Helping children from an English-speaking household to learn Mandarin can be an uphill struggle for many parents. At the Mother Tongue Languages Symposium 2013 held in September, parenting and teaching experts shared how the process of learning Mandarin can be made easier and more enjoyable.

1. Immerse your child in Mandarin

Ms Tan Beng Luan, Principal of Creative O Preschoolers’ Bay, believes that children pick up a language more easily when it is a part of their daily lives. Quoting from Professor Kenneth Goodman’s book What’s Whole in Whole Language, she explains: “In homes, children learn oral language without having it broken into simple little bits and pieces. They are amazingly good at learning language when they need it to express themselves and understand others, as long as they are surrounded by people who are using language meaningfully and purposefully.”

Her recommendations: converse with your child in Mandarin and encourage him to listen to Mandarin songs. Provide visual stimulus by pasting posters which teach Chinese words around the house. Write his time-table or your weekly menu in Chinese. In these ways, the use of Mandarin becomes practical to him.

If you have been speaking to your child in English all the while, avoid an overnight switch to Mandarin. Your (shocked!) child may find it awkward and not want to converse with you in Mandarin. Instead, gradually increase the usage of Mandarin in your daily lives.

2. Verbalise your actions

To help increase your child’s vocabulary, describe your actions to him in Mandarin. For example, rather than to simply state “I am cooking”, describe the process as you cook. A sentence like “I am using a sharp knife to cut vegetables” would teach your child nouns (“knife” and “vegetables”), verbs (“cut”) and adjectives (“sharp”). Studies have shown that children will learn to associate the words that they hear with what they see, and in this way, eventually pick up the language.

3. Read with your child

Children enjoy stories, and a good way to improve their grasp of a language is to read to them and nurture their love for reading. Ms Tan recommends selecting age-appropriate books and creating a conducive reading environment. Sit side-by-side with your child on a sofa. This would make story-time a special bonding time which your child looks forward to, whereas reading a book while seated at a study table may give your child the impression that “this is part of studying and it’s not fun”.

Encourage your child to ask questions related to the story or predict what happens next, suggests Ms You Bik Ru, a teacher at Creative O Preschoolers’ Bay. You can also relate the book to a real life experience, or do activities based on the book. For instance, after reading a story about a caterpillar, bring your child to a park to spot caterpillars and other insects, and make a craft caterpillar or butterfly. These activities provide opportunities to converse with your child in Mandarin and to reinforce the vocabulary picked up from the book.

chinese chess

Try not to turn story time into an academic exercise by testing your child’s vocabulary or word-recognition. This will cause your child to feel stressed and lose interest in reading. If you have difficulty in reading Chinese words, try telling the story in your own words based on the pictures in the book. Alternatively, seek help from others who are more fluent in Mandarin, and learn along with your children.

4. Engage in fun language-based activities

Riddles, rhymes and tongue-twisters can be a fun way to expose your child to Mandarin. Pre-schoolers will enjoy making up actions to accompany a rhyme or tongue-twister. An older child can also pick up sentence structures by modifying a rhyme. For example, if the rhyme is about a cat and mouse, you can encourage your child to copy the rhyme but replace the words “cat” and “mouse” with “spider” and “fly”. The process of copying the rhyme will help your child with word recognition.

Some children enjoy making up riddles. Encourage your child to compile a booklet of riddles for you to guess. A young child who has not learnt to write may draw pictures and ask simple questions such as “Which animal has a long nose?” The question-and-answer process gives your child the opportunity to converse in Mandarin. An older child may be able to copy or write his riddles in Chinese, and the process of reading his riddles to you will encourage word recognition. Play “I Spy” while on the move. This game encourages your child to describe objects in Mandarin and helps to build his or her vocabulary.

5. Adopt a holistic approach

Mrs Xia, a participant at a sharing session, believes in adopting a holistic approach when teaching her child Mandarin. This includes encouraging her child to listen, speak, read and write.

To help develop listening skills from infancy, she suggests reading from colourful books with big words. A pre-schooler can be encouraged to speak by re-telling the story. Mrs Xia recommends helping your pre-schooler to keep a journal by asking him to describe the events of the day, and transcribing it for him. After a week or month, you can read the journal entry with him, and this will encourage word recognition. With time, your child would be able to write his own journal entries.

Mrs Xia also suggests guiding an older child in sentence construction by giving him several jumbled-up flashcards to arrange into a meaningful sentence. As your child gains confidence, you can make the sentences more complex.

6. Use digital resources

Tech-savvy kids may find learning Mandarin through the use of digital resources more interesting than through traditional textbooks. Xue Le, a website designed by the Ministry of Education, complements the Primary and Secondary school Chinese syllabus. Among other interesting applications, it teaches your child Hanyu Pinyin and how to write Chinese characters using the correct strokes.

Parents of primary-school-going children may want to invest in a Hansvision Tablet which comes installed with games in Mandarin, interactive story books, a bilingual dictionary, writing exercises, spelling tests, and other programsmes.

7. Learn with your child

If you are not strong in Mandarin, learn along with your children and ask them to teach you what they have learnt in school. Persevere in speaking to your children in Mandarin. “The more you use the language, the more it will sharpen what you had learnt during your school days. You’ll be surprised that it will come back to you,” says Mrs Tan.