“I recall vividly one experience with my nephew, S, who is three years old. We had been reading online English stories together and every episode was filled with excitement and joy. Then one day, I asked S to join me for another session of reading. He climbed and sat on the chair enthusiastically.
Me: ‘Check this out! (the story begins in Mandarin). Do you think we can read this together?’
S (shook his head and started getting off the chair): ‘I don’t think so.’”
- An encounter by our founder, Melissa
Do you experience similar conversations with your child?
With the bilingual policy in Singapore, most children are encouraged to speak English and Mandarin from a young age. However, through the interactions that they have and the media they consume, it is no surprise that young children (especially in EL-speaking households) are likely to prefer the English language over Mandarin. While the dominant use of English in early years may not necessarily result in weaker academic performance in later years, a balanced use of English and Mandarin from a young age can help to cultivate habit and interest in the two languages, allowing the mastery of dual languages a more pleasant and fun journey.
What can we do as parents to help our child enjoy Mandarin?
As parents, we are able to mould our young children’s habits and cultivate certain routines. Particularly, it is important to expose children to English and Mandarin from a young age so that speaking two languages becomes habitual. Based on research, here are three tips that you can try with your child:
1. Make learning fun for your child
As explored in our earlier blog post, play is important in a child’s development, and that applies to accumulating bilingual skills. Children in their early childhood may not understand the practicality of speaking two languages, and hence it is important to up the fun factor for them in their learning. Doing so introduces a natural willingness for them to speak Mandarin, in addition to English.
In introducing play into your child’s learning, it is helpful to pick topics or themes that are of your child’s interest. For instance, if your child is curious about cooking or going outdoors, explore these topics with them and actively use English and Mandarin during these activities.
2. Cultivate active learning with your child
For a child to effectively use Mandarin comfortably, it is important that they interact with the language. One thing you can do is to narrate your actions to your child so that they can pick up on the words that you use. For instance, if you are baking with your child, you can narrate what you are doing (for instance, cracking the eggs) in English and Mandarin. By providing sufficient context for your child, and showing how they can use the vocabulary that exists in Mandarin, they are able to connect the meaning of the word to its visual cue. Narrating your actions daily and speaking to your child is useful to build your child’s exposure to Mandarin and weave it into their everyday use. Remember, learning opportunities are everywhere, and encouraging your child to speak Mandarin can be achieved by discussing and asking questions about the world around them!
Pro-tip: Children learn best through repetition, so we recommend that you repeat words and phrases during and post-activity so that learning Mandarin becomes second-nature!
Another active learning strategy you can engage in is to read Chinese books with your child. Through reading story books that are of interest to them, children can develop a wide range of vocabulary, build their grammar knowledge and enhance their language structure. Head to your nearest library, or search for ebooks and read aloud videos online!
After reading to them, you can also have your child engage in related hands-on activities such as re-enacting the story using toys, to reinforce the learning. As a start, spend 5 to 10 minutes a day reading with your child in the second language to cultivate the habit of using Mandarin!
3. Encourage your child
While there are many language learning apps in the market, the importance of encouraging your child cannot be underestimated when teaching them a new skill or language. Children observe their parents in a keen manner, and therefore it is important for us, as parents, to share our eagerness and comfort in speaking Mandarin. This does not mean that parents have to be proficient in the language - rather, we should share our passion to learn and discover with our children.
To guide your child in Mandarin may seem daunting at first, but here are some tips to get around it. You can first encourage open and sincere communication between you and your child. Understanding the difficulties that your child is facing and addressing them is an important step in fostering your child’s interest and resilience towards learning Mandarin. Doing so can help keep your child with their learning, as they feel reassured that they can seek help when they need it.
Another tip we have is to celebrate your child’s efforts (and not discourage them)! As parents, we are concerned with our children’s learning and the achievement of their milestones. While you can acknowledge your child’s efforts by providing words of affirmation focused on their efforts, it is also crucial not to discourage your child if they cannot say certain words, or refuse to speak in Mandarin. Without correcting his or her mistakes, you can keep practising the language with your child and model the right sentences or vocabulary in your interactions. This is key to instilling confidence within your child. In his/her early years, the focus should be on cultivating your child's interest in the two languages through usage!
To summarise, helping your child learn Mandarin can be fun and meaningful not only for them, but for you as well. Speaking Mandarin in an English dominated environment is a challenging task, but with certain habits, it can be achieved. We hope that our language learning strategies and tips will be helpful for you and your child!
Hsin, L. (2019). Helping children to learn Mandarin as its use at home declines. Retrieved 6th January from https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/getting-children-learn-mandarin-its-use-home-declines
Loveless, B. (n.d.). 12 Strategies to Motivate Your Child to Learn. Retrieved 6th January from https://www.educationcorner.com/motivating-your-child-to-learn.html
Paquet, J.N. (2016). The Language Learning Struggle of Bilingual Children. Retrieved 6th January from https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/jn-paquet/bilingual-children_b_9826714.html
Yong, J. (2019). In English-speaking Singapore, children face huge challenges in mastering mother tongue. Retrieved 6th January from https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/mother-tongue-language-bilingual-education-parenting-learning-1313646