As an ex-Primary school Chinese teacher and subsequently a part-time Chinese tutor for ten years, I have encountered many children who struggled with the learning of the Chinese Language. It is indeed an uphill task to learn and master this Mother Tongue. It is equally an uphill task to teach and cultivate a love for the language in children who can rattle off happily in English, but struggle to speak a simple sentence in Mandarin or voluntarily pick up a Chinese book to read. It was in those 10 years of teaching the subject that I set a resolution for myself should I become a parent one day. Even after leaving the education profession and later making a career switch, till today when I am officially a full time stay home mother (SAHM), I still remember the resolution I set for myself. That is, I endeavour to expose my two children to the language from birth, so that they grow up with the language, and hopefully enjoy a good head start in Primary school.
I shall share the approaches I have been using on my soon-to-be 4-year-old son on my journey of learning Chinese with him. (This year, he is on the kindergarten 1 (K1) syllabus because his school let him skip Nursery 1 to move directly to Nursery 2 syllabus last year. As such, he is learning Chinese at K1 level.)
- First and most important, learning of a language has to start from birth. It has to be an everyday language, and if it has to coexist with English, I feel that it is absolutely fine. So after my son was born, not only did I speak to him in English, I also did so in Mandarin. Specifically, when I talked to him about things around us, I would also translate the names of specific objects so that he could learn both at the same time. For example, milk bottle – 奶瓶，pillow-枕头，bear-小熊, red top-红色的上衣. I avoided baby language and baby tone with him, instead I used varying pitches and tones to talk to him in order to grasp his attention. For example, in an enthusiastic and encouraging tone, I would praise him for holding his own milk bottle by saying “Wow! Good job!” – “哇！好棒！”
- Make it an everyday endeavour. Do not merely set aside time, as if in a timetable, to learn Chinese or to speak Mandarin. These are the specific ways which I am using to teach it daily. I must emphasize I do not use all at the same time!
- Use Chinese picture flashcards to introduce new vocabulary. When my son was about 4 months old, I started to show him picture flashcards almost every day and introduce him to concrete objects such as fruits and vegetables, vehicles, animals and sea creatures, things found in the house, colours and shapes. Initially he was lying down while I flashed him the cards as he could not hold his neck up yet. So I was mindful I would only do this few minutes a day in order to avoid affecting his eyesight. After he could sit up in his cot, I would do the flashcards with him every night. He would listen attentively and allowed me to finish a few topics at a time. All the inputs was absorbed by him because before 18 months, he was able to match the toy fruits and their colours to the respective flashcards. When we placed the toy fruits on the floor for him to select the one we asked for, he could get everything correct. And when we asked him what the Chinese name of each object was, he could also tell us in Mandarin. The constant inputs have indeed produced the desired outputs.
- Use Chinese character flashcards to introduce common Chinese characters. I make full use of the Chinese character cards which are used in Primary 1 and 2 Chinese syllabus. The timing to introduce these flashcards was really by trial and error, and I made an error by introducing them too early before 2 years old. I tried flashing Chinese characters for 1 to 10 and realised my son was not interested at all. He stared blankly at them in such a way that I know the characters looked alien to him. So I stopped wasting our time and kept them away.
I reintroduced the cards to him when one day he came home from school, and while reading a book, pointed to a character his teacher had taught and told me “”. That was when he was probably 2 years and a few months old. I started with the Chinese characters 1 to 10, then added on other characters as and when his teacher introduced them. It became a form of revision to reinforce what was taught to him.
Gradually, I combine the flashcards with a book series called Sage Formula Basic Chinese 500 (基础汉字500) to teach him new characters. Since the font size is big on the cards and in the book, I hold his hand while he uses his finger to trace the character. I will recite the strokes and their sequence (笔画笔顺) while he traces. At this point, it does not matter if he remembers or not, I treat it as an input stage.
As he learns more new characters, before he turned 3, he was able to read almost all the characters if I give him a stack of cards containing characters he has learnt before. I play ‘find the correct character’ game with him often so that he can remember them better.
I also play “rearrange the characters to form a sentence” according to the sentences in the book and then get him to read aloud to me. For this activity, I will prepare the characters beforehand and give him the exact number of characters in a sentence. I was pleasantly surprised when he could do it the first time we tried.
Other than rearrange jumbled characters to form a sentence, recently I tried to jumble up a set of 8 to 9 2-character words and get him to practise formation of common vocabulary which he has learnt before in storybooks such as “我-们”,”花-朵”,”回-家”.
Besides Chinese characters, I also introduce Chinese strokes (笔画) using flashcards to him concurrently. Again, I input to him all the strokes and test his memory by either jumbling them up for him to pick out the correct card or tell me the strokes on the cards. Because we started early, when his teacher started teaching him some of the basic strokes such as 一丨丿丶 last year, it was more like working hand in hand with the school to learn and revise.
I place all these flashcards in hang pockets within his reach so that as and when he has the mood to self-revise, he can grab them and start learning. So far, this has worked because there are times when he takes out the stack of cards and request to read to me!
- Read daily. Reading is really the best way to expose children to a language and helps greatly in bonding. From as young as a few months old, my son has been listening to Chinese poems and Chinese books. Many of these come with lift-the-flaps, pull-out tabs and textured pages as interesting features. I mainly borrow from the neighbourhood libraries which offer a relatively wide range of local and overseas titles. I try to find books which have large fonts, short and not too complicated sentence structures and come in a series. I prefer local publications found in the Singapore collection because the books fulfil my requirements. Recently, I found this series of simple books published by Marshall Cavendish which really appeals to my son. He is able to read by himself or with some help because many of the words which appear in the books are already familiar to him through flashcards. By patiently introducing all the common Chinese characters (much like English sight words) to him at an early age, he has developed self-confidence and pride in being able to read simple books by himself.
- While reading, I will use high and low intonations to capture my son’s attention and demonstrates to him the correct way to read. I also encourage him to be observant of the illustrations and ask him simple questions to reinforce his understanding of the story. Questions to ask include how many characters, who they are, what did they do, why something happened. In short, use 5W1H (Who, What, Where, When, Why, How) to frame the questions.Usually when we go out or travel overseas, I will also bring along some thin Chinese books to occupy him while waiting for food or read in the hotel room.
- Listen to Chinese songs and audio stories while going to sleep and travelling in the car. I have been turning on the CD player since my son was very young to let him enjoy Chinese nursery rhymes while he prepares to sleep. As he grows older, I also introduce audio stories to him when we travel in the car.
- Tune in to Channel 8 every day. Especially for the news. While the children are unlikely to understand, they can half watch and half listen while playing. This may indirectly sharpen their sense of the language by being exposed to it daily with the newscasters speaking proper Mandarin complete with Chinese subtitles. On weekends, I let them watch children’s cartoons such as Doraemon and local Mandarin programmes on 乐乐窝.
After reading the above, some may question how to do so much since most are working parents? It is true I can afford to do more since I am a SAHM with only 2 children. I probably would not have been able to do so much if I were in a full-time job and my son in full-time childcare. After omitting points 2a and 2b, don’t you think the rest is achievable as long as we set our heart to doing it? Rather than allow our children to suffer while learning the language in Primary school, let them start early on this journey.
Content Source: Mummy Jaclyn
Edited By: Preschool Resources
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Preschool Resources.