouns and verbs – into proper sentences. By being able to phrase sentences fluently, they will be able to enhance this skill for creative writing in the long run. In a recent discussion with a renowned international school Chinese teacher with more than 15 years’ experience, I asked her what she saw as being one of the biggest challenges for her students. She replied that she saw students often struggle in creative writing, because their exposure to Mandarin was focused heavily on literature, studying vocabulary that does not quite connect with their everyday lives. As a result, when they have to express themselves, they cannot piece their thoughts together into an expressive piece of writing, which in the long run is what examiners are looking for. Vocabulary learning and usage does go hand in hand. I have come across students who are trained only in memorising vocabulary but who do not know how to apply it to their verbal or written expression because either they do not understand the meaning or simply cannot relate to it. We as parents must help them “link the words up”, and this begins with helping them be in touch with conversations, preferably in real-life daily settings, and vocabulary that they can relate to. Stepping Stone 3: READING AND WRITING – and beyond This step need not be further discussed this time because if you have reached this stage, I presume your child has a relatively firm competency to latch on to the academic learning path. However, this does not mean that you can forget about steps 1 and 2 and nose-dive into step 3. Keep up a constant input into steps 1, 2 and 3 in order to create less stress and anxiety, and this will become the key to helping your child be more willing to learn. Without solid steps 1 and 2, step 3 will not prove lasting. However, the majority of the parents I come across tend to jump straight into this before steps 1 and 2 are even stable. In conclusion, one pivotal point about the stepping stones foundation method explained above is that you cannot jump the sequence, i.e. you cannot expect step 3 to happen if you do not carry out steps 1 and 2. If roots are what enable a plant to stay alive, building Mandarin listening and speaking competencies is what keeps a child “alive” in order to excel at learning the language. Understanding this pedagogy is not rocket science. Think about your child’s way of learning their native tongue, and compare how much listening and speaking they have been immersed in before you ask them to pick up a pen and start writing. Their learning will come almost effortlessly as they are immersed in continual new vocabulary learning from daily conversations or exposure to books or multimedia. When it comes to helping your child learn a foreign language, the method should be no different, and depending on how close to “native” you want them to be is how much language exposure you should give them. Should I start them learning a ‘foreign language’ so young? On a final note, I want to touch on the age issue, which many parents feel confused about. When I tell people I start teaching Mandarin to children from the age of 18 months, I often get raised eyebrows and comments such as, “Wow! Learning so early?” To be honest, unless the child is medically recommended against exposure to multiple languages learning, this can actually start from birth, depending on how “native” you want your child to be. The earlier you start, the easier it will be for them to develop it as a native tongue. It is quite unlike learning subjects such as maths or science, which involve complex thinking. Some parents are reluctant to confuse their child by teaching them anything more than their own language. But imagine that if your family used multiple languages – i.e. with parents of different ethnicities plus grandma and her dialect perhaps – you would not hold back from speaking one of them to your baby just because he or she was “too young”. Therefore, I see no reason why you cannot begin exposing them to a foreign language. To them, it is all the same!