1. Start Small, Start Young
Chinese philosopher Lao Zi advised in the Dao De Jing that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Many times, parents delay the simple introduction of Mandarin at home. A better and simple approach would be to speak it in a natural setting, and use complete sentences to point out, describe or share an idea, says Patricia Koh, founder-director of Pat’s Schoolhouse. This can be done during a supermarket trip or a car ride, or at a department store.
2. Be Positive
Experts agree that a parent’s positive mindset sets the stage for a better language journey. “Children learn best when you’re not in a hurry to teach them, and when learning is fun and meaningful,” advises Patricia. “Avoid getting stressed out when you feel your child is not ‘getting it’. Don’t shout or scold him when he does not understand or cannot remember the answers to your questions.” Similarly, Mandarinakids founder and chief executive officer Lelia Lim-Loges believes a parent’s positivity will rub off on the child. “He will mimic you and assume a defeatist mentality about the language if you disparage your own ability as a parent to speak it,” she says.
3. Expose, Expose, Expose
Children growing up in Mandarin-speaking households will hear the language often and fear it less. This is a point that housewife Marie Sin, 47, advocates. Two of her three children aged between 11 and 7 have gone on to take Higher Chinese in secondary school without the need for tuition. “I simply spoke Mandarin to them all the time, even when they were babies. They heard it at home and at their grandparents’ place. If they wanted to watch an English-language cartoon on TV, they had to ‘earn’ the privilege by watching a Chinese-language programme, too,” she says.
4. Make It Fun
It’s no secret that children pick up new concepts more quickly when the subject matter is an enjoyable one. While assessment books and drilling hanyu pinyin may be necessary practice materials, there’s no reason to further perpetuate the idea that learning Mandarin is a chore. With a plethora of smartphone apps, DVDs and music CDs in the retail market today, there’s something for every child.
Indeed, Lelia advises parents to make every possible attempt to engage children in fun activities such as Mandarin-only playgroups, watching Mandarin-only cartoons, as well as Mandarin apps on the iPad. Need some tips on how to jazz things up? Try Mandarinakids‘ excursions, which not only encourage parents to interact in Mandarin with their children but also show parents how Chinese can be taught outside the classroom.
5. Be Realistic
It’s natural for parents to want their children to do better than they did in life. This can be a potential stumbling block when unrealistic expectations are set from the start. The situation can be compounded if a child is already struggling with the language without much family support. Lelia observes that most parents do not expect their children to be linguists if they do not speak the language themselves. “However, parents do expect some foundation of the language to help the child through the rigour of local primary school,” she adds.
Audit leader Mabel Pang, 33, is well aware of this situation since her family hardly speaks Mandarin at home. “My husband and I are almost monolingual. My son attends Chinese enrichment class twice a week but it’s not as if I expect him to recite Tang poetry,” she says. Mabel sets realistic goals for nine-year-old Rayern, who used to “barely pass” his Chinese language exams in Primary 1 and 2 but has since improved to close to the “top end of Band 3”. Without the pressure of turning in the grades, Mabel noticed her son becoming more receptive towards the language. “He doesn’t fear it as much as before. I just tell him to do his best. And if he can score a better band, then the credit is definitely all his,” she adds.
6. Ditch The Back Door
Another favourite Chinese idiom teaches you “success comes to those who persevere”. In order to build up a child’s tenacity in the face of difficulty, parents need to adopt a long-term view to guide him to the finish line.
“It’s hard to see your child struggle with something or fail a subject at school. But if I had allowed my son to drop Chinese or tried to get him exempted, he may learn to take the easy way out in the future whenever he encounters any difficulty,” says marketing consultant A.H. Hong, 46. Instead, he gave his 13-year-old son, Edward, permission to simply do his best in Chinese without the need to make the top grade in his PSLE last year. “It was not an option to fail, but simply for him to try his very best.” Edward managed to achieve “the low end of an A” for Chinese, which was a significant improvement from merely passing.