Mastering Mandarin continues to be a source of concern for many parents in Singapore, especially if the parents themselves are not proficient in the language.
“Children learn best when they have the interest. They may not be passionate about a subject in the beginning, but if they have fun doing something, that’s a good start to the journey,” says Irene Oen, managing director of the Little Mandarins Language Centre. “Learning through play is what we believe will work outside the formal school setting. Play can take many forms and it is applicable to children in kindergarten, primary school, as well as secondary school. Even adults learn better when there is a play element involved.”
Parents are often advised to expose their children to age-appropriate Mandarin resources, such as audiobooks and videos. But to effectively build language skills, children need to move beyond passive consumption.
Below, Irene suggests some simple but effective interactive activities that can help your children gain competency in Mandarin.
For Younger Children
Audiobooks (with accompanying storybooks) and cartoons are good resources. But true learning results from the participation of parents/caregivers with some knowledge of Mandarin.
The key is to ensure that interactive learning is taking place, rather than leaving a child to learn on his or her own. Of course, once the child is familiar with a story’s context and words, the audio or video files can be played at any time.
Audiobooks with physical storybooks allow us to follow the path of “听, 说，读，写” (listening, speaking, reading, and writing). Different activities can be used to foster these four skill sets. For instance, parents can start with playing the audio file for a story while flipping through the pages of the accompanying storybook, and follow-up activities can include:
Playing the audiobook while the child is engaged in other activities such as playing with toys or resting. (Develops listening skills, if the child is already aware of the context of the story.)
Reading the book together without the audio file. (Develops word/sound recognition skills.)
Letting the child tell the story in his or her own words. (Develops vocabulary/oral skills.)
Letting the child read the book without the audio file. (Develops word recognition skills.)
For cartoons, I would recommend that viewing time does not exceed 30 minutes. Parents can start by watching a cartoon with their child, and again, the focus should be on listening and speaking skills.
After watching the cartoon, parents can highlight key phrases from interesting scenes, and ask their child some simple questions about the story. Let the child ask questions too.
Parents can also engage their children by singing the theme song of the cartoon, or acting out funny or memorable scenes together with their children. This interaction with children helps them to acquire new vocabulary, and learn how words are used in sentence structures.
For Older Children
Playing Chinese chess together with your children is a way to deepen your exploration of the Chinese language, through the introduction of new keywords and phrases, as well as relevant stories involving famous Chinese warriors.
Parents can learn how to play Chinese chess alongside their children using a combination of online resources—you can visit a site that explains the rules of the game in English, and watch a video in Mandarin to augment the learning.
For children who enjoy drawing or crafting, encourage them to watch Chinese DIY videos instead (such as this paper cut video), so that they can be exposed to words beyond the textbook, which are commonly used in daily life.
Remember, a child learns best when he or she is interested and invested in the process. If there is a school or enrichment activity that your child enjoys, it will definitely help with language acquisition if the activity is conducted in Mandarin. It’s not for picking up technical terms as there is a limited advantage to that, but more for the opportunity to interact with instructors in Mandarin. A child in such a situation will have to pluck up the courage to speak in Mandarin, and this will give him or her confidence as well as a real reason to use the language—for communication.