To learn a language, it is essential to acquire the way of thinking in that language. This is applicable to all levels of learning the Chinese language. For children in kindergarten, thinking in Chinese builds the foundation that enables them to construct short sentences in Chinese; for school students, it helps them read and digest a passage more efficiently and hones their ability to express themselves more clearly in the language.
How then, does one think in Chinese? It is much simpler than you think! (Pun intended). You are thinking in Chinese whenever you say something in Chinese, since thinking in rooted in every element of the language, such as word semantics and sentence structures. For example, when a train is approaching, an English native speaker would say “The train is arriving”, while a Chinese native speaker is most likely to say “车来了(The vehicle is arriving)”, rather than specifying what kind of vehicle it is in the context. Similarly, when a Chinese native speaker wishes to announce that dinner is ready, he or she is most likely to say “饭好了(The meal is ready)”, without specifying dinner in the context. Although there are specific words in Chinese denoting “train” and “dinner”, Chinese speakers subconsciously deem it as unnecessary to specify them in the contexts. Children who are sufficiently exposed to Chinese will naturally become familiar with the subtleties of the language, which will facilitate the development of their oral and listening abilities in Chinese.
Since English is the most frequently used language in kindergartens and public schools in Singapore, one way to increase the exposure of children to the Chinese language is to use Chinese more often at home.
Parents who do not have confidence in their own mastery of the language should take heart in the fact that even simple Chinese would go a long way in exerting a positive influence on your child’s relationship with the language. Consider this: even a single word spoken in Chinese can trigger an entire train of thought in the language. As parents, speaking simple Chinese to your children will compel them to become acquainted with the language at an early age. Increasing the intimacy between your children and the Chinese language would accelerate the acquisition of vocabulary and the development of language skills.
In addition to using the language in everyday contexts at home, parents can play an even more active role by conducting “shared reading” sessions with their children, an activity that has been proven to facilitate vocabulary acquisition in children (Sim et al, 2013). In “shared reading”, a parent asks his or her child to retell the story they have just read. As the child attempts to do so, he or she would inevitably regurgitate choice phrases or expressions from the original story (which are fresh in their memory), thus reinforcing what the child has learnt. After the storytelling, the parent poses the child a few simple questions pertaining to the story and engages the child in a discussion. By conducting the entire session in Chinese, a parent is actually encouraging the child to think, listen and speak in Chinese. To overcome a child’s anticipated initial resistance, parents could start off with simpler stories and allow mixed use of multiple languages.
For parents who are not conversant in Chinese, age-appropriate media resources scripted in Chinese, such as educational cartoons could be a viable alternative. Not only are they effective at engaging the attention of children, they are an authentic language resource that is conveniently pitched at a level that children would not find daunting.
Contrary to what many parents expect, speaking more Chinese at home does not adversely impact a child’s learning of other languages. In fact, recent research shows that children exposed to two languages can naturally pick up both without any problem, which is especially true in the context of Singapore. A Ministry of Social and Family Development funded research led by Professor Helena Gao of Nanyang Technological University has shown that speaking Chinese at home does not affect the acquisition of English vocabulary in Singaporean preschool children. Surprisingly, children from families following the one-parent-one-language policy (each parent sticks to either Chinese or English when speaking to their children at home) have larger vocabulary in both languages than their peers. In addition, bilingual exposure benefits the development of children in other respects. In a study conducted by Professor Leher Singh and her colleagues at National University of Singapore, it was discovered that Singaporean babies exposed to a second language (Chinese, Malay or Tamil) for at least 25% of the time have better memory than their monolingual peers, and also process information faster, which would likely translate into better academic performance in the future.
Expressing one’s thoughts and feelings in Chinese, setting aside 30 minutes for a Chinese cartoon, or conducting a stimulating discussion in Chinese during “shared reading” session – every single activity would go a long way towards helping your child become more proficient in the language. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and for such a journey, no step is too small.
Gao, Helena Hong & Haoshu Wang. Bilingual Children’s Domain Specific Lexical Development. Project report funded by Early Childhood Research Fund. Singapore: Ministry of Social and Family Development. (2013).
Sim, Susan SH, Donna Berthelsen, Susan Walker, Jan M. Nicholson, and Ruth Fielding-Barnsley. A shared reading intervention with parents to enhance young children’s early literacy skills. Early Child Development and Care ahead-of-print (2013): 1-19.
Singh, Leher, Charlene SL Fu, Aishah A. Rahman, Waseem B. Hameed, Shamini Sanmugam, Pratibha Agarwal, Binyan Jiang, Yap Seng Chong, Michael J. Meaney, and Anne Rifkin‐Graboi.. Back to Basics: A Bilingual Advantage in Infant Visual Habituation. Child development. (2014)