Eager to improve your children’s Chinese capabilities? Here are 4 research-based tips with our treasury of actionable ideas!
Tip #1: Start as early as possible.
Experts concur that the best time to learn a language is as early as possible (Ghasemi & Hashemi, 2011). Research has shown that infants are “universal perceivers”, able to discern different phonetic units of all languages, unlike adults (Kuhl, Tsao & Liu, 2003). In the first year of life, children grow to be specialists in the sounds, meanings and structure of their own native tongue (Hollich & Houston, 2007). As such, young kids are able to attain to native-like fluency if they learn the language much earlier.
It may be good to start early, but better late then never!
What can parents do?
- Decide today that Chinese is going to be important in the family! It is a long-term team project, a tough journey, requiring intentional parental involvement and a game plan.
- Share the decision with the children. Ask the older kids for their opinions and brainstorm for ideas together, for them to have more ownership and greater chance of success.
Tip #2: Be consistent.
Children benefit from sustained language exposure, not a crash course. Associate Professor Leher Singh from the Department of Psychology, NUS and the NUS Infant and Child Language Centre states that children who hear Mandarin daily will do better in bilingualism than those with intermittent concentrated exposure (Singh, 2017).
The quantity and quality of the words we speak matter! Researcher Meredith Rowe (2012) found quantity of words heard to be most important in toddlers aged 12-24 months for vocabulary acquisition. Toddlers aged 24-36 months benefit the most from more sophisticated vocabulary. Preschool children aged 36-48 months benefit the most from conversations and narratives about past and future events.
Parental involvement through reading activities at home has proven to be crucial to help kids read, understand and speak more (Gest, Freeman, Domitrovich & Welsh, 2004; Hoff et al., 2012).
What can parents do?
- Speak a little Mandarin everyday. For younger toddlers, name the things around them and narrate what is happening to them or around them. For older toddlers, describe things in greater detail with varying words. For preschoolers, discuss about what they are doing, reminisce the past and talk about the coming week.
- Read a Chinese book everyday. Learn how to choose quality Chinese books with beautiful illustrations and wholesome content, and then read them again and again. Better still, try some book-related activities and make some memories to last a lifetime.
Tip #3: Be patient and persevere.
Children often show preference for one language, but it is not a dead end! Learning a language is a lifelong process, requiring lots of patience and perseverance. Parental involvement in their child’s literacy has the greatest effect in the early years, but the benefits continue throughout their child’s life (Desforges & Abouchaar, 2003). Take heart that the seeds you sow today, will reap a harvest down the road!
Try to create a bilingual world for your child, in which there are regular situations for the child to need and want to use Chinese, over time.
What can parents do?
- Provide plenty of opportunities to use the Chinese language with different people! Meet the grandparents weekly, participate in Chinese book clubs, host or attend Mandarin storytelling sessions, look for Mandarin-speaking pals at the playground, or just be more intentional in speaking Mandarin at home daily. A little input everyday goes a long way!
Tip #4: Try to ensure that each language has equal exposure and is equally engaging.
Learning Chinese largely from a textbook is unlikely to produce children passionate for the language. When children appreciate that Chinese is relevant and useful in their lives, and when they see and hear others use the language frequently, they will be more inclined to learn it.
Research has found a positive relationship between reading frequency, reading enjoyment and attainment (Clark & Douglas, 2011; Clark & Poulton, 2011). Reading enjoyment has found to be more important for children’s educational success than their family's wealth or social class (Kirsch et al., 2002). Motivation is essential to learning, as it is the driving force for children to complete tasks that build knowledge (Nguyen, 2008).
As such, if we want our children to be well-versed in Chinese, it would helpful to motivate them, by finding ways to make learning pleasurable!
What can parents do?
- Find out what interests your children, and follow their lead! It may be cars, animals or princesses. Remember, their interests change over time too, so do not be afraid to expose them to a good range of topics.
- Get some good Chinese books and fill your bookshelves with them!
- Read often, at any opportunity you can. When your child wakes, when waiting for doctors' appointments, during mealtimes, just for fun, or before bedtime!
- Incorporate lots of fun hands-on activities other than just reading.
- Sing and be silly! Nursery rhymes and fingerplay songs are sure to get the young ones all excited. We like to listen to songs on Youtube channels (just the music!) like 宝宝巴士, 贝瓦儿歌, 兔小贝儿歌 or buy Chinese kids CDs from stores like Popular Bookstore, Kiddy Palace.
- Look for wholesome educational cartoons such as 超级飞侠, 巧虎, 十万个为什么 for some edutainment with Mandarin exposure. Note: this is but a sampler, not all episodes are available free online. Some can be found in DVD shops in Singapore or Malaysia!
Share your thoughts
Over to you!
Which is the tip that is most helpful for you?
What action can you take today to improve your child's Mandarin?
Clark, C., & Douglas, J. (2011). Young People's Reading and Writing: An In-Depth Study Focusing on Enjoyment, Behaviour, Attitudes and Attainment. National Literacy Trust.
Clark, C., & Poulton, L. (2011). Book Ownership and Its Relation to Reading Enjoyment, Attitudes, Behaviour and Attainment: Some Findings from the National Literacy Trust First Annual Survey. National Literacy Trust.
Desforges, C., & Abouchaar, A. (2003). The impact of parental involvement, parental support and family education on pupil achievement and adjustment: A literature review (Vol. 433). Nottingham: DfES publications.
Gest, S.D., Freeman, N.R., Domitrovich, C.E. & Welsh, J.A. (2004). Shared book reading and children’s language comprehension skills: the moderating role of parental discipline practices. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 19, 319-336.
Ghasemi, B., & Hashemi, M. (2011). Foreign language learning during childhood. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 28, 872-876.
Hoff E, Core C, Place S, Rumiche R, Señor M, & Parra M (2012). Dual language exposure and early bilingual development. Journal of Child Language, 39(1): 1-27.
Hollich, G., & Houston, D. (2007). Language development: From speech perception to first words. Introduction to infant development, 170-188.
Kirsch, I., de Jong, J., Lafontaine, D., McQueen, J., Mendelovits, J., & Monseur, C. (2002). Reading for change. Paris: Oese.
Kuhl, P. K., Tsao, F. M., & Liu, H. M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(15), 9096-9101.
Nguyen, C. (2008). Student Motivation and Learning. International Online Journal of Educational Sciences, 4(1), 1-18.
Rowe, M. (2012). A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Quantity and Quality of Child-Directed Speech in Vocabulary Development. Child Development: 83(5), 1762-1774.
Singh, L. (2017, May 7). Raising Bilingual Children: Advantages, Challenges and Strategies for Success. Lianhe Zaobao, Retrieved from http://www.fas.nus.edu.sg/cfpr/media/images/lhzbcolumn/2017/May17.pdf.